I have been where you are.
In my 46 years, I have lived many different diet and exercise programs and I can assure you it has not been a linear process. I have been fat/overweight. I have been through stages of extreme dieting and extreme exercising. I have suffered from disordered eating and starved myself down to 95 pounds. I know what it’s like to not want to look in the mirror. I know how it feels to hate being naked. I know how it feels to be so unhappy with your body that you hide it under layers of baggy clothes. I have been where you are. I was constantly researching the latest diet and exercise strategies (and fads) searching desperately for that magic pill. Every time I heard about a new diet I had to try it. You name it I’ve done it. I was frustrated that no matter how hard I tried I was never able to achieve lasting results.
After every failure (which was often) I always defaulted to the same behavior. And instead of figuring out why I had failed (or rather, what behaviors had failed me), I’d move on to the next extreme diet/exercise strategy hoping this time things would be different.
It took me over twenty years to finally realize that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one person may not work for another. Through research, experience, trial-and-error, self-examination, and self-experimentation I have found a sustainable plan that creates real significant lasting results. The truth is there is nothing magical about it. It was just a combination of behaviors that added up to big results.
When I set out to write my first book, Be Ye Transformed, I knew I didn’t want it to be just another diet book. If I have learned one thing over the years, it’s that just knowing how to train, what to eat, and what not to eat is not enough. The difference between success and failure for me meant a complete shift in my thinking and a change in my behaviors. My goal is to draw from my experience and share what has worked for me, the specific actions I took, and the behavior change strategies I employed that have allowed transformation to happen and resulted in lasting change. I want to share any details of my journey that may help you reach the same results in your life, even if your path looks slightly different from mine.
Over the course of my lifetime my diet and exercise programs have changed and evolved. Below is an overview of the chronology.
Stage #1 – The Standard American Diet
Growing up I was always active. As a child I enjoyed playing soccer, tetherball, kick-the-can, and flashlight tag, riding bikes, playing in the dirt and building forts with the other kids in the neighborhood. In middle school and high school, I played field hockey. I wasn’t coordinated, fast, or athletic enough to be good, so they made me a goalie (No offense to goalies! I’ve played with some really good ones).
For the first 16 years of my life I ate a conventional diet which consisted of a lot of processed foods. The staples included lots of cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (made with white bread), frozen burritos, Ramen noodles, Pop Tarts, spaghetti and M&Ms – not much different from most kids and teens at the time.
Stage #2 – The Low-Fat Era
Unfortunately, my teenage years coincided with the “low-fat era” where the idea was if people just reduced the fat content of their diet they would be improving it. It also happened to be the time that I began to shift my focus to my appearance. It was then that I began to use diet and exercise to control my shape, size and weight rather than for health and enjoyment. I made my diet and exercise reflections of who I was as a person. When I was not what I would consider perfect I deemed myself a failure. My self-worth was based on my appearance, specifically the size and shape of my body. The staples of my diet included still more processed food loaded with additives, preservatives, chemicals, artificial sweeteners and added sugars: dry pasta (seasoned only with salt, pepper and fat-free Butter Buds), bagels with Promise Ultra fat-free margarine, “healthy” cereal with skim milk, “lite” bread, soft pretzels, diet soda, Slim Fast, and fat-free Snackwell cookies. (Carbs, carbs, and more carbs). On the rare occasion I would eat chicken but I thought it was too high in fat to consume on a regular basis. As long as I consumed zero fat and stayed under my allotted 800 calories for the day I was okay as far as I was concerned.
I was a very skinny (95 pounds), very hungry (starving), very unhealthy (sick), very sad (depressed) little girl. Every morning, when I opened my eyes, the first thing I thought about was what I would eat that day... and what I wouldn't eat. My self-worth depended on whether I ate foods off of what I referred to as the "good" list or the "bad" list. Each night I'd go to sleep vowing that tomorrow I'd "be better." I counted calories in everything... sugarless gum (5 calories), black coffee (5 calories). I knew nothing - and cared little - about the nutritional value of what I was eating. It didn't matter if it was processed, had no expiration date and an unpronounceable ingredients list a mile long. As long as it wouldn't make me "fat," that was all I cared about. Hunger pains gave me a sense of control. But I had no idea then how out of control I really was.
Flash back to 1990 (my junior year of high school)…A typical day of eating for me:
1 cup corn flakes cereal (100 calories)
1 cup skim milk (80 calories)
1 packet of Equal Sweetener (5 calories)
1 cup black coffee with artificial sweetener (5 calories)
1 granny smith apple (80 calories)
1 cup cooked pasta, dry (175 calories) with salt, pepper & Butter Buds (5 calories)
1 granny smith apple (80 calories)
1 cup cooked pasta, dry (175 calories) with salt, pepper & Butter Buds (5 calories) OR whatever my mom made... but no more than what would fit on a small dinner plate.
Stage #3 – Starvation Diets and Binge Eating
I continued to starve myself until one day my body just rebelled. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the day before Thanksgiving 1990. My grandparents were visiting for the holiday and I wanted them to taste the chocolate chip cookies I had made from scratch. As a way to strengthen my willpower, I would often bake cookies and cakes but not allow myself to eat them… and if I could get others around me to eat them it would just prove how strong I really was. I was in awe at how my grandparents were able to enjoy a cookie (or two!) without a second thought. And they didn’t even seem to show any guilt, shame or remorse afterwards. It was fascinating. So the thought occurred to me that maybe I could have a cookie… just one. What harm would it do? So I had one. And the flood gates opened. After having several cookies I pulled out a box of Kix cereal and proceeded to consume three bowls. Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but for a 16 year-old with a messed up self-esteem and a distorted body image that had spent the past six months starving herself down to a “petite” size three, consuming two chocolate chip cookies and three bowls of cereal in one sitting was a VERY big deal. That moment was a turning point for me… and not in a good way. In November my size three Gap jeans hung loosely on my hips. By February, less than three months later, I had gained over 40 pounds and was barely squeezing myself into a size 13/14.
I spent the next several years on a roller coaster ride of starvation diets, binge eating, diet pills, over-exercising, self-destructive, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and lots of therapy. My workout routine was sporadic at best and consisted of mostly cardio. I had no interest in being strong or even healthy for that matter. All that mattered to me was being skinny. It was a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. You couldn’t pay me any amount of money to go back to that period in my life.
Stage #4 – A Gym Rat is Born
By the grace of God, I was introduced to weight training by a friend at around the age of 20 and immediately fell in love with it! I spent my life at the gym. I did forty-five minutes to an hour (or more) of cardio every day and then your traditional body-builder type split routine: chest, shoulders and triceps on day one, back and biceps on day two, legs on day three, one day off and repeat. I read everything I could get my hands on about health, fitness and nutrition.
Then it dawned on me—Why not get certified? So I did….and that’s where my personal training journey began, with a basic personal training certification and a position as a trainer at a New York Sports Clubs (NYSC). The more I learned, the more my own workouts evolved. I began adding flexibility, mobility, core, balance, stabilization and power training to my programs. But I still couldn’t pull myself away from the long, boring workouts and one-hour long cardio sessions every day. I even had a staff member approach me one day and say, “The treadmill asked if you could please take a day off. It’s tired.”
In 2000, I completed my first marathon. I was proud of my accomplishment but really I just did it because I thought for sure that the training regime (lots and lots of running) would make me skinny. I continued with my low-fat, high-carb, fat-phobic diet, yet still couldn’t manage to get rid of that extra ten pounds of fat I was carrying around. I was baffled.
Stage #5 – The Low-Carb Craze
In the late 1990s and early 2000s came the “low-carb craze” when low carbohydrate diets like The Atkins Diet and other diets with similar principles became the most popular diets in the country. Willing to try anything, I jumped on the bandwagon. It was the first diet I had tried up to that point that “allowed” me to eat meat and fat without (as much) fear. Yet I still found myself on a diet then off a diet then back on a diet… and every Monday was day one.
Stage #6 – Training for Ms. Figure
In 2004 I decided to compete for the title of Ms. Figure. What I put my poor body through to achieve the level of musculature, leanness and vascularity necessary was nothing short of abuse. My workouts consisted of 45-60 minutes of cardio every morning and another 45-60 minutes of cardio every night along with my regular weight training routine. I began carb cycling, which is an aggressive strategy designed for short-term use. In the most basic format, carb cycling is a planned alteration of carbohydrate intake to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain metabolism along with athletic performance. The staples of my diet included baked chicken, egg whites, “low-carb” pancakes, oatmeal and steamed broccoli. Every three days I was allowed one half-cup of rice with butter and a banana. My training was just a means to an end. I did it all to look a certain way… and to win. I had no visible body fat anywhere on my body. There was visible separation between my muscles and you could see the veins in my forearms, calves and lower abs. My body fat percentage was below average (23% body fat is considered average for women and 18% is considered “athletic.” I was down around 15%). All my hard work paid off and in 2004 I won the title NABBA USA Ms. Figure USA! (http://www.nabba.com/resultsjrnat04.cfm). For the first time in my life I actually liked the way my body looked. But to sustain it was pure torture. The thrill of victory was short-lived. When the competition was over I eased up on my insane training and extremely restrictive diet and, naturally, I gained some body fat. Even with the weight gain following the competition, my body composition was still in the “below average” range for women. But when I looked in the mirror I just saw a fat person. I had failed… again.
In that same year, I left the “globo gym” world and opened a one-on-one personal training franchise. I finally had “my own place.” In addition to working one-on-one with clients, I trained and developed a solid team of trainers. I was running a successful business and helping hundreds of clients reach their health and fitness goals. But I still was not at peace with myself and my body.
Stage #7 – Clean(er) Eating + the Zone
In 2007, I got certified as a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant. By this time, after years of research and self-experimentation, I had cleaned up my diet quite a bit. I was making food choices that I believed would not only help me get lean, but that would also make me healthier. My main staples were egg whites, grilled chicken, broiled salmon, steamed vegetables, green salads, fruit, nuts and a small amount of whole grains, dairy and soy products. My cereal / grain consumption was typically in the form of sprouted grain breads, steel cut oats, and, occasionally, brown rice. My dairy / soy consumption was typically in the form of soy milk (with my oatmeal), cottage cheese, and skim lattes. I was also committed to strict adherence to the parameters of Dr. Barry Sears’ Zone Diet (http://zonediet.com/) which meant weighing and measuring everything I ate. Thirty percent of my calories came from low-glycemic carbohydrates, forty percent from lean protein, and thirty percent from “good” fat.
Stage #8 – Paleo and CrossFit
In 2009, I was introduced to CrossFit. I was out one night having dinner with my good friend, Karianne – a fellow trainer, and former co-worker at NYSC, whom I respect and admire immensely. She had just gotten back from a CrossFit (http://crossfit.com/) Level 1 Seminar. The excitement and enthusiasm was coming out of her pores! I had heard of CrossFit and had even done an occasional WOD (Workout Of the Day) here and there, but nothing consistent. The CrossFit prescription is “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movements.” I earned my CrossFit Level 1 certification and started doing CrossFit workouts consistently. Within less than a year, I got myself into the best shape of my life. In addition to talking about CrossFit, Karianne also mentioned a way of eating called the Paleolithic Diet – commonly referred to as the caveman or paleo diet – which I had never heard of before. For the weeks and months following my dinner with Karianne, her words replayed over and over again in my head. My interest was piqued.
When I first heard about the paleo diet I had some reservations. By that time, my diet was pretty good compared to most people I knew… I was finally healthy and I felt good. At least I thought so. The modifications necessary for me to “go paleo” were relatively small. I couldn’t imagine it would make much of a difference. But I was curious enough to give it a try. Boy was I in for a surprise! Within days I noticed a dramatic improvement in my energy levels and sleep quality. I noticed my sinuses were clearer and my skin glowed. Within a week I actually started to notice a change in my body composition (with seemingly little effort). In less than two weeks I stopped craving the foods that at one point I couldn’t imagine living without (sugar, grains and starchy carbs). Over the next few weeks my bowel function normalized (Halleluiah!) and I no longer experienced the post-meal bloating and indigestion that I just attributed to overeating. My athletic performance improved – I got measurably faster and stronger. At the age of 35, I was looking, feeling, and performing better than I ever had in my life!
That same year I closed my one-on-one personal training studio and became a CrossFit affiliate… transform CrossFit was born. In June 2009, transform CrossFit opened its doors at 10 North Main Street in Pennington, New Jersey. Since the beginning, we had three primary goals: 1) to educate our clients and our community on the benefits of CrossFit and Paleolithic Nutrition, 2) to change lives, and 3) to pursue excellence.
Fast forward to 2013…
Before discovering CrossFit and clean-eating/paleo, I completed two figure competitions and three marathons, and I can honestly say that at 43 years old I am in the best shape of my life. And the best part is it doesn’t just stop at my workouts. It has translated into every area of my life. It has changed the way I feel, the way I look, the way I think. It has given me the courage to step out of my comfort zones and try things that, before, may not have seemed possible.
I realize that eliminating grains, processed foods, legumes, dairy products, and sugar from your diet for 28 days will be difficult for some people. It will take careful planning and preparation. It may mean packing a cooler... or making special requests when dining out. I challenge you to test it, experiment. Try it for yourself for 28 days (or more) and see the difference it makes in your life. I know what you’re probably thinking, "But I don't feel bad. I really am fine." That's what I thought too. You may have issues with certain foods and not even know it! The ONLY way to know for sure if you have an issue with certain foods is to completely remove them from your diet for at least 28 days. Then, if you choose, you can reintroduce them one-by-one and see if/how they affect you. The only way to figure out what an optimal diet for you looks like is to EXPERIMENT AND OBSERVE.
Remember: If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, and keep eating the way you’ve been eating, you will continue to get the same results
I’ve done the strict 28-40 days of paleo followed by a systematic reintroduction several times and have found that I don’t respond well to gluten and legumes. But I can tolerate small amounts of non-gluten grains (oats, quinoa and rice) and dairy products (grass-fed, full-fat heavy cream and cheese). But I never would have discovered my sensitivity without a period of elimination and reintroduction, since I had been eating them for years and I felt “fine.” Even though I don’t eat a one hundred percent clean diet one hundred percent of the time (I am human, after all), I am still relatively strict. I eat this way to optimize my health. And as long as I continue to look, feel and perform the way I like, I will continue to do so.
Stage #9 – Moxie and Precision Nutrition
We closed our CrossFit affiliate in 2015 and I spent the next couple years focusing on my other business, traceybars. After a humbling 2 ½-year hiatus from the fitness industry, I was ready to get back on the horse....and I created Moxie - a Private Fitness & Nutrition Coaching Studio. My mission, as a Fitness and Nutrition Coach, is to use my knowledge, experience and passion to enable happier, healthier and fuller lives and to inspire and empower people to take charge of their health and fitness to become the best possible version of themselves. One facet of the Moxie Program is Online Nutrition Coaching (powered by Precision Nutrition (PN) ProCoach).
When I got started (as a coach) with the PN ProCoach Online Coaching Software, I was encouraged to set myself up as a client so that I could experience the program from both perspectives. So I did.... and boy has it been eye-opening!
I confess, I went into it thinking I already had the answers; I knew what worked (and didn't work) for me. Because of my knowledge and background (and my ego) I considered myself "advanced." But I figured I'd take one for the team. At the very least, I knew that taking the time to experience it from a client perspective would make me a better coach. I was not expecting the amazing transformation that took place IN ME in a relatively short period of time.
As you now know, I had spent years and years weighing and measuring my food, keeping a detailed food log, sticking to rules or plans rigidly (i.e. Paleo, Zone, Keto, counting macros, etc.). I used advanced strategies such as carb cycling, intermittent fasting, etc. What I couldn't see was how unhealthy my behaviors had become. By engaging in these behaviors so stringently and aggressively, my behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about food and eating (and training) had become disordered (again). I struggled with all-or-nothing thinking and the "Either I'm perfect or I've failed" mentality. I started experiencing mental and emotional health problems such as anxiety and depression. My social relationships and other interests - which we need for overall wellness and quality of life - suffered. I couldn't detach my own self-concept from food and eating. Food and eating choices defined who I was. I was deeply attached to my strategies and outcomes. I was reluctant to give them up and was anxious about "losing control." I just accepted these things as trade-offs if I wanted to look and/or perform a certain way. But when I was honest with myself I had to admit that I really wasn't living happily (or sanely). My "healthy eating" had passed the point of being healthy.
While studying the PN Certification Manual (The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition), I was told that mastering the basics and doing them consistently is almost always enough for optimal fitness, health, body composition, performance and life balance. But when I started as a PN client, naturally I wanted things to go faster. I would read through the "simple" lesson each day, anxiously waiting for the next lesson to teach me something I didn't already know.
I thought, "This is TOO SIMPLE. IT'S TOO EASY. This plan is fine for a beginner, but I need something way more advanced and complex. Something harder." Then, one day, it dawned on me. I knew that if I was going to get anything out of the program I had to be willing to let go of my old ideas and behaviors. I had to set aside my normal mental habit patterns and allow them to be superseded by a different, simpler plan. Talk about a leap of faith!
Boy was that scary.... AND LIFE CHANGING!
One day at a time, one lesson at a time, one habit at a time, one meal at a time THIS. HAS. CHANGED. MY. LIFE. Seriously. Today, eating clean and following my Moxie Custom Meal Plan Template is just a way of life for me. It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle. For the first time in 25+ years, I feel free. I no longer weigh and measure my food. I don't count macros or calories or blocks anymore. I have stopped separating food into "good" and "bad" lists. I am slowly getting away from all-or-nothing thinking. I finally understand that good nutrition isn't about "following the rules" or being strict. It's about enabling happier, healthier, fuller lives. And guess what? I haven't put on weight / fat. I'm just as lean as when I started, if not leaner. I eat enough to sustain energy levels and fuel athletic performance. I can honestly say that I like my body. I’m strong and lean and I like the way my clothes fit. I’m not real big on weighing myself these days but I fit comfortably into a size two! I am never hungry - except on the rare occasion I don't prepare enough food ahead of time.... and when I am hungry, I eat. I never feel deprived. Sure, there are foods that I miss (and, on occasion, I will indulge) but I no longer crave them constantly. When considering my food options for any given meal, my decisions are based on how I will feel thirty minutes after I've finished eating (content vs. full and sluggish) and how it will affect my athletic performance and recovery and, most importantly, my health. My self-worth isn't even a thought because, today, how "good" or "bad" I am has nothing to do with my food choices. My body is not perfect (and that's okay) but I appreciate it for what it can do. I am strong, healthy, and happy and I have a healthy relationship with food and my body. I sleep and recover well, and I feel great! But, by far the biggest change has taken place between my ears.
You may be thinking....
"But my eating is not disordered," or
"I don't need to change my life. I just want to lose (or gain) a few pounds," or
"I don't need to lose weight. I just want to get control of my eating habits so I feel better, healthier, have more energy, etc," or
"I know WHAT to do. I just need to DO IT."
You may have an "expert" level of knowledge, perhaps even a graduate degree in nutrition... but you can't/don't actually do fundamental behaviors consistently. And, for that reason, you are not seeing results, I can help with all those things!
"A very small plan that you can do - and feel good about - every day beats an awesome plan that you can't do consistently."