I'll never forget the moment I felt that all-too-familiar roll come back to my stomach.
I had just returned from a day of bike riding from one temple to another in Japan, eating warm ramen that ignited every sense and singing my lungs out in a dark karaoke speakeasy.
Though it was a remarkable day, many felt that way while I was on Remote Year. Ever since I had said 'yes' to the program — which allows location-independent professionals to live and work in 12 international cities for a month at a time — my days became busier, richer and more exciting, as well as exhausting and, well, gluttonous.
I couldn't have predicted how much the experience would change me, and the many ways it ended up challenging me to crack open and dig deep into the parts of myself I was too scared to explore before.
In fact, the biggest hurdle for me wasn't decoding new languages, adjusting to wacky time zones or missing my family and friends back home — rather, it was coming to terms with an eating disorder I didn't know I had.
"I Was Frantic About Putting Weight Back On"
Let's backtrack here: Before I signed up for Remote Year, I was living in New York City, my home for seven years, where I had built a freelance writing career. I also worked for a trendy fitness start-up that allowed employees to wear workout clothes as our uniforms and encouraged exercise as a healthy part of the office culture.
It was throughout those three years that I fell in love with boxing, figured out I enjoyed high-intensity interval classes and could actually pull off a yoga headstand. Because my life went from rather stagnant to super active, I become interested in diet, too — and ultimately discovered a lactose- and gluten-sensitivity after doing a round of Whole30. All in, I dropped about 35 pounds over three years, and went from a size 10 to a size 4.
Though this was exciting — and mostly healthy — it also dramatically shifted my perspective on food and fitness. In fact, while I was mulling over the Remote Year opportunity, I spent an evening obsessively texting my friend Kate, worrying that traveling would mean I couldn't work out as much or as hard. And that I would 'have' to eat carbs and fatty foods if I didn't have easy access to vegetables — or a reliable kitchen.
I was frantic about putting weight back on, anxious about interrupting my routine and, well, I definitely had a phobia of bread.
"The mere act of being engaged in each day with purpose and wonder shifted my thinking away from how I look toward how I live."
How I Took Back Control
So when I knew — without a shadow of a doubt — that my jeans weren't fitting anymore? And that a belly roll was forming before my very eyes? My anxiety was triggered big time. But something else happened, too.
The mere act of being engaged in each day with purpose and wonder shifted my thinking away from how I look toward how I live.
Japan was month four of my journey, and I would live in 20 more countries over 14 more months before returning stateside. Throughout the experience, I realized how impossible it was to refuse the delightful spices of the street markets in Thailand, or the homemade empanadas rolled and baked by a 90-year-old grandmother in Argentina.
I made the choice to swim with my newfound travel buddies (and now, lifelong best friends), taking swigs out of sugar-filled jugs of wine in the Adriatic Sea. I decided to have another round of beer and take another handful of chips to avoid getting hangry on a 12-hour bus ride through the Andes Mountains.
And in the process? I did in fact gain 15 pounds. But more importantly, I took back control over my self-esteem.
"In a Way, I Consider Myself Recovered"
Now, I no longer tie my confidence to how thin I am. To how many workouts I do in a week. Or to whether I eat or drink something "bad." My schedule is no longer planned around the number on the scale, but by what will bring me joy and give me the opportunity to connect with my loved ones — and myself.
Since I've retired my nomadic ways (for now, anyway), I have lost some of the weight and made healthier choices with food. But diet and exercise no longer consume my every thought or dictate my every choice. In a way, I consider myself recovered from that manic person I used to be.
I don't know if I ever truly had a diagnosable eating disorder, but I definitely had some obsessive-compulsive behaviors around diet and exercise. Perhaps, I was struggling with anorexia athletica, a term family and emergency medicine doctor Janette Nesheiwat, MD, explains as the the strong urge — indeed, need — to exercise more than what would benefit my overall health. Often, this urge is so overpowering that it interferes with other aspects of our lives.
Before I set out to see the world, I would often tell my friends I was unavailable to meet for a drink or dinner if I didn't work out yet that day. My weekends were structured around back-to-back exercise classes and a very carefully selected brunch menu that wouldn't pile on the weight. I lied for years, saying I didn't "like" Italian food, when in reality, I just didn't want to be tempted by carbs.
Most of my angst centered around "going back" to my heaviest weight. Though this fear is normal, according to Dr. Nesheiwat, no one can eat perfectly and never miss a workout if they want to have a happy social life.
As with anything, moderation is the key. But that wasn't something I embraced until I quite literally gave myself a break from day-to-day life. I couldn't see the forest beyond the trees, so to speak. And more specifically, I couldn't see how much my confidence depended on my waistline.
How to Shift Your Thinking Without Leaving Home
While I'm lucky that my career allows me to make an income from wherever, I know most people can't just decide to go travel the world for a year. But if you worry that your relationship with food or exercise is unhealthy, or even toeing the line into disorder territory, there are ways to change your perspective without a passport.
1. Understand the Symptoms
Registered dietitian Kaleigh McMordie says there are telltale warning signs when it comes to compulsive exercise, all of which are very familiar to me:
- having to give yourself permission to eat certain foods
- feeling the need to "burn off" calories or "get rid of" meals that are "bad"
- withdrawal from family and friends
- exercising in secret
- feeling intense anxiety or guilt if unable to exercise
- maintaining a very strict regimen, even when sick or injured
If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, don't be afraid to seek the help of a professional, such as a registered dietitian or psychologist, who can help you get back on the right track.
2. Tap a Workout Buddy
I wish I would have been more open with my community about my struggles — so when in doubt, always reach out for help. Those who care about you will be there, no matter where you are in the world.
One way to prevent yourself from going overboard with fitness is to enlist someone who will keep you accountable. They will ensure you aren't obsessing and that you are following healthy standards, rather than staying fit out of anxiety, Dr. Nesheiwat says.
3. Shake Up Your Routine
What helped me see my poor, self-destructive and limiting habits was getting out of a rut. Because I was traveling and thus had little control over my schedule, I couldn't stick to the same rules anymore.
McMordie says this is a positive — yet probably difficult — experience for those who are compulsively exercising. Even if you aren't trekking the world, allowing your routine to transform could be beneficial.
"Someone who compulsively exercises might feel like it only 'counts' if they are drenched in sweat following a workout, have hit a certain heart rate or exercise for a certain number of hours. But changing the routine to find movement that is enjoyable but not seen as a punishment is important," she explains. 'Trying new, more gentle forms of movement, such as yoga or walking with a friend, can help lessen the numbers obsession."