The summer before my senior year in high school, I developed the belief that the world of “healthy eating” could help me achieve my athletic goals. As I delved deeper into the world of health and wellness and taught myself how to cook nutritious foods, I not only qualified for my first-ever state cross-country meet, but I also became heavily favored as a top contender. I thought I was at the top of my game physically, all thanks to my commitment to eating right.
That was until I woke up dazed and confused in a hospital bed. After all these sacrifices for the sake of a breakout season, I ended up spending an entire weekend in an induced coma. Turns out, I’d slowly developed a condition called hyponatremia. Basically, by not eating enough salt, the amount of sodium in my blood dropped to dangerously low levels.
In the months leading up to my near-death experience, my mental health had suffered, too. I lost all desire to spend time with my friends and was exhausted and snappy all the time.
I couldn't believe I nearly died simply from not eating enough of something that I was trying to avoid. This was the moment when I fully internalized that the concept of “health” is far more intricate than social media and our culture at large would have you believe.
Here’s what I’ve learned about eating right—without sacrificing your mental health
1. Understand how the foods you love fit into the big picture.
Recently, I went out to dinner with my parents and some family friends. I’m dedicated to eating nutritious whole foods, but that night, I ordered a burger with fries. Someone asked if it was my “cheat day” because I ordered a burger. But here’s the thing: at the time of that dinner, I was training at my highest level, running 60 miles weekly and lifting three times per week. I’d run 13 miles just that morning alone. A hamburger and fries was what the proper plate looked for me that night.
The beef was from a local farm and high in iron, protein, and fat to help nourish my muscles back to health. The burger bun was rich with carbs to replenish my energy reserves. This was not a cheat meal; it was actually the perfectly balanced plate for what my body needed at that moment.
There's a way to live a healthy lifestyle that includes enjoying the foods you love, and it's important to remember that food shouldn't carry "good" or "bad" labels. You’re not better than anyone else because you eat certain foods, and you certainly don’t deserve to punish yourself after indulging in a cookie or some M&Ms.
2. Eat in the company of others
This is easier said than done for some people, especially if you live alone. There are going to be times when you’re just “too busy” to share a meal with others. But I encourage you to still try to break bread with loved ones when possible. Planning, cooking, and carving out the time to eat with others while having a conversation can be a superfood in itself.
Research actually shows there’s a connection between loneliness and eating disorders. Consider sharing a meal with someone else as a surefire way to find value in the people around you and not just in your appearance or your adherence to a specific diet.
3. Realize your goals may differ from society’s expectations, and that’s perfectly fine
Success does not always correlate with increased body confidence. Even athletes can struggle with their mental health when they are thrust into the public eye and are judged on every aspect about themselves.
I love this quote from Olympic medalist April Ross, speaking to ESPN: "Sometimes the idea of a beach volleyball body gets mixed up with the casual beach goer, lay-out-in-a-bikini type. For me, I value the power of my body, and I think I'm a little more muscular than you might expect. I don't consider myself thin, and I'm not trying to look great in a bikini—I'm trying to be as strong as possible and as powerful as possible for my sport."
Though physical changes can certainly accompany a healthier diet, Ross puts her focus on how her food will help sustain her on the court. Fueling for performance is different from fueling for aesthetics.
4. Get support from professionals, friends, and family
You’re not alone. Learning your best fueling plan is an ever-evolving process and one that is always beneficial to bounce off other people when you aren’t sure if your plate is correctly balanced.
Find a qualified coach, like a registered dietitian (RD). (Be aware that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist!) Even a brief evaluation from a dietician can be invaluable to understanding your nutritional needs. This information will give you confidence that you’re on the right track, or help guide you toward proper nourishment.
Your loved ones can also provide a sounding board and emotional support in a different way because they understand your life on a deeper level. Invite them on the journey with you.
5. Practice loving your body no matter what
Your body is incredible. Even on an off day, your body is constantly working, breaking down food, sending blood to your brain, and storing your precious memories for you to be able to live a long and fulfilled life.
Accepting and loving your body as-is is easier said than done, but the work will be worth it once you begin to feel the positive effect it has on your life. The ultimate goal is that you are always making balanced nutritional choices according to what will make you feel the best, rather than look the best.
Utilize these nutrition tips to help manage anxiety.