I despise the word ‘diet’. To me it implies something fleeting, temporary and unsustainable. I can understand the appeal of diets and their necessity in certain situations, such as when athletes need to shed kilo’s quickly for a weight class in sports or be stage ready for body building. My preference when it comes to food is for long term lifestyle habits and intentional eating. It has taken me years to cultivate a consistent eating habit, and it has only come after a tumultuous relationship with chewy fuel. Like many aquatic based athletes, swimmers have no opportunity to disguise a changing figure. Whether it’s the awkward transition through puberty or new season pounds, any excess meat hanging from a swimmers frame is on display. This can sometimes have an impact on an athletes relationship with food. I know it did with me.
I am guilty of taking my eating habits to excess in the past.
In 2014 I made the Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacific Championships and Rescue 2014 Championships. It was the biggest year of my sporting life. In Majorca at our staging camp before the Commonwealth Games we were weighed in every day. I knew if my weight was up by 100 grams. At the time I thought it was just a process of being an elite athlete, being knowledgeable and calculated about what was happening to my body. I hadn’t realised that the habit would follow me home. That I would wake up each morning and beeline for the scales.
Fast forward one season to 2015 and I failed to qualify for the FINA World Championships. I was instead selected to swim at the 2015 World University Games. That was a failure for me. I swim because I enjoy improving and improving meant qualifying for the Worlds team. I swum well in Glasgow and in Australia in 2014, so in my head I had to repeat what I had done that year in order to reach my peak. That included weighing the same as I did at the Commonwealth Games, referred to as ‘race weight’ by a lot of swimmers. Exactly the same. I didn’t take in to account I was lifting a lot heavier in the gym than I had been in 2014. It did not cross my mind that the weight of my new muscle would be part of the glowing green number that flashed up at me every morning. My only measurement was that number on the scale which told me I was 3kgs heavier than I had been at The Commonwealth Games. Hello obsession.
I would eat at 4:45am, 8am, 10:30am, 12pm, 2:30pm and 6pm. I would have three Weetbix for breakfast, four if I swum over 5.0km. If I was hungry, but had already eaten what I thought was enough, I would nap until my next meal. I didn’t eat out at all. I felt guilty if I ate chocolate. I stopped having carbs at dinner to drop more weight as the World University Games got closer.
I was ‘successful’, my weight was exactly the same as it was for Commonwealth Games – and I was pathetically weak.
I could still sprint well, making my first international final in the 50m butterfly but I couldn’t hold speed for anything over 50m. I struggled to understand why I had no power, no stamina. Then I thought about my nutrition. I had unintentionally starved myself in pursuit of a number which symbolised success. Although I was consuming nutritious foods, eating became a test of my own self-control. Food had manifested as a symbol of success or failure to me and I became obsessed with controlling it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Thinking about when I needed to eat, how much I needed to eat, what I could and couldn’t eat. I was consumed by the idea of reaching what I considered a near perfect diet. My life even moved around my eating habits. I wouldn’t leave the house because I wasn’t proactive enough to pack it. I couldn’t socialise with friends over lunch because I refused to eat out. I associated eating treat foods with a personal failure.
After the 2015 World University Games in Gwangju I made an active effort not to think about food as much. I ate when I was hungry; had ice cream if I craved it. These days I prepare and cook all my meals during the work week but serve to satisfy my taste buds during the weekend. Like almost everything in life, it’s about finding balance and something that fits my lifestyle.