When it comes to food, I admit it… I have a love-hate relationship with it… as many people do. The struggle is real, and for many years it ate me up… literally…
I was always the bigger girl in our family, tall, solid, athletic & almost chunky… the tallest in my primary school in year 3 and the second tallest girls in my high school in year 7. “Big Kell” & “Kelly Belly” were nicknames that I remember clearly. The best part about being so big for my age was that it helped me in my sporting endeavours, it’s hard to beat long legs and a competitive spirit.
Our family always ate well. Well balanced home-cooked meals and snacks were the norm, and I enjoyed eating… a lot. The rules were there was no dessert until your plate was clean. I guess I was lucky I grew a lot and lead an active childhood so it didn’t really matter how much I ate because mum always gave us good quality food (much of it homegrown or sourced locally, with some vegetarian meals thrown in for good measure) and followed healthy eating to the best of her knowledge.
So when I hit puberty the hormones kicked in and it changed up my body shape as can be expected, so thankfully a full training regime was on my side. I clearly remember the times that I pushed boundaries and the ultimate punishment for me was to cut out my sport. Dad would cut me off all training and sport for a month at a time. So rather than heading to the track or court every afternoon, I headed home … and to the fridge. Between the ages fo 14-15, I was at my biggest… not that it was big but I had bumped out from a size 12 to easy 14 and was up over 70kg… I never up until that point thought that I needed to worry about what I ate… but I became clear that if I was to stop being so active I would have to.
When I was 16 years old I toured the west coast USA and Canada on an invitational athletic trip. I had missed out the year before and worked really hard to secure my selection again the following year, and I hit PB’s while I was away despite being quite ill and losing weight in the first week of the tour. That was quickly followed by a 2-week stint at a talented athletes camp in Narrabeen we literally learned to eat sleep and breathe our performances… I was very conscious of being the country kid with little experience and took it all on board, and really started to be conscious of what and how much I put in my mouth. I still have vivid memories of listening to Melinda Gainsford – Taylor (my sprinting idol) tell us about the pressures she felt as she was a strong solid girl too, and finding out she had the bone density of a 60-year-old in a 25-year-old body rocked her world, and she realised how important her nutrition really was. On my return home, I was complimented on how great I looked and my dad told it was the first time I had ever looked like an athlete…
Not long after that, I was struck down with a horrible virus that left me unable to eat solid food for about 2 weeks. I had an ulcerated mouth and throat and it was the sickest I can remember ever being at that point. Dad was trying to pump me up with raw eggs in milkshakes but because I couldn’t consume “real food” my weight dropped significantly. I had no energy and felt terrible, but on my return to school all people could say was how great I looked because I had lost weight…
By then my period had become so irregular it was virtually non-existent, but at the time that was a God-send, I had enough going on and what was happening on the inside was not my focus. I continued to train hard, study hard, play hard and as I progressed through my senior years at high school and through to university, one thing led to the next… I had stopped training for athletics and was deeply involved in the fitness industry and was playing netball, basketball, volleyball and any other sport I could fit in…my PB was not in my line of sight anymore, the numbers in focus changed to now be my marks, the km’s I covered, minutes trained for, and the kg’s on the scales… I fell to my lowest weight of 57kg ( for a 178cm fit girl that’s pretty thin). I had so much stuff going on and I felt out of control so the one thing that I could control was what I put or did not put in my mouth. I bounced between what I now recognise as very disordered eating pattern & illness and I had taken it way too far, negating fats and meat products and grabbing my calories through carbs like rice and pasta, fruit and veg and bingeing ( then later purging due to my associated guilt on many occasions) on lollies and sweet foods when my energy got so low I just needed something… and while I claimed it as healthy, cheap and efficient eating it was a subconscious method of watching my weight, not that I needed to, and not really considering the long term consequences of my poor nutritional choices. I thought I had everything under control…
My muscle mass was falling as I was not taking in the adequate protein I needed to sustain it, but because I was so active any carbohydrate I took in was being eaten up and my body was in deficit of vital fats and proteins I needed to sustain normal body functions. Unlike the traditional cycle of carb craving ( see below). My body was crying out for good nutrition, and my hormones were out of control.
On completing Anthropometry certification ( using skinfold callipers and equations to find an accurate measurement of body fat percentage) I was measured at 9% body fat percentage which is dangerously low for a female ( norms indicate that below 18% excellent until you get below 10% where is considered a health risk – female athletes tend to measure in at approx. 14-15%). Your body needs fats to metabolise and absorb fat-soluble vitamins, for adequate digestive processes, for optimal brain function (it uses 20-30% of the calories you consume), for body temperature control, reproductive hormone function, for energy, for survival.
At this time I had low iron levels, irregular heartbeat, low energy levels and was developing Lanugo (fine unpigmented hairs over my body due to low body fat), I had extremely low blood pressure, my hands & feet were permanently cold and if I ever got a period it was light and it never lasted more than 2 days. My hormones were so erratic and unstable that I had ceased ovulating. Amenorrhea is the cessation of menstruation for 3 months or more and it was definitely where I was at.
Causes and risk factors for amenorrhea include:
Having very low body fat (less than 15 to 17 per cent body fat)
Deficiency of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
Overactive thyroid gland
Extreme emotional stress
Use of some contraceptives (it can take several months for periods to start again after stopping certain forms of birth control)
Certain medications (certain antidepressants and blood pressure medicines can increase levels of a hormone that prevents ovulation)
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer
Noncancerous pituitary tumor
Scar tissue in the uterus (uterine fibroids, a cesarean section, or certain abortion procedures can scar the uterus)
Other causes of hormonal problems that may lead to amenorrhea include:
Long-term illness, such as heart disease or cystic fibrosis
Genetic defects or disorders
Problems with the ovaries (1)
Little did I know that the damage I was doing my body at 22, I would still managing at 43. It was not until I wanted children that I realised how I had screwed my body and myself over. You see your body can’t sustain this type of stress without giving in at some point. I am a firm believer that your body will manifest the stress you put it under, physical, emotional and mental. At first falling pregnant was an issue and by some crazy miracle my son was conceived without a regular menstrual cycle in years. My daughter, on the other hand, required some outside help to join our family after over 2 years of trying to work out why I wasn’t menstruating and experimenting with a variety of synthetic hormones to trigger my natural reproductive hormones to kick in. I endured long term back injury due to my unwillingness to stop training and allow recovery and my poor nutrition, that resulted in extreme changes in my mental health a total disc replacement and intervertebral fusion 3 years after my daughter was born. My disordered eating and intensive training had created a complex web of issues and it started in my head, on more than one level.
The hypothalamus in the brain is in charge of regulating the pituitary gland, adrenal function (among other things) and therefore cortisol, our stress hormone, which doesn’t discern the difference between good stress and bad stress, it impacts on the body are the same regardless. The pituitary gland is the starting point for the stimulation of our gonads – our reproductive glands, the ovaries or the testicles. The Hypothalamus also regulates the release of Oxytocin, our feel-good hormone that is also involved in some reproductive processes. The hypothalamus can be sensitive to dietary related imbalances such as a high sugar diet and a high-fat diet. It is positively responsive to omega-3 ( a polyunsaturated fat that must be consumed in our diet as our bodies do not produce it naturally) however high unsaturated fat can cause inflammation of the hypothalamus, as can high sugar diets.
Some symptoms that could signal a hypothalamus problem include:
unusually high or low blood pressure
body temperature fluctuations
unexplained weight gain or loss
changes in appetite
delayed onset of puberty
frequent urination (2)
With all this in play, it took the arrival of my to children to shock my head and my body into change. I knew that to care for my children I would need to care for myself, but this was a struggle. I was so used to restriction and to physical stress that it was hard to make the changes I needed to be the mother I wanted to be to my kids. I wanted to be the role-model mum, the healthy active mum, the present and engaged mum that my mother was for me. If was to continue with my pattern of disordered eating and overtraining I was never going to be that. I had to find ways to make it OK for me to nourish my body and love it for what it could do for me, as a vehicle to experience the best parts of life with my family without guilt, injury or illness. I had to throw away the numbers in my head and search for different ways to reach my goals and feel the self-satisfaction that drives me.
While I am still dealing with unstable hormonal issues, and am very conscientious about maintaining my back health and my body I am happy to say I have never felt better (apart from the odd bacterial/viral infection or course). Through much soul-searching, personal & professional development, I have been able to change my focus and have created ways in which I can feel a sense of personal satisfaction by helping others succeed in their sport, and health and wellness journey. I am confident in my ability to nourish the mind-body and soul of my children, myself and others. I do understand the need to provide your body with the nutrition it needs and where necessary good quality supplementation and nutritional support is the only way to support the body. I know that as much you try you cannot outrun your nutrition, it is not your competition, it is your training partner and it will only make your performances better when you work with it in the right way. Finding a coach for you both is tried and true way of improving your PB and is something many of us need to consider.
So today, I will nourish not punish my body… I will role model the balance and flexibility required for good health… I will help others understand how important your body is to your whole life, not just your performances… I will run with my nutrition not against it, and I will support it with good quality practise, good quality people and good quality products. What will you do?