I had a destructive unhealthy relationship with ‘clean eating’

Rachel Flaherty: Allowing myself to make mistakes along the way has brought me inner peace

Rachel Flaherty in New York City. ‘I’m still overweight but bit by bit, I’m chipping away at changing behaviours that don’t benefit me.’

Rachel Flaherty in New York City. ‘I’m still overweight but bit by bit, I’m chipping away at changing behaviours that don’t benefit me.’

 

I stood in front of the mirror and didn’t recognise my own body. “How did I let myself get to this point – what is wrong with me?” I asked myself as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to push down the guilt, shame and anger I was feeling so I could get ready for the day ahead.

I hated thinking about how I kept repeating actions that ultimately made me feel horrible. It made no sense to me that I could feel so confident and happy in other parts of my life while at the same time so secretly awful about my growing unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.

The extra weight on my body was a tiny part of who I was, yet I gave it so much thought. I didn’t speak about it because I felt silly and embarrassed about it being an issue in the first place when other people faced terrible challenges in their lives daily that they had no control over.

Instant results

I was uncomfortable in my own body at the time and when I did admit that to myself, I wanted instant results and turned to quick-fix diets many times. Other times it was a holiday, wedding or some event coming up that spurred me into action to embrace the latest fad diet. The deadline would put pressure on me, a bit of panic and motivation to dedicate myself to an all-consuming regime to get fast results, which never lasted, made me feel like a failure and mostly made my issues worse.

The strict dieting and exercise plans appealed to me – they became my main focus, no space for other thoughts in my head – and the punishment I deserved for treating myself so badly.

Rachel Flaherty hiking up Djouce Mountain in Co Wicklow.
Rachel Flaherty hiking up Djouce Mountain in Co Wicklow.

Looking back to those days, I wish I’d have given myself the time and some self-compassion to figure out the habits that were causing me to feel so awful and stop beating myself up. I didn’t realise I had a destructive unhealthy relationship with “clean eating” and “bad” food, and how I’d begun to see exercise as a punishment. This began before I became overweight. I was judging myself by the number on the weighing scales no matter how I was doing in life.

But it took for me to reach my biggest weight, more than 5st 6lb (34.5kg) overweight, to finally start realising a number on the weighing scales did not define who I was and I needed to start treating my body and mind better. I had my body fat checked (still not ready to talk about that yet), had no underlying health issues causing weight problems, and realised life is too short to feel miserable about my own actions and not change them. Permanent, sustainable results was my new goal and I needed to find ways to be patient with myself so I could achieve it. It wasn’t going to happen overnight.

I started by writing down my food, exercise and thoughts for a couple of weeks. I was expecting the reality of the type of food I was eating, the bingeing and overeating, and non-existent exercise to be confronting but it was my inner thoughts that shocked me most. Those words did not reflect who I was. It was upsetting and I decided from that point my mindset would be my priority to improve. No positive change could ever happen with such harsh inner criticism.

Confidence

Allowing myself to take whatever time I needed to lose weight and change habits was one of the best decisions I’ve made – to not put a start or end point, to have no time limit and give myself permission to fail, make mistakes, learn from them and move on. The weight loss is much slower but I feel a sense of calmness and peace within myself I haven’t felt in years. My confidence and self-belief have been quietly growing. Yes, I still have felt frustrated when my weight fluctuates but that too is easing over time. I know regardless of what the weighing scales says, I’m going in the right direction. It has felt great to lose more than 3½st (22kg) but it has taken a little longer my perception of my body to catch up. But as the weeks go by, I’m trusting my body more and understanding it better.

I’m still overweight (according to the BMI) but bit by bit, I’m chipping away at changing behaviours that don’t benefit me. Understanding how my body reacts to my food and exercise habits, how changes affect me, is a slow process and sometimes frustrating but rewarding.

That’s not to say urges to binge don’t rear their head every so often but now I don’t panic, I take the time to think about why I’m feeling this way before I act and there are always other options.

Experts’ advice has been great and useful, they’ve spent years studying their respective areas and working in their speciality daily, but it is up to me to find ways to weave that advice into my life so I can make it part of my lifestyle. It’s also good to have someone to snap you out of your own thoughts and remind you to get on with it and give encouragement every so often.

Some healthy competition to push me forward also works for me and I’ve to tell myself at times to “toughen up and get it done” but I realise that is not the same as how I used to berate myself every time I stepped outside the red lines of my “all or nothing” approaches I used to embrace.

My mindset has changed to looking ahead and questioning the different ways in what I can do in the future as I feel ready to move on to the next step.

I want to be healthy, feel good and be the best version of me.

Rachel Flaherty’s column is about getting fitter and healthier

Contact Rachel on Twitter @rachelflInstagram or email rflaherty@irishtimes.com

Part 1: I lost 3st and I’m stronger now
Part 2: Stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: Friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It’s time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Part 11: Letting go of the shame and guilt helped
Part 12: Habits have led to weight loss
Part 13: I’ve fallen in love with running
Part 14: The mountain doesn’t care who you are
Part 15: Unhappy relationship with food and my body
Part 16: I stopped trying to be perfect
Part 17: Lunchtime workout worth the hassle?
Part 18: 35,000 steps across Dublin
Part 19: Military fitness camp
Part 20: My relationship with ‘clean eating’

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