Food and me: Enemies to lovers

A personal journey to rebuild a relationship broken by athletics

Graphic Sheena Macmillan

I began swimming competitively at age six after my failed attempts at gymnastics and soccer.

I wasn’t a star. I was a chubby kid who had a knack for keeping herself up in the water and a strange love for the fast-paced sport. It made my heart race and left me breathless.

At that age, I had little concern for nutrition or health, but the coaches made sure our parents knew what they needed when they packed our lunches for swim meets. Goldfish crackers were a no-no in my house. My friends ate goldfish crackers and fruit roll-ups, and I ate fruit and granola bars.

Swim meets were for pasta dinners, granola bars, Gatorade, and peanut butter toast. There was no room for negotiation. As young athletes, we needed fuel to replace the calories we burned in the 10-plus hours a week of practice. Goldfish crackers were not fuel.

I was a fat kid, chronically overweight, with a big belly of baby fat. It didn’t matter that I ate and trained the same as my siblings. At age eleven, I was very aware of this fact. It may have been a reason why I was placed in the B group that year. I took it as a personal challenge and pushed myself harder in practice. I forced my body past its breaking point and left that group with sciatica and a wrist injury.  

I made the A group the following year. My conscious issues with food and body image began that year as well. The girls in my group were thinner and taller. I slowly started to skip out on the snacks my mum had carefully packed for me. I pretended I wasn’t hungry, but I was still overweight.

When it came to swimming, however, I was having a fantastic year. I got medals, and I placed better than ever. I didn’t know it at the time, but that year would be the last good year I had in the sport. I’d reached my peak.

I thought the following year was going to be my best yet. I was riding the high from the previous year and competing as one of the oldest in my age category, which was bound to give me an advantage. I began limiting myself to one snack during the day and one after practice. It was a foolproof plan to lose the stomach fat I thought I had; I was finally going to be an average weight at the doctor’s office.

“The number on the scale will no longer define me. I will no longer deny my body the food it needs. I will work to better my relationship with food every day for the rest of my life.”

I told my parents I no longer liked pasta and ate smaller portions. Throughout that year and some of the others that followed, I remember wishing I had the willpower to starve myself. I hated myself for those thoughts, but they crept in anyways.

I ended up switching sports due to a shoulder injury. I jumped from training around 10 hours a week to more than 20. In the year and a half I spent playing water polo, I would argue I was the fittest I had ever been in my life; I weighed in at 150 pounds, which my doctor reminded me was overweight for a girl five feet five inches tall.

In the end, it was the same shoulder injury with no promising treatment that took me out of competitive sport forever.

Food became my frenemy. I needed it to survive, so I ate it and occasionally gorged myself on it. In my last two years as an athlete, I gave up snacking during the day, limited my portions, and skipped meals far more than necessary. And yet I still found myself binge eating the same foods I avoided.

In the year following the end of my athletics career, my relationship with food worsened. As a busy CEGEP student, meals of convenience worked best at school. I gave up lunches altogether and instead ate a single granola bar. I would go a whole week without eating a proper lunch only to gorge myself on all the food my parents had limited when I was younger.

I gained weight, so I started to restrict my dinner. I didn’t go for seconds even if I was still hungry and stopped eating as much junk food, but nothing helped. At 18, I weighed in at roughly 170 pounds.

I joined a gym and went at least three times a week. I started meal prepping. But my doctor still insisted on testing me for diabetes and heart disease. 

Apparently, gaining 20 pounds in two years isn’t healthy. It didn’t matter if I was eating a calorie deficit or if I starved myself—the weight wasn’t going anywhere.

Diet culture would have you believe that certain foods are bad for you. Fitness culture would have you think that calorie counting and intermittent fasting are healthy ways of looking at food. Fat shamers make you believe that weight loss is simply about willpower and motivation. I’ve found that all three are horrendously misinformed.

The number on the scale will no longer define me. I will no longer deny my body the food it needs. I will work to better my relationship with food every day for the rest of my life.

There’s no easy way to change the habits I’ve developed after years of weight propaganda. My relationship with food may forever be damaged. I may still shame myself into skipping meals only to binge cereal the following day. I may even restrict my portions and check the calories on my snacks. Eating healthy isn’t just making the switch to salads but making a conscious decision, every day, to treat your body with the respect and food it needs.

Some days are worse than others lately, but I’m working on it.

This article originally appeared in The Food Issue, published November 3, 2020.