I hired a personal trainer to get fit and healthy but ended up with disordered eating habits instead…

Content Warning: Contains information about dieting and disordered eating habits. This may be triggering to readers with similar experiences. Please talk to an expert if you feel you need help. There are many resources available.

Have you ever worked with a personal fitness trainer? How was your experience?

Maybe you’ve never tried one-on-one fitness coaching before but are considering it. Hiring a personal trainer is often regarded as making the ultimate commitment to reach your fitness goals. They can guide you on everything from what to eat to how to exercise and customize a plan tailored to your individual needs.

Why I Hired a Personal Trainer

For years I preferred working out in the solitude of my own home. Gyms intimidated me. The only trainers yelling at me to push harder were the voices coming out of my TV screen. The programs I tried varied, but Beachbody videos were my primary go-to for exercise programs.

At one point, I participated in boot camp fitness classes, mainly because my company offered them for free on site. That was my first experience with personal trainers but in a group setting. The workouts were tough but fun, and I enjoyed the change of pace.

However, I later moved out of state, so once again I returned to my familiar in-home workout videos. I’d cycle through programs regularly, completing 4, 6, or even 12-week plans, falling off the wagon, then jumping back on whenever I felt motivated to “get in shape.”

Rarely did I follow the suggested meal plans that came with the workout programs, but there was often some type of food restriction that I enforced. Gluten-free, dairy-free, low carb, no sugar, a vegan diet, you name it, I probably tried it. I even did a few rounds of juice and “detox” cleanses, sometimes consuming nothing but lemon, cayenne, and maple syrup water for days.

None of this fazed me, nor did it seem unusual to the people around me. My parents were often on “diets,” and my co-workers and friends casually chatted about whatever latest cleanse or dieting fad they were trying.

While I was never medically diagnosed as overweight, there were times I came close to being over the suggested weight for my age and height per BMI guidelines. Whenever I saw a certain number pop up on the scale, I usually started exercising more and cutting out certain foods.

Once I was satisfied enough with my progress, I would ease up on my restrictions. That is until I once again reached the point of being unhappy with my size. And so the cycle would repeat itself.

Sound familiar? Even if you yourself are lucky to have stayed off this bumpy rollercoaster, I’m sure you know others who are stuck on this unhappy ride.

Why is weight maintenance such a struggle?

I don’t have the credentials to offer an explanation. However, I sometimes compare my American diet to that of other countries with a healthier weight population. In doing so, I can’t help but feel we’re facing certain disadvantages in terms of the food options presented to us.

But back to when I first hired a personal trainer.

I was at a point where I found myself once again pushing the ceiling of my weight threshold. I felt stuck in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me, I had recently found out my sister was getting divorced, and I’d been working crazy long hours during the height of the pandemic. While I still did my home workouts fairly consistently, I’d been eating out a lot and getting food delivery.

I knew I needed to make changes, so I got a therapist, ended the relationship a few months later, and then started looking into gym memberships. I found a local gym that specialized in personal training and was mesmerized by their advertised before and after transformations.

The price tag seemed astronomical. But I reasoned I’d been working so hard at my job that I deserved to splurge on something for my health. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to get my own amazing “after” photo.

My First Session

My first session was dedicated solely to nutrition. There wasn’t a push-up in sight. During the chat, they promised to debunk common weight loss myths and give me the secrets to proper nutrition.

One of the first things I had to do was install a popular calorie tracking app. I had used it once before but never consistently, so my knowledge of counting calories was minimal.

The only other time I had really restricted portions for a prolonged period was when I used one of the meal plans for a Beachbody program. I didn’t “count” calories per se, but I used portion control containers to measure out my allotted food categories each day.

Following that meal plan along with the exercise program had resulted in some of my best results thus far, so I was open to the concept of counting calories.

Yet, to this day I still remember staring in shock when my new personal trainer was explaining how calorie counting worked. She told me, if I was debating between eating some chips versus eating an apple, I might automatically assume I should eat the apple. But in reality, the apple may contain more calories than the chips, so if I didn’t have that many calories left for the day, I should actually eat the chips.

This made zero sense to me from a nutritional perspective. I’m not a dietician, but everything inside me wanted to scream, “But an apple is a healthier choice than chips!”

But I was paying big bucks to get these secret tips. I wanted to look shredded like my trainer, so off I went to begin my calorie counting journey.

At first it wasn’t that bad. As long as I made most of my meals at home, it was fairly easy to log all of my calories.

The Beginning Months

I devoted myself to the process and pushed myself in the gym. I made a little progress, but after a few weeks I was feeling discouraged. My trainer suggested tweaking my calories to see bigger changes. I ate less but still wasn’t satisfied with the small results I was seeing compared to what I felt was a massive effort.

We discussed how I was feeling and she said I must not be in a calorie deficit. She recommended dropping my daily calories by another 100.

I nearly burst into tears right there in the gym. I was so tired from working out and so hungry, and yet I was being told I needed to eat even less than I already was. But I was committed. I wanted my radical transformation.

I told myself I was strong. What was just a measly 100 calories less at that point? I went home with my new daily caloric goal set in my app determined not to fail. It wasn’t long before the weight started melting off.

I was shocked. My clothes were too big. I not only met my goal weight, I went under it.

A Few Months In

It wasn’t long after that turning point that I saw my lowest recorded weight as an adult on the scale. It was a weight I’d hit before, but it’d always been extremely difficult to maintain unless I was super strict with my diet and exercise. I would sometimes reach that number at the end of a long workout program, but I’d usually jump up a few pounds shortly after.

But the crazy part was not only did I reach that weight, I kept going lower. I hit a weight I’d never thought possible. Even in my wildest dreams, I hadn’t imagined seeing that number on the scale.

I felt powerful. With the extra body fat removed, my muscles were more prominent and defined. I looked like what I considered to be “fit” for the first time after years and years of working out.

I had to buy new clothes. Heck, I even had to buy new underwear! I starting running into the problem of having to reorder clothes in smaller sizes because even the smalls I got were too big. I bought my first pair of size zero jeans. I felt incredible. My trainer praised my dedication. She told me I was one of her best success stories.

My family, however, was starting to notice and comment. And not comment in the way I expected.

“You’re too skinny.”

“You need to eat more.”

“You’re starving yourself.”

I was shocked. And a little offended. I had a personal trainer after all! She knew what she was doing. She wouldn’t recommend something that wasn’t healthy. I told them I didn’t need many calories because I had a desk job and wasn’t very active.

Whenever I had the chance, I sang the praises of calorie counting. I even tried to convince others to give it a try. I started to look at anyone with a weight problem as someone with little willpower.

Have you heard the phrase, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels?” At this point, I was deeply entrenched into this twisted concept. And the irony is I thought I was being “healthy.” Even most of my friends praised me for my discipline. In the majority’s eyes, I was the poster child of “fit and healthy.”

Several Months In

After I’d maintained my new weight for a few weeks, my trainer told me it was time to start reverse dieting by increasing my calories. I was a little scared, but I figured I’d lost more weight than originally planned, so regaining a few pounds wasn’t a big deal. I did gain some weight back, but I maintained around a twenty-three to twenty pound loss for several months.

I wish there was a better way to explain my thoughts during this time.

On one hand, my current self is still jealous of the me from that period. I felt the most confident I’d ever been in my adult life. Getting out of bed each day, I felt light and excited to take on the world.

In my mind, I think there was a little bit of a “take that” to the people who’d made me feel insecure about my body in the past. Like the guy I’d had a crush on as a teen that said he preferred really skinny girls. The boyfriend who told me he was disappointed in me for not working out. To the other boyfriend who encouraged me to buy a scale and said his type was “fit” women. Who regularly tried to pressure me into getting a gym membership. And the other ex-boyfriends who told me they could never date large women.

I wasn’t leery of mirrors or having my picture taken anymore. My poor phone was overrun with the most selfies I’d ever dared to take. I loved shopping for new clothes and was awed by the sizes I could fit into. I loved the compliments I received from others about how fit I looked.

Yet at the same time, I was filled with fear. Fear of eating too much, fear of eating out where it was harder to track accurately, fear of regaining all the weight back. I checked my body constantly. I weighed myself every morning, a habit that started with my trainer who required me to log my daily weight to get a weekly average.

If I maintained my weight or lost a pound, it was a good day. If my weight went up a few pounds, I was discouraged, and I would often try to eat less or workout more. I recall at least one day when I didn’t eat because I thought my weight had gone up too much and I was scared I would spiral without taking quick action.

During this period of my life, there were many other events happening as well. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say there were extreme highs and extreme lows. There were situations in my life that made me even more afraid to regain weight. I was often anxious and on edge and that also decreased my appetite.

Going Solo with My Training

Just shy of one year from when I first hired my trainer, we parted ways. The cost was something I couldn’t justify long-term, even after cutting back on the number of weekly sessions. I also had surpassed my goals and thought I knew what to do going forward.

Prior to leaving my trainer, we had reduced my calories slightly from maintenance. This was primarily because I had to take a break from training for six weeks after an unexpected surgery, and when I started exercising again, my weight went up.

Nothing changed much during the first months on my own. I tried to stick to my calorie plan and workouts. I would exercise anywhere from 4 to 6 days a week.

I went back and forth from logging everything I ate religiously, to taking breaks from counting while on trips.

Cracks Emerge in the Walls

After awhile, I noticed my weight was on an upwards trend and I couldn’t get in it check. I had a big overseas vacation coming up, so I decided I needed to get serious again like I had before. I dropped my calories to the lowest number I’d been on previously with my trainer.

I didn’t think this was dangerous, because after all, that was the calorie cap my trainer had prescribed. That number had been the magic number that catapulted my transformation. And it was still above the amount that I was told was the bare minimum you needed to not wreck your metabolism.

This time around though, it was harder. I was hungrier, and I also started to worry that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to keep changing my calorie intake so frequently.

I decided to accept the weight I was at for my trip and just enjoy my vacation without calorie counting. I promised myself I would still hit the gym and walk a lot.

The Walls Begin to Crumble

My trip rolled around and by day two, I was already having a meltdown.

It started with my clothes not fitting the way I was used to. I had to change outfits that morning before I felt comfortable leaving the hotel.

Then it was the pictures. I was shocked by my appearance. Had I really put on that much weight already?

My poor travel companion had to listen as all my insecurities poured out. She graciously and kindly tried to reassure me I looked just fine.

The next day, either it was the outfit, or maybe I’d lost water weight, but I felt better. My clothes were loose and some friends I hadn’t seen in years commented on how thin I looked.

One friend even giggled as she commented on how I used to be chubby in the past. I wasn’t really offended in the moment, because at that time, I felt like I was an acceptable weight.

As my overseas adventure continued, I ran into two very unpleasant issues. The first was extreme stomach pains. I still don’t know exactly what caused these, but it was the worst bloating and intestinal pain I’d ever experienced. Bad enough that I considered going to the hospital at one point. Thankfully, the pain subsided before drastic action was needed.

The second was insane hunger that intensified about halfway through the trip. I tried to eat reasonable portions during the day, but had intense cravings at night. I told myself I was on vacation so it was okay to indulge in my favorite snack foods that I couldn’t get back home. But no matter how many extra calories I consumed, it seemed like my hunger was unquenchable.

After the trip ended and I returned home, I refused to weigh myself. The thought of seeing how much weight I gained frightened me. Yet at the same time, I was fairly confident I could “get back on track.”

Once again, I opened my app and lowered my calories. I also decided to start walking more and get 10,000 steps a day.

I was obsessed with ruminating over calories, daily steps, and how long it would take me to lose the vacation weight. Sadly, these were the main thoughts that consumed my mind all day long.

I think it was around this time that I started looking up low calorie foods again. I’d done this before when I first started calorie counting with my trainer. It was like discovering a whole new food category I never knew existed. Weird “pasta” alternatives, low-calorie snacks and desserts, and zero calorie drinks.

These rather strange tasting foods helped keep me within my allotted calories.

But this time I also searched for something I hadn’t before. I typed into Google, “zero calorie food.”

I still feel shame and embarrassment when I think about that. I don’t think anyone should feel that way. But it’s very telling of where my mind and body were at that point. I was trying to revert to previous restrictions that had worked in the past, but my body was screaming in protest. It wanted more food. Real food.

It wasn’t unusual for me to enter pre-planned meals into my app at the start of the day, and then keep removing and adding things as my hunger increased throughout the day. If I removed one higher calorie choice, could I replace it with two things that would allow me to eat more? It was almost like a game. A sad, tragic game.

Not long after I got back from overseas, my sister informed me she was getting married in three weeks. I was shocked. Last I heard, she was having a wedding the following year. I scrambled to make last minute travel arrangements. The timing was horrendous for me.

Despite the hassle, I refused to miss my sister’s special day. I was able to be there, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. But the stress was taking its toll, as well as my yo-yo dieting.

The week I was back home for the wedding, my diet was once again all over the place. Some days I would track and eat the portions I was used to when at home. Other days, I wanted to eat everything sight and nearly did.

Facing Reality

When I returned home, I shared how I was struggling with my weight regain and eating plan with my therapist. She responded in a way that I didn’t expect.

She expressed deep concern that I was displaying habits of disordered eating. She urged me to stop counting calories and go to a clinic to be assessed.

To say I was in disbelief of her perception would be an understatement.

Disordered eating? Does that mean I have an eating disorder?? Me???

No way. I was trying to be fit and healthy. I was using tools given to me by a trained professional. I just didn’t have enough willpower to stick to my diet and workout regime. I just needed to try harder. I had taken too many vacations and allowed myself one too many “cheat days.”

Anyone in my shoes would feel the same way. Right?

But my therapist wasn’t the only person hinting that I was practicing unhealthy habits. One of my sisters point-blank told me to throw away my scale and stop being so obsessive about my weight.

I was desperate to prove that I didn’t have any type of problem. Understandably, I was hesitant to let go of the methods that helped me lose weight before. But I was also scared. I didn’t want to hurt my body in any way, shape, or form. To be cautious, I decided to quit counting calories.

The term “intuitive eating” was something I kept hearing about, and this approach was also recommended by my therapist, so I figured I’d give it a go.

The minute I stopped logging calories and tried intuitive eating, my body seemed to change overnight. Most of my clothes went from feeling tight to being impossible to get on.

Every single pound I’d lost while working with my trainer came back.

I haven’t weighed myself since I saw that old familiar number again. It’s possible that I could weigh even more now.

I learned it’s not uncommon to go over your original weight after years of dieting. How unfair is that? All that effort and you end up heavier than where you started!

Struggling with the Aftermath

On top of distorted hunger cues, stomach pains, and trying to grapple with the changes in my body, my periods were now completely out of whack.

Have you ever heard that extreme amounts of exercise, or prolonged food restriction, can cause women to lose their period? This actually happened to my trainer. Thankfully, I never experienced that issue, but now I was having the opposite problem. My cycles were way too close together, two even started just ten days apart.

Desperate for answers, I saw several doctors, but no one was sure what was causing my woes. I asked if it was due to my sudden weight gain, but one doctor seemed certain that wasn’t the root cause. His best guess was I had picked up a bug on my overseas trips that year. That theory sounded far-fetched to me, but who knows if that was one of the puzzle pieces. It partly explains my horrible digestion and bloating.

By the end of that year, after dedicating so much time, energy, and money into a lifestyle to improve my health, I was left confused, miserable, and in worse condition than when I started.

My therapist referred me to another therapist she thought could support me better. (She also said she may have overacted when she first shared her concerns.)

Nevertheless, that initial assessment frightened me more than I can say. I only shared her assessment with a few trusted friends. I wanted to wait until I knew exactly what I was facing.

The new therapist didn’t seem as concerned. She said I am likely on the spectrum for disordered eating, but from her assessment, she didn’t place me into a defined eating disorder category.

Since this situation escalated, I’ve spent countless hours learning more disordered eating, the fitness industry, and diet culture. I still want to fully understand what the heck happened to me. What’s the boundary between proper weight maintenance and slipping into unhealthy and unnecessary habits?

One thing is for sure – I wish I had never started counting calories. Now it’s difficult to eat food without thinking about how many calories I’m consuming, even though I’m not logging them.

Some people may not be affected the way I was, but this practice created a whole new host of problems in my life.

Restricting for an extended period seemed to throw off my natural hunger cues. That led to extreme hunger and binge-like moments.

So, what have I learned from this experience? Do I think every personal trainer has horrible nutritional advice and will wreck your relationship with food? No. But I am now very, very cautious towards any practices pushed by the fitness industry. Even the wellness industry to be frank.

In learning about diet culture, I’ve realized how unnatural so many accepted practices can be. One nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned is that if you’re following any unhealthy habits on your journey to be “healthy,” are you really going to be healthy?

This rings so true with my experience. There was very little that was truly healthy about my journey.

Where I’m at Today

Did anything good come from this experience? While my nutrition suffered, I did discover a new love for the gym. The weight section and resistance machines no longer intimidate me. My trainer introduced me to different exercises that I still enjoy to this day.

So where does this chapter in my life leave me? How do I, or anyone else who has experienced a similar story, move forward?

One baby step at a time.

In an era that wants instant results, it can be painfully slow. But slow and steady wins the race.

I haven’t given up on my body. In fact, I am discovering a new love for my body. It has supported me through so much. I want to honor my body in the healthiest way possible. Maybe that looks like a strength workout, maybe that looks like a walk, or maybe that even looks like a well-deserved nap. It for sure includes feeding it nutritionally dense foods regularly.

No more choosing chips over apples to meet an arbitrary number that is supposed to result in reaching another number that holds way too much power.

Life is about more than numbers. You are more than a number.

You are way more than the number of times you workout per week, the number of meals you need to stay energized, or the number on the back of your jeans.

Your value is immeasurable. The world needs to hear this truth more often and less about how to get six-pack abs in thirty days.

Let’s tell the world together.

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