The second part of my journey started in my college years. This is where the diet mentality really kicked in and my disordered eating started to snowball out of control.

Journey into Dieting

[If you haven’t read Part One of my multi-part From Disordered Eating to Empowered Living series, I invite you to start there.]

During my senior year in college at UNC-Wilmington, I became addicted to exercise and ephedra. What a combo! I would take “Diet Fuel” pills and get all my studying done while doing cardio at the local Gold’s Gym.

It was at that gym that I met my later-to-be fiance. Unlike the other boyfriends I had during college, Brent had his shit together. He was several years older than me and owned a gym consulting company. When I graduated, I started working with Brent. Life and gym became synonymous. We would travel to different gyms for three months at a time doing consulting work and membership drives.

Having an awesome body is the best advertising for anyone working in the fitness industry. Knowing that, I started taking my workouts to the next level. As my workouts became more intense, I started experimenting with my food intake.

Being an ethical vegan, there was never a thought of eating anything but plants, but there were plenty of ways to create dietary “rules” even as a vegan. Vegan protein shakes, consuming tons of soy and legumes, and cutting out grains was do-able. In the tradition of the fitness buff persona, I experimented with being super strict for six days and allowing myself one “cheat day” per week. This is a totally “normal” dietary routine for bodybuilders and figure and fitness competitors. Even though I wasn’t competing at the time, my desire for the “perfect body” was becoming stronger.

Life Changes

My lifestyle supported my obsession with diet and exercise, so I did not look at my habits as problematic. Everyone else was doing it (in their omnivore way), and I felt I fit in. It’s funny because I had spent the previous eight years emphatic about not getting married. All of a sudden, though, my life had become so enmeshed with my boyfriend’s and with our work, I started to think marriage wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

So Brent and I ended up getting engaged and moving to Miami to open up a new line of women’s health clubs. It didn’t take long for shit to hit the fan, but that’s a juicy story for a different day. Let’s just say we split on bad terms, and all of a sudden, I found myself in the heart of South Beach without a job with literally a suitcase to my name.

What came next seems like a whirlwind looking back.

Setting the scene, let’s take it back twenty years… As a two-year-old, I was so determined, I fought to put on my own diapers. When I was six, I gave a strong case as to why I should be allowed to drive a car. Needless to say, no matter how upset I was about the break-up, there was no way I was bailing on Miami to take refuse back home in North Carolina.

Long story short, I crashed on my friend’s couch in the huge condo “commune” called the Flamingo in South Beach. Thousands of people lived in this community, ranging from professionals to drug dealers and porn stars. If you ask anyone who has been in Miami Beach for a long time, chances are they started out at the Flamingo. It was in a perfect location right on the bay, with pools, docks, markets, and a super nice gym. So I finagled my way into a job at the gym, starting as a front desk attendant and quickly moving up the chain until I landed the Fitness Director position, pretty much running the show.

New Training

During that time I also caught the attention of an MMA world champ, Pat, who was teaching classes at the gym. It was like he could see right through me. No matter what tough front I put on, he saw my emotional weakness and took me under his wing as my Muay Thai coach.

Pat’s teaching methods were unconventional, though I wasn’t really aware at the time. You see, he didn’t believe in sparring gear. He believed in learning to block punches and kicks by being punched and kicked enough that blocking became a reflex pretty damn quickly. If you know Muay Thai, though, you know that shin on shin blocking is no fun for either party. I took to the training quickly. No amount of physical pain could compete with the emotional pain I was in. Muay Thai became my form of moving meditation. When sparring, I had no choice but to be present in the moment. If my mind wandered, I paid for it.

Needless to say, it did not wander much after the first few weeks.

For the first time since high school, I had discovered a sport I could practice with a group of passionate people who became a family to me. In many ways, the next several years were the most exhilarating years of my life. Hanging with a group of fighters who ruled South Beach… how could it not? We partied it up and trained hardcore. I practically lived at the gym. I had rented a studio at the Flamingo as soon as I had the money.

As incredible as those years were, there was a dark side to my life I was not apt to share with anyone. I had taken the feeling of being powerless over my break-up and found a sense of control through food and exercise. I was working out like crazy between the Muay Thai, classes at Crunch gym, weight lifting, and cardio.

Negative Body Image

The purpose of the cardio at that time was to burn calories. I wanted to be leaner but couldn’t see how lean I already was. I looked in the mirror and saw fat that simply wasn’t there. I was happiest when my stomach was empty and flat. I measured my oatmeal, set timers to let me know when I was “allowed” to eat, and picked at salads when going out to eat.

Looking back, I qualify myself as experiencing body dysmorphia and disordered eating at that time because my thoughts and anxiety around my body and food felt all-consuming. I don’t know whether or not I would have been officially diagnosed as having an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder. I was not sharing what was going on in my head… and really, who cares. I had no desire to be labeled. It was what it was, and, spoiler alert, there’s ultimately a happy ending to this story.

At one point I decided to play a game with myself to see if I could drop below one-hundred pounds. Now that you know more about me, you can probably guess… I won! I remember getting on the scale, seeing ninety-nine pounds, and feeling proud of my achievement. I really have no idea how I was able to maintain a body fat percentage that couldn’t even be measured with calipers and workout as hard as I did. But again, leave it to me to prove I could defy the odds.

On that note, I am going to press pause on my story. Part 3 is coming soon, so stay tuned.

This is Part Two of a five-part series.

Part One: From Disordered Eating to Plant-Empowered Living

Part Three: Finding the Way to Plant-Empowered Living

Part Four: Changing Your Exercise Routine

Part Five: Being an Advocate for Animals and Plant-Empowered Living

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Empowering people with the tools they need to bring out their inner bad ass, develop a healthy relationship with food, and build a PLANT-strong body for LIFE! Ella has been a transformational coach for over 15 years. She is featured in the media as an expert on veganism, wellness, and fitness (click on her image above to listen to one of her latest appearances). Ella is a published author and speaker who has conducted workshops across the globe. She earned her Master's Degree in Social Work and Eating Disorder Recovery Coach certification to further her coaching skills.