Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why I Became a Health Coach: The Unprocessed Truth

I’m going to lay it out and strip away a few layers of professionalism, because I’m in the business of connecting to people and coaching clients through some very personal transformations.  I want to provide a very honest and raw account of why I do what I do and why I love doing it to give you an opportunity to understand where I’m coming from.  Hopefully you can connect it to your own personal journey on some level.

It wasn’t easy to write this, and it’s definitely going to force some skeletons out of my closet, but health coaching and personal transformation are all about coming to terms with who you are and who you’ve been, no matter how off-track that person may have been.  Society tends to assume that health coaches never needed coaching themselves.  Some believe that because they are in a position to help others through a transformation that these coaches haven’t struggled with it themselves.  In my case, the exact opposite happens to be true...

When asked why they chose their field, it’s common to hear from health/fitness professionals answers like: “It was the natural progression.  I had always been an athlete and into health and fitness.” That’s not exactly the case for me. I definitely have had a consistent interest in athletics throughout my life, but had I told you that I was passionate about health and fitness I would have been lying…mainly to myself.  I didn’t fully understand my motivation for the interest in food and exercise.

If you look at my health history on paper, it doesn’t look all that bad.  I was an athlete in high school and taught aerobics in college.  After college I had a string of break-ups with gyms around the world and brief love affairs with yoga, Windsor Pilates, Insanity, and Billy Blanks Tae Bo. My best friend even convinced me to run a half marathon with her about four years ago (which is also about the last time I ran…and ever will! Forget that full know who you are).  I’d be fully committed to each one of course, whole-heartedly believing that this was the program that would finally get me the body I had always wanted, which I had always thought was my true motivation.  I could almost see myself modeling it in the future for the infomercial that sold a given program to me at 3 AM on a Saturday (while smashing a box of Cheez-Its, of course).

Nutritionally, I wasn’t much better off.  Fad diets had me on a lifetime of yo-yo dieting until I went just about crazy.  My low point was freshman year in college. To this day, I don’t know what tipped me over the edge.  It started with an attempt at the South Beach Diet.  I gave it a shot and started losing weight.  It was like a drug; the more weight I lost, the “higher” I felt.  Enter calorie counting, the perfect storm.  The less I ate and the more I burned, the more negative that number was at the end of the day.  I had all kinds of calculations that I worked from to predict how thin I could be by certain dates.  Add in eight different diet pills, eight hour gym workouts (no, I'm not exaggerating) and you get one skinny, crazy, hopped-up girl with baggy clothes and no friends.

Bare with me, it’s about to get a little worse.  This is the moment that I reflect on to appreciate how far I’ve come.  I discovered anabolic steroids from the Chinese pharmacy from which I was ordering my four kinds of ephedra.  As I was about to confirm my purchase, I decided to read one more review to make sure they worked.  I had read over and over that the risk of sudden death from heart attacks from taking these was almost a sure thing, but I just wanted to make sure I’d actually lose the weight it promised me.  I found a review by this woman who had taken them, lost a ton of weight then suffered a major heart attack leaving her partially disabled.  In my mind at the time, what was more important was that she also destroyed her metabolism.  She stated that she couldn’t so much as eat a bowl of spinach without putting on weight.  My thought process: F*%k that.  I’m not taking that shit, it’s dangerous. Clearly, I was not only burning fat cells, but also brain cells for even considering this route!

That spring break I went home for a week and something snapped back into place.  I still don't fully understand it, but I attribute it to the fact that I was back at home with family and lifelong friends. They’re not as forgiving of your isolation and self-destructive behaviors as your college drinking buddies, so it made it impossible to maintain the insanity.  In addition, my roommate finally flushed my pills in the toilet (a la Saved by the Bell: Jesse goes crazy episode), which made it harder to maintain the rigorous workout schedule I had been keeping (thanking her still).

I can’t say I was totally healthy after that, though.  I spent a few more years cycling through self-criticism and fad dieting to try to lose those elusive last 5-10 lbs.  I guess it’s probably not such an atypical story, but it is what led me to my belief that many people walk around with more thoughts of self-criticism than self-worth and the struggle to lose weight while loving themselves unconditionally is easier said than done. But we don’t talk about it...and we put on masks to try our best to look like we have our shit together. Well, let me tell you something. Most people I know who have their “shit together” are standing in it at the time.  Life is messy.  Changing your lifestyle is hard.  It can feel isolating, yes.  But in the end, it’s never about those last five pounds.  Chasing down those last five pounds was as realistic as finding the end of the rainbow with a leprechaun sitting on a pot of golden, healthy Cheez-Its.  Do I need to say that they didn’t exist?!  My struggle was not in losing weight; it was in freeing myself of the burden of the incessant feeling of the need to lose weight.

I found that freedom in learning about nutrition.  At some point I decided that I couldn’t live like I had been any longer, and I knew there had to be an answer.  Not everyone who was skinny (yeah, yeah, mentally I was still there) lived like this, and, frankly, I was sick and tired of thinking about it.  I asked myself what on earth I would think about all day if I wasn’t picking apart my body and freaking out over food.  That was my “Ah-Ha!” moment.  In order to answer that question, I enrolled in a health coaching program without the intention of becoming a health coach necessarily but rather to learn everything I could about nutrition.

The next year would change me in ways I could never have imagined and would never have believed if someone had told me about it beforehand.  Physically, I felt better.  I stopped snacking, had more energy and my frequent and severe mood swings disappeared (ask my family). I didn’t lose a ton of weight, but I didn’t care (Reread that… I didn’t care!).  I felt like I had discovered the secret to life. EAT MORE KALE! That’s all I had to do (ok...there’s a little more to it than that, but you get the point).  Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?  I had chased my tail for so long and so unnecessarily. Emotionally and mentally things just didn’t seem like they were quite as big of a deal.  It was like waking up with 20/20 vision after a lifetime of wearing scratched lenses.  For me, this knowledge really was power.  Previously, my food choices had been based on whether or not I would feel guilty after a meal.  Now, I understand that food serves a purpose, at the cellular level, for every function of my body.  By making good choices, I was optimizing each of those functions.  Don't get me wrong, this new understanding of food didn't resolve my issues entirely, I’d be lying to you if I said that, and what would be the point of that?  After reading this, you’ve practically seen me naked.  I will say, however, that I now feel that I have the tools to steer my life - and the life of my clients - in a healthier direction.

It’s been almost four years since I graduated, I still have my moments and have definitely fallen off the wagon more than a few times. I've said it before, and I’ll say it again: lifestyle change is tough, and the habits we’re trying to break run deep.  I have realized that so many of my issues with food weren’t about food at all.  I needed to fortify my relationships by spending more time laughing with friends and on the phone with my mom than on the treadmill.  I needed consistency: good food, high quality nutrition and daily workouts over time.  I made time my goal, not weight. Maintain balance over a year instead of aiming for a number and instant gratification.  That way, even when those old thoughts try to resurface, they’re powerless because they're irrelevant to your goal.

So I’ll say it again: It wasn’t just about the food.  I was neglecting many areas of my life that needed attention, but without understanding nutrition and removing that hurdle of lies and inaccurate information, I couldn’t see clearly enough to focus on what those real issues were.  So it was kinda about the food, too.  I know you're wondering...Yes, I can finally answer that question I asked myself way back when: what would I think about all day if I wasn’t criticizing myself and obsessing over food?  Well, the answer is…food, and can't we all see the irony in that?  Moreover, we give food the power to blind us to the issues that really nourish us as social and spiritual beings.  What I focus on now is how important it is for me to coach as many people as possible through their own version of this story and help them to really live their lives, to laugh and play, to enjoy each day in vibrant health, to dream bigger than a smaller jean size, to love themselves unconditionally, to finally appreciate the hard work and sweat it takes to get there, and to live for the butter!

Vanessa Alberts is a co-founder and health coach at Sweat and Butter. She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and holds a master's degree in Health Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University. She coaches clients to optimize their health and happiness through nutrition and personal evaluation. She can be reached at

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