When I was 16 years old, my mom hired a personal trainer in a well-meaning attempt to deal with my weight. It was at a gym that I'd never been to before, though I was no stranger to exercise. At the time, I was pretty overweight, and I'd tried in earnest to do the things that I thought would address the problem, but I honestly had no clue what to do.
Though I was a bit apprehensive, I embraced the idea of having someone with the experience and expertise to help me along my journey. It turned out to be one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
I don't think he liked me much. Why? To this day, I'm unsure. I don't want to assume that it was because I was an overweight Black teenaged girl, but I don't think it helped that we had absolutely nothing in common.
He was a muscular white guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. Considering that we were in a wealthier, majority-white neighborhood that I did not live in, he probably hadn't had many clients like me. I was quiet and shy, but I did everything he asked of me, without complaint.
The workout would begin with a strength circuit, silently jumping from machine to machine. He'd adjust the weights, and I'd perform the movements. Next, he'd bring me over to the dreaded stairs where I'd have to run up and down for what seemed like ages.
These were the moments when my lack of fitness came to the fore. Those stairs would leave me winded, and I'd always feel like a pathetic mess after the fact.
Once it was all over, he'd plant me on one of the treadmills, tell me to walk for a half-hour, then leave. No praise, no discussion of how I'm improving, nothing.
The moment of embarrassment, when I decided that I sure as hell would not be renewing my contract once it was over, came during a review of my diet journal. As requested, I kept a detailed journal (as detailed as a 16-year-old could anyway) of the meals I ate during the day and presented it to him for review.
One day, I proudly handed over my diet journal, pleased with how many salads I'd managed to eat, confident that he'd see my efforts and be thrilled. Wrong.
He blew up at me.
Within view and earshot of other patrons, my trainer yelled at me and accused me of trying to sabotage myself. I was confused until he asked why the hell I would be eating a beef patty so high in saturated fat when I was trying to lose weight.
Now, at 16, I had no clue what the hell saturated fat was or why I should be avoiding it. I'd never had any nutritional counseling or education whatsoever. It wasn't something that was taught in school, and it wasn't something that my trainer had discussed with me. All I knew was that I should "eat better," and so I ate as well as I knew how.
I ate salads when possible and smaller amounts of everything else. But being of Jamaican descent and living in a Jamaican neighborhood, beef patties were ubiquitous, and it felt like such a normal and harmless thing to eat. I figured, hell, it's high in protein, right? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that having one beef patty would be such a problem.
I was humiliated. I felt smaller than I had already been feeling throughout the process, the smallest I'd felt since the entire thing started. I struggled, but I held back tears until our training session was over. I would continue to go to my training sessions for a few more weeks, but the tension between us never dissipated.
Once the training package had run its course, I told my mother to save her money because I would not be going back. I would continue to struggle with my weight and diet for many years after this, putting on much more weight than when I began. I was no better off for having had a trainer, and in some ways, in the emotional and mental ways, I was worse off.
My confidence was shot, and I felt like a hopeless cause.
I've heard many similar stories since then.
Stories of people shelling out their hard-earned cash to pay for training packages with trainers who were rude, dismissive, judgmental, and racially or culturally insensitive.
Trainers who resorted to verbal and emotional abuse instead of providing support.
Trainers who put their clients through the motions of working out without explaining why they were doing the things they were doing.
Television shows such as The Biggest Loser popularized this kind of training. Overweight and obese contestants were regularly yelled at, belittled, and broken down under the guise of building them back up stronger.
The contestants were subjected to disturbing weigh-ins where normal, healthy weight loss was treated as a failure while losing massive, unrealistic amounts of weight was celebrated as a success.
We now know that the long-term result of all of this was metabolic damage, not to mention any emotional or psychological pain.
Shows like The Biggest Loser perpetuate the idea that people who are overweight and obese deserve to be abused and humiliated. That they must pay penance for daring to exist in their fat bodies.
While there are many reasons everyone should eat healthier and get regular exercise, abuse, belittlement, and judgment are not the ways to go about it.
After years and years of jumping from gym to gym and tinkering with my diet, I was finally able to lose a substantial amount of weight on my own. But I resented the fact that I had to go it alone.
I had to do extensive research to successfully navigate the clusterfuck of nutrition and fitness misinformation that's out there.
Now, with fitness training and nutrition coaching certifications under my belt, I see much more clearly just how fucked up my experience has been.
It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this difficult to take control of your own body. It shouldn't be this hard to be healthy.
But this is the environment that we live in.
As a nation, we don't know how to eat correctly, and it's by design.
We constantly hear about how obesity rates continue to rise. Yet the industries that promise to help solve this problem continue to profit.
The majority of working people toil day in and day out to afford a living. Busy and stressful lifestyles force people to prioritize financial survival over health and wellness, and billion-dollar industries - from food to fitness to pharmaceuticals - profit from that fact.
These industries keep people confused on purpose, and when people slip up and find themselves in a poor state of health, the entirety of the blame is placed squarely on their shoulders. It becomes your fault for being misled, misinformed, and unaware.
Too many personal trainers are guilty of putting profits over people, as well.
One scroll through Instagram will show you countless examples of "professionals" who approach fitness from a place of vanity and showmanship, who are just as misinformed about health and nutrition as the people they're trying to take on as clients.
People deserve better.
People deserve to be seen as individuals and understood for who they are in the context of their lives and the experiences they've had, not as stereotypes.
They deserve to have their needs and concerns addressed in a manner that is understanding and empathetic, not judgmental and dismissive.
They deserve proper guidance on living a cohesive lifestyle where movement is accessible, enjoyable, desirable, and safe, rather than painful and punishing.
They deserve to enjoy food confidently, knowing that they have the tools necessary to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, I don't envision that the billion-dollar industries that profit from poor health will all of a sudden gain a conscience. Nor do I see our elected officials putting their financial positions at stake by facing these industries head-on.
Change has to begin at the grassroots.
As fitness and wellness professionals, we must provide our clients with proper knowledge and treat them with the respect they deserve.
Otherwise, people will continue to fall prey to the insidious traps of diet and fitness fads.
Author's Note: A version of this post first appeared on my Black Vegan Diaries blog in 2021.
It was a particularly humbling bout of menstrual cramps that first inspired me to go vegan. It was a few months after the 2016 Presidential election, and despite living a life of physical activity and perceived dietary moderation, I was gaining weight, and was more depressed than I'd ever been. That month, when my period arrived, it was nothing short of horrific.
I've had terrible menstrual cramps and a multitude of accompanying symptoms for as long as I've been menstruating. I've been in and out of doctor's offices, and I've tried a number of supposed solutions that just didn't work on me. After jumping on a sustained fitness regimen a couple years ago, my period did begin to improve, which is why I was shocked when, shortly after the election, my period began to get worse. I felt absolutely defeated, like no matter what I tried, I was destined for a life of misery.
Some of you reading can relate to what I'm about to illustrate, but others are skeptical and wondering if this is all hyperbole. I've heard plenty of men and women alike express sentiments that seek to downplay and minimize just how horrible of an experience menstruation can be for some of us. However, it's a serious and costly medical issue that greatly impacts the livelihoods and well-being of women around the globe. This is my personal experience, and I'm being open in hopes of reaching those who have had to endure the same struggle.
Whenever I read a list of common period symptoms I laugh, because I've had them all. Debilitating pain that radiated down into my thighs, pounding headaches, back aches, diarrhea, appetite-zapping nausea, acne, bloating, up to ten lbs of water retention, irritability, anxiety, deep depression that would begin an entire week beforehand, heavy bleeding that made me run through pads like crazy, and clots that would make me beg for mercy. I'd gotten used to the episodes of sitting on the toilet for well over an hour, quite literally wishing for death, because it felt like the only thing that could save me in the moment. After it all finally passed, I would retreat to my bed and stay there for a couple hours until my body led me right back to the bathroom.
I lost count of how many doctors I've visited over the years. The diagnosis was always "dysmenorrhea", but the prescription would vary. Sometimes it was for stronger painkillers, sometimes it was birth control. I attempted birth control on three separate occasions and all three times were nothing short of a hot mess. The first time, after a couple weeks of not feeling quite right, I received a call from my doctor informing me that my blood test results revealed that my liver enzymes were through the roof, and that I should stop the pills until we could figure out what was going on.
By the time I was able to get back on the pills, I had a whole new doctor with a whole new approach. She suggested that I skip the week of placebo pills that come with every pack so that I would only bleed every three months or so. I was elated. No period for three months? Four periods a year? It sounded like heaven, so of course I tried it. Except, when I finally allowed my body to bleed, I bled for about two weeks straight. At that point, I felt so defeated that I gave up altogether, or so I thought.
My period continued to be hell, and a couple years later, I found myself back in the doctor's office, ready to give birth control another try. After a very short and concerning visit where the doctor was rushing out to another engagement (she didn't even look at my medical history, she just wrote a prescription), I was back on the pills. Once again, the pills didn't help my period, and to make matters worse, they made me feel completely numb. I couldn't feel any emotions other than numbness and depression. It was bad enough that I had already struggled with depression, but these pills made me feel like a shell of myself. I was existing, but I wasn't all there. Eventually, I decided to stop them.
Funny enough, the physical pain wasn't the worst thing about my period. Don't get me wrong, the pain was nothing short of breathtaking. I popped OTC pain pills like candy (which made me nervous - what were they doing to my body?), and they often didn't work. Because of this, I developed a tolerance to pain that I began to wear as a badge of honor. It was the impact on my self-esteem, however, that really fucked me up. I felt like a deficient human being. How can I work, how can I be a productive member of society if I can't go a month without being bedridden for several days?
My attendance throughout high school wasn't great. In college, every semester I exceeded my allotted absences for all of my classes, forcing me to go to the doctor just to get a note. Up until I got a job where I could work from home, I would miss days of work, meaning I was losing money. More painful though, was missing countless birthday celebrations for people I loved dearly. Even though they understood, I never shook the feeling of guilt that would overwhelm me whenever I couldn't be there.
I tried everything. When the medical establishment didn't come through, I tried all the alternative, natural solutions that I had access to. Nothing seemed to work. So honestly, I wasn't expecting much when I decided to go vegan, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was concerned that my monthly pain was a signal that things could only get worse for me. Being a Black woman with a family history of uterine fibroids, breast cancer, and other hormone-related illnesses, I worried that I was destined for the same fate.
I knew my hormones were way out of whack, I knew my body was inflamed, and I knew that something had to give. I was also just so damn tired. I couldn't imagine continuing to live this way for several more decades. Something had to change, so I changed myself. Considering the research regarding PMS and inflammation, research regarding the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and inflammation, as well as research surrounding estrogen consumed from meat and dairy, I decided to try a plant-based diet. After all, what did I have to lose?
Literally two weeks after removing meat from my diet (dairy had removed itself many months before; my body couldn't handle it), I had what was, up until then, the best period of my life. The month before that, I was maxing out on ibuprofen, but a couple weeks after going vegan, I didn't have to take a single pain pill. I was floored. It wasn't completely pain-free, but it was such a drastic improvement on what I'd gotten used to that I was more annoyed than pained. But even more shocking was, every single month since then, my period has gotten better. My flow is now lighter (both in amount & hue - it's brighter!), my period is shorter, and my cramps are damn near non-existent. I would call it a miracle if I didn't know just how much work went into getting to this point.
Understand, I didn't just "go vegan". I was particularly careful to ensure that I was eating a whole foods, plant-based diet. I've also incorporated foods that help to balance my hormones, reduce my overall inflammation, and nourish my body with vital nutrients & minerals. I realize now that the foods I grew up eating had put my body in such an unhealthy state that the only way I could get better was by being vigilant about exactly what I put in body.
I had to take steps that I was honestly unwilling to take before. In addition to removing meat, dairy and eggs from my diet completely, I rarely eat fried food anymore. I eat tons of fruits and vegetables, and I increase my fruit intake right before my period. I keep processed food to a minimum - they're convenient in a pinch, but they tend to be full of additives that aren't good for you. I also recently removed alcohol from my diet, because honestly, it wasn't doing me any good. Consistent physical activity is also important. My current regimen has me working out 5-6 days a week, but even 3 days a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help.
The short amount of time in which my body responded and the continued improvements in the months after have made me a believer. You can find lots of articles and documentaries about the links between animal-based foods and major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but a lack of scientific attention to menstrual issues means there aren't very many studies about the connection between diet and feminine health.
I'm writing this to add to the growing anecdotal evidence that shows that what you put in your body is directly related to the pain and other horrific symptoms that come every month. My quality of life is the best that it's ever been, and the confidence and self-esteem boost that comes with knowing that I'm in control of my body rather than my body being in control of me is absolutely priceless.
My Personal Go-To Menstruation Staples
Here are some staples that I include in my diet to help with my menstruation issues. I suggest doing your own research before incorporating anything new or unfamiliar into your diet. It took a lot of trial & error to come to a set of staples that work for me. Including most of these in a daily smoothie makes it easy to incorporate them all into my diet.
There are many other foods and herbs that are reported to work that may be more accessible or preferable to you. Keep in mind that your experience may not be the same as mine. Depending on the state of your body, the response might be immediate or it may take a few months. Give yourself time and be patient with your body. It's worth it in the end.
Authors Note: This post originally appeared on my blog Black Vegan Diaries in 2017. Some updates have been made to reflect my current regimen.
When you decided that it was time to lose weight, you probably relied heavily on cardio. Maybe you went to the gym and jumped on a stationary bike or elliptical machine. Perhaps you attempted to take up running but found that the aches and pains were too much to bear. Maybe you've even begun losing weight, but now you seem to be hitting a plateau or, worse, gaining back the weight. You're still putting in the effort, but you're not seeing the results you were looking for.
If this sounds like you, then you're not alone. Hundreds of people follow this same path each year, putting in work only to hit a plateau and then eventually regaining all the lost weight. So what could be going wrong? People often make the mistake of thinking that overweight people are simply lazy and unmotivated, but there are plenty who are getting up each day and earnestly putting in the work. They're watching what they eat and going to the gym several times a week but still aren't seeing the results they wanted to.
The problem is that many people are not following the correct equation for long-term weight loss success. They're trying their best, but they're missing a crucial component of the process. Sustainable weight loss, the holy grail of weight loss, requires more than just cardio. Studies have found that combining cardiovascular exercise with resistance training (a.k.a. weight or strength training) is the key to losing excess fat and keeping it off.
One recent study found that even after three years after the initial weight loss intervention, the group that performed both resistance training and high-intensity cardio intervals had been able to keep the fat off while the cardio-only and control groups did not. Combining cardio intervals with resistance training changed the participants' overall body composition, improving the hip-to-waist ratio and burning fat while preserving lean muscle.
The Problem With Too Much Cardio
Don't get me wrong. You can absolutely lose weight by doing a lot of cardio, especially if it's in the form of high-intensity interval training. The problem, however, is that you aren't just losing fat. Yes, the number on the scale is going down, but you're also losing muscle. Losing muscle is counter-productive in the long run because muscle mass is crucial for maintaining weight loss. Muscle mass increases your body's overall metabolic rate, allowing you to burn more calories while at rest.
If you lose too much muscle, your metabolism may slow down, making it harder to lose weight as time passes. When combined with the fact that most people eventually start eating more than they did during the initial weight loss phase, most people end up falling down a slippery slope towards gaining the weight back. Your body is also more likely to gain weight if you were previously overweight or obese. As Dr. Michael Greger explains in his book How Not To Diet,
Building and preserving muscle mass can help offset this predisposition for your fat cells to return to their enlarged state. Adding weight training to your fitness routine and consuming a nutrient-dense diet can help prevent muscle loss while allowing you to shed excess fat.
Weight Training Is For Everybody
While Instagram and other forms of social media are starting to highlight more unconventional lifters, weight training still carries this stereotype that's only for men. But like most stereotypes, it doesn't reflect the truth. Maintaining optimal health requires your muscles to be exercised. Exercising your muscles doesn't mean that you have to become a bodybuilder. But everyone, from children to the elderly, should be moving in ways that get the muscles pumping. Having lean muscle mass is vital for:
Resistance training is essential even if you aren't trying to lose weight. But sacrificing muscle to lose weight is also a surefire way to bring you further away from your weight loss goals and away from optimal health in general.
Don't Neglect Your Diet.
Even a well-planned cardio + resistance training regimen can't fight against a poor diet. If you're eating a Standard American Diet, it's going to be very difficult to lose weight, and even if you do, you're likely to gain it back along with some pretty undesirable health outcomes. Even modest changes to your diet can make a massive difference to your weight loss success. A whole-food, plant-based diet can help you lose weight while also improving your health by boosting your nutrient intake.
You know it's time. You've been steadily gaining weight over the years, and it's really starting to become a burden. You can't get into your jeans without doing the wiggle-jiggle dance. You're exhausted all the time and out of breath more often than you'd like to admit. Your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure are climbing. You know you need to change, but you're struggling, and you're scared you'll end up on six different medications like your grandmother. Still, you just can't seem to make healthy habits stick. Sound familiar?
I know this dilemma very well. Back in college, as I was gaining more weight than ever before, I felt horrible, and I knew I needed to change. So I tried to develop healthy habits. I went to the gym a couple times per week for cardio and tried to eat salads for lunch. But even that became difficult to sustain.
I was stressed out with a heavy courseload and spent late nights writing papers, which meant late-night meals. The only food available during those hours was the deep-fried and delectable kind. Plus, I was a major stress eater. And while I tried to fit exercise into my schedule, class assignments and other responsibilities would get in the way. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about what to prioritize. Of course, my education won out.
I wasn't simply lazy or unmotivated, and neither are you. I was merely trying to navigate a hectic life and survive each day. Adopting healthy habits can be challenging, especially when you have so many other responsibilities getting in the way. You're trying, yet you feel like a failure, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. You aren't a failure; you're simply human.
Creating new habits and adopting a healthy lifestyle change is neurological. Changes also need to happen in your brain to successfully change your behavior. It's known as neuroplasticity. Your brain is constantly evolving in response to your experiences. When your brain encounters something new, it begins mapping out that new thing, creating new connections between brain cells (neurons).
However, this process takes time when it comes to building healthy habits. For a new behavior to become second-hand, the connections between neurons must be strengthened repeatedly. Over time, this ingrains a map in your brain that translates into a consistent habit. This is why you struggle to pick up a new habit when you first try. You have to perform the task consistently to etch the pattern in your brain. This is how learning happens. You can have the best intentions for yourself, but your brain still needs to get on board.
You're also struggling against the fact that your unhealthy habits are already deeply ingrained. Do you remember the first time you decided to have your regular afternoon chocolate bar? Probably not. But you've done it enough times for it to become second nature to you. You do it without even thinking because you've created and constantly reinforced this pattern in your brain.
All of the little habits that you do regularly, both the unhealthy and healthy ones, may come naturally to you now, but these are things that you once had to learn. Think about the struggles of potty training a child, for example - it's always a battle at first! Eventually, though, it becomes a habit. No effort, no need to seek motivation from the depths of your soul. You just do it.
Adopting healthy lifestyle habits requires the same effort. If you aren't accustomed to eating vegetables with your meals, it isn't going to come to you overnight. You're going to do it a couple of times, forget a few days in a row, become too busy to head to the supermarket, and fall right back into your old habits. And that's just fine! Be compassionate with yourself and understand that what you're going through is a process. This process is not meant to be linear. You aren't a failure; you're simply human.
Developing strategies for jumping back on the wagon helps keep you consistent long enough to cement those new neuronal connections in your brain. But you can't let a misstep or two make you give up entirely. You're training your brain, so you have to keep trying again and again until your brain gets the message. Eventually, you'll be eating vegetables with every meal without thinking twice.
In his fantastic book Atomic Habits, author James Clear provides some valuable tips for developing habits that stick. One of my favorite tools is habit stacking. Habit stacking involves tying the habit you're trying to create to a habit you've already mastered. For example, let's say you're trying to do ten push-ups every day. If you set the goal "I will do ten push-ups right before I brush my teeth in the morning," you've combined a new habit with an old one, making it more likely that it will stick.
You aren't going to be perfect, so don't try to be. Try to be consistent, instead. Most importantly, do not beat yourself up whenever you slip up. Don't allow a misstep to make you feel like you're simply a failure. You're still in control. Just keep taking steps forward, and eventually, your brain will catch up.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York, currently residing in Jacksonville, Florida. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.