A guy two months removed from spinal fusion surgery has no business moving a 45-pound plate. For that reason, in the late spring of 2014, I introduced myself to a new personal trainer at my gym and asked him to please put away the plate that another member had left on a machine so that I could use the equipment.
Typically, I shy away from new trainers, who tend to pitch themselves to virtually every member they meet in an effort to build their client rosters. As a former trainer myself, I get it, but I also do not like being pressured. This trainer was different though, and once I saw that he was not going to push me for a sale, I began talking with him on a regular basis. That hey-can-you-please-put-this-weight-away interaction turned out to mark the beginning of what has evolved into a friendship of sorts.
In the five years since, we have chatted about superficial matters, such as the rise and fall of the Celtics, as well as issues of more substance, like marriage and fatherhood. Despite the connection we have developed and my opinion that he is generally an excellent trainer, I have never referred my patients to him because of one factor that makes it ethically impossible for me to do so: He unintentionally encourages disordered eating.
Food and eating behaviors are common topics of conversation during his training sessions. Calories, cheat days, tracking apps, Halo Top, junk food, clean eating, intermittent fasting, and willpower are just some of the buzz words and trendy features of diet culture that I frequently hear him and his clients discuss.
My patients and I sometimes talk about these topics too, but the substance of our conversations is entirely different. Whereas I work towards dismantling diet culture and helping my patients understand the harm that comes from relating to food in such a way, this trainer sees these as positives. He tracks his calories, fasts, and weighs himself regularly, and he cites his own weight loss from the past year as evidence that his behaviors are the secrets to success that his clients should replicate.
Last week, one of his clients texted him to say he was going to be a half hour late. With an unexpected chunk of free time on his hands, the trainer came over and struck up a conversation with me while I was stretching. “Do you help people lose weight?” he asked. No, I do not, and I gave him my elevator speech explanation as to why.
His response somewhat surprised me. He told me how difficult weight loss was for him, how exhausting it is to track everything he eats, and how he just cannot keep up the behaviors. “Sometimes I want to binge so bad,” he conceded. The restriction is unmaintainable, he regains the 15 pounds he lost, then resolves to become lean again, reengages in his previous diet behaviors, again loses 15 pounds, and the cycle repeats.
In the last five years, I have overheard literally hundreds of conversations he has had with his clients regarding nutrition, many of which have referenced his own eating behaviors, but never have I witnessed him disclose his struggles and concerns as he did last week when none of his clients were around to hear about them.
So, I told him about the Ancel Keys starvation study and how binge behaviors were commonplace among the subjects once the dietary restrictions placed upon them were lifted. In their excellent book, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel explain the following:
“What these men [the study’s subjects] experienced as a result of their semi-starvation is typical of feelings and behaviors exhibited by dieters. When the men entered the refeeding portion of the study, the food restrictions were lifted. Free to eat what they wanted, the men engaged in binge eating for weeks yet continued to feel ravenous. They overate frequently, sometimes to the point of becoming ill, yet they continued to feel intense hunger. The men quickly regained the lost weight as fat. Most of the subjects lost the muscle tone they enjoyed before the experiment began, and some of the men added more pounds than their pre-diet weight. Only after weight was restored did the men’s energy and emotional stability return.”
Modern day dieting, I pointed out to the trainer, is really just self-imposed starvation, and it is completely understandable that dieters respond just like the study’s subjects. It is not a matter of willpower, but rather one of biological mechanisms, honed through evolution, that resist weight loss and encourage weight gain in order to help our species survive famines and other times of food scarcity.
Soon enough, our day’s conversation came to a close. He had to get ready to train his client, and it was time for me to head home and prepare for my own day’s work. Just before we went our separate ways, he told me that his clients have no idea how hard it is for him to try to maintain his eating behaviors, and we agreed that we never really know what someone else is dealing with behind the scenes.
Our parting sentiment is also the key takeaway from this blog. Said differently, consider the words of one of our most experienced and knowledgeable colleagues, Dr. Deb Burgard, who once said, “In almost 40 years of treating eating issues, I have found that when someone sits down across from me, I have no idea what they are going to tell me they are doing with food.”
In this trainer’s case, while many of his clients see him as a role model and look to him for nutrition advice, they do not realize that he is struggling and that the behaviors they seek to emulate are actually signs of disordered eating.