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If I Knew Then… What I Know Now: My Health and Wellness Journey on a Plate

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  Published on February 1st, 2019
  Reading time: 5 minutes
  Last modified December 16th, 2022

It’s been 30 years since I turned my physical and mental health around. What I’m about to share with you is something that is very private and, quite frankly, not something I talk about regularly. However, I thought this was both an important topic to share and why you need to eat healthy fats and protein.

It was the summer of 1988, and I had just gone through my first year of college at USC. Now I know we all talk about the “freshman 15,” but you could say I doubled down on that theory and was well over 200 pounds. Just to give you all reference, I’m just shy of 5’3”. I have been overweight most of my life (since 8 years old) and have tried probably every diet and gimmick on the planet with the exception of anything related to surgery. Being a freshman female in a school where youth, fitness, and beauty was the focus... you could say that I bought in and was desperate to do anything to come back to half my size for my sophomore year.

So what did I do? Well, to start off, I decided to omit all things animal, any oil and fat, dairy, and basically most food we need in our bodies to function. Breakfast was 1/4 of a bran muffin with black coffee, lunch was literally one cup of fruit salad, and dinner was normally a stalk of steamed broccoli. Oh, yeah, on the weekend I would splurge and give myself half a baked potato or 1/3 of an ear of corn as a treat for doing so well. To keep me going, good ole diet coke and tons of black coffee kept me running.

Three months in, I lost almost 40 pounds, was dancing around in my size-29 Guess jeans, and was only 47 more pounds away from my goal weight. I believed that because I was an Asian and petite in height, I should be a size 0–2 and weigh no more than 110 pounds, if that. So when I hit a plateau from essentially starving myself for months, I decided to take laxatives combined with vomiting out my food after each meal. The irony was that I was not losing any more weight, and what started out as a need to reach my insane goal weight had become an obsession and, ultimately, an eating disorder.

When people look at me, you would not think that I had an eating disorder because I was not and still am not rail thin. Little did I know, a good number of those with bulimia are not rail thin, hence why the vicious cycle goes on and on, like it did for me. No one knew—not my roommates, my college friends, and especially not my family. 

All they thought was that I’m so much happier that now that I’m thinner. It wasn’t until my junior year that I passed out and ended up at the campus urgent care. When my mom took me home to see my family doctor, he recognized my symptoms, and after a thorough physical, he let me know that not only was I borderline anemic, but I was also depleting my body of nutrients. He decided to take me to a wing in the hospital where the patients with eating disorders were. As I walked around to see gals that were hooked up to a machine so they could breathe, all I kept thinking was I’m clearly not even close to their weight, so I must be ok. Well, I wasn’t, and my doctor’s wife who was a psychologist gave me a little tough love about debunking the notion that to be bulimic you needed to be thin. So my choice was a) continue on and end up in the hospital attached to a machine, or b) get it together and save your life. Luckily I opted for choice B.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that I automatically saved myself and was back to normal. It took three years of counseling three days a week, attending an overeaters group for a year, and also having to make the choice to move home and not finish my college degree. Furthermore, I have had to since battle to find a balanced way to manage my weight and, most importantly, find a healthy relationship with food. I read a book called Food Rules by Dr. Cate Shanahan, in which she advised to go ahead and eat that chicken skin! Now that’s what I’m talking about! As a chef living in my own food addiction, I thought, “Wow, I can eat fat and lose weight!”

Reading Dr. Cate’s book was the start to a beautiful relationship with eating. Although her first book was not necessarily about keto, it was about keeping the sugars and carbs down to start and, most importantly, eating whole foods. Her inspirational mentality on food was something that I could live with, and I have done so ever since. It was her food philosophy that inspired me to start Mind Body Fork, my meal delivery company here in SoCal. Little did I know at the time, but Dr. Cate would go on to join me as my medical partner for my clients and become an incredible friend. Over the years, Dr. Cate has helped me evolve my own way of eating, along with my clients, which mostly follows a keto-based plan of action.

Let me be clear: keto is NOT a fad diet. It’s a nutritional program as a therapeutic treatment for neurological disorders from epilepsy to cancer. And yes, you can also lose weight and enjoy healthy fats and protein at each meal. It’s a common-sense way of eating and a lifestyle that you can actually live with—at least I know I can.

If I knew 30 years ago what I know now about healthy eating and living, I would have avoided beating myself up mentally and physically through bulimia and, most importantly, found a truly sound way to have a healthy relationship with food. The fact that I have learned that fat is not the enemy is a huge milestone for me. The fact that I can now live comfortable in my own skin is a miracle, no matter what my current weight may be. The fact that I can celebrate cooking with some of my favorite foods (yes, like bacon) and know I am doing right by my body is a true blessing.

So, do yourself a favor and enjoy that piece of bacon or that buttery avocado. It’s good for you, and your body will thank you. Most importantly, no matter what, know that weight is just a number; it’s not the end-all to your existence. Don’t obsess—you are beautiful just the way you are.

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Chef Debbie Lee is a contributor for Ketogenic.com

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