No Wellness Wankery

119: The hidden struggles behind fitness competitions: Melissa's story of overcoming extreme dieting and binge eating

June 17, 2024 Lyndi Cohen
119: The hidden struggles behind fitness competitions: Melissa's story of overcoming extreme dieting and binge eating
No Wellness Wankery
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No Wellness Wankery
119: The hidden struggles behind fitness competitions: Melissa's story of overcoming extreme dieting and binge eating
Jun 17, 2024
Lyndi Cohen

Curious about what really happens behind the scenes of fitness competitions? 

Join us as we chat with Melissa Bakhurst, who bravely shares her journey through the world of bodybuilding and bikini contests. Initially hitting the gym for mental health, Melissa got caught up in competition pressures, facing extreme weight shifts and food struggles.

Discover the hidden challenges of maintaining a toned body and the mental toll it takes. Melissa shares the unhealthy norms in the competition world, from craving a simple slice of bread after strict diets to the struggles that follow events. She highlights the risks of extreme dieting and emphasises the importance of balance for true health.

We also explore breaking free from the diet mindset, with Melissa discussing her journey with intuitive eating and overcoming food guilt.

This episode is a must-listen for anyone working on their relationship with food and body image, offering valuable insights and a reminder to prioritise well-being over appearance.

Want to feel more in control around food? Check out my Stop Struggling With Food Guide, currently on sale for 40% off.
You’ll also find 50 of my favourite recipes to get you inspired!

Get my Free 5 Day Course to help you stop binge and emotional eating. 

Looking for more support to feel in control around food? I'd love to support you in my Binge Free Academy


Come follow me on the gram at @nude_nutritionist (no nude pics, sorry).

Want to share some feedback or have an idea for an episode, I'd LOVE to hear from you - hit me up at hello@lyndicohen.com

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Curious about what really happens behind the scenes of fitness competitions? 

Join us as we chat with Melissa Bakhurst, who bravely shares her journey through the world of bodybuilding and bikini contests. Initially hitting the gym for mental health, Melissa got caught up in competition pressures, facing extreme weight shifts and food struggles.

Discover the hidden challenges of maintaining a toned body and the mental toll it takes. Melissa shares the unhealthy norms in the competition world, from craving a simple slice of bread after strict diets to the struggles that follow events. She highlights the risks of extreme dieting and emphasises the importance of balance for true health.

We also explore breaking free from the diet mindset, with Melissa discussing her journey with intuitive eating and overcoming food guilt.

This episode is a must-listen for anyone working on their relationship with food and body image, offering valuable insights and a reminder to prioritise well-being over appearance.

Want to feel more in control around food? Check out my Stop Struggling With Food Guide, currently on sale for 40% off.
You’ll also find 50 of my favourite recipes to get you inspired!

Get my Free 5 Day Course to help you stop binge and emotional eating. 

Looking for more support to feel in control around food? I'd love to support you in my Binge Free Academy


Come follow me on the gram at @nude_nutritionist (no nude pics, sorry).

Want to share some feedback or have an idea for an episode, I'd LOVE to hear from you - hit me up at hello@lyndicohen.com

Speaker 1:

And this is my hot take on the whole fitness competition industry it is a culture that allows eating disorders to go wild.

Speaker 2:

Any goal that is based on aesthetics. It's also objective. You get up on a stage and you're being rated by people who have opinions and preferences. It doesn't matter how hard you've worked. After doing a show, we'll sort of have what I guess they'd call a blowout and they've gained all the weight back plus some. And those people talking openly about it made me realise that everyone ends up in the same spot and it's a really bad place mentally. They're not my goals anymore and aesthetics are not important to me. Health is important to me and aesthetics are not important to me.

Speaker 1:

Health is important to me. Hello everyone and welcome to this week's episode of no Wellness Wankery. I'm Lindy Cowan, a dietician, and you can think of me a bit like your non-diet best friend, helping you get rid of diet culture and ask the question what the heck is health anyway? We're looking into the research and the science behind what gives you a healthy life, free from the sacrifice and the restriction that diet culture places on you, and I interviewed some fantastic guests, including the one today is Melissa Backhurst. She's actually a real person, just like you, who emailed me and said hey, I'd love to come on your podcast to share my story. And the story goes like this Melissa started competing in bodybuilding and bikini comps in, I guess, her mid-twenties and her weight was constantly going up, it was going down, she was swinging from dangerously thin to feeling slightly above her comfort zone and then, even when she stopped counting macros and trying to just eat intuitively, still that guilt and shame that was still hanging around her and she's still finding it hard to get rid of it today.

Speaker 1:

During her comp days, melissa's diet went incredibly low in terms of calories and this is where she began binge eating. After she quit bodybuilding, she's been trying to maintain a healthy weight but to be honest, it's been a bit of a relentless cycle of trying to be good and not eating enough, and she's just trying to work it all out. But it sounds to me like she's learned a whole bunch and she's intuitive eating so well these days. So in today's episode, melissa is going to be sharing her journey with us. She's talking about her setbacks, her realizations and also how she is now moving further towards balance with healthy eating and not just chasing a number on the scales. So, melissa, let's talk. Melissa, welcome to today's episode. Thanks for being on here.

Speaker 2:

Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1:

You emailed me and you wrote me. You told me your story, you told me where you're at and you suggested maybe I'd like to let other people know about what you've been through so that they don't have to go through what you've been through, so that they don't have to go through what you've been through. So can you start me from the beginning? Tell me about your relationship with food growing up.

Speaker 2:

So as a kid. I grew up in a family that there was certainly diet culture present. My mum was constantly counting calories. She had the calorie king book back in those days where it was all manual and you know she'd be counting all her meals. She always ate separate meals to the rest of the family. It was always about losing five kilos and then she'd gain it and then she'd lose it again. So that was very much in my childhood. My mum never put any restrictions on me personally. I was sort of naturally a fairly you know, a fairly skinny kid. But my sister, who was a little bigger than me, would sometimes get comments from mom about you know, do you need to be eating that or haven't you had enough? So I think, yeah, it wasn't me personally, but it was certainly something that I grew up around.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and then you mentioned that you got into bodybuilding, which sounds like it wasn't. It wasn't your mom who influenced you to do this, although there certainly was a diet culture growing up. How did that come about?

Speaker 2:

So my mom was always into the gym. She would always go off to the gym in the morning and, and you know, it was very much a part of her life, but for her it was more maintenance, sort of you know so, so, so she could eat more, and that was what she'd say. I got into the gym when I first moved out of home, around 20, more, just as a hobby and to manage my mental health. Actually, I had some anxiety issues and I found that going to the gym helped me to sort of get out of that headspace and just to focus on something else. And so really it was about mental health. I found I really enjoyed weight training. I enjoyed the weights, I did body pump classes and then I went into the gym and started learning to do it myself and I think it was just that, as I said, I was fairly lean back then. I think it was just that, as I said, I was fairly lean back then.

Speaker 2:

I think it was not so much naturally, but it was probably just that I was a bit of an anxious person and I guess I had a somewhat troubled relationship with food in that sense as I got older, in that when I was very anxious I had trouble eating, so I was fairly skinny. When I went into the gym I gained muscle quickly and you could see that muscle. So I looked, you know, I had that natural sort of muscle definition and and I enjoyed getting strong. But it was more comments coming from other people who would say, oh, like, do you compete? And, to be honest, the first few times I had that question, I just compete in what? What are you talking about? And then say, you know, do you do fitness competitions? And I said, no, I don't know what that's about.

Speaker 2:

And I think maybe, as people talk to me about that, I probably went onto Instagram or social media and felt, started to follow people that were in that world, um, and then thought I'd thought I'd compete as as a bit of a challenge, cause, you know, like I said, I enjoyed weight training, um, what I was not aware of at that time was, uh, the huge role that diet played, um and played, and how damaging I suppose that that would end up being for my mental health but also my relationship with food.

Speaker 1:

At this point you're still quite young, right? How old are you?

Speaker 2:

So early 20s, early to mid-20s, and what surprised me actually getting into that world was that there were a lot of much younger women. So I sort of felt in my mid twenties that maybe I was a little, I had a little bit more life experience and was able to separate myself a little from all the pressure that pressure to be incredibly lean and whatever it was that we were trying to achieve. But there were women in their, you know, late teens, early twenties and that was what shocked me.

Speaker 1:

And this is my hot take on the whole fitness competition industry it is a culture that allows eating disorders to go wild, that encourages eating disorders, that teaches girls how to have eating disorders, that gives them eating disorders if they didn't have eating disorders and then will applaud you for having the most severe out of control eating disorder and it feels so toxic to me. I can fully understand why. It's a really enjoyable thing to do. It feels like there's a really good community around it. It's a really nice companionship. Everyone's really supportive of each other. Of course, it's the competition aspect. That's certainly there, but I could fully see all the pros. But there's this huge thing that people aren't talking about is the fact that this is kind of just a glorified eating disorder realm. What are your thoughts?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, look, absolutely.

Speaker 2:

I think that, particularly coming into it for the first time and and you know, as I said, following a lot of people on social media, social media is a really big part of it, I think as well I noticed that there were a lot of women who would talk about how they had eating disorders growing up and that now they'd recovered and now they'd learned so much and were eating so much more and were working out and had gained, I guess, muscle and trying to make that distinction between the two, whereas to me, even without sort of really understanding what was going on there, it struck me as they'd sort of swapped one addiction for the other, like it was, you know, restricting food, and then they'd kind of come and, yes, they were probably eating more, or differently, I would say, but you know whether that was the sort of you know, the obsession with clean eating or the counting of macros and calories to try and achieve a goal.

Speaker 2:

Ultimately, what they were doing was quite similar, just with some muscle. And it really worried me, as I said, even being in my mid-twenties, looking at the much younger girls who were doing it and restricting whole food groups, and I just thought, my goodness, that is dangerous, and I think I was too far in it before I realized just how dangerous it was.

Speaker 1:

So can you talk to me about the moment where you realized what is this, what am I doing? This has actually done a whole lot more harm than good. Was there a moment?

Speaker 2:

Look, there are a couple of moments, I think, that really stand out to me. I think the biggest thing for me was that you get to the last few weeks before a competition. You're in prep mode and everyone's incredibly lean and gaunt faced.

Speaker 1:

Can you spell out for anyone who doesn't know what is prep mode?

Speaker 2:

Oh well, just so, you're going to prep for a competition and that can sort of be up to 20 weeks prior, and that's when you're really dialing everything in your diet becomes quite strict. You're really dialing, everything in your diet becomes quite strict. You are working out way too much. Usually You've got a mix of your weight training but then also and in my case especially, a lot of intense cardio and it's all really about reducing the calories, right, trying to have more calories going out than are going in, which now I think of it and I go. That is just insane. But that real sort of period of intense preparation where everything becomes about this competition. It is so all-consuming that all you think about and all you talk about are macros and training and that sort of thing. And I think you get to the end of it and it's almost glorified and sort of applauded that you are incredibly lean, tired, no energy, looking almost unwell, and that is expected, yeah.

Speaker 1:

And so you were doing prep and you were having a realization. You got to the end of this very intense period and you go. What was going through your brain?

Speaker 2:

I think the fact that you're never quite satisfied with where you're at and that you know I've listened to many of your episodes before about people who, in a weight loss sense, have gotten to a point where they're at their goal weight but they're still not satisfied. And then you look back and you think, oh my goodness, look how you know how lean I was. Why, why, what was wrong with me? Um, it was sort of a little bit like that. You get right to the end of it and you've either lost muscle because you've been eating so few calories, and then you're sort of looking a bit flat and you think, well, this isn't what I was going for. Um, you're not lean enough in certain areas because, of course, we can't pick and choose where we lose fat, and so it's just getting to the end and still not being satisfied, maybe realize that this is just fruitless. Like, I suppose, any goal that is based on aesthetics, it's also objective. You get up on a stage and you're being rated by people who have opinions and preferences. It doesn't matter how hard you've worked. It's not like doing something like powerlifting, where you have a weight goal, you reach a certain point and someone's then deciding who they think looks best.

Speaker 2:

And one thing that stands out to me is I remember being backstage at a show and hearing quite a young girl say something along the lines of I just can't wait to have a slice of bread. And I remember thinking to myself my goodness, I didn't actually class myself as being in that category because I was counting macros. I had continued to eat bread. I was obviously restricting in a very different way. So I remember thinking, oh, my goodness, this girl hasn't eaten bread in 20 weeks and thinking that that was just absurd and realizing how damaging that that would be for her. But I don't think I counted myself as one of them.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, Did you have to have left the community and have had some hindsight before you started to go? Oh wait, that was pretty.

Speaker 2:

that wasn't right, I think that a lot of people, after doing a show, will sort of have what I guess they'd call a blowout and they've gained all the weight back plus some.

Speaker 2:

And those people talking openly about it made me realize that everyone ends up in the same spot and it's a really bad place mentally and people will acknowledge that. But I think you're discouraged from talking about that because it is seen as, I guess, your own personal failing Like I didn't have willpower to do a proper reverse diet where you've gone back up slowly in terms of your intake and I think that it's seen as you're failing and you're criticized for doing that, and so people don't talk about the struggle afterwards. I think it's only when you go, when you do remove yourself from that community to an extent and you go looking for other people in a similar situation, that you find there's a lot of people out there and even just in talking to you now you know there's that kind of oh and criticizing this big, massive industry that has these really strong names, and then it's almost a little bit taboo. You don't. You don't criticize it because it's it's me that failed, as opposed to this industry failing us, because ultimately it's you know, it's the health and wellness industry, but it's not nobody in that I mean very few people in that industry and doing those competitions are what I would class healthy, at least in that you know, in that prep phase and around a competition.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I mean, because what is true health, I think so often in the health and wellness space we are taught to sacrifice wellbeing in pursuit of looking a certain way and in the fitness comps, that's the definition of how I see it. I think it's you're giving up all your head space, you're giving up all your free will, all that attention. As you said, you have to be obsessive in order to be able to be that controlled around food. There is no room for living a balanced life. By definition of it. It is, as you said, setting you up quite physically and chemically for this blowout. That it is, I think, quite to be honest, protective, that you are going through a blowout period, because if you weren't and you're going, I actually can kind of keep going on this that would be incredibly dangerous and in fact, as a sport, I do think it can be a very dangerous sport and I don't think that's spoken about enough. But fundamentally, post prep phase, your whole body. There's so much interesting research behind like semi-starvation diets, which I think this is, and how obsessive you become, how you start dreaming about food, how you start like daydreaming about food, how every thought comes back to food, every conversation comes back to food, and that's just that part. Beyond that, there's also that very intense craving for the foods, like the young girl who wanted to have bread. Your metabolism must slow in order to protect you because it thinks you're trying to starve itself. And then you've got these cravings and it is just an inevitable tidal wave of eating. That has to happen and it's not like you know. This is just one person who it's happening to. This is the norm and, as I said, it's thank goodness it happened to you and that you are one of the people who experienced this blowout, which I guess is like a really nice reframe.

Speaker 1:

When we go through periods where we binge and overeat, we often think that it is a sign of lacking, of not being enough. I see the exact opposite, I think. Can you learn to be grateful for each binge in the way that it's kind of giving you a sign to say something was not up and I've got your back because I'm not going to let you self-sabotage and implode on us? Can you tell me about your binge eating? So, after you went through a phase of blowout eating as you talk about, you were trying to get on top of going. I don't want to keep feeling so out of control with food. Can you talk to me about that?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, look, I think binge eating has always been a bit of an issue for me. In fact, even during prep, when I was on very low intake of food, I think that I probably was also binging. If I'm honest with you, I was binging throughout, but I was still losing weight because of the intense sort of exercise and how low my diet that I was supposed to be following was. So I think that I just continued that after my competitions. Um, cause, you know, you don't have the goal anymore. So you think, oh, I shouldn't be eating so much, but I, you know, it's not going to make a difference.

Speaker 2:

It's one thing. I think it was very much the foods that I'd restricted, you know that I deemed were too high in calories or macros to fit into my diet before. So Tim Tams, chocolate, donuts, those sorts of things, but even just everyday foods like pasta and bread and the things that didn't fit in because I was on such a low intake of carbs. It would just be, yeah, I'd allow myself to buy the packet of Tim Tams and then I'd eat it, and if there were two, I'd probably eat two.

Speaker 2:

It was just that feeling of, oh, I can finally eat again and that's something that I've struggled. My last competition was in 2021. Three years later, I still struggle a little bit with that. I'm much better than I was, but yeah, when it's in front of me it's so many years of restriction All I want to do is just eat the whole thing.

Speaker 1:

Where are you now? Because it sounds like you've been diving into intuitive eating, learning to have a healthier relationship with food, but it's still tricky because you still have that internal brain going. No, but this is the way we should be doing it. So where are you at at the moment?

Speaker 2:

I've definitely come a very long way, certainly, with my eating. I do not count or there's no sort of thought throughout my day about trying to reach a number or stay under a number by any means. I think where I still struggle the most is maybe just in the still feeling those, that sense of guilt. So I suppose if I do have a meal that and you know, I know you talk about it all the time that you can't forget how many macros or how many calories are in something when you've done it for such a long time, so sometimes in my brain I will have that sense that okay, this is, you know, a very calorie dense meal. I will still eat the meal, I will be fine while eating the meal, but then afterwards there is still that feeling of maybe I should skip breakfast tomorrow or maybe I should not. You know, maybe I should not. You know, maybe I should be eating better for the next week to make up for it.

Speaker 2:

And that is, it takes a real effort for me to go. No, that is not necessary. I just need to continue going forward and eating good food and I'm very I'm on a bit of a sort of you know journey at the moment to make sure that I'm crowding in good foods, because I think for so many years it was about the amount and not the nutrients. And now I think you know I don't care if it means me adding a heap of you know so-called bad foods to something to get my vegetables in. I'm going to do it because it's about getting good things in. So it constantly requires me to reframe that in my mind.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and during those early stages of recovery from an eating disorder, disordered eating, certainly that script that you need to have. You got to have it on the and you do, it sounds like it. You've got to have it there ready to go, because your brain does flip back into old patterns and then you get to counteract it and that process in itself can feel quite exhausting. I really know that does get easier At some point you do kind of forget the macros and the calories, but that takes way too long, an awfully large amount of time, sadly. But I think what you are doing right now it sounds like so key. Can we talk about this in relation to fear of weight gain, in the fact that during recovery weight gain can happen, and how that plays into triggering you to go? Oh, maybe I should just kind of be extra good this week or whatever it is.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, that urge to diet is still very much there. It's going away. It's sort of it's a very slow process. I think I still very much look at myself in the mirror occasionally and think, oh, that's, this is not the me that I, you know, that I identified with for all of those years. It's very different and there is that sense of, oh, it's gotten a bit out of control. Now I'll just lose you know X amount just to get back to sort of a happy medium. But I know that for the long-term, ultimately for me to do that is going to be damaging because I'm going to get back into that restrictive mindset. So I keep sort of thinking of the long-term goal, but it is hard. And long-term goal, but it is hard.

Speaker 2:

And I also have a partner who is into bodybuilding himself and so he is still a little bit in that sort of macros and have I had enough protein and don't want to gain too much fat. And that's difficult because I sort of have to say to him I don't, I don't want to hear this. If you're going to, you know, count or do these things when you're preparing dinner for us, for instance, you can do that, but I don't want to hear about it. So that's hard because there is that sense of you know, I want to be supportive of him and his goals, but I also have to keep reminding him they're not my goals anymore and aesthetics are not important to me. Health is important to me. So that's probably the biggest ongoing challenge, that feeling of you know. Oh, maybe I could just lose a little bit and get back down a little bit. But thinking of the long-term and going no, my body will end up where it's meant to be in the long-term.

Speaker 1:

And I think for me, when I think about you you talked about before you got into all of this. You sounded like you were going to the gym in a way that was just really enjoyable, and your weight was never something that you had to think about. And I think, if I think about for you, that is the point I'd like you to get back to. So if you can start to try and think back like who was that girl and she was young and how did she think about food and how did she maybe eat, I think it's quite an interesting thing and I think what is a challenge when you come through from a world of where you've done a lot of restriction and then you try and practice intuitive eating, I think one of the big challenges is learning to be okay with hunger, and hunger can feel very threatening, it can feel very scary. We talked about this idea of your body trying to protect you right, of being like, okay, no, I'm going to eat because I don't trust you, and so you've gone through this period where you've kind of eaten more so that your body can learn okay, no, food's always available and you're currently in that phase and as you practice it, I think you can start to kind of go. No, I can learn to have a comfortable sense of hunger that isn't scary, that isn't threatening, because just like we want to have the urge to wee before we wee or we want to feel tired before we go to sleep, hunger is that we should have that sensation a few times a day.

Speaker 1:

And I think when you come out of that restrictive phase, it's one of those things where you kind of learn to have that healthy relationship with hunger. And that takes a really long time before you can start to go. I can kind of play with that a little bit more. In addition, every time you're having the thoughts of, oh, I should just go on a quick fix, it can kind of tighten up your body's distrust of hunger. It makes you kind of go oh, I've got to hold on to that tighter. It sets you back a little bit. It's just a thought I have about our relationship with hunger and how trying not to fear it yeah, yeah, and I suppose that's exactly right that I'm learning to go.

Speaker 2:

Oh, like before I left work yesterday I thought, oh, I've got a banana here, am I hungry? Oh, I'm a little bit hungry. I'll have that so that I can comfortably get to dinner. And that's a big thing for me, because in the past it was not about hunger, it was about what can I eat, what can I fit in today, and so that's a really big mindset shift for me.

Speaker 1:

That's beautiful. I love that. I love that you're doing that You're thinking about, you're asking yourself the questions. If you are getting hungry, you are actually eating something. You're doing the practice. Before we wrap up, is there anything you want to say to younger you or someone else who is contemplating doing a fitness comp that you want the world to know?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, look, I was thinking about this. While I would never say to someone not to do something, I think just really considering the different risks involved and the impact that can have on your mental health and your metabolism and your relationship with food in the long term, before going into something like that. And I guess I would just say you know, I think that there's so much more to life than aesthetics and it's taken me a while to get to this, but, you know, being able to go to the gym just to have some me time or, you know, to clear your head, or even having performance-based goals, which are fun. You know, I'm trying to bench a certain amount of weight right now and it's just it's fun. You can still go ahead and have that experience and be fit without it being about the way you look, and I think it's just gaining that perspective which takes time. But I just recommend that anybody really think carefully about the impact that it can have.

Speaker 1:

I will come in here and add to this that I would never recommend a fitness competition. I would strongly discourage anyone from doing it and I certainly would never let my kids do it, because I rarely see anyone who ends up unscathed by eating disorders. And you think about how long recovery takes and the impact on bone density, your period, all the kinds of things that are quite long lasting effects. I think it is one of those things. I think we need to talk about it a lot more. Melissa, thank you for having this conversation with me. I'm so grateful for you sharing your story. Thank you so much.

The Dark Side of Fitness Competitions
The Reality of Post-Competition Eating
Overcoming Binge Eating and Dieting Mentality
Navigating Hunger