Body & Fitness

How I confronted my eating disorder and started helping others

After years spent battling disordered eating and emotional stress, Hamilton-based nutritionist Danielle Roberts, 27, has learned to slow down and listen to her body.

At school I was the classic teacher’s pet: very focused academically, always aiming high and striving for top marks. For me, it wasn’t my family putting the pressure on, it was all driven by my own perfectionist mindset and high expectations.

By the time I got to high school, I was heaping even more pressure on myself as I wanted good grades so I could get into vet school, and to make it worse, two of my friends passed away.

I first started struggling with disordered eating when I was about 16. I hadn’t dealt with my emotions over my friends’ deaths as I’d convinced myself I didn’t have time to grieve, and I didn’t end up getting the grades I wanted, so the stress just took over. I felt the only form of control I had and the only sense of achievement I could get was through exercising and not eating enough.

At my lowest point I’d lost a drastic amount of weight, stopped getting my period, and was really emotional all the time. I’d bottle it all up, then have these random outbursts of crying.

At the same time as being really emotional, I felt empty inside. It was like a deeper part of me was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I went to uni and did the first six months of the pre-vet course, but when I didn’t get into the main course, I decided that maybe it wasn’t my path. So I switched to a double major in animal science, to satisfy my love of nature, and human nutrition, partly as a way to learn to heal myself.

My family had been dropping hints about my health, but you get to that point where you look in the mirror and you can’t see it – your whole vision of yourself is warped. It’s not as extreme in your own eyes as it is in reality, so you’re constantly striving for more.

I hadn’t seen a close cousin for a while and when she saw me she was shocked. She got really angry at me and I was taken aback because until then everyone had been gently tiptoeing around the subject. She came out with it and said, “You really need to sort this out, you don’t look well.”

It was a real wake-up call. I put on about 7kg after that and although my weight was still quite low, I got my period back. At this point I also started to experience digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and hormone problems, and was diagnosed with endometriosis.

Through my uni studies, I learned a lot about what was happening to my body, and that really helped me to start working on the physical side of things. But mentally and emotionally, I could feel the high-achiever, perfectionist mindset was still there.

Another turning point came after I got hooked on CrossFit. As an exercise where the philosophy is to push yourself, it was terrible for someone like me! I pushed my body to the absolute max again, was training twice a day, and ended up with adrenal fatigue. At the same time, I was starting my business, Fuel Nutrition, and I just burned out.

I knew I needed to do the absolute opposite to anything I’d ever done, so I tried yoga. It was slow and kind; it wasn’t running, it wasn’t the gym, it wasn’t CrossFit. I also got into meditation, which helped me to feel more at peace.

After starting yoga, I went on to discover reiki, an alternative therapy based on channelling healing energy by touch. I love it because it’s a more holistic approach to healing, and it looks at emotional and spiritual aspects as well as the physical.

Alongside my nutritionist work, I’ve spent the past three years looking at alternative therapy, and through reiki I’ve been able to heal all of my past mindsets. It’s like working on a deeper level of personal development, and I also practise it with some of my clients.

People usually come to me because they want to drop kilos, but they don’t ask themselves why they’re carrying excess weight. Often it’s linked to stress, which can lower the functioning of our digestive and hormonal systems, and cause other problems.

People are getting more interested in holistic approaches, but I think a lot of people are afraid to delve into it. I think it takes a bit more time and commitment, as the physical body is easy to heal compared to the mental and emotional sides.

I tell people that transformation of any kind doesn’t happen overnight – we need to be kind to and patient with ourselves. It’s all about forgiving yourself, forgiving others, seeing challenges as a lesson to be learned and moving forward.

Danielle’s favourite health and wellbeing boosters:

• Be aware of how your digestive system is functioning. Many people experience bloating every day and think it’s normal – but it’s not. Pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods: do you feel energised or do you feel lethargic?

• Next time you start looking longingly into the fridge, think about whether you’re physically hungry and need to eat, or if you’re just having a craving. Chew food thoroughly and stop when you feel satisfied. When we’re more conscious with our eating we’re often more conscious of our emotions as well.

• Drink a cup of warm water with lemon and fresh ginger in the morning, to fire up your digestive system.

• Eat a nourishing diet that incorporates all of the food groups, rather than stressing over cutting something out. Fill up on colourful fruit and veges and other wholefoods.

• Try having some plant-based days. This gives the digestive system a break because it’s quite hard for the body to digest meat. Plant-based foods give a potent health hit as they’re packed with a greater range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than meat, plus they contain phytonutrients, which are only found in plants. Add some beetroot to your leafy green salads, it’s great for helping the absorption of plant-based iron.

• Think about what stressors you have in your life and how they affect you mentally and emotionally. Does the stress create positive outcomes? Or is it promoting something negative?

For support with disordered eating, contact EDANZ (eating disorder support, education and awareness),

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