Eat Yourself Fit: Make Your Workout Work Harder - Rosanna Davison (2016)
PART 1. MY FITNESS STORY
“Living a healthy lifestyle will only deprive you of poor health, lethargy and fat.”
I have always loved sports and fitness. As a pony-mad little girl, I dreamed of being a professional show jumper, representing my country on a feisty chestnut mare. At 11 years old, I was building fences in the garden with bamboo poles and jumping the family black Labrador over a pretend show jumping course while dressed in my jodhpurs, boots and riding hat. It was quite a sight. I went on to own a pony for five years and I enjoyed riding her in many gymkhanas and show jumping competitions.
This led to a love for hurdles and high jumping, so I joined an athletics club at the age of 15 and competed for my school and club at both Leinster and all-Ireland levels, bringing home enough hard-earned medals to just about satisfy my bouncy competitive streak.
Throughout my primary and secondary school years, I held a place on the hockey, netball and cricket teams between taking tennis lessons and even badminton too.
At the age of 18, I took up Pilates in a new studio close to my family home. It wasn’t long before I sat my Leaving Certificate exams, and I found that the twice-weekly classes really helped to give me the focus and mental clarity I needed amongst the chaos and stress of exam prep. It was a different type of fitness than I had been used to, much more slow and controlled, with a focus on core strength, posture, developing long and lean muscles, mindfulness and body awareness. That started my long-term love of Pilates and it still plays an important role in my fitness regime.
With all the running I did for hockey, netball and athletics training after school and the matches every weekend, I never even had to think about my weight or what I was eating. In fact, we would refuel after a hockey game with copious quantities of digestive biscuits and sugary lemonade. I was on the slightly lanky side as a teenager, all awkward coltish limbs, a self-conscious lopsided smile and plenty of zits.
It was only when I began my first year at university in Dublin that I began putting on weight and I really noticed my body shape changing. In that first year, like many of my peers, I was spending too many afternoons and evenings downing sugary blue alcopops in the student bar, then soaking it all up with chips and crisps. I wasn’t exercising to nearly the same degree as I did during school, and with my newfound freedom, student nightclubs and bars had replaced the hockey pitch.
Looking back, I was a serious sugar addict. Early lectures were eased with a sugary cappuccino in hand, I reached for a processed cereal bar for the mid-morning munchies and sweetened yogurts were a frequent afternoon snack. I had even been known to guzzle syrupy, caffeinated energy drinks to power me through exams.
By the end of my first year in college, I had managed to return to my normal weight, partly from joining the college gym and partly from a girly holiday to Greece in which we endeavoured to exist on €5 a day. This meant that more money was spent on cheap ouzo than nourishing food. Definitely not to be recommended, but a lot of fun for a 19-year-old student with very few responsibilities.
Later that summer, I was thrown headfirst and without much warning into the glossy, glittering world of beauty pageants when I won Miss Ireland in August 2003. This led to me winning Miss World 2003 in China that December. The Miss World Organisation stipulated that my weight (and hair colour) must remain the same throughout the year.
For a young woman in a whole new industry, that felt like a lot of pressure. I became much more aware of my diet, fitness and lifestyle habits. At that stage, I had figured out that I had more energy and generally felt better by eating a vegetarian diet. Plus choosing veggies, salads and soups over heavier animal-based foods when I was home and eating out meant that I was finding it easier to maintain my weight, my energy levels improved and my immune system strengthened too. Gone were the frequent niggling coughs and sore throats, and I had all the energy I needed for the often gruelling long-haul trips to China for a weekend of Miss World charity events.
Of course, that was just my personal experience and not everybody will react in the same way to a change in diet and lifestyle. This book is by no means about trying to turn you into a vegetarian. Rather, it is designed to encourage more of an awareness of the relationship between nutrition, body fat and fitness, your mood, emotions and even your sleep. As I will explain in the following chapters, this book is about fitting together the pieces of the puzzle and the various elements that lead to a balanced, healthy and happy lifestyle, and increased body confidence too.
My weight remained pretty stable throughout my early twenties, bar the usual slight hormonal fluctuations. I maintained a balanced diet and stayed active, running regularly in charity events. I completed my first half marathon in under two hours.
At that point, I was 27 and had recently started eating a fully plant-based diet, intended as a week-long experiment in my college nutrition course, so that I would be able to explain the pros and cons to future clients. For six to eight months prior to that, I had been focusing on weight training and had been going to a personal trainer a few times a week for intense sessions. I loved how weight training made me feel strong and was really starting to sculpt my body, helping to lower body fat and increase muscle tone. I had put myself on a high-protein, low-carb ‘training diet’ because I thought it was the best way to build lean muscle and make the most of my workouts. This meant that plenty of whey protein shakes, egg whites and fat-free cottage cheese made up the bulk of my diet.
And you know what? I was feeling awful and getting progressively more lethargic, tired and reliant on caffeine. I simply could not understand how my new ‘healthy’ diet was making me feel so listless.
Having dreaded trying out the plant-based diet because I expected it to be difficult and dull, by the end of the week I felt better than I had in a long time. In fact, the difference was dramatic. The extra fibre had initially been a bit of a shock to my digestive system and I had felt very bloated for the first few days, but once that had settled down, I began to feel full of energy and enthusiasm. I even started sleeping better too. I decided to keep up the same style of eating for another week, and again enjoyed even more improvements to my energy levels. Even my skin was starting to look brighter and fresher, and I found that I was far less reliant on coffee to kick start my day.
To my amazement, by the end of the third week, my normal clothes were starting to hang loose on me. I had dropped a dress size in those first few weeks without even intending to. The new eating plan had been about trying something different and feeling better doing it, and I hadn’t once thought about my calorie intake. I was eating even more food than usual, but it was all high-fibre plant food with plenty of legumes, leafy greens and some healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds too. I was munching on huge kale salads, sweet potato, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, green smoothies and berries.
Doing the supermarket shop was a new and daunting experience, but I soon found that I could get pretty much everything I needed in my local supermarket, and much of it was cheaper than my previous way of eating. I found that weekly farmers’ markets were a super place to stock up on loads of fruit and veggies, and I also invested in a Vitamix blender to whip up my soups, dips, smoothies and my new addiction, frozen banana ‘ice cream’.
The next happy surprise came a couple of months into eating a plant-based diet, when I realised that my fitness and endurance levels were noticeably improving. I was able to run faster and for longer. On top of that, I noticed my body composition changing, as I was reducing body fat and increasing muscle tone. I was diligent about drinking a daily green smoothie, filled with Popeye’s favourite muscle-building spinach, and even now, my signature green goddess smoothie (here) is a key part of my health and fitness regime.
For the following few years, I happily enjoyed all the benefits of my plant-based diet and it became second nature. Colds, sniffles, coughs and flus became a thing of the past. I gleefully powered through the winter months without so much as a runny nose, while so many others around me took days off work sick.
However, my next weight and health wobble came during the summer of 2014. Wes and I got married in a beautiful ceremony in Ibiza in early June 2014, following weeks of a healthy eating and fitness regime to prepare for the big day and to feel as confident as possible in my wedding gown. Sugar and alcohol were off limits and I spent hours in the gym toning up. There’s nothing like a wedding to boost your motivation.
But weddings also come with plenty of opportunities to indulge in wine and Champagne. I rarely drink wine as the yeast doesn’t agree with me, but I let myself off the hook and enjoyed wine with dinner over the course of our stay in Ibiza. We took off on honeymoon to the Seychelles the following week and we fully indulged in a pre-dinner cocktail, wine with our meal and three large buffet meals a day.
I arrived home glowing with newlywed bliss, but carrying at least an extra stone of weight. And then panic struck. My clothes had been getting progressively tighter on our honeymoon, to the point where I couldn’t wear certain outfits, but I had brushed that off as a bit of extra water weight from the humidity. Yet when that ‘water weight’ still hadn’t budged from my tummy, hips, bottom and thighs a few weeks after we got home and I had to buy jeans in a bigger size, I knew I had to take more intense measures.
Body size is a highly sensitive and very personal issue, and I’m well aware that there are plenty of women and men who would like to bulk up and develop some extra curves. We come in all different shapes and sizes, and that diversity is something to be celebrated. But it’s also important to feel comfortable and confident in your own skin, and having been lean for most of my life, I simply wasn’t feeling good about myself.
Determined to get my confidence back and feel like myself again, I put myself on a strict calorie-controlled eating plan for two months. Overall, I aimed to bulk up my diet with loads of vegetables and smaller amounts of healthy fats, beans and legumes and grains like quinoa, oats and millet.
This was not a ‘diet’. I’m not a fan of quick fixes, and I firmly believe that the diet industry is set up to keep the consumer coming back time and time again in a frustrating cycle of fat loss and gain. Most diets are not sustainable or practical as a lifestyle, and dieters often end up piling any lost weight back on when they begin to eat normally again. Humans are not built to be able to override feelings of hunger, and a high-calorie binge often follows a period of drastically cutting back on food. It’s not because you’re weak or greedy - it’s an inbuilt biological need to sustain your brain and major organs with food. Food is needed to keep you alive. It’s not something to be feared or feel guilty about enjoying.
I took a sustainable lifestyle approach to weight loss, never going hungry, exercising regularly and allowing myself a treat now and then if I really fancied it. Through the food and exercise plan I designed for myself I managed to lose the weight I had gained.
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets to fitness and patience really is key. It was hugely challenging at times and I found myself turning down invitations to parties and events just so I wouldn’t be tempted by treats. Motivation is a big part of working towards a healthier lifestyle, but perfection is not what it’s about either, as temptations will always arise. Instead, it’s about moving in the right direction and learning how to make more positive choices.
I’m generally not interested in calorie counting, as it’s not that practical for anyone leading a busy lifestyle or who has to eat out frequently. Instead, I’m a firm advocate of helping people to understand portion sizes and to choose nutrient-dense foods over calorie-dense foods. This is a more sustainable way of enjoying your food without becoming obsessed with logging every morsel eaten. However, if you’re serious about weight loss, then calories do naturally become a part of it, especially the quality of the calories consumed. Eating nutrient-dense food in every mouthful becomes even more important because your body needs certain nutrients every day to function normally and for you to feel your best.
My weight stays pretty much stable now and I’m back to feeling fit, energetic, healthy and strong. My journey to fitness, health and really understanding my body has been long and filled with bumps along the way, but with every mistake I made, I learned a valuable lesson - and I’m still learning.
My focus has never been about looking skinny or fitting into the tiniest jeans size possible, and I don’t believe that it should be for anybody. I have struggled over the years to find the right balance for my body, and I finally feel that I’ve managed to figure out the food and fitness regime that works for me, and will hopefully work for you too.
This is not a diet book. I wrote it to inspire, inform and give you an insight into my own wellness journey and to share my tried-and-tested tips, fitness secrets and favourite recipes for helping you to become your healthiest, strongest, fittest, happiest and most energetic self. Strong really is the new skinny, and it’s definitely here to stay.