Christel Oerum is a co-founder of a diabetes and fitness website, TheFitBlog.com. Today, at age 38, Christel is a competitive bikini athlete, and a personal trainer and nutrition coach. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1997 at age 19. Here Christel shares some tips on nutrition and diets. For more about Christel’s life with type 1 diabetes see the first part of this interview.
A New Nutrition Mindset
“I started thinking of food as energy,” explains Christel. It’s not just a snack, it’s not for entertainment, curing boredom, or soothing your emotions—it’s fuel. Jumping from fad-diet to fad-diet is exhausting and tedious, but perhaps the number one reason it doesn’t lead many people to long-term weight-loss and fitness success is because the real change around nutrition starts with how you think about your nutrition as a whole.
In addition to thinking about food as energy, here are a few of the biggest changes Christel made to her food philosophy:
1. Don’t treat your diet like it’s your religion:
“Start with the basics and as your goals and your relationship with food change, adjust and try something else. Give it a month at least before you make any more changes because it takes some time to see how your body feels eating a certain way. Be flexible and listen to your body. If what you did last year doesn’t work well for you right now, then change it. Or maybe this year you’re trying to build more muscle. Then your diet is probably going to require more carbohydrates and more protein. Try out different things and see how you feel, and how your body (and your mind) reacts. Right now, for example, I’m seeing how a really low-carb diet feels, but I’m only doing this as an experiment for a few weeks while I’m taking a break from lifting after a recent bodybuilding show. When I start lifting again, I’ll increase my carbs, because I know I feel best and perform best when I’m eating more carbs.”
2. Shape your “treats and cheats” around your personality:
“It depends on the person, because some people can’t handle having treats in their nutrition plan, but instead they’ll have a really high-carb day full of healthy carbs rather than a dessert. Some people do really well having a treat after a meal, satisfying the sweet-tooth and preventing them from feeling deprived. A treat is fine depending on your goals. If you’re trying to lose weight gradually, you might make room in your diet for several treats per week if that’s what you need to keep on track. If you’re prepping to do a bikini competition in three weeks? Then no, you’re having more broccoli!”
3. Nobody’s perfect—don’t give up after one mistake:
“Someone once told me, ‘So you had a cookie at the office party—big deal. If you use that as an opportunity to eat everything in sight for the rest of the day, it’s kind of like seeing one flat tire on your car and then taking a knife to stab the other 3 tires so they’re flat, too.’ It’s crazy! The whole process is so personal. I don’t know of any other part of life where we’re so hard on ourselves. If you make a mistake at work you don’t just throw your hands up, leave work, and never come back. Why do we handle mistakes in our nutrition that way?”
4. Building new habits takes time—be patient:
“You don’t just do something once and then it becomes part of your DNA. It takes time. There’s so much pressure, especially on type 1s, to be healthy and look healthy. We get health-checks every 3 to 4 months! That’s a lot of pressure! Then we have to put the fitness pressure on top of it. Yes, exercise is good for you, but it should also be fun—something you enjoy, something you want to do. If strength-training makes you miserable and you’d rather just play tennis, then I’d much rather see you playing tennis because you’ll keep doing the things that you enjoy! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try out new stuff, too. Challenge yourself!”
5. Manage your temptations by planning and being prepared:
“Fill up on good proteins before you go to a party, then have one slice of pizza and one beer instead of half the pizza and 5 beers. Instead of starving yourself all day so you can eat everything in sight at the holiday party, fill up on lean protein at home, like chicken or eggs. And go there with a plan—like reading the menu before going to a restaurant so you have time to make a thoughtful choice. For a person who is still in the dating world, they’re wondering, ‘How can I still go out and have fun?’ Make your order what you want it to be—don’t be afraid to be specific, asking for different foods to be swapped, or left off your plate, or set aside, or even asking for the serving to be reduced or wrapped up in a to-go box before it even hits the table. You can also simply order your treat and enjoy it, then get back to your regular nutrition goals the next day. If you want a burger and fries, get a burger and fries! It’s just not something you’re doing every night.” Health comes down to how you feel, inside and out. A strict diet that has you so lean you could grate parmesan cheese on your abs is only “healthy” if you also feel great. If your diet leaves you regularly on the verge of tears because your body is so hungry, your hormones have gone haywire from severe calorie restriction, and all of your mental energy is spent obsessing over calorie-counting…then something isn’t right.
Christel knows all too well how easily good nutrition intentions can get out of hand, especially in the world of bodybuilding where intense calorie obsession is often a method of masking an eating disorder. But it can and should be about health and balance, not just appearance.
“I consider fitness competitions an extreme sport, and as with any extreme sport it includes components that are actually unhealthy,” explains Christel. “While I consider building muscle and eating to accomplish that goal very healthy, the last few weeks leading up to a bodybuilding competition are definitely about temporary deprivation and manipulating the diet to make competitors’ muscles look as defined as possible. This isn’t an appearance that’s meant to be maintained for a long period of time—because that is unhealthy. Just like you wouldn’t want to run a marathon every day, you wouldn’t want to compete in a bodybuilding show every day either.”
For now, Christel is resting, taking the rest of the year off from competing, and focusing on the nutrition and exercise habits that she knows not only keep her healthy as a person with diabetes but also happy, energetic, and eager to get out of bed in the morning, ready to be a badass for yet another day.
Find more from Christel Oerum at TheFitBlog.com:
- Calorie Calculator
- Macronutrient Calculator
- How to Read Nutrition Labels
- Fit-Diabetic Meal Plan
- 10-Step Guide to Working-Out with Diabetes