I’ve always been athletic, but it wasn’t until I defined myself as an athlete and connected my eating habits to my performance that I developed a healthy relationship with food. I’m sharing the basics of my story in hopes it helps others shift the way they look at food — and what it can do for your health, well-being and performance.

As a kid, I competed in karate tournaments, then moved on to basketball and progressed to track, tennis and stuck with basketball throughout high school. Competing in three sports as an adolescent gave me free range to eat potato chips, bagels, chicken chop salads smothered in ranch and chocolate pudding with no regard to calories, nutrient timing or any other nutrition thought. Maybe I ate lunch, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I stopped for fast food before a track meet, maybe I packed a banana and PBJ. It was all the same. I maintained a healthy weight but not by consuming healthful foods.

It’s possible to get away with that in high school, but that doesn’t mean one should. In college, I became a gym rat and a dietitian major. This is, surprisingly, when things went downhill for my personal nutrition practices. While I enjoyed my nutrition courses, they were clinically focused, and I didn’t associate what I was learning with my own health. Instead of eating a normal diet, I cycled between nights of pizza and drinking with days of counting cherry tomatoes and lettuce leaves. I spent hours on the treadmill and elliptical at the gym in an attempt to work off all the calories I had consumed that day. It was a desperate attempt to maintain my lean figure. It worked. I dropped a solid 15 pounds. I was abusing food, binging, starving, purging through spending hours at the gym. It was vicious, depressing and so completely unhealthy.

Fitness and food became tools to manipulate my body. My goals of working out as a youth were to be social and have fun. But, my goal as a co-ed was to fit into skinny jeans — it was a constant negative battle: Food was feared and eating it just meant I’d have to exercise more.

After college, I signed up for a marathon. This required actual training, self-discipline and structure. After finishing it in just over 4 hours, I was hooked and wanted to do better and be faster. But to become the competitive elite I wanted to be, I had to shift the way I previously viewed food and fitness. The more I ran, the more my goals changed. I was not running to lose weight. I was running to perform and get results.

That first marathon led to running many more marathons plus competing in ultras, triathlons and cycling races. My new, performance-oriented mindset had me identifying as an athlete — meaning I began to focus on recovery, energy efficiency, strength and improving my overall lifestyle, including diet. I knew if I wanted to excel as a competitive athlete, and be a healthy athlete for years to come, I had to start nourishing myself. A weak, malnourished body can only last so long.

This lightbulb moment was a huge turning point for my relationship with food. My view of food completely changed from something to limit to something to use as a tool to aid my performance. I no longer was fearful of eating a slice of pizza or felt the need to work off or earn a snack. I finally started to apply my nutrition knowledge to myself and further my new ‘eat-to-perform’ mindset. I got a master’s degree and became board-certified in sports nutrition.

Not only did I swap the starve-binge cycle for a balanced daily intake, but I was able to implement nutrient timing, proper carbohydrate intake, hydration strategies and other performance-nutrition techniques. I did gain weight and there was a pretty intense fear being heavier would slow me down. However, at 15 pounds heavier, I ran my first sub 3-hour marathon and have since run five sub-3 hour marathons. I also race full-time as a road cyclist. I am strong, energized, lean and overall healthy. I know there are people at the start lines who are thinner or leaner than I am, but I’m there to race for the win, not be the skinniest person. There is absolutely no way I would be able to have achieved these athletic goals and kept up a professional training/racing schedule without revamping my relationship with food, being confident in my body and viewing the food I consume as a vital and positive way of achieving my goals.

This was my personal journey with food. I was lucky to put my nutrition education to use to heal my relationship with food, but a degree in nutrition isn’t a requirement to begin implementing a healthier outlook. Simply start by being honest with yourself, your health and your performance. Of course, most of us are too close to the problem to be truly objective. I’m here to help others avoid the same pitfalls or dig themselves out of a negative place.

Working with a sports dietitian who can provide a truthful and scientific perspective on your individual situation is the best plan of attack for any athlete struggling to find a healthy relationship with food. Hopefully this story provides inspiration and empowerment to think about food differently, and for others who can identify with this journey but don’t know how to make the right changes, inspires you to work with a dietitian to seek the results you’re looking for.