Project Self Esteem by Ayesha Akhtar

My women’s running club regularly participates in the 8-week fitness and nutrition game called the Whole Life Challenge (WLC), and one day last December I decided to join the next round which started January 17. I was fully aware of the  golden rules: no sugar and no bread for 8 weeks. I am already a clean water and daily exercise is no problem for me. So the real challenge would be to confront my sugar addiction. I signed up. My husband, two sons, family and close friends were fully forewarned of the potential mood swings they would have to endure WITH me. Yes I made sure I had a decent support system to remind myself of my challenge and to help me succeed. The first day of the challenge I went to a friends surprise birthday party. Probably the first birthday I’ve left without eating cake. I was prepared however. Had a slightly cold banana waiting for me in the car. Leaving it in the car was a mistake but a good one because I ultimately learned that the colder  temperature of the banana provides a sweeter return. (Hint: banana ice cream).

So here we go. Eight weeks of no sugar no bread and day one was okay. I felt like a champion. End of week one and my family was begging for me to give it up. Turns out I’m not nice when I’m not on simple carbs. Moving forward another week and into half marathon training, I found it hard to subsist on sweet potatoes, all the extra meat I felt forced to eat, and beans. (Off the challenge I would eat meat a few times a week at a maximum). My skin took a beating presumably from all the extra almonds I was consuming. (Almond butter brownies being the biggest pot of gold). I didn’t feel great and about 3 weeks in, near my birthday (which was my predetermined drop out date) I was at an all time low. I made a chocolate mousse from avocado and seeing the green bits invade my chocolate was atrocious. My mood was constantly depressed. I had no energy on the treadmill. I was ready to quit. I quit on my birthday – 4 weeks in. I scheduled my annual physical and was beyond shocked to learn that my Trigs and HDL were at an all time low. My Trigs were 39!! A low fat diet is around 50. Could it be too low, I wondered? I slowly started to add back bread, enjoy life better, and deal with the sub-5 nutrition score. (Every day the challenge awards you up to 13 points). Adding the bread meant losing points – I could deal with that! Dramatically my life changed. My athletic performance improved, as did my mood. My family liked me again. I liked myself again too.

The challenge ended the weekend of my half marathon. I had already checked out of the eating game, and I missed the post-challenge team brunch. But on my end of things, I was so ready to treat myself! I had a great race, set a new half marathon PR for myself and was jetting off to Paris the night of my race. Mile 12 was when it hit me that I was going to Paris and would be eating hi plate croissants all day!  It was a whirlwind week and every day in Paris I made it a priority to eat bread, croissants or waffles. I was in gluten heaven. I loved not having to worry about counting anything! I ate so much bread my brothers and sister would just pass the basket to me on the table as soon as it arrived. Did I binge? Probably. But I earned those carbs right? I know everyone is wondering if I ever kicked the sugar habit. And I did! No longer feeling vulnerable in front of those bakery chocolate chip cookies. I’m excited for what’s next!

A dozen or so people would ask, why are you doing this challenge? What do you have to gain from it? Why are you only doing the basic level? Why are you trying to lose weight? I participated in this challenge for several reasons. As a personal trainer, I come across many clients interested in many diets. I am not a fan of diets and my experience above is exactly why. A diet implies an end date, there are rules and restrictions. There will be binging. There will be falling off the bandwagon. I didn’t lose any weight, but I did shave off some inches. My blood test proved that excluding sugar and bread might not be what my body as an endurance athlete needs. I found I was motivated by the possibility of earning a perfect score every day so I generally stayed away from non-compliant foods. It also allowed me to explore other means to satisfy my sweet tooth. Dates, banana ice cream and almond butter brownies were my saviors. The challenge was not enough for me to change habits – but serves a purpose for those looking to try new thinks. (Reminding myself I already follow the 80/20 clean eating rule, so I didn’t have many bad habits to break).

In order to change your nutrition habits to eat better so that you can perform better in life, the change agent has to be intrinsic. It has to be motivated by something greater than our own ego. I’m really glad I did the challenge, and I ended up in 20th place (out of 125 on my team). I’m glad I can share this experience with my clients. Most important I know where my limits are and what my body needs to perform at its optimum level. That was the best lesson for me to learn.

*To learn more about this health and fitness game head to