My victory over eating disorders

Natalie battled eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia for over a decade. Now. Nuffield Health's former Professional Head of Nutrition tells us how her experience has helped her to support others.

Growing up in South Africa, Natalie had her heart set on one thing: becoming a ballet dancer. She was determined, practicing as much as she could and developing an understanding of the exercise and discipline needed to fulfil her ambitions.

But, she says, the same can’t be said about her nutrition.

“I was always very active as a child. I was strong, dancing every day. But I probably didn’t have a particularly healthy diet when I was growing up.

“I didn’t really have a relationship with food at all – it wasn’t seen as anything good or as fuel. I would just eat whenever I felt like it and didn’t eat particularly healthy breakfasts or lunches. It was more of a fast food diet if I’m honest.”

During Natalie’s teenage years, however, difficult circumstances arose in her life leaving her grasping for control. Food became an ‘unhealthy obsession’, she says, from the age of 14.

“I was never trying to get thin, because I was never overweight. But it was a time where circumstances led me to really undervalue myself. I didn’t have much self-worth at all, I didn’t like myself very much and things were happening in my life that I couldn’t control.

“Controlling what I ate was the only control that I seemed to have. I thought it was helping me to cope at that time. But very soon it takes control of you. And it got a grip on me. ”

Natalie lost passion for anything else except her obsession with restricting food, she stopped dancing to help hide her condition and became very isolated. As her digestive system began to suffer, her vocal chords and teeth became damaged from regularly regurgitating and she became at risk of damaging her reproductive system friends and family voiced their concerns. And doctors told Natalie that if she carried on as she was there was at a very real risk of death. But the eating disorder kept a hold on Natalie for a decade.

“It affected my family relationships, it affected every relationship around me. It’s a very isolating state to be in when you don’t really want people to know what you’re doing.

"When my relationship with food changed it was very much a change which happened within me spiritually. Discovering my true worth and value helped me to see myself in a different light. Understanding that my life had meaning and learning to love and forgive myself meant that I started to want to nurture my body instead of deprive and punish myself."

But it was what Natalie calls a slow renewing of her mind, rather than an overnight process. 

In the meantime, Natalie was forging a career in the world of fitness, which began when she took her first job in a bank in South Africa as a credit controller. She soon realised that she enjoyed more time in the gym at the bank than at her desk, so it wasn’t long before she left the bank to qualify as an aerobics instructor.

She quickly moved up the ranks and found she really loved working with people and helping them to achieve their goals. But something was missing from the industry, Natalie identified. Nutrition was just as much a part of health and fitness as exercise, but was largely ignored in the sector. So she studied nutritional therapy and set herself of a path to change that.

Natalie was particularly inspired by her own experience with a nutritional therapist. As a step towards her recovery Natalie had become a vegan because, she says, it allowed her to choose foods that had ‘free calories’ such as vegetables. “It’s easy to disguise a disorder under the banner of ‘healthy eating’”, she warns.

Despite eating what would be seen as a particularly healthy diet, Natalie’s health remained poor because she had done considerable damage to her digestive system and now reacted badly to many foods. It was with the support of her own nutritional therapist that she discovered that nutritional therapy is about more than what you eat. Her therapist helped her to learn what food was right for her, what nutrients she was deficient in and how to restore and heal her gut so that she could not only eat healthy food, but digest and absorb it too. 

“If she had just looked at the food that I ate, she would have thought I was an extremely healthy vegan.”

“So it’s not just about looking at what somebody is eating, or somebody’s lifestyle – I was a personal trainer, I was fit and strong on the outside and ate an incredibly healthy diet compared to most people, but was very unwell. She took a step back and said ‘let’s take a look a little bit deeper’. And that’s a lesson I’ve taken with me in the work that I do.”

Natalie moved to the UK from South Africa 17 years ago, meeting her husband and having her two children along the way. She considers herself to be ‘very blessed’ to have come out the other end of her eating disorders, recognising that all too often the disorder cannot be overcome. But her experience has left Natalie with a wisdom that helps her to help others struggling with their nutrition, in whatever form that struggle takes.

“Coming from an eating disorder background helps me to see more than just what someone’s eating. It’s also the emotional side or why you are eating it, what’s happening to the food when it’s inside you, is your body able to deal with it, is there anything that’s missing? It’s looking at someone as a whole and thinking ‘what are they really battling with and how can I help?’ that perhaps goes a bit deeper.”

Last updated Tuesday 16 February 2021

First published on Thursday 13 August 2015