type 1 diabetes and eating disorder recovery
  • January 31, 2023

Episode 24: Eating Disorders, Veganism and Type 1 Diabetes (with Nina Gelbke)

Today Nina Gelbke joins us. She is an Accredited Nutritionist and Sports Nutritionist as well as a CrossFit trainer. She […]

Today Nina Gelbke joins us. She is an Accredited Nutritionist and Sports Nutritionist as well as a CrossFit trainer. She specialises in performance nutrition, disordered eating, and plant-based diets.

 

 

Her passion for nutrition developed after she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as well as competing in competitive sport. This passion unfortunately took a downwards spiral when it morphed into a lengthy battle with an eating disorder.

However, Nina is now the healthiest and happiest she has ever been and works with people all over the world with the aim to educate, support and empower her clients to learn how to fuel their bodies, perform their best, achieve their health nutrition goals and develop a healthy relationship with food.

 

 

Q1: What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Nina: This is a hard one because I share a lot on Instagram already. A lot of people already know I’m originally from Switzerland and grew up there. English is also my second language.

But one thing people don’t know is I used be horse crazy! I was obsessed with horse riding and everything horse related. I actually almost bought a horse but didn’t when I got into competitive swimming and ended up choosing swimming over horse riding.

But I do still love horses.

 

 

Q2: From following your journey on social media, you chat about your lived experience of recovering from an eating disorder. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Nina: Growing up I had a great relationship with food and loved food. But I have always been a perfectionist and so when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 9 years old, after a year or two I started really wanting to perfect my management of it – the food I was eating and what my numbers (blood sugar levels) looked like. I wanted to be the perfect diabetic.

I even at one point wanted to try and not need insulin anymore by cutting out carbs and exercising all the time. For me, it was nothing to do with weight or body image but instead about being the perfect diabetic and having the perfect blood sugars. I used diet and exercise to do this which led to a lot of unhealthy behaviours as well as quite a bit of weight loss even though this wasn’t the goal.

Because I was making these changes with good intentions, it went un-noticed for a long time and even encouraged in a way. I was praised, especially by health professionals, because my blood sugars looked so good on paper which fuelled me to keep going.

This meant it came as quite a shock when I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and hospitalised for it. I didn’t realise it had got so bad until it did.

 

Kiah: That’s one of the tricky things with diabetes because it is so numbers driven from the start. Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed quite young so it encourages an emphasis on food from such a young age which can be really detrimental.

 

Nina: It may have changed now, but I remember when I was initially diagnosed (with diabetes), you were encouraged to pick the sugar-free and diet versions of food as a diabetic. It didn’t feel disordered at the time but looking back I can see how this could lead to some disordered beliefs and fears around food.

 

Meg: What happened after your hospital stay?

 

Nina: My first stay was quite innocent in that I wasn’t really concerned at all about calories or by body image at all. I was in hospital for a bit over a month and after getting out I had all the intentions to never go back again. However, I ended up getting caught in a really negative spiral and it became a competition with myself to try and eat as little as possible and lose as much weight as possible.

Every hospital admission after that, I just learnt even more negative habits I could try from the other inpatients. Even though they were lovely people, and I made many wonderful friends, it was also a very toxic environment. I was in and out for the next two to three years.

Because of where I live in Western Australia, one of the biggest challenges of being in hospital was that I was three hours away from my family. So, at the end of year twelve, my whole family packed up and moved back to Switzerland because they thought there might be some better treatment options. I never ended up going to a clinic because I was so stubborn, but I did see a psychologist and a dietitian and recovery slowly started.

I never reached a specific breaking point where recovery started but slowly over time I started making changes. In particular, learning about how what I was doing was actually harmful for my diabetes helped.

I went vegan at this stage for ethical reasons but was sucked into a lot of the low fat and raw ‘til four and other unhealthy vegan diets at the time which led to my veganism becoming a negative thing. I also started studying nutrition at this time and although I wasn’t in a great place with my relationship with food initially, my studies ended up really helping me build a better relationship with food because I realised the importance of nourishing and fuelling our bodies. Once, I started making these changes I felt so much better which then fuelled me to keep going.

The final part of my recovery was getting into CrossFit. I saw so many healthy women doing amazing things and celebrating food and their bodies. For me this developed a reason to eat beyond my weight and gave me purpose and passion.

 

Kiah: Finding your why in recovery is super important because it is long and hard and not linear. Hearing people’s recovery stories is so important but it’s also important to know that recovery will look different for everyone.

 

Nina: This was a big mistake I made. I was looking for the ‘perfect’ way to recovery which made it morph into another disordered thing.

 

 

 

Q3: How do you maintain a healthy relationship with food with Type 1 Diabetes when it’s so numbers driven?

Nina: With blood sugars, separating my self-worth from them was really important. I used to feel like if my blood sugars weren’t perfect then I was a horrible person but now I know just to see them as data. Knowing I can be doing everything ‘right’ and still have blood sugars out of range is a big thing too. There are so many variables out of our control like hormones and weather. I am much kinder to myself and take things as learning experiences instead.

With carb counting, I now see it as a positive tool rather than a way to control my food. Learning that less instead better when it comes to carbs, it’s about getting enough and making choices that are going to support your body. The reason for carb counting is to accurately dose my insulin and avoid highs/lows so I feel my best.

 

Kiah: Your sugar levels don’t define you as a person and so much of it is so out of your control.

 

 

Q4: How do you know if you’re following a vegan diet for the right reasons if you’re struggling with an eating disorder?

Nina: It’s all about how it leaves you feeling with food.

Even if you are vegan for ethical reasons, but being vegan through recovery leaves you feeling anxious, stressed or like you are missing out on food, this is a good indicator that it might not be a good idea right at this time. This isn’t to say it will never be a good decision, but right now removing labels and restrictions might be better.

On the other hand, if being vegan lights you up and feel positive, unrestricted, and empowered about your food choices then it can be a really positive thing.

The hardest thing is identifying which of these two it is for you and if it is the first, recognising that it isn’t the best choice for you at this time and it is ok to leave it for a little bit.

 

Meg: One of the biggest red flags we see in clinic is when you are vegan but also still restrict vegan fun foods or ‘junk foods’.

 

Kiah: You can always come back to being vegan once you are in a better place with food.

 

 

 

 

Q5: What are some ways that people can improve their body image during eating disorder recovery?

Nina: I had pretty bad body image and like most people, I thought I could improve it through changing my food. But I learnt this couldn’t be further from the truth.

My body image improved when I started finding things in my life that mattered to me more than what my body looked like – CrossFit, having energy, friendships, feeling strong. This game me happiness, purpose, self-fulfilment, and appreciation for my body. I can even know wear crop tops to the gym without a care which I never used to be able to do.

I’ve now learned that no one really cares that much about what your body looks like and I don’t anymore either. There are so many other things in life that are more important. When your body image takes up so much of your mental space, we don’t have as much time to focus on these other things.

Also remembering that you can have so many things like friendships, relationships, and jobs even if you don’t have the ‘perfect’ body.

 

Kiah: You mentioned before about being able to wear crop tops with confidence which is a big thing a lot of people struggle with. What helped get you to this point?

 

Nina: CrossFit is notorious for people training without shirts so for me it was seeing people training in just crop tops and not caring. Everyone did it no matter what they looked like and looked so comfortable and free. I realised that I could do this too, and nothing changed other than the fact that I now felt more comfortable doing the workout. No one looked at me any differently.

It took practice and each time I trained in a crop top my confidence grew. Over time it just became normal, and I never even think about it more.

The fact that the environment at my CrossFit gym is very safe, comfortable, and judgement-free was really important.

Changing your social media is also a big thing. This includes only following body positive accounts but more importantly also following accounts that aren’t body related at all like memes, cat videos and recipes etc.

 

Q6: What are your top 3 tips for anyone who is healing their relationship with food?

Nina:

1: Focus on making food choices from a place of self-care rather than control

  • Start by using self-talk around food – e.g. making a bowl of porridge and telling yourself that this porridge is going to nourish me, give me carbs for energy, fats for healthy hair/skin and protein for muscle recovery
  • This builds a more positive mindset around food by seeing it as a tool for the things it can provide rather than being a scary or bad thing

 

2: Stop comparing your food to others – the amount you each, what you eat and when you eat

  • Everyone’s needs are so different
  • We aren’t around people 24/7 so don’t actually know everything going on but even if we were, they’re needs and preferences are still going to be different

 

3: Pay more attention to what foods you enjoy and make you feel good

  • You can then use this as the basis for what foods you chose to eat rather than relying on external rules
  • This is the most healthy and sustainable way to eat
  • Plus, you feel your best both mentally and physically

 

Kiah: Back to the comparison thing you mentioned, I recently heard a really great tool to use when you feel you start comparing yourself to others. Rather than feeling like they are doing so much better than you, instead wish them well.

 

 

Finally, where can we find you?

Instagram: @naturally_nina_

We definitely recommend checking out the amazing recipes she shares – especially her vegan yoghurt recipe!

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