I went from eating takeout almost every night to attending a nutritional culinary school, which helped me gain control of my life again.
My battle with anxiety started in college, with a combination of the pressures of academics, social life, not taking care of my body, and definitely drinking too much.
Because of all this stress, I started having panic attacks—in the form of chest pains, heart palpitations, and pain in my chest and arms. I was afraid that these were heart attack symptoms, so I didn't want to ignore them. I'd go to the hospital and spend thousands of dollars on EKGs, just to have doctors tell me there was nothing wrong with my heart. What they didn't tell me was that anxiety was the root of the problem.
And my diet certainly wasn't helping. I was usually skipping breakfast or getting something on the run from my sorority house, like fried hash browns—or bacon, egg, and cheese on bagels on the weekend. Then I'd go to the cafeteria and hit the candy dispensers hard, grabbing huge bags of sour gummies and chocolate-covered pretzels to munch on while studying. For lunch (if you could call it that) I'd dip barbecue chips into almost anything, or have Cool Ranch Doritos from the library vending machine. There was also the typical late-night eating: pizza, subs, margaritas with chips and dip, and yes, Big Macs from the McDonald's drive-through. Even though I was often feeling dehydrated, and eating way too much sugar, I was still happy and having fun.
The fun tapered off a bit when I moved to New York City and started working a stressful corporate job as a paralegal. I was ordering takeout a lot, still drinking, and living an overall unhealthy lifestyle. And although I was starting to think about the idea of health, that manifested in calculating calories in vs. calories out and not really putting anything of nutritional value into my body. I tried to cut carbs and calories any way I could and was also trying to save money, which meant I'd eat cheese quesadillas or flatbreads with low-fat cream cheese as a meal twice a day. What I thought was "healthy" portion control actually made me almost 20 pounds underweight—I'd become restrictive without even realizing it.
Due to a combination of my job, my diet, and my surroundings, I became extremely unhappy, and anxiety began to take over my life. Around that time, I stopped going out and stopped wanting to be social. My best friend was worried about me, so she invited me on a trip to escape the city to her mountain house in North Carolina. On our second night there, away from the craziness and distraction of New York City, I had somewhat of a meltdown and finally realized that my diet and coping mechanisms for my anxiety were not working at all for me. I returned to the city and started seeing a nutritionist to gain weight. She opened my eyes to the importance of healthy fats and an array of nutrients from produce, which completely changed my approach to eating. I started to embrace a more whole foods–oriented diet and move away from the downward spiral of calorie counting, and I began cooking my own food. I started venturing out to farmers' markets and health food stores, reading about nutrition, and immersing myself in the health food world.
Very slowly, I noticed that the palpitations started to go away. With the therapeutic nature of working with my hands, and eating these natural, nutritious ingredients, I felt more like myself. I wanted to be social, but in a different way—without feeling the need to drink. I began to discover the real connection that we have between our bodies and what goes into them.
I decided to veer from my plan since high school of becoming a lawyer and instead forge a new career path that allowed me to immerse myself in my newfound passion for nutrition and cooking. I enrolled in culinary classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC and about two days later, I got a call from a friend looking for a marketing manager for a health food brand called Health Warrior. I did a phone interview the next day, landed the job, and began on the path that would eventually lead me to start my own brand.
Two days after graduating from the culinary institute in August 2013 as a Certified Holistic Chef, I moved back to my beloved hometown of Nashville and bought the domain name for LL Balanced, where I shared a compilation of my healthiest, most delicious home cook–friendly recipes. The goal was to not label the site as adhering to any specific "diet"—readers can find and easily execute anything from vegan, to gluten-free, to Paleo eats, along with nutritious twists on Southern comfort food. My newest and most exciting step in this wellness journey is The Laura Lea Balanced Cookbook (out this May), which will bring my take on food to life and into even more health-forward homes.
Nutrition has changed my life in almost every way. It's the linchpin of my emotional health and the key that allowed me to reconnect with myself and reconnect with other people. Through eating whole, fresh, mostly plant-based food, I've been able to take control of both my physical and mental health. While I'll always be a naturally anxiety-prone person, and it still comes and goes, it was the role of nutrition in my life that allowed me to finally find balance and know my own body. It made me myself again.