It's been a wild ride. Here's what I've learned about dieting—and how to fuel your body to balance your hormones, lose weight, and recover from an injury.

By By Nikhita Mahtani
Updated: December 20, 2018

Photo: Matt Lincoln / Getty Images

To say my relationship with food has been complicated is somewhat of an understatement. As a skinny child, I never worried about my weight. All that changed once I hit adolescence: I put on weight fast, and thus began a tumultuous relationship with food that would last for years.

The relationship only got worse when, at 22 years old, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that causes cysts to form on women's ovaries. The symptoms include high levels of male hormones, lost periods, acne, and yes, weight gain. (Related: Knowing These PCOS Symptoms Could Actually Save Your Life)

It was only inevitable, then, that I'd begin my foray into the world of diets, nutritionists, and too many rules to count in an effort to get the weight (and my health) in check. I've now been on three diets in the past six years. Today, I have finally found what works for me. Here's what I've learned from being a serial dieter.

A (Mostly) Plant-Based Diet

My first diet started when I was continuously gaining weight because of my PCOS. I turned to a holistic health counselor, who promised to get my hormones back on track through a mixture of diet and lifestyle changes. The premise was that by eating limited dairy and animal protein, I wasn't flooding my body with additional hormones while I was busy trying to fix my own. Desperate to try anything, I dove in headfirst. (Related: What's the Difference Between a Plant-Based Diet and a Vegan Diet?)

What I Ate

I had to start every morning with a vegetarian breakfast, so I usually opted for oats or almond butter toast. Lunch could contain either a plant or animal protein, but also a whole-grain carb and veggies. I wasn't allowed to snack because the point was to make sure my body had a break from digesting food, in order to optimize my hormone levels. As my other meals were so big, dinner had to be light, vegan, and ideally carb-free-again in order to allow my body to focus on hormone regulation. (Related: 5 Reasons Your Food Could Be Messing with Your Hormones)

What Worked

After eight months, I got my period back-although it was irregular (a sign that the diet was slowly working, as my hormone levels were getting back on track). After about a year and a half of consistently following a mostly plant-based diet, I was back to normal periods, my skin cleared up thanks to the lack of dairy, and I had lost a little bit of weight. I loved how light I felt every morning, and I was just so happy to have my hormones regulated.

What Didn't

I work out a LOT-five to six times of intense strength or cardio per week, and honestly, I just wasn't eating enough protein for it all. I was sore all the time, and when it came to my weight, the scale still read higher than before my diagnosis. Since I was initially eating a meat-based diet with carbs at every meal, I was definitely eating less, which is why I think I lost some weight-but calorically, it took more to make me full.

The Takeaway: Eating mostly plant-based was actually amazing for my skin and hormones, but with my habits of eating out often and working out all the time, having a light, vegan dinner wasn't really sustainable for my long-term lifestyle. However, I stuck to limiting dairy, since my skin reacted so well to it. (Related: Following a Dairy-Free, Raw Vegan Diet Finally Helped My Horrible Acne)

A Well-Balanced but Portion-Controlled Diet

Once my hormones were regulated, I was allowed to add more meat and fish into my diet (organic as much as possible). So, the next step was to lose some of the weight that had snuck up on me. Now that I was less fearful of animal protein, I went to a nutritionist who specialized primarily in weight and inch loss. She encouraged portion-controlled meals and snacks (three meals of 400 calories each, plus two snacks of about 150 calories each), each with a balanced amount of protein, carbs, and fat. I also cooked as much as possible, so that I'd know exactly what was in my food and avoid additional oils.

What I Ate

I'd get a menu every two weeks from my nutritionistwith different options per meal, and I could make whatever I wanted from that. Options included a peanut butter and oats smoothie for breakfast, a turkey wrap with veggies for lunch, and a shrimp and brown rice stir-fry with broccoli for dinner. Although I had to stick to the list of meals on the menu, there was a decent mix of animal protein and plant-based options.

What Worked

I lost a ton of weight, and FAST. My inch loss was also really strong, and I could have occasional junky treats like Oreos and wine, too-they just had to be factored into a total calorie count for the day to make sure I was still in a deficit. So, I wasn't deprived where food was concerned, which was very freeing-especially since this was not at all the case when I was primarily plant-based.

What Didn't

There was absolutely no way I could do this diet long-term. Even though I felt less deprived of foods I loved, I didn't love the rigid rulebook of how much I could eat, and I hated that I never actually felt full: I always felt like I could eat a little bit more. As a temporary diet, it was fine, but beyond the eight weeks, I couldn't wait for it to end.

The Takeaway: This diet was great because I learned how to balance treats with well-balanced meals, and I learned how to eyeball the portions that could keep me satisfied. However, I realized my hunger levels fluctuated quite a lot depending on the day or where I was in my cycle, and I felt like I was doing my body a disservice by not listening to it. (FYI, Here's Why You're So Hungry On Rest Days)

A Low-Carb Diet

As luck would have it, soon after my hormone disorder was cured through my dietary and lifestyle changes, I injured myself and tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). This meant only one thing: surgery, which includes a nine-month recovery time with rehab, along with six weeks of bedrest. Once I could finally walk around, my surgery leg had lost almost all its muscle. I couldn't work out aside from PT, so I went to a famous R.D. to see if she could do the impossible: help me gain muscle, while still losing the weight I had gained from my newly acquired sedentary lifestyle. (FYI, here's why you really *do* need to change your diet when you're injured.)

What I Ate

I was allowed six portions of carbs a week, but other than that, I could eat as much protein and fat as I needed to feel satisfied. My breakfast and lunch had to be carb-free, while my nighttime meal had a small portion of carbs, like brown rice or sweet potato. I wasn't really given a menu-just some guidelines and recipes I could tweak-so breakfast was mostly eggs with avocado or a protein smoothie. Lunch was my biggest meal of the day, consisting of a solid portion of protein like eggs, fish, or chicken, lots of veggies, and some good fat like olive oil or avocado. Dinner was pretty much the same, but smaller, with less fat and a carb added-unless it was a carb-free day.

What Worked

I recovered in eight and a half months! My muscle mass was almost back to normal, I lost a significant amount of weight, I was never hungry or bored because I could find recipes of my choosing, and I had no fear when I ate out, since I didn't have that many rules and there was no calorie-counting.

What Didn't

While it was initially easy going from eating tons of carbs to few, as my activity increased through rehab, so did my carb cravings. Fearing an entire (delicious!) food group didn't seem like it was the way to live, or very sustainable long-term-but the fat content was certainly yummy and satisfying.

The Takeaway: Carb cravings are REAL-especially if you're active-and it's totally fine to eat them in moderation. I also loved the focus on eating until I felt satisfied: I felt like I was really paying attention to what my body needed at the time. (See: The Healthy Woman's Guide to Eating Carbs-Which Doesn't Involve Cutting Them)

Putting Everything That Worked Together

My current diet is what I would call an aggregation of low-carb and intuitive eating.

I'm actually really grateful that I went through all these diets because through all the trial and error, I now have a way of eating that actually works for me. These days, my diet is mostly high protein and moderate fat, with substantial amounts of animal protein and a lower consumption of carbs (but still way higher than any paleo diets would allow). In other words, I don't count carbs like the devil anymore, but I do control them. And I still have Oreos, but I try to limit my junk to a couple of times a week.

But most importantly, this experience led me to intuitive eating and a healthy relationship with food. While it was initially terrifying to stop "dieting" and actually trust my body, I found that this was honestly the easiest way to balance my hormones and my stress levels-which means, yes, eating a lamb chop if I feel weak, or even just having plant-based meals when I want something lighter. (Related: I Changed the Way I Think About Food and Lost 10 Pounds)

This happened naturally when I realized that the easiest diet to follow was the one that relied more on listening to my hunger levels, rather than a specific number that related to caloric deficit. It turned out that I could work fairly well with reducing certain components from my diet, like dairy and carbs, but cutting them out altogether led to the restrictive mindset of "wanting what I couldn't have." This way, I see how I'm feeling and know certain things (like carb-heavy lunches) make me feel worse-but are comforting to me at the end of the day (and make it easier to fall asleep). My cravings are just a part of me now, not something I need to fight, as I know there's a reason my body wants that bowl of pasta after a long day.

By listening to my body and eating what makes me feel fueled, not restricted, I have a sustainable lifestyle. It's not a diet, it's just the way I eat and can continue to eat for a long time to come.

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