The story of the month for August 2011 comes from Sara Herzig of Inside & Out.

It was a pleasure to get to know Sara through her site—which by the way has some great food photos and recipes—and learn about her incredible journey where health and wellness are concerned on every level. Sara has had many changes and challenges in her life, and it was inspiring to see her overcome them, learn about herself and continue to better every aspect of her life actively.

What makes Sara such an amazing role model, is that her focus and changes are so balanced, taking into account all aspects of one’s food choices, eating, staying active and caring for oneself on an emotional, spiritual, mental and physical level. I was most drawn to her focus on mindfulness, as I personally know the power that being mindful has on the quality of our life. Lastly, Sara is big on sharing that our health and wellness journeys are never over, but part of a fun and exciting evolution as we learn and grow in different ways.

Thus here is Sara, sharing with us her amazing journey into health and wellness thus far:

Area(s) of My Health and Wellness that Needed Change

I was always a chubby kid, and from a very early age I used food as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable emotions and stress. This early cycle led to heavy binge eating in my teens and kept me between 20-40 pounds overweight throughout my younger years.

When I was 18, I started reading health and fitness magazines. Struggling with the typical life stress that young adulthood brings, as well as trying to establish my identity as the oldest of six kids, I wanted to be the girls in those magazines. I started working out regularly, learned the basics of nutrition, and began counting calories. I couldn’t believe how amazing I felt after only a few short weeks—and I loved the compliments I was getting! In under a year I went from around 160 pounds to 125 (I am 5’5”).

The problems began when I lost another 10 pounds. My healthy eating had turned into another kind of addiction, one that included depriving myself of all the foods I loved, over-exercising, and mercilessly counting calories. I still binged from time to time, but I was eating so little the rest of the time that I continued to lose weight. When the scale started to drop below 100 pounds, my Mom took me to a nutrition therapist. My lowest weight was 88 pounds. I was scared and knew that I needed help- I wanted to get better—but I didn’t know how. I felt like I had fallen into a hole and could not even begin to find my way out.

The therapy worked to a point (she helped get my weight back up to 125 pounds over the course of a year), but eventually I decided that the therapist was not a good fit for me anymore. I don’t know what happened, but something inside of me snapped. All the years of binge eating and deprivation and mistreating my body, and beating myself up about not being “perfect” backfired. I began to binge eat every day, and I could not stop. I craved every food that I hadn’t allowed myself to have in those past 4 years, and I felt like I could eat the world! In retrospect I believe that my bingeing was my body’s way of trying to tell me that I needed to take better care of myself, but I didn’t really know how. Instead, I stuffed those feelings down with more food and stopped exercising, and my weight shot up to 205 pounds. I felt miserable, depressed, unhealthy, unfit, ugly, worthless, and alone. This was the absolute darkest time of my life.

Eventually my need to eat everything in sight wore off, and my weight settled at around 165 pounds. It was at this point that I married a man who was not a good fit for me. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, and I felt like I was lucky to be wanted by anyone. We had our first child in 2005, and he was the light of my life.

I wanted to get fit and healthy so that I set a good example for my son and be the very best Mom that I could be, so I tried a handful of diets: Body for LIFE, Precision Nutrition, the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, and everything in between. I started exercising again, but it was only to burn calories and not really for enjoyment. The binge eating continued a few times per month, and my last diet got me down to 139 pounds. Again, something inside of me shifted. I wasn’t enjoying my food, which consisted of lots of egg whites, dry chicken breasts, and protein shakes—no wonder I was binge eating—dreaded my workouts, and was generally miserable with my life.

In 2007 I stumbled on Geneen Roth’s work and was immediately fascinated. She suggested something that was profound to me at the time: listen to your body. All the years spent ignoring my body’s natural hunger and fullness signals with binge eating, starving, over-exercising, and eating what I thought I should be eating (regardless of my mood or food preferences) had drowned out the natural intuitive wisdom that I believe we are all born with. I can’t be trusted around food!, I would tell myself. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t know how to eat. The basic human act of nourishing myself with good, real, wholesome food had become foreign to me. I needed to relearn how to trust my body, how to listen to what it was telling me, how to exercise for enjoyment and because it felt good (rather than for punishment and calorie burn), and most of all, how to honor, respect, and be good to myself. I vowed to never diet again, and so my road to recovery began.

Late 2007 to early 2009 was a time of soul-searching, evolving and growing. I stopped eating by the clock and instead learned to let myself get hungry before meals. I learned my true food preferences. Much to my surprise, I didn’t really like all the foods I’d been bingeing on for all those years, Pop-tarts, sugary cereal, and other processed junk food. They were dry, artificial tasting, too sweet, and not satisfying when I sat down to eat them in a dignified manner. Food like that served only one purpose in my life—to get me “high” when I was feeling down or panicked or sad or lonely. Plus, eating those things made me feel awful! I had low energy levels, acne-prone skin, dull hair, and poor sleeping habits when I ate those kinds of foods. I enjoyed my meals much more when they consisted of real food (no fake butter or fat-free cheese), and my intuition naturally steered me toward a diet of whole, fresh, (mostly) unprocessed REAL food.

I fell in love with experimenting in the kitchen—planning meals, hosting dinner parties, shopping for fresh ingredients, and taking the time to cook for myself every day. Eating took on a whole new meaning, too. I was proud of the fresh, delicious meals I was preparing and found that I was much more mindful of what I was eating when I cooked it myself. I started really paying attention to my food and practiced putting my fork down when my body had had enough. I wanted to walk away from the table feeling satisfied but also light.

In February of 2009 I gave birth to my second child, and soon after I left my unhappy marriage. I started exercising again, only this time it wasn’t to burn calories. My workouts gave me a much-needed confidence boost during one of the hardest points in my life, and they were very therapeutic in helping me stay strong and get through my divorce. I fell in love with yoga, running, step aerobics and especially weight lifting, and I’ve been working out happily and regularly ever since. Exercise is a necessary part of my life, and I always schedule some form of physical activity into my day. I love challenging myself, and I find that I feel more confident and strong in other areas of my life because of my daily workouts. In 2009 I also decided to go back to school, and in the fall I began pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Studies with a focus on Community Health. I was finally making things happen—becoming the fit, confident, healthy, successful, happy person that I had always wanted to be.

Though it took some time, I finally stopped binge eating altogether. With self-help books by Geneen Roth, Bethenny Frankel, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, lots of determination, patience with myself, learning to forgive myself and finally being good to myself for the first time in life, the need to binge eventually wore off. Now if I feel down on myself or feel like I could eat the whole house, I always pause and ask myself, “What do I really need?” Many times it is to be alone, or maybe I need a nap, or extra time with my kids, or I’m hurt by something a friend said or did. I am someone who has the tendency to eat excessively or starve myself in the face of anxiety or discomfort, and now, knowing this, I use it as a tool to get to the root of the real problem. Wanting to eat isn’t a crime! For me, it is a sign that something in my life is out of balance, and I want to figure out what it is so I can work to restore it—without using food or diet as a coping mechanism.

In late 2009 I reached my current weight of around 125 pounds, which is where my body naturally settled. I feel my best at this weight, but I am no longer hung up on the scale and have laid the idea of having the “perfect body” to rest. My primary focus now is on health. I maintain my weight by weighing in only a few times per month, going by how my clothes fit, and paying attention to how I feel. I eat well, exercise, and try to live an all-around balanced life so that I can be the very best version of myself possible. No more comparing myself to others, no more living by other people’s dieting rules or standards, no more negative self talk. I have a new zest for life and I want to take good care of myself so that I can enjoy it to the fullest!

Strategies I Implemented & Their Results

It definitely takes practice, but I strive for balanced living through mindfulness. I try to be present in everything that I do, whether it’s cooking a meal or reading to my kids or going for a run. Being mindful keeps my eye on the bigger picture and helps me to stay grounded. Living in the moment means that I savor my meals, I appreciate all that my body can do for me (instead of focusing on its imperfections), and I am able to see how my choices and actions affect the world around me more clearly.

Finding support and surrounding myself with like-minded people is very important. Just as I no longer want to consume unhealthy, chemical-laden foods, I do not have room in my life for toxic, negative people or relationships. I met the love of my life last year and he has recently embarked on his own health journey. Being able to share my passion for good health with my friends, family and boyfriend has definitely been a key to my success.

Also, I often remind myself that this is a journey. My path to health and wellness has been a long one, but it isn’t over. I am always learning and changing and growing, so when I finally stopped looking for the finish line, healthy living became incredibly easy, fulfilling, and fun!

How My Changes Benefitted Me

This long road to health and wellness has positively impacted me in a number of ways. Making peace with food meant that I had to find other, more productive and healthy ways to deal with my emotions. It was very hard at first, but finally losing that crutch was such a freeing, beautiful feeling. It might sound silly, but learning to trust myself with food has given me confidence to face other challenges, like going back to school at age 31, being a single parent, and realizing that what I have to say matters.

I am not only happier than ever these days, but I am healthier too—mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Dealing with my issues and finding ways to cope with life that didn’t involved binge eating or starving myself were challenging, but the work was definitely worth it. I feel especially good knowing that I’m setting a good example for my two boys.

Next Steps on My Health and Wellness Journey

Aside from finishing my degree and obtaining my Certified Health Education Specialist credentials next year, I want to become an advocate for healthy, sustainable living. I have taken a recent interest in the behind-the-scenes side of the food industry, and I am baffled at what I have learned so far. Thanks to books like Skinny Bitch and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am more concerned than ever about what I feed myself and my family and how it impacts the environment. I recently gave up all meat, pork and poultry (I still eat fish and seafood occasionally) and have cut back significantly on dairy products. I shop locally as often as I can, and buy organic and sustainable whenever possible. Since giving up meat and most dairy products, I noticed that my energy levels are through the roof, my skin is much clearer, and I feel more vibrant all around. I have fallen in love with vegetarian and vegan cooking and baking, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a more healthful, varied, and delicious diet. I just love it!

I really want to help make healthy the new normal. Our convenience-based society can make healthy eating and staying active a challenge, but with the right mindset, resources, and a little planning, making choices that are good for both your body and the planet is easier and a whole lot more fun than many people think!

Wisdom & Inspiration for Others

Learn to trust yourself! Everyone’s health journey is going to be different. Educate yourself about the foods you eat—where they come from, how they’re grown—and pay attention to how different foods make you feel. Let your body be your guide when it comes to eating and exercise.

No matter what you struggle with, remember to be kind to yourself and to forgive yourself. Instead of looking at bumps in the road as “failures”, try to see them as learning opportunities. As long as we get back up when we fall, we can learn and grow and come back stronger than ever. We only get one life and one body, so start being good to yourself right now and put your heart into all that you do.

I truly believe that if you make it a point to nurture yourself spiritually, mentally and emotionally, get regular exercise, purchase, prepare and consume your meals with mindfulness and forethought, and make your health a priority, you will become the very best, most healthy version of yourself possible. Just remember to enjoy yourself along the way!