While I’m always quick to try new diets and trendy ingredients, I’ve never stuck to a specific way of eating—at least not for very long. For me, too many restrictions turn into binging galore, and as pro #treatyourself as I am, I prefer to eat in a way that decreases my yearning for date nights with pints.

Though I shun strictness and total elimination of any foods, I do make a concerted effort to make healthy choices. For me, this means minimal red meat and dairy, maximum produce and lean protein, sticking to whole grains and limiting gluten, and trying to keep my alcohol and sugar intake as low as possible (keyword: trying).

After years of trial and error, I’ve found that this is what makes me feel the best, so I use it as a baseline. And even though I’m the first to give in to sharing a dessert, having just one more drink, and all those other glorious indulgences, I tend to limit cheat meals to once a week.

But then life got rocky—as did my commitment to health.

Moving Across the Pond

In December 2017 I moved from New York to London. In true NY fashion, in the two months leading up to my departure, I was out for lunches, dinners, and drinks almost daily. Everyone would ask, “What food will you miss the most?” Or they’d suggest, “Let’s relive our favorite NY memories!” Which often meant chowing down like there was no tomorrow.

Needless to say, the consumption was ongoing and always accompanied by the thoughts: Just one last time! I don’t know when (or if!) I’ll ever be here again. It’s a celebration! I went from eating gluten occasionally to regularly, was averaging 10 drinks a week, and lived every day like it was a cheat day.

When I finally got on the plane, I promised myself I’d clean up my act. The goodbyes were behind me, and my liver was tired—at least I assumed it was my exhausted liver that was causing my constant desire for naps. Well, I’d clean it up after two gin and tonics. Because moving is stressful and also… it’s a celebration!

When I got off the plane, I promptly broke that promise by going straight to a pub and indulging in a full English breakfast, which consists of sausage, bacon, fried eggs, baked beans, and toast. My healthy endeavor would start at dinner. But wait! Another English tradition first: toad in the hole (more sausage, pastry dough, and gravy). It’d be rude not to… and yes, I will have some red wine, thank you.

Indulge Now, Eat Well… Eventually

The reasons to indulge continued to grow, as did my list of excuses for why healthy eating could wait. Two weeks after the move came Christmas—chocolates, lamb, champagne, oh my!—and a week after that I left for a three-month trip to Asia. Though there were times I felt so bloated even my pajamas felt uncomfortable and my energy (and tolerance) were waning, I didn’t feel compelled to make any changes.

I remember thinking to myself: Asia is the perfect time to get back on track. I’d be on my feet all day, traveling to countries with delicious vegetarian food and an abundance of fresh produce, and I wanted to see how far I could stretch sobriety (and my finances).

Everything started great. My first meal was vegetable biryani (an incredible rice dish) and tikka mushrooms. But then the excuses started to creep back in. I’m in India! I have to try that deep-fried snack that our guidebook says is the best in the world! And then: I’m at a homestay! It’s insulting not to clean my plate. And then: That was the scariest car ride I’ve ever experienced. I deserve a bottle of wine!

And then I decided to surrender and to stop rationalizing every unhealthy decision. Because yes, this is the trip of a lifetime. And yes, it’s true that I’ll likely never go to those places again. And yes, I love food, and it’s a great way to learn more about different cultures. F*ck it. Let’s eat!

My New Normal

Though my intention of making some healthy choices remained, it’s safe to say that I’d strayed far from my baseline. My Paleo granola and unsweetened almond milk were replaced with corn flakes and whole milk; my salads with lean protein were replaced with veggies and meat drenched in syrupy sauces; and my roasted veggie dinners were replaced with fried appetizers, oily noodles, cocktails, and frequent desserts.

The change was partially due to lack of choices—some of the countries I visited truly did have limited healthy options—but it was also because indulgences had become my new normal, and to be honest, it felt good to be misbehaving.

I’d spent so much energy saying no to desserts, fried food, and sugar in the past that living without boundaries gave me a high. At breakfast, I started scheming about where to eat next and what local delicacy I should sample. I got irrationally irritated when plans were thwarted, lines were too long, or Google led me astray.

On the last week of my trip, I went to my favorite cafe in Kyoto for my daily treat (a nut cake with caramel cream) and daily tipple (two glasses of white wine). I started counting how many desserts and drinks I’d had that week and quickly lost count. I looked down at my belly, expecting to see some semblance of Santa staring back at me, but all I saw was the same old squish. How is it possible that I’d been saying yes to pretty much everything and hadn’t doubled in size?

Sure, I’d been walking a lot, hiking here and there, swimming when I could, and doing the occasional online workout class throughout Asia, but it certainly wasn’t enough to overcome my calorie intake. Not to mention, my digestion was a disaster, so the explanation certainly wasn’t a faster metabolism or flourishing gut health.

Scared of Skinny Jeans

When I got home, I avoided eye contact with my closet. Extreme weight gain had to be hiding somewhere, and I was convinced those skinny jeans would prove it. There had to be a consequence to my burger breakfasts (yeah, that happened), nightly whiskeys (when in Japan… ), a resurgence of love for lattes (you guys, whole milk is TASTY), and the hundreds of other not-so-healthy habits I’d adopted over the past five months. But the jeans went on—as did every other item in my closet. I didn’t understand.

I’ve spent the last month analyzing—and agonizing—over what happened. Is eating healthy a waste? Is my body stuck in this shape forever, no matter what? Was all of my previous effort for nothing? And then I realized I was thinking about the wrong thing.

Yes, my clothes fit, but it’s probably because I lost muscle. Though I was constantly moving (and grooving), I’d changed my workout routine from multiple hot yoga classes and strength training sessions a week to a 30-minute barre video every so often. And when it came to food, oddly enough, I was probably eating less. (The difference between portion sizes in America and the rest of the world is jaw-dropping.) But the real difference wasn’t in my body weight, which is why I hadn’t noticed. It was actually the rest of me.

My Weight Didn’t Change, But I Did

I’d blamed my short temper on the fact that I’d made a huge change and hadn’t slowed down. I credited my mood swings to being far away from friends and family and not yet finding an outlet for my emotions. I figured my spastic sleeping was because I haven’t been in my own bed since leaving Brooklyn. I knew I’d done a number on my gut, but assumed stress from the move and job hunting was the biggest reason for its rebellious nature. The aches and pains I felt in my joints and back were from constant travel, of course. And my dull skin and more frequent breakouts were from the less than stellar products I bought while abroad. Right?

As I slowly returned to my old baseline, I watched the above symptoms start to melt away. I’m still in the midst of a huge transition, but my anxiety has subsided. Instead of blowing up in frustration at the smallest things, I observe them, and they often pass before I react. My quality of sleep improves every night, my face looks brighter every day, and I’m becoming happier, kinder, more tolerant… more like me.

So yes, while the physical shape of my body didn’t drastically change, I was still causing a good amount of damage. I’d been so worried about putting on weight that I hadn’t considered the other implications, like my mental health and overall well-being. It was (and still is!) a fresh reminder that being healthy is important for much bigger reasons than the ones we often think about most—the superficial ones.

As I sit here writing this, I’m wearing my jeans, still a little shocked that they fit after five months of nutritional rebellion. But I’m also actively fighting cravings for my next food fix and thoughtfully readjusting my dietary habits. A better, more balanced self is my next long journey.