Meet Elena Kunicki, a virtual dietitian for weight-lifting women who want to improve their relationship with food and fitness. I offer 1:1 coaching to women around the world. With a speciality for helping women break the restrict/binge cycle, Elena helps women get their periods back naturally and feel at peace around food & their bodies for life.
Thank you for joining us Elena, can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey so far as a nutritionist?
Thank you for having me! So it’s a long story and I’ll try to make it shorter. I went to Penn State for my bachelors and actually started out as an Animal Science major – I wanted to be a veterinarian. Around the same time I started college I also got really into nutrition & fitness (when I say “into”, I really mean developed disordered eating and compulsive exercise habits) and that led me to change my major and start the path to becoming a dietitian.
Fitness and healthful eating brought so much to my life – it changed me as a person and I became more disciplined, self-motivated and responsible. but, I was so heavily focused on fat loss and being as lean as possible – probably because of my history of being overweight as a child and just naturally being in more of a medium-sized body – that it really negatively impacted my health. I got down to my lowest weight, lost my period (a condition called Hypothalamic Amenorrhea or HA) and my sex drive, developed cystic acne, digestive issues, and multiple nutrient deficiencies as well as low blood pressure. I was really malnourished and so restrictive with my eating. I would spend my Sunday planning out my macros and my exercise for the entire week ahead, and if I had to deviate from that in any way it would cause anxiety, body image issues and feeling like a total failure.
After a few months of this I started to binge – first on “healthy” foods and eventually on huge portions of all the foods I restricted (what people call “junk food” or “processed food”). I felt so out of control when I would binge and it only made my mental health, body image issues and restriction worse. I continued in the cycle of low macros (always aiming for fat loss to go back to my leanest self before the binges started) and weekly binges for 4 more years until I graduated college and decided enough was enough.
After I graduated Penn State and shortly before I went to Dietetics School and took my board exam to become a Registered Dietitian – I recovered from my disordered eating, broke free from the restrict/binge cycle, got my period back and found a balance with lifting (my favourite and main form of exercise) and the fitness space in general.
Throughout this time I worked with college athletes, many of whom struggled with disordered eating, as well as a clinical population (mostly people with kidney failure on dialysis) who had their own messed up relationships with food. This, along with my own experience with disordered eating/HA and strong desire to create the life I want, led me to start my own virtual private practice.
Now, I work with women with similar struggles to overcome HA and find peace with food & fitness. I continue my education/training by getting supervision from other dieticians that are more experienced than me in the fields of disordered eating and hormonal health, staying up-to-date on the latest research, and pursuing further certifications within my speciality.
How are you helping your clients to overcome binge eating for good and what 3 tips can you give to us who often fall back into this trap for whatever reason?
Although my clients all have similar issues, they are each individual and I tailor their coaching to their individual needs. That being said, there’s a general framework I use to help my clients break free from the restrict/binge cycle & get their natural period back (in conjunction with the rest of their healthcare team i.e. OBGYN, therapist/psychiatrist, etc).
I see it in two parts:
The first is going “all-in” (a term I learned from Nicola Rinaldi, an expert in the field of HA) which very basically entails eating more and not restricting any food unless for medical reasons, exercising less, and developing tools to manage stress. We do this until my clients start getting their period again (and continue until they’ve had at least three cycles), their binges stop, and their relationship with food is improved.
The second is what I call the “balance phase”. Since I work with a specific population of women into weight lifting/bodybuilding – I tailor this phase to the sort of relationship they want to have with the gym (and food) going forward. We work together to figure out what “balance” looks like to them in terms of setting strength/physique goals (if that’s something they still want to do), and prioritising nutrition and fitness but this time from a non-obsessive place and in a way that’s sustainable.
For those of you struggling with binge eating right now, my tips are this:
- Be honest with yourself about where you are being restrictive in your relationship with food. The root cause of bingeing is very often some sort of restrictive mindset around food. The urge to binge is your body’s way of telling you it’s in need of something. I struggled for years because I was in denial about the fact that I was restricting – I thought I was just “so healthy” and “minding my figure”. I see this in most of the women I work with and interact with on Instagram as well. Unfortunately, a restriction is just the norm for women – so you need to challenge your beliefs of how much food is “enough.” If you want to stop bingeing, odds are you need to stop restricting. For some women, all it takes is to give themselves unconditional permission to eat whatever they want, whenever they want to stop the binges. For others who have been restricting longer and harder, their hunger cues may be so blunted that they need a bit more structure – like a rough meal plan and possibly in-patient eating disorder treatment – to help them eat enough until their hunger/fullness cues come back online.
- Take some extra rest days or an exercise break. All my clients come to me genuinely loving hitting the gym and seeing themselves get stronger over time – it makes them feel strong, powerful and like the bad-asses that they are. But oftentimes their main drive for going to the gym is to control their body size and shape, and they derive their self-worth from their ability to do so – that’s where the problem comes in. Aesthetic goals are fine – but if they are your main drive for exercise and heavily affect your ability to feel good about yourself, that’s likely to cause problems. especially if you’ve lost your period (yes, even if you were put on birth control to “get it back”) – a break from the gym or at least some extra rest days will make a world of difference.
- Reach out for help. You’ve probably read tips #2 and #3 and are rolling your eyes right now or thinking I’m insane. “Eat whatever I want?? Take more rest days?? Yea, okay.” I know how you feel – I was in your shoes. This stuff is NOT easy and quite possibly could be one of the hardest things you do in your life. The fear of weight gain, discomfort, body image issues, and loss of identity that can occur in this process is TOUGH – but it’s also an amazing journey that will transform you as a person and set you free. That being said, it helps tremendously to have a professional support system on your journey – I would start with a registered dietitian who specialises in HA and/or disordered eating (you can apply to work with me at the link on my bio on my Instagram), an OBGYN (if you lost your period), and a licensed therapist.
If you suspect you have a serious eating disorder – please reach out to somebody, anybody who can direct you to treatment. Eating disorders can be deadly and are no joke.
What methods are you using to encourage your clients to change the way they feel about food and achieve food freedom long term?
I guide my clients through the framework described in the previous question taking an evidence-based and client-centred approach.
My practice is guided by the latest research on disordered eating and female hormonal health, my experience, and most importantly the client’s experience and knowledge of themselves and their bodies.
They set their goals and I provide them with support (via video sessions and e-mail support), knowledge and the direction they need to achieve them. But it’s always based on their readiness, their wants/needs/desires and the overall context of their lives.
Has there been a specific client case that you have worked on, that has delivered the most remembered results?
Yes. All my clients are amazing and impress me every week with their courage and resilience, but one client stands out specifically. I was so impressed with her because we caught her disordered eating and HA early on and she recovered so quickly.
She came to me having weekly binges, constant food thoughts that would cause anxiety at social events and inability to focus at work, and only feeling good about her body when she was following her rigid lifting and cardio schedule 100% perfectly. She was put on birth control for a lost period that occurred the year prior – after her first “fat loss phase”.
After just 3 months of going “all-in” (she was ready to go headfirst into the unknown and face her fear of weight gain), her binges stopped entirely, her anxiety around food drastically diminished, and she was able to gracefully work through hard body image days without letting them ruin her – all while taking a full break from the gym!! On top of all this – she was off the birth control pill and had gotten her first bleed at month 3. After 2 more cycles and a bit more body image work, she was ready to return to the gym and transfer into the “balance phase”.
Now, not everyone works this quickly and that is ok. It all depends on your history and your current readiness. I work with clients who take baby steps toward “all in” and they get their periods back and find food freedom as well. Remember any step is better than staying where you are.
How you are balancing the work/life strife?
As a full-time solo entrepreneur – I need to be careful not to be constantly working. I absolutely love my work and am obsessed with continuing to learn more about this field which makes it even more important that I check myself and prevent burnout.
I do this by setting clear boundaries around work time and non-work time. I give myself hours and a schedule just like I would have if I was working a 9-5. I don’t work weekends (aside from leaving a one-weekend spot open for any client who needs it) and only work into the evening on one of the weekdays.
I get clear on my priorities – which are marketing, sales and being the best coach I can be. Then I get clear on what I’m best at – for me that’s nutrition counselling, speaking/engaging with my audience on IG, and goal-setting/scheduling/planning. Then I get clear on what tasks are in line with those priorities and the things I’m good at. Everything else that needs to get done in my business either gets delegated (hiring someone else to do it) or stream-lined (creating a system/automation to make it happen with the least effort/time spent on my part).
I also try to batch-task as much as possible which saves me time. For instance, a chunk of the first week of the month is dedicated to tracking the past month of Instagram content, assessing what did well, and then planning and creating all my content for the next month (including captions).
What platforms are you using as marketing tools to gain new clients?
Right now I’m using Instagram as my sole marketing platform. I work with a business coach who has helped me tremendously in learning how to market and sell as an online business owner. I focus all my efforts on mastering that platform before moving on to something else, which is why I don’t even have a website as of right now.
Do you currently use any apps or tools to help the functionality of your nutritional business practice?
Yes! I use a platform called Practice Better – a HIPAA compliant, Electronic Health Record platform that is basically like a virtual assistant. It’s a one-stop-shop for billing, booking, conducting client calls and prospect discovery calls, storing client and prospect information and sending materials to my clients/prospects. Practice Better integrates with Zoom which is a confidential video chat service where I conduct discovery calls and clients sessions.
I use the Plann app to plan out and schedule all my Instagram content, and google docs for taking notes when I’m doing research, setting my business goals, and literally everything else. I use QuickBooks for accounting and finances.
If you could tell your 18-year old self a solid piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t let your obsession with having the perfect body or most “optimal” nutrition/lifting program cloud your ability to find true health and freedom in your life.
What does #BEYOUROWN mean to you?
Be my own boss, be my own motivator, be my own inspiration and take my life, my financial freedom and my future into my own hands.
What does 2020 look like for you and how are you planning to expand?
2020 is going to be a huge year for me. In 2019 I started my business and 2020 is going to be all about growing that. I’m planning to achieve mastery on Instagram and branch out to another platform – I’m thinking of podcasting. It’s also going to be the year I hire out even more – a website designer, someone to help me with branding/logo design, a virtual assistant and a professional photographer for a couple photoshoots. As always, I’m going to continue my education as a disordered eating/HA recovery practitioner and work towards being a better coach for my clients. I’m so excited about this year and decade.
Coaching Application: bit.ly/elenaRD