The desire to be thin isn't always fueled by vanity; sometimes, it's driven by a desire to perform better for a specific sport. For Katie Rutherford, a need for speed is what kicked off a pattern of disordered eating. It all began when she started running competitively. "All the girls I knew who were successful in track and cross country were thin," she says. "I wanted to be the best I could be, which I thought involved being as light as possible."
At first, losing weight helped—she was able to run faster. But in two years, Katie dropped 15 pounds, and the benefits came to a halt. "I was pretty oblivious to the fact that I was malnourished at the time," she says.
It wasn't until years later, through countless struggles between dieting for "performance" and gaining for health, that Katie recovered and found her true passion of powerlifting and figure competitions. Strength, she discovered, comes from within—but lifting heavy doesn't hurt.
This is Katie's story.
When did your first get into athletics?
I was involved in sports from a young age. I was always going to my two older brothers' events, and athletics were always a part of my family. I built a good, solid foundation around the age of 12 when I got into tennis and traveled to compete in matches.
That's when I fell in love with being an athlete. In high school, I transitioned to track and cross country. I was better at running, so I channeled my focus there.
Is that where your disordered eating began?
Yes. I never had any previous weight or eating issues; I was just always a bit more muscular than the other girls. I always had an athletic build, but when I started running, the girls I ran against were super thin and very light. I was a distance runner—even in track I ran the 800 meter and 1600 meter—and the lighter you are, the less mass you have to carry.
Weight: 175 lbs.
Body Fat: 25%
Weight: 145 lbs.
Body Fat: 8% (competing)
My initial thought process was that if I lost weight, I'd be faster. It wasn't necessarily "I want to lose weight to look better," but I wanted to lose weight to be better. Only later did it translate to appearance.
How did you initially go about losing weight?
I was running at least 7 miles a day and was very restrictive with what I ate. At first I cut out desserts, thinking that I would save calories there. Then, I cut out all sugar. Next went the starchy carbs. Light bread soon transitioned to no bread, and my diet became very low-fat.
At one point, I was pretty much just eating protein, veggies, and minimal carbs to help me run. At most, I'd say I was eating 1,500 calories a day, which was very low for my activity level. But I started losing weight and getting compliments from the other girls. I got the idea that I looked better thinner.
How did things begin to turn around?
I lost so much weight that I plummeted to 114 pounds—30 pounds less than I weigh now. I was way too thin. My parents became concerned and encouraged me to eat, not letting me run until I gained weight. I ended up putting on some weight, but that wasn't the end of things. In fact, that's when I started having issues with overeating and binging.
How did you go from one extreme to the other?
My thought was, "Well, I need to put on weight for running," and I used that as an excuse to eat a ton of food. I was unhappy because I wasn't running at the time, so it became this weird emotional rollercoaster. I would start to binge and then restrict. At the time, I had a disordered relationship with food.
When did things begin to change?
It was a process. When I put on weight, I was able to run, but I still struggled with binging and restricting. I had these old habits that would seep in. Then I suffered a stress fracture and couldn't run. That's when I discovered weightlifting.
Was that the first time you'd been in a weight room or lifted?
I actually started lifting when I ran track in high school. I slowly started incorporating it into my programming because I knew the benefits. One of my track coaches in middle school was an IFBB pro, and I remember thinking her body was the most incredible thing I'd seen. She'd competed at the Olympia and the Arnold and had a track background too, which was interesting to me. When I couldn't run anymore, lifting became more of a focus. That's when I found Bodybuilding.com and started to get hooked.
What was the transition from wanting to be skinny to gain muscle in the gym like?
I think I always desired to have a more muscular physique, but I didn't really acknowledge it. I've always thought muscle was beautiful and demonstrated hard work and dedication, but I think I was stuck between trying to be thin and trying to go after the look I really desired.
My transition happened when I started reading articles and figuring out what the pros did. I saw their weightlifting programs and thought, "Well, that's what I want to do, too." I've always been a very goal-oriented person, and I always dreamed of competing in figure, so that became my big plan.
When you first started hitting the weight room five days a week, did you find it intimidating?
I did. No one wants to be the only girl in the weight room, but once I started seeing strength gains and changes in my physique, my mindset changed. I realized I was outlifting some of the guys! It became very empowering, and with the support of my dad and brothers, the gym transitioned from a place where I felt insecure to a place I loved.
Did your eating pattern change when you started lifting?
I tried to stick to a "clean-eating" diet—limiting dairy and bread and anything with sugar—but I felt awful. I was tired in the gym and would get dizzy spells. I was doing better but still struggled with binging once or twice a week.
At one point I remember thinking that if I could just go three weeks without having a day where I went crazy with food, I'd be happy. If I had one bite of something "badn" I had to eat the whole thing—that was my mentality. I'd lose weight, but keeping it off was a struggle.
How did you escape that yo-yo cycle?
I came across Dr. Layne Norton's reverse-dieting videos on YouTube in 2012 or 2013—when I was still lifting but had ups and downs. When I found Layne's talks on metabolic adaptation—basically about your body adapting to low-calorie diets and long bouts of cardio—it finally sunk in. I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is exactly what's happening to me."
How did your nutrition change from there?
That's when I discovered flexible dieting and counting macros. I slowly started increasing my carbs and fat. I knew my current diet wasn't sustainable and that I had to reset my metabolism. I started decreasing cardio, followed a flexible diet plan, and slowly began to change.
My emotional connection with food didn't end right away, and I still have to be cognizant of certain situations that might trigger old thoughts, but I was finally able to have freedom in my diet and fit in foods I craved without feeling deprived—things like bread, peanut butter, and eggs. It was a huge turning point for me.
At the end of my reverse diet—or eating my way up from being way too restrictive—I was eating 160 grams of protein, 350 grams of carbs, and 80 grams of fat. Eating roughly 2800 calories a day and doing no cardo allowed my body composition to change. I was putting on muscle. I was fueling my body and lifting heavy. Investing in my metabolism, building lean muscle, gaining strength, and being consistent is what built my foundation.
What does your diet look like now?
I follow a flexible diet, and as a result, my meals are constantly changing depending on my preferences, macros, and environmental constraints. Right now, I am reverse dieting from my July figure show and currently eat 160 gram of protein, 275 grams of carbs, and 67 grams of fat. Below is what a typical day might look like.
Whole eggs: 3
Ezekial bread: 2-3 slices
Almond milk: 1 cup
Fat-free cream cheese: 35 g
Swiss cheese wedge: 1
Oat bran: 60 g
Quest bar: 60 g
Fat-free cream cheese: 45 g
Rice cake: 1
Honey: 5 g
Berries: 40 g
Light ice cream: 120 g
Rice cakes: 5
Deli ham: 120 g
Ezekial bread: 1 slice (or Ezekiel cereal 1 serving)
Veggies: 400 g
Greek yogurt: 130 g
Whole eggs: 3
Rice cakes: 6
Fat-free cream cheese: 30 g
Almond milk: 1 cup
What supplements do you take?
How did you switch your perspective to focusing on a long-term diet, not short-term results?
Results don't happen overnight—or even in a week or a month. It's one step at a time, and for me, Layne had a huge influence. As he has said, what's the point of your "diet" if you can't see yourself following it for the next six months or a year?
I found myself being ruled by my diet and my training. I was so unhappy and couldn't even focus on my studies. I had to adopt a new mentality, which was, "I might not be the leanest, I might not have a physique that's stage-worthy, but I need to be healthy."
There's more to life than just your body. I needed to stop being selfish, and I knew that investing in my health would not only be beneficial for me, but also for the people closest to me.
How did you progress to powerlifting meets and figure competitions?
They happened around the same time. I started working directly with Layne in 2014. At that time, I weighed about 165 pounds and wanted to cut. I wanted to lean down for a figure show in the fall, but I was also really focused on lifting heavy. This actually worked out well because the weight class I wanted to compete in for powerlifting was 148 pounds.
I had to cut weight regardless, and I decided that if I looked good enough, I'd do a figure show. I won my class in NPC that November, and the next weekend, I won the powerlifting meet! I competed in a natural figure competition the following weekend and won my pro card. It was a crazy three-week run.
How were you able to maintain your strength while leaning out?
I actually gained strength while dieting, which is possible. You can gain or maintain strength while dieting if you do it slowly enough. Of course, you're going to lose strength if you cut calories too drastically and ramp up the cardio, but if you're doing something that's not extreme, you can still have the energy to lift when you get into the gym.
A lot of women think you have to choose to either be strong or look good, but you can have both! Hybrid athletes who show you can lift heavy and look good are becoming more popular in the industry. You're not going to get bulky, and you can still be lean. I felt strong up until my show day, and I didn't change what I ate—I only adjusted my macros two weeks out. I remember, two days before my figure show, I was deadlifting 280 pounds for reps and thought, "Well, if I don't win, I think I'm still the only girl who was doing this two days before!"
What does your training look like now?
I follow a powerlifting training program with bodybuilding accessory work added in. A typical week might look like this:
What advice would you give to women who are wary of lifting heavy?
I used to think heavy squatting and deadlifting would make me bulky. I never thought I'd be able to step on stage, be stage lean, or lift super heavy. Transitioning has given me self-confidence, and with a powerlifting focus on how much I lift instead of how much I weigh, I've gained a lot of mental freedom.
Of course I still weigh in as a figure competitor, but it's no longer mentally draining because I'm not just focused on how I look; I'm focused on my performance in the gym. Sure, I might feel a little bloated one day, but heading into the gym and hitting a new PR is so much more empowering than looking at the scale and being like, "Oh, I lost 1/2 a pound."
How have things changed since you began to train for strength?
Before training with Layne, I mostly focused on higher rep ranges. I was still pushing myself in the gym, but when I transitioned to lifting heavier, that's what put on muscle. Before, I was concerned that lower rep ranges would add bulk to my legs, but when I started testing strength, everything completely changed. As I became more focused on improving in the gym as opposed to just focusing on my physique, I got stronger and my physique took care of itself.
In a year of working with Layne, my deadlift went from 300 for one rep to 363 pounds, and my squat max went from about 300 to 347 pounds. That's a significant jump in a year, especially because I lost 25 pounds in the process.
I guess you could say a big part of my journey has been realizing that you can still be feminine and lift heavy weights. You can increase your strength, fuel your body, and be healthy—you don't have to resort to deprivation to achieve a fitness goal.
What are your future fitness goals?
I started my own business—my own LLC—this past spring, and it's been great. I coach, give nutrition and training recommendations, and hold powerlifting seminars. I'd like to continue to develop my personal brand and get the message out. I want to show women that you can be strong and feel great. I think so much of the fitness industry focuses on extremes, but it's important to find a plan you actually enjoy. If you love doing CrossFit or yoga, do that. Do what makes you feel good.
When I started powerlifting, a lot of people questioned it. "Most of those girls are big," they'd say. "What are you doing? Why do you want to lift super heavy?" But I love it. Fitness should be something that empowers you and enhances your life.