Madelyn Moon
James Allen Photography
December 28, 2016 12:40 PM

Madelyn Moon had struggled with disordered eating her whole life, and felt she could mask her obsession with control and weight if she began participating in fitness competitions.

“When I was younger, I started to create very disordered eating habits with food and I developed body dysmorphia,” Moon, 25, tells PEOPLE. “When I found fitness competitions, I realized it was this nice, clean, hidden way to have an eating disorder dressed up with the word ‘fitness.’ “

Moon says because she looked muscular, people lavished her with compliments rather than expressing concern over her diminishing weight.

“If you have a six-pack or a toned butt, people are like, ‘Wow you’re so fit!’ You get admiration and no one even questions it,” she says. “When I realized I could diet all my body fat away and have a reason to do it and get admired, to me it was a win-win. I could feel like I was in control of my life, I could perfect myself, and no one would know that it was unhealthy.”

The Colorado-based motivational speaker and transformational life coach began training for her first competition when she was 20. Preparation meant eating specific, protein-heavy meals every three hours starting months before the show date.

Noah Berg Photography

“I was given a meal plan by my coach that he told me to stick to to a T,” she says. “It was the same food at the same exact time, and I would make sure it was on the dot. I would pack a disgusting mixture … and bring it to class and let it sit in my warm backpack all morning, and then whenever the time came to have it I would drink it. That’s how rigid I would be. I would never go anywhere without my meals.”

She also worked out twice a day six to seven days a week.

While Moon may have looked super-fit on the outside, internally it was a different story.

“I felt terrible,” she says. “I was eating almost no dietary fat or carbohydrates so I felt very sluggish, my digestion was awful and my brain was very cloudy. During one of my preps, my coach told me to have 240 grams of protein per day [it is recommended that adult women consume 50 to 60 grams of protein per day], so I was eating more protein than my body could even process. I was really serious and focused – there was no laughter or joy.”

WATCH: RHOC Star Tamra Judge Wins Her First Fitness Competition

She also stopped getting her period.

“It was concerning, but in this disordered place in my mind it was a recognition that I was getting smaller and thinner,” says the Mind Body Musings podcast host. “I knew it was unhealthy, but I pushed that aside because the leanness became more important.”

Even though she kept getting smaller, Moon was never fully satisfied with her body’s transformation.

“On one side I was like, I’m finally getting there, I’m getting leaner and smaller and smaller, but then the other side was like, it’s not small enough,” she says. “There was happiness in feeling like I was getting a thin body, but it was never enough. I was never satisfied.”

Steve DeMent Photography

She depended on external reinforcement to stay motivated to keep up with her rigorous diet and exercise regimen.

“I would take pictures of myself and post them on Instagram and people would be like, ‘You look amazing!’ That was my fuel,” says Moon. “I would post pictures of my half-naked body so that people would compliment me so I would keep going. That was the only way I could keep going despite my self-loathing — that external recognition.”

But soon even that wasn’t enough. Moon reached her breaking point after participating in her second fitness competition.

“Everything seemed to go wrong,” she says. “They put me in a different height class so I ended up being the shortest girl in my height group. I remember everyone went out to celebrate after the show and ate pizza and nachos, but I was so into the mindset of fitness that I just stayed in and ate an apple as a cheat meal — and I felt guilty for eating the apple.”

Noah Berg Photography

“I just realized that this was not the way I wanted to live,” she continues. “I had shed a lot of tears, I had said no to a lot of opportunities, I was isolated and alone, I didn’t have my period. I didn’t think it was worth it. After the second show, I was tired of hating myself.”

While Moon no longer has a six-pack, she is now happier than ever.

“I’m able to actually care about myself and have self-love,” she says. “I can look back at old photos and not be triggered, because I don’t want that body because I don’t want that life. I’m still fit — I go to the gym, I do yoga, I eat healthy foods. I still do a lot of healthy actions, but my mind is happy now.”

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