It’s already begun. My news feed is already populating with sponsored posts telling me it’s time to “get healthy.” That it’s time to “lose that COVID/ Christmas bulge” and get “on track.”
The core message: my body is not ok as it is.
To be honest, the core message never really stopped (thanks Diet Culture), but the foot is on the gas and it’s headed into overdrive.
SIGH. It’s making me weary. Because while I’ve gotten to a place where I can (mostly) see through this noise, I know how easy it is to succumb to these messages. Heck, sometimes I still do for a split second (honest truth).
I see a savvy post and think, ohhh, I would like to … have more energy … feel great in all my clothes …be healthier/ fitter/ faster/ better…ohhhh….SSSSSSTOP!
The challenge before us is this.
Of course we want to have all these promises. Of course we want to be healthy and feel fantastic. The idea alone fills us with hope and positivity. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have all these things. The challenge is that the tactics so often employed by traditional fitness and diet industry – are not realistic, not functional, and in many cases not actually healthy (and in some cases downright harmful)!
In this blog I want to highlight the 3 biggest tactics used that I think we should all be weary of, and what we can do instead to achieve optimal health (on our terms) in 2021. Kind of a body positive/ HAES® informed “do this not that.” Ready?
Tactic #1: Very Low Calorie Diets marketed for “Health” (aka. Weight Loss)
What do I mean by very low calorie diets? I’m talking 1000-1400 for the moderately active woman. This includes diets that get you there through food, shakes, or “cleansing.” Why the bunny ears on cleansing? Because the way the Diet Industry has bastardized this nutritional strategy employed by Naturopathic Medicine is not only scary, it’s downright dangerous. And for the majority of people, completely unnecessary.
Unless you are working with a qualified health professional (ie.Doctor, Registered Dietitian or Naturopath) there is no reason to eat this few calories. But sadly I regularly hear from clients that their former “personal trainer” had advised them to eat within this range. And frankly, it gets me hot under the collar. Because not only is a “personal trainer” not qualified to offer this type of nutritional advice (it’s not within their scope of practice or expertise), it’s so destructive and unhealthy! Let me explain.
Historically weight loss has been simplified into “create an energy deficit,” ie. consume less calories than you expend. Very low calorie diets are used in some rare cases for medical purposes in dire situations. Like, life or death needs for weight reduction. I’m not saying I agree with this strategy, for reasons you’ll see below, but ultimately I do want to acknowledge that there may be some rare situations where this is a course of treatment. Notice I said treatment, as in medical treatment. It is not, my friends, “a lifestyle” as it is so often touted as. Which is the biggest problem with this approach.
Sadly, the fitness and diet industry have (unsafely) adopted some of these medical interventions (keto, anyone?!). Because if some calorie deficit creates some results, more must be better, right?! Just create a really BIG deficit and then you will get quicker results, right?! And the short term answer is yes, this will have the “desired” result of shedding weight, quickly. But there’s a really big cost that your “personal trainer” is either not aware of, or not disclosing to you – and it’s got some pretty dire consequences – for you.
Let’s start by discussing the flaws in this “energy in vs. energy out” rationale. Because there are some pretty big ones. Energy balance isn’t that simplistic it’s much less formulaic and much more individualized. There are way more variables at play to determine your unique energetic needs. Including, but not limited to: your resting metabolism, your hormones, and your body’s natural set point. Every single body needs different amounts of energy, not just in the long term, but also within the course of days, weeks and months. Especially if you’re a woman! This is why we have this fantastic internal mechanism to help us determine our energetic needs: hunger! What?! I know!
Also, every single body will interpret “energy deficit” differently. If your body determines you’re at or under your natural set point weight (even if it’s not the culturally established aesthetic ideal), it will fight to keep you at that set point. There are a multitude of checks and balances it utilizes to keep you where it deems optimal for your physiology. If you want to geek out on the science behind weight set point, check out this awesome podcast.
So, these plans that plug in your gender and height and calculate the “recommended deficit” based on the amount of weight you want to gain/ lose/ maintain per week, are off, way off.
And this comes with significant consequences:
Binging and Over-Eating.
When you eat too little your body will actively drive you, through physiologic means, to eat. You’ll start to crave more, intensely. Have you ever noticed you can be “on point” all day (with even a traditional low calorie diet with a moderate deficit), and then “lose it” in the afternoon or evening when you get an insatiable craving and just can’t stop eating? Yeah, that’s called Primal Hunger.
It’s not your lack of motivation, it’s your physiology keeping you safe from what it interprets as a famine state (legit). That binge is your body looking out for you. It’s not you failing, it’s the plan (under eating). One of the biggest challenges with this response is how it leaves people feeling. Like they can’t be trusted around food, have no self-control or “dedication.” This is so harmful to our relationship with ourselves, our body and with food. And it’s all due to under-eating!
Eating too little will generally mean you’re ignoring your body’s natural mechanism to drive the intake of food: hunger. When you consistently ignore your hunger signals over the long haul, as you do when you chronically diet, hunger signals can be blunted – long term. It’s not uncommon for me to hear from clients that they don’t feel hunger – at all. Or they only hear it when it gets vital (read: hangry). One of the first steps we often need to take in the process of Intuitive Eating Counselling is to help rebuild body trust by eating from a place of self-care. When we consistently show the body we are a reliable source of nutrients and energy, the hunger signals return and we can begin to rely on them again and be more responsive to our unique metabolic needs.
Muscle Atrophy and Sluggish Metabolism.
Over time when we chronically under-eat, the body accommodates. When it doesn’t get the nutrients and energy it needs, it breaks down the available non-essential tissues to get it, ie. the muscles. This is why we see an atrophy of muscle tissue with weight loss. And I know what you’re thinking: that’s why I strength train, Gillian. Cool, that’s awesome, and has some great physiologic benefits, and while that will counter some of the atrophy, it won’t counter it all. And over time you’ll lose muscle mass.
The challenge is that once you resume eating “normally” (as 95% of people do, because diets aren’t sustainable), muscle mass comes back, but much more slowly than fat mass. As the fat mass creeps up, this usually triggers the chronic dieter to diet again….and the cycle resumes but with an important difference. It’s quite likely that the second/ third/ fourth diet cycle will resume before the muscle mass has be recuperated. Which means over time your muscle mass decreases.
This is not only detrimental to your strength, endurance, posture and ability to do cool things, it’s also detrimental to your metabolism. Because muscle is highly metabolically active tissue! Which means over time, with multiple diet cycles, it gets harder, and harder to lose weight and maintain it. Sound familiar?! I know…SIGH. Have I mentioned diets don’t work (long term)?
There are more issues, such as nutrient deficits, mineral and electrolyte imbalances, and decreased bone mass, but there’s only so much I can dig into in one blog. For now I’ll leave it at this.
Under eating is harmful to our health. It is destructive to our relationship with food and our body. And it’s not even effective.
Eat, and eat enough. Try to eat something within a couple of hours of waking and ever 3-5 hours. Eat from a place of self-care and body respect. Tune into your body and start to listen for hunger. Note that “hunger” may not experienced as a growling belly. Many people don’t notice hunger here. You might notice it in a variety of different ways from an emptiness in your throat/ esophagus to difficulty focusing or feeling lethargic.
As your hunger rehabilitates and you become attuned to your needs, your body will naturally (and effortlessly) settle into your “best weight.” And while it might not be the socially accepted aesthetic standard – it will be the best reflection of you honouring your body’s unique needs, and an approach to nutrition you can maintain long term!
While those short term “results” from a very low calorie diet might feel really “sexy” and exciting, nourishing your body in a way that enables you to do the things you want to do and feel great doing them is the sexiest outcome of all! Instead of focusing your time, energy and money on under-eating, instead focus your time, energy and money on becoming aware of Diet Culture, practicing Intuitive Eating and building a healthier more peaceful relationship with your body!
Tactic #2: Restrictive food lists
This is one of the go-to’s in the “wellness diet.” You know the “it’s a lifestyle” trend that predominates a lot of mainstream media and “healthy” programs these days. Whether it’s a list of “foods to eat” that you must adhere to, or a list of “foods to avoid” you need to nix from your nutrition, it’s restriction.
And while restricting foods that genuinely don’t work for your body is important if you have allergies or legit intolerances, these arbitrary lists distributed to groups at large (or by strangers or celebrities on the internet) is not only unnecessary, it is often counter-productive!
Here’s the challenge with restricting foods with black and white food rules:
Rules and arbitrary food lists aren’t sustainable.
Many of these food lists restrict major food groups like grains or dairy, or specific ingredients, like grains, sugar, legumes or night shades (which includes tomatoes, potatoes and peppers). This isn’t realistic for the majority of people. As I stated earlier, unless you have a medically valid reason to eliminate food from your diet and are working with a qualified nutrition professional (Registered Dietitian or Naturopath), there is no reason to make eating healthy harder! In the busy world we live in, preparing healthy food can already feel overwhelming and complicated. When we layer to that extreme amounts of restriction (with no valid reason), we’re simply making our life unnecessarily complicated.
Have you ever noticed how you tend to respond when you (inevitably) have the food you’ve been restricting? Yeah, you over-indulge (possibly to the point of feeling sick). And when it happens, most people make this mean that they can’t control themselves around the food and can’t be trusted.
But you can be trusted. The issue isn’t the food or your “lack” of will-power. It’s the arbitrary rule that created an unhealthy relationship with the food.
When we place foods in categories and make them off-limits we’re putting them up on a dietary pedestal that ironically makes them even more tantalizing! The reality is, unless you have allergies or actual intolerances, there are no foods that are unhealthy, when consumed in moderation.
It makes eating stressful.
Arbitrary restriction can make eating a really stressful experience for some people. Depending on the severity of restrictions it might mean you can’t eat out, enjoy a treat made by a friend, or grab a convenience food on a night when you just don’t have time or energy to cook (hello, real life). And the bottom line here is this: there’s not much point to all this stress! There are studies that have examined the cost of this stress or “allostatic load” on the body, and they found that the cost of the stress on our health and well-being was greater than simply eating the “unhealthful” foods. Hello perspective.
It steals the joy!
Finally, food is meant to be pleasurable. If it was meant to be mechanistic as the popularized “food is fuel” mantra implies, we wouldn’t be evolved to have the robust sensory experience we do. Eating in a purely functional way where many of your “favourite foods” are off limits, simply steals the joy from your eating experience. It also underplays the importance and value of the cultural/ social role of sharing foods. When you have a very limited range of foods you can eat, it makes eating with others difficult. How does this interfere with you overall happiness and fulfillment? How does this impact your mental health? Is it worth it? Consider whether the perceived benefit of restriction is worth the costs to you.
An alternate (less stressful, more joyful, and healthier) approach?
Enjoy a variety of foods, and tune into how foods make you feel. Ditch the arbitrary lists and notice how foods work for you and your body (body-food choice congruence). Consider the following questions:
- How do your food choices feel in your body?
- Do they give you the energy you want?
- How does your body respond?
- Does eating this way work for you, and your life?
- How does eating this way work for your family?
- Does it make it impossible to share meals with your family or friends?
- How does this impact your children’s ideas about foods/ body?
Be curious and tune into you. Over time you might find there are foods that do and do not agree with you. That’s ok! Listen to that! But don’t simply eliminate a food because some random list/ influencer/ celebrity/ trainer told you to. Instead let your body lead!
Tactic #3: Extreme Fitness
You don’t learn to swim by jumping in the deep end. There will always be a few outliers for whom this works, but for the majority of us we need to start in the shallow end, and progress to the deep end with time and practice.
Developing fitness is no different.
Here’s the rub: when people decide they’re going to “get healthy” they tend to jump all in. Why? Because so many “programs” suggest it. The programs come, complete with calendars of what to do on each day with very little consideration to where you, as an individual might be starting! Heck, many of these programs are marketed to “all levels,” when in fact they’re only really appropriate for a very small segment of the population.
If you’ve had a period of being sedentary, starting off with an intense exercise program may not only be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it’s also far more likely to set you up for injury or over-training (read: a total buzz kill, and potentially dangerous!).
Don’t get me wrong, I love structure and a good “plan” as much as any trainer. And, it’s so important that if you’re using a “plug and play” plan you keep in mind that human bodies take time to adapt. If you want it be a joyful, positive experience (read: something you’re more likely to stick to), the most effective approach is step-wise. With consideration to your unique interests and current capabilities.
Extreme fitness has its place. I’m not bashing it. I personally love a good challenge, but we need to start where we are and progress slowly. But how do you do that if you’re not a trainer (or can’t afford to hire one)?
Here are my top tips for leaning into more activity.
Step 1: Ask yourself, where are you now?
- Getting started: if you’re currently inactive (no guilt or shame), lean in with some gentle intentional movement. Start by layering in more activity into your day. Set the intention to move more within the structure of your real life: take the stairs, park at the other end of the lot, take a 5-minute movement break a couple times a day.
- Moving more: once you’re more generally active, start carving out the time/ space in your life for more intentional movement. And make sure you move in a way that works for you! Keep it fun! Layer in some walks, have a living room dance party. Try integrating 10-20 minutes of intentional movement every day with the ultimate goal of achieving around 150-minutes per week (this is the number that is correlated with positive health outcomes). But just because I gave you one, don’t stress about the number, just focus on moving and having fun!
- Ready to exercise: If you’re generally active and are looking to integrate more intentional exercise, awesome, use the next two steps to identify what that looks like and remember lean in progressively!
Step 2: Where do you want to be?
- Specifically, what would you like to be able to do with your (awesome) body?
- Focus on performance, not aesthetics or weight loss.
- Think about where you’d like to be in a few months, or perhaps a year, then break that bigger goal into weekly or monthly goals.
- Use your goals as guideposts but don’t be too rigid! Give yourself permission to adjust course as often as you’d like to ensure the goal suits you!
Step 3: What can you do to help you move from where you are, to where you want to be?
Keep these factors in mind:
- What brings you joy? We are pleasure seeking creatures! Make sure there’s something in it for you (beyond the dangling carrot of being able to do the thing. If you enjoy the process, the practice will stick! Whether it’s the activity itself or doing it with friends (via zoom if necessary) find ways to move your (awesome) body that bring you joy!
- What works with your life? Let’s be realistic, I might want to be able to climb Kilimanjaro or swim the English Channel, but those might not be “this year” goals (for travel restrictions if nothing else). What will logistically work for you – with your current priorities, commitments, interests and goals?
- How will you make it happen? When will you squeeze it into your calendar (pro-tip: schedule it, and treat it as an un-cancelable appointment). What supports do you need from your family
- Do you have the information you need? If not, seek out reputable sources, and body positive guides to help you get there! Hey, if you’re interested, I’d love to connect! At the very least I can put on my concierge hat and direct you to free resources that might serve and support you!
- Be clear on the why. Why does this matter to you? Why are you doing this? Get to the core of the onion on this one. Keep asking WHY until you strike a chord of emotion. When you feel “that” feeling, you know you’re into a really moving, compelling why. It will be a godsend on those days you don’t wanna! Because you’ll have them, because #human.
Take it one step at a time.
No matter how you get “there,” remember that all goals are achieved one step at a time. It’s so easy to look at someone else’s achievements and think, “oh wow, they did that so quickly.” But we can’t see the work, and progress that took. We also can’t see the obstacles they faced (and overcame) or failures they had (real life).
This is especially relevant in fitness! That person who just ran their first 5k likely didn’t start with a jump off the couch! They leaned in, started with walks around the block, then a month or two (or year) later they explored adding in some brief run intervals, and with time (months) progressed to their first 5k. They may have and multiple “false starts” where they got going then life happened. Or perhaps they experienced injury along the way. It’s easy to look at the “finish line” and just see the victory. But the true victory is the journey to the start line.
Keep your eyes in your own lane and follow and celebrate your unique path to health + fitness, your way!
I want to end this blog by saying this.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to use January as a reset button. It’s normal and healthy to relax a little around your health habits through the holiday season. To enjoy and savour the beautiful holiday foods and a more relaxed schedule – especially this year! Taking a pause from your usual routine can be so great for the mind and body! So it’s ok to want to turn a new leaf and return to your habits, or build some new ones come January.
If you need some support, I’d love to help! I support clients one-on-one, in partner coaching or in groups! Connect with me for a free 10-minute call and let’s chat about what support structures might serve you!