Why I Stopped Dieting

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I grew up looking at underweight (‘waif’ and ‘heroin chic’ were the words they used) and yet impossibly perfect models on the pages of magazines. It did a number on me. Made me feel ashamed of my fleshy thighs, my broad shoulders, my small breasts. Sparked an unhealthy, decades long troubled relationship with food and my body.

A few years ago, when super-fit, uber lean models started to become popular, I celebrated! Progress, I thought! Perhaps my daughters wouldn’t have to grow up surrounded by such destructive images! Strength a desirable quality? Sign me up!

And as I began my journey towards health, I kept those images close. I replaced the skinny ideal with the super-fit, super-lean ideal as my goal. I began to hear the phrase ‘Strong is the New Skinny’ and was thrilled. I kept a picture of Dara Torres at her leanest on my fridge for four years as inspiration. Crossfit gained in popularity and with it images of strong women accomplishing incredible feats of strength and fitness. How wonderful! Take that, “skinny” models and the magazines that pushed them on my impressionable daughters!

As I got closer to my goal of a lean, fit body though, something started to change. I began to realize how much time I had to spend thinking about my diet and my workouts. As I got leaner, I needed to become increasingly disciplined about calories and macronutrients. At some point I realized I’d gone beyond simple mindfulness about food, and had ventured into the sort of behavior that some people might consider an eating disorder. Every calorie, every gram of protein, every micronutrient was being tracked. That’s what I needed to do to continue getting leaner. But oh, did I look great!

Do I want my daughters to grow up healthy and strong? Absolutely. Do I want them to feel pressured to be as disciplined about their diets as I was? Absolutely not.

I think most people can reach a healthy weight and body fat percentage by eating a balanced diet based on lots of variety and plenty of fruits and vegetables, keeping loose track of how much they’re eating and getting adequate exercise most days. I did that! I got down to about 165 pounds and 18-20% body fat fairly easily once I started eating well and exercising regularly. But that wasn’t good enough. After all, I had a picture of Dara Torres at about 9% BF on my fridge. I sure didn’t look like that! Nor did I look like the models I saw in fitness magazines, or the women I saw competing in the crossfit games on TV. I had a lot of work still to do if I wanted to be what had clearly become the standard of beauty and desirability in the fitness world.

In December of 2011, I decided enough was enough. This is ridiculous. That ultra-lean ideal is as unrealistic for most of us as the underweight ideal I grew up with. I was maintaining at about 15% body fat and felt great, was getting stronger and healthier every day, had a husband who adored my body, and yet when I looked in the mirror I still saw the fleshy thighs. My butt still jiggled. There was still cellulite on my thighs. What was it going to take to become what I had absorbed as the new standard of beauty? 

I decided to find out, and to blog about the process so my readers could get an inside look.

I set out with a goal to drop down to the level of leanness we women are barraged with in the popular media. 15% wasn’t it, and I suspected it was going to be single digit body fat for me, given my genetics. I did set some limits out of concern for my health, though:

-I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my basic nutrient needs. If I got to the point that I had to drop my calorie, protein, fat or micronutrient intake below that which is essential for health, I would stop.

-If I started to experience negative health effects of underfat (missing periods, bleeding and bruising, fatigue, hair loss, etc) I’d stop.

How’d I do it? I restricted my calories to just a few hundred less than I burn per day. This was so my body wouldn’t perceive a sudden reduction in calorie intake as famine, and start burning lean mass for fuel in an effort to preserve fat mass. I averaged an intake of 2200-2500 calories a day, I typically burn 2600-3000 calories a day. This kept my metabolism from tanking. (Important for anyone trying to lose weight! Better to lose it slowly and get to the finish line with a healthy metabolism than to drop weight quickly but kill your metabolism in the process, priming your body for rapid re-gain!)

Next, I maximized my protein intake to aid in lean mass preservation. When losing weight, some of the weight you lose will be fat and some will be lean mass. This is true no matter how healthfully you lose the weight. Getting enough protein can help limit lean mass losses though. I was aiming for 150+ grams of protein a day (at a body weight of 160 when I started). It’s difficult to get that much protein from food on 2200 calories a day, so I used a protein supplement to reach that amount.

To be clear: I was doing it as healthily as is possible. I wasn’t crash dieting. I wasn’t taking stimulants or appetite suppressants. I wasn’t eliminating foods or food groups. I was getting adequate nutrition, from a wide variety of foods. I was doing it as ‘right’ as a person can do it.

But I had to be so strict with portions, and I had to plan my days carefully to make sure I got everything I needed. And I’m not a fan of protein shakes, so trying to dress them up to make them palatable without adding extra calories was tedious and difficult. There wasn’t any room for creativity, and going out to eat was a nightmare! I’m sure I was no fun in that department. No alcohol, teeny tiny portions of chocolate, no impromptu evenings out because I would need to look at the menu beforehand to plan my meal, and the rest of the day around it!

I kept up with my lifting 3-5 days a week and intended to do more cardio, but in reality that sort of went out the window, mostly because, as I’ll discuss later, I just didn’t have the energy.

I lost 10 pounds over the course of 12 weeks, which is exactly what I would have expected given my 300-500 calories/day deficit. (It IS calories in vs out, don’t believe the fad-diet hype).

My weight loss stalled out at 147 pounds. This is because my weight ‘caught up’ to the number of calories I was consuming. To lose more I would have to reduce my calories or increase my burn through activity. This is where things got really uncomfortable. I wasn’t willing to reduce my calories further, because I’d have to sacrifice nutrition. And increasing my activity? Well, by that time I was experiencing unrelenting, low level fatigue, and I simply didn’t have the fuel to do more exercise. After bouncing around 147-150 for several weeks and seeing no weight loss (and feeling like crap all the time) I simply hit a wall that I couldn’t get over without risking my health, and that had been my limit going into this.

I scheduled a hydrostatic body fat test and maintained my weight until the test. That was a few-week wait. During that time I began to see some symptoms of ‘underfat’. There was the fatigue, for starters. And I was constantly impatient and irritable with my family. My husband, bless his heart, really stepped up and ran a lot of interference between my kids and I so they didn’t have to deal with my short temper. I was spacey and forgetful. My libido completely vanished. Most worrisome, my period didn’t show up when it was supposed to. In fact, it didn’t come back until I gained about 5 pounds and maintained the gain.

It’s difficult to find scientific info on the health impact of underfat. Most of it there is is specifically about women who are underweight as well as underfat, and even at 12% body fat my weight was still a very healthy 150 pounds, making my BMI 22.1, smack dab in the middle of the ‘healthy’ range on the weight charts. I had over 20 pounds worth of ‘cushion’ before I dropped into the ‘underweight’ category. Given my declining health, though, it was clear I couldn’t spare that weight without risking serious complications.

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Here is my before and after photo (the difference in color is due to the natural lighting at the time of day the pictures were taken, I’m standing in front of the same wall in both pics). On the left, November 2011 at 160 pounds and roughly 15-16% body fat. On the right 150 pounds and 12% body fat. I looked great, didn’t I? Aside from some fluff on my knees, I’d look right at home on a fitness magazine cover. And that fluff can be photoshopped out, no problem! But according to the American Council of Sports Medicine, a body fat composition of less than 12 to 14 percent is considered too low and a health risk for women. Other sources suggest falling below 15 percent is a concern. According to this site, having too little body fat increases the risk of brittle bones, loss of menstrual periods, infertility, dry skin, poor concentration, low mood, feeling cold, constant thoughts about food and low sex drive. Body fat protects the internal organs and aids in proper nerve function. Maintaining too little body fat for any length of time can weaken your bones and contribute to osteoporosis. Too little body fat can effect not just your moods, but your neurological function, triggering full-blown eating disorders in people who’ve previously had a healthy relationship with food.

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I like this picture because while it highlights how lean I was, the look on my face is a great illustration of how I felt. Spacey, out of it, low energy. You’ll also note my complete absence of breast tissue. This is pretty standard when a woman’s body fat gets this low. There are a few women who maintain a low body fat level and still have breasts, but most of us, when this lean, will lose the fat in our breasts too.

They don’t tell you this stuff when they bombard you with images of impossibly cut and defined women, do they? They also don’t tell you that the models in those pictures take diuretics (check out the last tip at the end of the article) and restrict water intake, to dehydrate themselves and make their muscles appear more defined. Or that every image you see in the media has been photoshopped and altered to better fit the standard image of beauty. And don’t even get me started on the fake tans, the strategic posing, the surgical enhancements, the flattering lighting, and the drugs some of these people take.

I know I’m going to get rebuttals from people who can maintain an uber-lean physique without experiencing health effects. That’s great! You are very fortunate that your body type has been declared ‘Good and Desirable’ by our culture. There are people who are able to maintain weights and body fat levels that classify them as morbidly obese and remain healthy, too. Do we glorify them and suggest that all women should aspire to that ideal? We don’t, because most of us wouldn’t be healthy if we tried to maintain that physique. Just as most of us wouldn’t be healthy at the body fat levels that are being pushed on us by the media and each other. Extremes are rarely healthy. But there is a whole world of balance and reason and moderation in between extremes, and most of us fall, perfectly healthfully, into that in-between world. And the people who naturally fall at the outer extremes are outliers – there is nothing wrong with them or their bodies, but they are outliers, and most of us will naturally fall in the in-between world. And it’s totally, completely ok.

I stopped dieting in March of 2012, when I originally published this post. I gained weight, about 20 pounds, in the following months, and then maintained that weight for the next 3+ years by exercising regularly, eating a balanced, varied and unrestricted diet, and practicing reasonable, sustainable lifestyle habits like getting adequate sleep, making time for myself every day, and eating cake when I wanted cake and salad when I wanted salad.

It turns out that the body those healthy lifestyle habits support doesn’t look a whole heck a lot different than the body I had right before I went on my “Fitness Model Diet”. It’s a few pounds heavier. It still has cellulite and my butt still jiggles. But the differences are minor. What IS NOT minor is the difference in the way I think. When I stopped trying to make my body small, when I ended that relentless pursuit of ‘less than’, suddenly I was free to pursue other goals. Suddenly I had energy and mental bandwidth to focus on my family. And my blog. And my job. And my friends.

In 1992, when I was in college, Naomi Wolf published “The Beauty Myth“, in which she said :

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

How I wish I’d learned this then! How I wish I’d recognized sooner how much of my life I was giving up in this relentless pursuit of smaller. How I wish I could have all those years back, imagine what I could have built? Imagine what we could build together if we all said NO to dieting?

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Parts of this article originally appeared on my blog Go Kaleo on March 27, 2012

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