How many of you out there follow a blog that features “What I Ate Wednesday?” Raise your hands high, now–and then look around. I bet you see a lot of (imaginary, virtual) hands in the air. During the days of … Continue reading
Back when I was training to become a figure competitor (aka during my last and worse relapse with ED), I thought I had it all figured out: The carefully researched broscience in my muscle magazines told me that I was … Continue reading
It’s been a while since I’ve done a Trigger HAPPY Thursday, because, as usual, life got in the way…and so I figured I’d use today’s video to address that very issue. (And if you’re not near a video-friendly place, here’s … Continue reading
Hard to believe it, but it’s already Wednesday. I know it’s sort of out-of-character to post three days in a row, but Monday was International No Diet Day, and I’m feeling like extending the “Day” into a whole “Week.” Therefore, … Continue reading
When it comes to the calories in vs. calories out issue, I know that there are no easy fixes. We live in a culture that sees “truths” in absolute terms so long as they’re based on recommendations by the government … Continue reading
A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”
- Wake up at 4:30 am after about 5-6 hours of sleep. Raises my ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone) and lowers my leptin (the satiety stimulating hormone). Lower leptin means lower endorphins.
- Coffee with artificial low-fat creamer. Raises my cortisol, stimulates insulin response.
- Get to the gym by 5 am. Take an hour long spin class. Physical stress of intense endurance workout raises my cortisol, artificially increases my endorphins.
- Down a protein shake (dairy proteins, lactose, and artificial sugar). Stimulate insulin response with lactose and artificial sugar, irritate gut with dairy proteins.
- Get to my job, which stresses me out (because I hate my job, because I have a big project on deadline, because I hate my coworkers/my boss/my direct reports, whatever). Cortisol stays raised.
- Stomach starts growling at 10 am. Have a Greek yogurt with berries on the bottom. Stimulates another insulin spike, more dairy proteins for the gut.
- Starving by noon. Have a big salad with tofu, low-fat dressing, and a piece of whole grain bread. Snack on a banana. More gut irritation from soy (lectins and phytates and phytoestrogens, oh my!), bread (gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, etc. Another insulin spike from influx of glucose and fructose from both the low-fat dressing (added sugars to make up for the lack of fat, for taste purposes) and the banana. Promote hormone dysregulation with phytoestrogens in soy.
- Start yawning around 1 pm. Desperate to stay awake. Another cup of coffee. Cortisol stays raised, body/mind still physically exhausted.
- Starving again by 3 pm. Forage in purse of 100-calorie pack of cookies with goji berries. They’re gluten-free and low calorie so they must be healthy. Also, some doctor on the Today show said that one of the ingredients was a superfood. Superfoods are good for me, so I’ll eat more of them. Feeding my gut processed foods, feeding my liver glucose. More insulin.
- Leave work and head back to the gym because I am feeling guilty for “not working out hard enough” this morning. Another hour of weights should do it. Drink a Gatorade throughout, to replenish electrolytes. More cortisol, more glucose. Liver is pumping insulin like it’s nobody’s business. Body isn’t hurting for electrolytes, but someone tweeted an article that said I needed them, so…
- Get home and make dinner. It’s Meatless Monday, so, after weighing and measuring all my portions, it’s gluten-free pasta with soy-meatballs and beans for extra protein and canned spaghetti sauce. Pasta is gluten-free and therefore, in my mind, a weight loss food. Two helpings! More soy. Beans are primarily carbohydrate; proteins are incomplete. Also contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Canned spaghetti sauce has added sugar. Gluten-free pasta is still densely packed with carbohydrates, which will be broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body.
- Still hungry. Need dessert. Start foraging for anything sugary to take mind off of hunger. Cereal it is: one bowl–okay, two–with fat-free milk. If it’s low fat, it’s okay to have the extra bowl….right? More carbs and sugars, sugars and carbs. Nighttime binge courtesy of leptin resistance and one last wonderful spike/drop in insulin from the sugar eaten for dinner.
- Spend about 45 minutes logging all my food and exercise with an online calorie counter. Have used it every day for the last 6 months, so I already know exactly how many calories I’ve eaten, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel guilty if I don’t. May or may not have fudged the pasta and cereal amounts. Secretly hate myself because I know how much I really ate. Not a big enough deficit. Negative self talk as a result of using a calorie counter. “Staying accountable” to my disorder (and who says I have a disorder, huh?) makes me feel like I have a sense of power, even though I’ve actually just lost the last 45 minutes of my life to pointless worrying.
- Off to bed. Hating myself for the second bowl of cereal, thinking about chocolate cake. Guess I’ll have to go to the gym twice tomorrow to make up for it. Feeling depressed about it. Stay up late reading on my tablet–shut down around 11 or 12 and then toss and turn before falling into a light and fitful sleep. Cortisol levels kept unnaturally high by the afternoon coffee mean that sleep is going to be disrupted. Blue-white glow from the tablet screen disrupts melatonin production, which helps the body to fall asleep. Melatonin production also thrown off by disruption of natural circadian rhythm (staying up too late, getting up too early). Lack of sleep also promotes leptin resistance and stimulates ghrelin. Excessive exercise (stress) can contribute to depletion of serotonin, which leads to depression. Depression from lack of serotonin can lead to insomnia, which contributes to further serotonin depletion. (Vicious cycle.)
Okay. So remind me again why this lifestyle is considered healthy? Remind me why we “love” exercising and having to snack all day? Remind me why people get upset when anyone suggests that it’s not dedication but obsession?
If you’re a slave to the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you do because you believe that you’re benefitting from it, ask yourself if that’s helped you lose weight, get fit, or enjoy your life at all.
And if you’ve taken it to the “eat clean” orthorexic extreme (as I most assuredly did), then you’re definitely in the camp that believes that extreme measures are needed to stay healthy. And while I commend you for eliminating the 100-calorie packs of cookies, you’re in the same boat if you’re snacking on homemade gluten free cookies with dried goji berries instead. You’re in the same boat if you believe that you have to down a protein shake or some concoction made with egg whites and fake sugar. You’re in the same boat if you already know in advance how many calories you ate and burned because you’ve used the calorie counter for so long that it’s no longer even a necessary tool (especially if you have the mobile app on your phone because you want to log every morsel of every meal the second you eat it, so you won’t forget).
But we’ve been taught to eat less and move more for so long, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that there could be another way.
I’ll post next about some of the changes I made this summer, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your day look like?
If you have ever been on a diet, every started a new fitness regimen, done your first “couch to 5K” or started restricting one or more food groups for the sake of getting a six-pack, then you know it doesn’t, ultimately, work. Even those of us who maintain weight loss/muscle gain through any sort of extreme change a) know in the back of our minds that it’s not sustainable without restriction/over exercise and b) start to indulge in thoughts of guilt and shame over things we come to believe are cheats, slip ups, and undeserved days off.
The problem is that we’re looking at weight loss/muscle gain through the lens of aesthetics masquerading as health.
When I wanted to “get healthy” by “eating clean,” I really meant that I wanted to “get thin” and “have a six-pack.” And please don’t pretend that any of you are above conflating healthy with some fitspirational ideal. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of society now, that I think it’s just a natural impulse to feel this way. (In fact, one of my blog’s commenters pointed out how the message in the Eat-Clean Diet books is really all about saggy skin, love handles, and cellulite, not optimal performance and vibrant health, as they claim…)
As early as the 80s, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the author of Fasting Girls, noted that “a ‘narcissism based on health’ is not essentially different from one based on beauty. In fact, spokespersons for the new credo of female fitness espouse the same principles of vanity, self-sacrifice, and physical and spiritual transformation that characterized the beauty zealots of the early twentieth century. What is different is that compulsive exercising and chronic dieting have been joined as twin obsessions.”
And our culture has been so inculcated with the idea that the only way to lose weight/get healthy/look sexy is to eat less and exercise more, that we can’t even conceptualize any other solution. And because, according to this mindset, a calorie is a calorie, we have to perform a complex mathematical equation every day just to make sure we’re burning more than we eat:
Calories out must be greater than or equal to calories in. Fats contain almost twice the number of calories that carbs contain, so I’ll just eat more carbs. A stick of gum has five calories and celery has negative calories if you chew fast enough. The nutrition label on my box of cereal has a different number of calories from the one on Fitday, so I’ll make up the potential difference by running longer on the treadmill, which will, obviously, accurately report how many calories I’m burning based on the weight I enter on the machine. I’m starving, so I’ll eat less and move more and that will surely take my mind off of how hungry I am.
Brumberg notes that “[h]ow much one runs and how little one eats is the prevailing moral calculus in present-day anorexia nervosa,” but I’d argue that specialization in this form of math–and the feelings of moral superiority that it engenders*–has moved past the small enclave of anorexics who once claimed expertise and into the mental calculators of your average gym goer.
But the fact of the matter is, a calorie is not just a calorie.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection between leptin resistance and exercise addiction, where excessive exercise can actually lead to weight gain. It’s the same thing with calorie counting and restriction.
Calories out can mean that the body starts worrying about starvation and starts holding onto calories in. The wrong calories in can confuse the body into forgetting to let the calories out.
But there’s more to the story. That zero-calorie coke you’re drinking? The artificial sweeteners can contribute to sugar addiction and weight gain.
That marathon you’re running? It could be making you lose the muscle definition you’re working your butt off for in the gym.
We’ve been fed so many lies so often and with such startling earnestness that it’s almost impossible to understand where the falsehoods end and the truths begin. And, like a diabetic in a candy store, we eat up the media’s latest health announcements, experience a brief high, and suffer again from the inevitable crash–which has serious implications for our continued health and wellbeing.
In fact, just check out this infographic from Time.com . I’m going to be honest here: it’s the same crap you’ve already heard: exercise more, eat less. Eat mostly carbs. If you don’t burn more than you eat, you’ll gain weight. Track your calories so you know how much you’re eating.
(On Jimmy Moore’s podcast a few weeks ago, one of the guests said that the best way to make money is to sell a diet solution that actually makes it impossible to reach the goal. It’s really true. Because even if you do manage to live happily through the initial weight loss/muscle gain/body and lifestyle change, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to maintain it or regain it after you lose it.)
It’s time for a new paradigm, because the only people benefitting from the current ones are the people who work in the diet, fitness, and fat loss industries.
In my next post, we’ll look at one way of making the shift.
*See: “Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” et. al.)
A quick thought before I go back into the science and history of the calories in/calories out myth:
My physical therapist wants me to start going to the gym again. And I am utterly terrified.
I know it’s silly, especially since I’m hoping to make a career of fitness and nutrition, but I can’t help it.
The gym has always been both a haven and a prison. It is where I saw some of my greatest triumphs and my hardest falls. It is where I learned to love my body and hate it, to gain muscle and lose my mind.
Yoga is one thing, but going back to the gym is definitely another.
I just find this very relevant now, as I start to understand the myths that fueled my ED and exercise bulimia–as I start to explore why calories in/calories out is a fallacy, and how obsession is fueled by the false advertising of the fitness and health industries.
I’m not sure how to reconcile the fact that my PT wants me to start doing 5 minutes of steady state cardio with my former impulses to do hours of the same. I’m not sure how to reconcile 3 sets of ten light-weight negative calf raises on the leg press with the desire to deadlift 100+ pounds on the first day.
I’m terrified of finding myself listening to the voices that once upon a time told me the lies that led to my pain.
That being said, I feel a little bit better about the fact that I know that the voices tell lies. That I know that ED is always going to be waiting for me to start listening again. That I know how to tune the voices out–that I want to tune them out.
It’s funny: I was listening to the most recent Paleo Solution Podcast, and someone wrote in with a question regarding the Health at Every Size movement. It seemed strange–Robb Wolf, of The Paleo Solution Diet fame, is all about nutrition and strength training; HAES is more about body image and mental health/perspective. The question seemed out of place, being answered by a man who doesn’t struggle with an eating disorder and really hasn’t focused on Paleo or strength training as a method for coping with overweight or obesity in his own life. And something in the question stuck out at me: it was sent in by a personal trainer who noticed that the several of his overweight/overfat clients who had made significant gains in their health and vitality were the ones who were more likely to be upset when they didn’t see the same results reflected in belly or underarm fat.
What is so striking to me is that those people–people whose health has dramatically improved, whose lives have become infinitely better, whose chances at surviving to live a long and happy life have just increased–were unhappy because they aren’t physically “perfect” (whatever that word means).
All of that to say that I don’t understand why we spend so much time trying to equate health and fitness with aesthetic ideals.
I don’t understand–even though I’ve lived through it–why we have to equate flat abs with health and First Lady arms with longevity.
You know what? I no longer have completely flat abs. My triceps don’t pop anymore. I can’t deadlift or do a pull up (or ten) like I used to.
But you know what I’m more concerned about? The fact that I can’t run up a flight of stairs–or even walk it without getting winded. I’m more concerned about the fact that my gut health is still affecting my skin. I’m more concerned about the fact that walking my dog isn’t easy.
And because I’m spending more time worried about my lack of physical fitness, I’m spending less time worrying about my lack of a six pack. Funny how priorities change. (Would I like a six pack? Sure. But if it means having to starve myself or eat tuna and egg whites six times a day, then it’s not worth it.)
So maybe I will be okay to go back to the gym. Maybe I finally have the perspective that I was missing when I was spending hours on the elliptical, hoping for the “perfect” body (whatever that is). All I want now is the perfect body for me, where I am today. One that will keep me healthy, happy, and living a good, long life.
But that’s just me. More soon,
I wrote last time about how limiting calories can change the chemicals in your brain–how my dopamine highs from under-consuming calories and my endorphin highs from over-exercising had become inescapable addictions. But there is more to the story than the upset of just a couple of brain chemicals:
We hear a lot these days about insulin, especially in reference to the diabestiy epidemic. [Brief science lesson: Insulin is a regulatory hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to the presence of sugar in the blood. Our bodies were only meant to have about 1 tsp of circulating blood sugar, so when you eat foods that contain (or are converted to) a lot of glucose, the body responds with insulin, which shuttles that glucose out of the blood and into your muscles to be burned or liver to be converted to glycogen and stored.]
But there’s another hormone that people are only just starting to talk about (because it’s only recently that science has begun to understand it…): Leptin.
Fat cells, believe it or not are part of the endocrine system (the system related to the release and regulation of hormones). Your fat cells tell your brain when you’re starving and need to eat or that you’re full and good to go by releasing the hormone called “leptin.” When your fat stores are high, your fat cells are full of leptin, which transmits the “we’re full, don’t send supplies” signal to the brain. When your fat stores are low, however, there’s a lot less leptin to go around, and your brain gets the message that you need to eat.*
Leptin is also responsible for stimulating the production of endorphins, the exercise-high neurotransmitter.
Now, there’s a lot of chatter in the science/nutrition world about leptin disregulation as a result of obesity, but what about leptin disregulation in anorectics and eating disordered people? (For a short, really informative look at how leptin disregulation and insulin resistance can influence/be influenced by obesity, check out this awesome video by Sean Croxton: Leptin: Fat-Loss for Smart People)
When you’re eating disordered, an overly restricted eat-clean devotee, or somehow reaching low levels of body fat, your leptin levels go way down. Your brain gets the message that you’re starving and need to build up your body fat levels again, so it tells your body to start craving food. The cravings raise your dopamine levels, making extended marathons of Man vs. Food seem like a good idea. Of course, the restriction is what feeds the dopamine high, so you keep restricting and craving.
Now, those of us who couple the restriction with exercise are in an even more dangerous boat, addiction-wise. Why? Well, as I mentioned earlier, leptin is partially responsible for your brain’s release of endorphins. If your leptin levels are low, your endorphins become low as a result. What raises endorphins? Exercise.
So it’s very possible that your exercise regime becomes necessary to maintaining your mental health. And, as with most addictions, you can easily build up a tolerance. Now you need more exercise to get the same high.
I know this to be true because I’ve lived it. Because I used to read the transformation stories on the Oxygen and Eat Clean websites, because I still follow some of the professional fitness models on Twitter. The stories are all the same: I was overweight (or thought I was) and decided I needed a change. So I started by cutting out processed foods. I felt so good that I went for a run. Then I found (insert clean-eating protocol here) and started lifting weights. I looked and felt so good that I got a personal trainer. In a few months, people in my gym suggested I compete. And so: the diet became a strict regimen of extra-lean meats and “complex carbs” like oatmeal and brown rice. And so: the exercise became fasted cardio in the morning and weights in the afternoon. And so: the complex carbs were “too much food” except around training times. And so: the exercise became necessary to not having a nervous breakdown today and I pushed myself so hard I cried but it was worth it because I’m still in shape. And so: the food became all I thought about and egg-whites-with-stevia are delicious, you just don’t understand because you’re not healthy and devoted like me. And so: exercise became the only thing I cared about, not that you’d understand because you’re busy living your fat lifestyle while I’m flying high on thinness and muscle.
It scares me that this is even a possible thought process, but there it is. (And you can find some version of it on every thinspiration Pinterest board or on some of the fitness pros’ Twitter feeds if you don’t believe me.)
I’m not saying that this will happen to everyone who tries to get healthy, nor am I against cleaning up your diet and starting to exercise–in fact, I’m all for it! But for those of us who may already suffer from neurotransmitter imbalances, trading one addiction for another–cookies and cake for quinoa and kale; “skinny is the new healthy” for “strong is the new skinny”–becomes a real and imminent threat.
And if you’ve ever had these thoughts, it’s okay: it’s not your fault. There are processes in your body and brain that you and I can’t see or hear or feel, processes that happen in the background, processes that can mean the difference between starvation and health, addiction and freedom. And once your body/brain chemistry is affected, it’s hard to see past the immediate need for the next hit.
It’s especially hard when the messages sent out by science and society only serve to encourage these addictions.
*Leptin isn’t the only hormone involved in hunger–there are other hormones/peptides like ghrelin and PYY that are secreted by the lining of your stomach/pancreas to mediate some of those hunger responses…But we won’t get into that today!) For more, check out Wellness Mama’s great explanation here.
So, in the coming weeks, I’m going to be posting about strategies for getting outside of the fitness/nutrition insanity, but until then, read this awesome and sane post by Nia Shanks: Rid Your Life of Fitness and Nutrition Insanity.
Also, Stefani Ruper has another wonderful Food & Love Hack at Paleo for Women: Be Your Own Buddy. (If you’re an isolater, like me, don’t take this as permission to hide though! Spend some time with friends or loved ones this weekend and practice being in the moment and enjoying every second as it comes instead of worrying about when it will be over. I’m going on the record promising to practice that today myself–and you can hold me accountable if I don’t!)
Happy weekend, y’all!