I’m Calling for a New Paradigm

I grew up looking at underweight 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’ve 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 spend thinking about my diet and my workouts. Don’t get me wrong. In our modern food climate, we need to be diligent and mindful about what we eat, and our lifestyles have become so sedentary and easy that we need to make time to get the exercise that was a built-in component of our ancestors lives. But 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 am? Absolutely not.

I think most people can reach a healthy weight and body fat percentage by eating real food, 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. 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.

Last December, I decided enough was enough. This is ridiculous. That lean ideal is as unrealistic for most of us women as the underweight ideal I grew up with. I was maintaining at about 15% body fat and felt great, looked 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. What was it going to take to be what I somehow had absorbed as the new standard of beauty?

I decided to find out, and to blog about it.

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 slowing down. (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!)

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, even for omnivores. Factor in my mostly plant based diet, and protein supplementation was pretty much a necessity.

A typical day (and they all looked much like this, when having to be this strict it’s difficult to have much variety):

Breakfast: green smoothie with 1 fruit, 2 vegetables, algal DHA oil and protein powder
Snack: fruit and a protein shake
Lunch: salad with legumes (frequently tofu or tempeh for it’s high protein) or eggs, roasted root vegetables, kraut and avocado
Snack: a larabar or Vega whole food bar
Dinner: lentils or eggs, cooked vegetables and a protein shake
Snack: a spoonful or two of nut butter or a small piece of dark chocolate

I did enjoy my food, I didn’t eat anything I hate, so there was that. But I had to be 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, people, don’t believe the 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. See, 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. I have been bouncing around 148-150 for almost a month now, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to end the experiment when I did. 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’ve been spacey and forgetful. My libido has completely vanished. Most worrisome, my period didn’t show up when it was supposed to. As I write this, it’s 17 days late. I’ve been like clockwork since I’ve been at a healthy weight.

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 now at 12% body fat my weight is 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 have over 20 pounds worth of ‘cushion’ before I drop into the ‘underweight’ category. Given my declining health, though, it’s clear I can’t spare that weight without risking serious complications.

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 look great, don’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. 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, I’ve discovered very unpleasantly, as I’ve recently started experiencing sciatic pain for the first time in my life. 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.

I like this picture because while it highlights how lean I am, the look on my face is a great illustration of how I feel. 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 lucky women who maintain some semblance of breasts, but most of us, when this lean, will have the chests of teenage boys. Hence all the surgically enhanced boobs in the fitness industry.

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 women take.

I know I’m going to get lots of comments 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 obese and remain healthy, too. Do we glorify them and suggest that all women should aspire to that ideal? Of course not. 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.

I no longer appreciate the ‘Strong is the New Skinny’ meme, mostly because it is generally accompanied by images that are unrealistic and unhealthy for most of us. I believe in the original intention, the celebration of strength. Being strong is great, but you don’t need to be shredded to be strong. And you don’t need to be, or look, strong to be healthy. The original message has been co-opted, twisted and turned into a marketing tool to sell us a new mythology. I’m calling for all of us, even the fitness models and figure competitors, to reject the cultural mythology that there is one standard of beauty and health. Stop buying in! Stop buying the magazines and the products advertised in them, stop sharing and glorifying the pictures on facebook, stop looking at yourself in the mirror and focusing on the ways you don’t look like what you see in the media. Not even the models in those pictures look that way in real life. Health first. If you end up looking ripped because you’ve adopted a healthy lifestyle, great! And if when you are healthy you don’t end up ripped, join the club. It won’t be easy to change the way we think. I admit, I really like the way I look now! There’s a part of me that wants to say ‘screw my health!’ and stay here, or even lose a little more! We are so brainwashed that even when confronted with evidence that what we’re doing is dangerous, we still are tempted to keep doing it because of the positive reinforcement we get from society. I hate it, and want better for my daughters. I want better for myself. I want better for all of you! We all deserve better than this, and to be loved just the way we are.

Addendum 7/12/12
Wanted to address some of the feedback I’ve gotten since originally posting this. I heard a lot of ‘Well obviously her REAL problem is that she wasn’t eating MEAT’. I responded to that train of thought here. I also want to post another picture taken around the same time, I didn’t use it in the original post because it was just a phone camera pic I took in the mirror. But it’s under different lighting and conditions, and I think it better illustrates just how lean I was getting there at the end. Some people have questioned the results of my hydrostatic body fat test. I’m not making up the results (12%) and it was done by a reputable testing facility. I will note that in the pictures in the original post I was well hydrated, hadn’t done and ‘pumping’ pre-photo shoot, and hadn’t done any carb or nutrient cycling to enhance muscle definition. So I may not look like the 12% people are used to seeing in professional photos and on stage at figure competitions, but 12% is the reading my hydrostatic test produced.

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102 thoughts on “I’m Calling for a New Paradigm

  1. Thanks for this! Love the article and am impressed to see someone actually go through the process of getting to that % and document it honestly. I’m a trainer and its great to have the real evidence to show clients rather than trying to explain something that sounds subjective and may not be taken to heart.

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  3. Way to go! As I was lifting this morning, I said to myself. I do not want to workout for the purpose of ‘physique’. I want what lifting weights provides me: definition that -I- admire, a means to burn fat and keep up with my intake, an added boost of health! I want to maintain my current weight, I want to go out for a drink or an ice cream cone IF that is right for me, I do not want to avoid pasta or any food for that matter. Treats are just that, treats, and they taste better when you don’t have them very often. I want to listen to my body, if a food makes me feel sluggish, I want to experience that, take note and make adjustments. No big deal.

  4. Absolutely brilliant and right on the mark. The best, most rational, common-sense argument I have ever read on the topics of diet and exercise.

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  7. Fantastic blog post – thanks so much! It is so difficult in this industry to be bombarded by the perfect figures, strong, sleek, not one inch of cellulite and for most of us this is impossible to achieve and unhealthy to strive for. I run a fitness business and it is about being healthy not unhealthy – but I also get a carried away with the images on FB etc. Your refreshing and I intend to change my posts for my business to focus more on health and happiness and not on being perfect!

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  9. Thank you! Right now I’m not happy with my body, years of hard work and play have taken their tole but I will get back there. I learned a long time ago the difference between being healthy and the numbers attached to the supposed ideals. Before an accident that left me with a broken jaw, I weighed roughly 170 pounds and had a hard time getting my BMI to drop below 20%. By all accounts I was overweight. Never mind that because of my job in the military, I was constantly working out along with the regular PT, and my own workouts. Every weigh-in was an exercise in humiliation. So my jaw gets broken and I go on a restricted diet because it’s wired shut. I did get down to the 130 I was supposedly supposed to be at (at 5’9″ and a large frame). I looked hideous. Post-wiring my weight rocketed up to 200 and over 30% BMI. That didn’t look good either. I know that what had happened was my metabolism was trashed because of the restricted diet and going about my normal work and exercise routines. My real ideal weight, MY ideal, was at 180, around 16%, and a good balance of lean and bulk muscle. I see that now. At the time, I was still convinced that I was overweight. I am forever working to convince my dieting friends that some fat is good and that they need to stop looking at the numbers and look, instead, at overall health and strength.

  10. Thank you for posting this. It is so refreshing to know that I’m not the only one that thinks this is all getting ridiculous! The sad truth is our society places wayyy more emphasis on how a woman appears than her worth as a person. Not only do we have to stop buying into the images, but we have to start promoting the intellect and creativity that every woman possesses and celebrate THAT. Great article. Really well written!

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  14. Just read this excellent article. I agree with 100% and good for you to complete your journey to health. I’ve been a fitness professional forever:) and unfortunately, what sells is the “looking perfect part”. It’s been a total frustration for me! With the inception of the aerobic craze during the 80′s the body images of woman went from skinny boney to skinny strong….all impossible goals. The media & marketing for perfect bodies are worth fighting for by changing women’s attitude individually. Thanks for sharing.

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  17. Heh, you look a bit like Jackie Warner in the picture of being 12%, which is a compliment, btw, but yeah I have never been at the point where I am “happy” with my body, but I am not sure if I am willing to put up with the BS of being spaced out and hungry all the time to get there, plus, I have small boobs as it is, could my chest go concave?

  18. thank you for this! i am going to print this out and read it everyday. i am so brainwashed and need to change my mentality before my ED takes complete control of my life. i am one of those who feels like i am not strong until i see it show in the mirror. it is completely frustrating. i worry and think about it way too much . thanks for sharing your journey :)

  19. Thank you so much for sharing! I have a question for you. I have the exact same symptoms that you started to experience around 12%. I’ve had them for quite a while actually. In fact, I haven’t menstrated in about 15 months. I started my weight loss quest in June of 2011 and lost 30 pounds in a matter of 6 months. I have been struggling since to lose the last few pounds, but currently am at 23% body fat. This is why I haven’t considered my symptoms to be due to being underweight/underfat. My goal is really just to be at a comfortable 20%, so I don’t think that is unhealthy. I know you aren’t a doctor, but I would be interested in your opinion and feedback since you have so much experience and have done the reasearch.

    • I am not, of course, the lovely writer of the post above, but I could have been. Like you, I began to experience those same symptoms at extremely low bodyfat, and hadn’t menstruated in around 2 years when I finally got so hungry I decided that living this way was abnormal. I started “recovery” from my dieting venture around 8 months ago. I wanted to suggest checking out medical researcher and patient advocate Gwyneth Olwyn’s website, “YourEatopia.com”. It’s eating disorder centric but it will explain exactly why you are experiencing the symptoms you are experiencing, and how you would best go about fixing them. I’d recommend looking at the “Blog Index” which should be in the sidebar once you are in the blog. There’s more information than you could ever dream of on this subject… The “Fat” series may be most applicable to your situation, but don’t hesitate to read any of the titles that intrigue you… I only read three or four articles before I knew exactly where to find and fix the source of all my problems.

  20. AMEN SISTA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Friggin’ RIGHT!!! I’m posting this all over my facebook. You hit the nail completely on the head. I can’t tell you how much that term “mythology” resonated with me… that’s EXACTLY what it is! And unfortunately, CrossFit has itself adopted a ‘mythology’ of it’s own. I’m sure you’ve seen the shirts: “failure is not an option”, “unbroken”, etc. As if: “if you train hard enough, long enough, GOOD enough… You’ll NEVER have to fail in life! You’ll never have to suffer! Or be NOT good enough!” This is just totally bogus. Everyone knows that you have to fail sometimes, and any ONE or organization that tells you otherwise (OR mainstream media that tells you you can look 12% body fat year round) IS LYING TO YOU!
    Please don’t misunderstand me here: Sucess is GOOD! Crossfit is good! Exercise is good! Getting stronger, faster, putting in effort to better yourself is GOOD!!!! Really good! But, you will, one day, be faced with a situation that you cannot live up to, cannot control, have no power to aid with all your ‘work capacity’. That’s life dude.

    Thanks for getting it lady… I hope I meet you randomly one day =) I’ll give you a big hug and tell you how amazing you are, even at 160# and 15% body fat ;) Thanks for posting this.

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  23. After complaining about what you said was the new standard of beauty, why did you want to find out what it took to attain it? You’re eating what you like, but your description of your life sounds like it is only centered around the diet and exercise, nothing else.

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  25. This post was a total eye-opener for me. I keep a Tumblr blog as motivation to get fit and healthy for a better life, and have seen countless images of impossibly ripped women along with the quote ‘Strong is the new skinny’. I’m starting to wonder if it’s right that we should have a universal quote that applies to all women, telling them what is good or beautiful. As you said in your post, each body is different and some people can be healthy and fit even when considered ‘obese’. I say we drop every paradigm like this! Educate people on how to be healthy- eat better, move more. Leave the quotes at home.

  26. I love your story. One question: do you dance? I highly recommend it as a body/life haven. Try joining a belly dance troupe..or ballet, or folkloric troupe. The sisterhood you experience in dance troupes and the respect & appreciation for the female body… Is priceless. We are the sex that carries so beautifully, jiggles and movements that men just genetically (typically & not in the same way) can’t :) I can’t tell u what a wonderful experience embracing: presentation, movement, and the belly is! Best of luck on your continued journey of discovery, appreciation, & strength… Oh.. & ur a beautiful person :) thank u for posting! Email nee if you would like some recommendations for dance groups that will challenge and welcome you! Loss of fun! :-)

    • Thank you! I’d love to try out dance some time. I’m a terrible klutz, but that probably exactly why I SHOULD dance, right? :D

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  28. Honestly, I think you looked MUCH better in the before picture. Still strong and lean but not so unbelievably thin. In the after photo I just wanted to give you some food! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • I can’t stand it when people say “I just want to give you some food!” “Why don’t you just eat a cheeseburger!” It is SO insulting to someone who is trying hard to be healthy and fit. It’s like calling someone overweight “Fat”.

      Why would you want to discourage someone who is trying to get in shape and be healthy? I just don’t get it.

      • I can’t stand it either in real life, but I agree with CF here, I want to give MYSELF a cheeseburger. The most disturbing thing is that at the time I still thought I had more I could lose, and now, 4 months later, I look back at these pictures and realize how distorted my self image was. Just restricting calories can trigger distorted thinking.

  29. What would u recommend someone’s average macronutrient goal be if trying to gain muscle (% carbs, pro, fat)? There r a lot of conflicting recommendations, from zone, to 80-10-10, to 50/30/20, etc

    Also, what is ur take on food combining?

    How do u take ur pro shakes (with fruit mixed in? Or just with water?)?

    • 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, at least 20-35% fat, and then experiment to find what works best for you!

      Food combining is mostly woo.

      During this experiment I was mostly doing just water and protein powder. It was gross!

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  35. Just read this article, it was recommended by another blogger – actually, I think it was recommended by more than one. Rightfully so. It is interesting to know what is behind a body like this. Not only the pictures you see almost everywhere (yes, I admit it. I do think they look amazing), but what it actually means to get a body like that. How it is even harder or next to impossible if you want to have a body like this the healthy way.
    Some people are probably just lucky and simply look like that without having to put much effort in it. But these people are very rare, and a lot of people struggle even with having a healthy body.
    I am struggling with that. I am currently roughly 60 lbs overweight (if you judge by commonly accepted standards) and actually have mostly come to terms with the fact, that my body will never look like anything near that (notice the “mostly”?). Luckily this does not keep me from trying to get healthier. I actually was not clearly aware that looking like this can be a threat to you health too, so thank you for this experiment and for sharing your insight.

  36. Thank you for that very candid piece of writing. I am very much in favor of a new paradigm. I like to think that my wife, my students, colleagues, teachers and I are part of that change. First let us face the fact that there is nothing positive about the word “skinny.” it does not mean strong, or healthy or beautiful. Skinny conjures visions of weak, starved, lifeless, unhappy physiques, “skinny-fat” being the ubiquitous undesirable descriptive across health and fitness cultures. To a healthy and rational mind there is no appeal to skinny. Let us set the word skinny aside, it has not and can not fit into a dialogue about positive change. I submit that strong is the new beautiful, and healthy is the new beautiful.

  37. Ladies! Ladies!

    I am under 10% body fat and since I dropped the fat have started a whole new era in my life. And that was actually when I got my missed periods back which were held off due to stress and anxiety of gradschool.

    By the way, I never decided to do this. I have been an athlete since I remember. Dropping fat is no challenge for me. How I look and where I put muscles is but fat? Nope. It’s years and the way body is raised. I will definitely go through the same changes every woman goes with aging no wonder however, I want every body to notice if you have started working out in your mid 20s or 30s or whenever, yes! great for you but you are not going to change the number of fat cells your body has built through out your growth. You shrink them but once you feed your body again BAM! they’re there. Even slight changes happen in yours and years of dedication. Every body knows the 10000 hrs rule. So yeah! I’m there with you, enjoy your health. Train dirty, eat clean and feel powerful. DONE!

  38. You look great in the before and after picture. Feeling good and healthy should be the goal. This leads to happiness and self confidence. The total of this combination yields a good internal and external life. A person’s happiness tends to radiate out and reflect back.
    Looking hot is great, but being hot is not just about looks. There are many physically beautiful women that are not attractive, because they are not happy.
    Thank you for your exploration and sharing of your experiences. Exploration is empowering.

  39. Thank you. Good reminder that these images can be as destructive as the “super skinny” look. When I was my leanest I was miserable and crying all the time — everything felt impossible. I’d say “Happy and Healthy is the new skinny!”

    :)

  40. Thank you so much for posting this. I think it is really important to get the message out there that a woman’s body needs a certain level of body fat to be healthy and that achieving the fit look in magazines and television can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. Most would equate those lean body images with health, but I appreciate you clarifying that it is not healthy.

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  42. Hi, I would really like some more info or references about underfat. I think this recently happened to me and I havent been the same since. Last May, I made the decision to be “HOT” and lose fat. By November, I lost 12lbs and a significant amount of body fat. I dont even know how much, but I was super lean (for me). I used a lot of fasting and strength training to get there and watching my calories CLOSELY. It wasnt too bad actually and I felt great. Seriously, I only experienced some of the stuff you did. I was stonger than ever, endurance was amazing, cardio was great – running 10miles no problem, yada yada yada….had NO boobs at all and my ass became flat as a pancake and I missed 3 periods!!! But otherwise, I was super defined and looked amazing in a bikini. Then the holidays – there was evidently a psychological thing for me as I felt almost deserving of the junk I was devouring…cakes, sweets, meats, breads, sugar, alcohol…you know the spread…I must have shocked my system so bad because I blew my whole digestion out. All my plumbing was screwed. I am still recovering. I do, however, have my period again! Yippee! LOL
    Really tho, this is something that happens alot so I would love to get more details. I know my body fat was too low, I was CRAVING food constantly. I mean, this is all I could think about! I am still battling this mind set. I also know I have developed a serious issue about how I look. I recently had my body fat measured at the gym with the pinch caliper and I was at about 15-16%. I KNOW that this is ideal for my size and age (5’1″ and 34) BUT I am so unhappy with myself and how I look. I couldnt even muster up the courage to go back to the gym and let alone the weight area of the gym. I backslid and I only deserved the cardio area.
    I am determined to look like that again, but its very challenging this time around. How the hell do competitive fitness models do this? I know this is a fleeting look and probably look the best during those picture sessions, but dammit, I looked good!! I move like crazy, lift pretty heavy, eat little and I am stuck…
    thanks for the article, its exactly how I felt (minus the moodiness and lethargy).

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  44. Hallelujah!!!! I completely relate to every word!!! A few months ago I decided I was going to do my very 1st “All Natural” Fitness/Figure competition. Everyone I spoke to said that I could easily compete without drugs. I began my training. Not only did I find the calorie restriction unhealthy but the more I researched the “All Natural” competition world the more I realized that there was nothing natural or healthy about it. I believe in putting into your body what you want to get out. I refused to use protein powders loaded with garbage and also fell in love with RAW protein. My goal now is not to be on stage after months of depletion just to say I did it. My new goal is to be kick ass healthy, inside and out. Most importantly learn that no matter where I am, I am comfortable living in my own skin. Experience has taught me that the only way to do that is exactly what you said is to eat clean, exercise and find things that make me happy. Like you said “Eat real food and move around alot…” Healthy most certainly IS the new Skinny! Amen sistah, Amen!

  45. Inspiring post — I’ve been wondering about this same thing. I love being stronger and fitter, yet as you say, we can still fall prey to unrealistic expectations. One thing though, I think focusing on eating whole, healthy foods leaves us better able to manage stress and to kick off unrealistic expectations. (I’m not saying don’t indulge on occasion, or suggesting you should feeling guilty when you do.)

    Stay active, eat healthily (for the most part), get enough rest, enjoy your life, and however you wind up looking is the way you should look. We aren’t all meant to be waif-thin, neither are all of us natural bodybuilders. Let’s appreciate our differences.

  46. Hi, I am very interested in more info about underfat. In may last year I started a transformationcontest and by November I had lost abo ut 12 pounds and a significant amount of body fat. I felt great and was at the peak of my fitness level. Not to mention I looked so ripped. Then I started the refers. There was some psychological stuff about feeling deserving of the holiday

  47. Thank the hell out of you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Years of beating myself up for cellulite ON STAGE at a bodybuilding show and I can’t tell you how great it is to just FEEL GOOD with what you are eating/lifestyle v. some unrealistic/enhanced/whatever image that EVEN THE PEOPLE DON’T MAINTAIN for more than an hour………… <3 thank you!!!

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  51. Great post … love your honesty! and honestly … I don’t see that much of a difference in the two pics, sorry you just look more defined or what not but you look fabulous and healthy in the one with 15-16% bodyfat! Thanks for the article!

  52. Great post!
    I see a lot of girls losing it and aiming way too high. I’ve been there too! Sometimes I still struggle to find the balance, wanting to be eaner and leaner but it really isn’t worth it! We say we are running away from anorexia and bulimia, but we intentionally get ourselves to the same point- with health issues!

    We should be smarter!

    Great post once again!

    • Ines, we ARE smarter! Getting smarter all the time! :) Media and the “diet & fitness industry” [make note of the word INDUSTRY] has had us wrapped up and twisted for so long.

      Love this blog for its honesty and compassion for those of us who choose to be real and have a life beyond counting almonds.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

  53. A great article though I feel that once again the main issue is being ignored. Why do the majority of women feel pressure to conform to ‘marketing ideals’? Choosing to lose weight, exercise etc is a natural and personal decision but the expectation and pressure on ourselves as women to do so to ‘conform and be accepted’ I believe is the problem.

    I am 36yrs old, have three children and work out. I do it for me and not to fit to an ‘ideal’. If you ask women what they consider beautiful and healthy, there seems to be a majority opinion of the images projected in magazines. If you ask males, the majority consider a size 10-12 (Australian size) to be the ideal…as a women of this shape and size has curves (breast and hips) and soft flesh which is extremely appealing to men. When I have asked most men about what they think of the marketed ‘ideal’ body shape of a women, most responded that they felt they looked sexy but just wanted to give them a good feed. That they were too bonyand womanless. They also replied that they felt quite threatened by these ‘skinny’ models and did not relate to them.

    So my personal advice is for women to stop buying magazines projecting the unhealthy images, start to believe in yourself and the unique qualities that you have and eat and exercise for your health…not for an image.

  54. Great post, great information. When I looked at the pictures, I think you look much healthier in your before picture (and you explained that you felt better then as well). We should strive to eat healthy, exercise to be healthy, and worry less about what we look like (easier said than done, of course).

  55. I really enjoyed reading this and learned a lot! Thank you! I currently weigh 119 and I don’t know what my body fat is but I’m guessing it’s low. I haven’t had my period in over 4 years and the doctor said my progesterone was a little low but otherwise I was fine. I do HIIT training like 5-6 days a week for 10-20 minutes. I have a clean diet and consume healthy fats like coconut oil, flax oil, almond butter, and avocado. I make sure to eat plenty of protein like eggs, chicken, and grass-fed beef. I also started eating more carbs hoping it will help with my hormones. I also enjoy all veggies and I love fruit but keep it to 1 or 2 servings daily. I guess I’m still confused as to why I don’t get my period because I weigh more now than I did 4 years ago when I did have it! One solution would be I have more muscle now which is burning the fat that I do consume?? If there is anyone who has struggled with this or has any advice, I would be grateful for it! Thank you!

  56. Thanks for this great blog. :) This is my first time reading (or even hearing about) Kaleo, and I took a cruise around after reading! Very interesting! :)

    I teach yoga, and I talk with a lot of students about their personal goals with their practices. Many of them come in with a desire to loose weight, and I talk to them about shifting focus onto different milestones.

    What we are looking to develop first is body awareness — where you are in space. Then, we look to develop the feeling of the posture (what it is supposed to feel like when you are doing a specific pose). Then the feeling of energy through the movement and in the static postures. And of course, the sense of strength, flexibility, agility, and being relaxed and calm through the process.

    What this emphasizes is a love of the body and it’s movement — as opposed to an interest in a specific look. I want to encourage my clients to enjoy their bodies, to really feel them and enjoy that experience.

    I think of it like my friend’s hobby with muscle cars. Sure, the look is great, but they are a bit “clunky” rather than sleek like a sports car. But, he also races them, and they have to be in good condition. And while a lot of people completely replace their engines, he sticks with his carburetor. Why? Because he likes the sound. And he likes the feel when he drives. It makes it more enjoyable for him.

    Yoga is much the same way. It’s like hearing that engine of your body for the first time. Knowing when it is finely tuned and how to care for it so that it will stay that way. And then enjoying any motoring around that you’re doing in your body — whether it’s lifting odd objects, carrying you to great heights on some of the most amazing walks in the world, or sitting in a desk reading blogs.

    And what happens to most people? Yes, they do loose weight over time. Because they start treating their bodies like that finely tuned muscle car or classic car or whatever shaped car it might be — they eat better and more balanced, they get more sleep, they move more and enjoy that movement. But ultimately, they accept their bodies and the shape they are . . . because it is theirs. And it can move and carry them forward in the world.

    Only some will look like yoga models (which is why I do not carry yoga journal or similar yoga magazines in my studio AT ALL — we offer poetry for people to read). Most of us will simply look like ourselves — happy, healthy, and relaxed.

    Perhaps healthy, happy, and relaxed is the new ‘skinny.’

  57. Thank you for stating this so clearly.

    Everyone’s body is unique in its needs and shape–
    it’s foolish to think that we can all–
    or worse SHOULD all–
    look like uber-lean and shredded fitness models.

    I’m at 20% body fat right now,
    and I’m working on being okay with that.
    Coming off of a 10 year eating disorder means that restriction is not an option for me–I cannot embark on a strict diet like going Paleo (or Kaleo, wutwut!), Vegan, or even vegetarian.

    I make conscious, healthy choices,
    but adhering to a strict diet is completely out of the question for me,
    even if it means that I won’t be as lean as I could be.

    Because?

    What matters is that I am healthy in body and mind.

    I’ll sacrifice some leanness for that alone. :)

  58. Models are supposed to be perfect. Even when the definition of perfect is wrong (think super skinny models) they have to fit that mold; model homes are perfect for a reason. A few points:

    1. Not everyone can look like a model and no one told you that you have to look like one. If someone does, find new people to listen to. If you think happiness is based on looking a certain way, it might be time to re-evaluate your definition.

    2. The fashion/fitness/modelling industry has the job of selling product, not parenting our children. They can say whatever they want, just stop letting it run your, or your daughter’s, lives. When General Mills says fiber keeps you full and whole grains are healthy we don’t listen. Why does anyone listen to what industry says an “ideal” person should look like?

    “But men won’t like me because I don’t look like Dara Torres or whoever!” Wrong. But the ones that don’t, screw’em. You want nothing to do with that crowd anyway.

    3. You made this point beautifully “Health First. If you end up looking ripped because you live a healthy lifestyle. Great!” Now follow your own advice. Form follows function, your concern is with function. If being healthy and functional netted no aesthetic gains we should still strive for it. Turns out that in real life it nets huge aesthetic gains, be happy with them.

  59. OMG! I LOVE this and am so grateful to have came across this post. As a fellow Crossfitter and one who has tried the Zone, Paleo and a combination of both I can admit that I have developed a very unhealthy relationship with food to the point where I have scheduled an appointment to talk to a counselor about it. It is one thing to be strong, healthy and in fabulous shape but it is another when it becomes an obsession. I am 5’9″ 140lbs and 14.4% body fat and just like you I want(ed) to get smaller and leaner and look like those women at the CF Games, I want(ed) my abs to constantly look like they were flexed and all my muscles to stand out and “pop.” I went so far as to restrict what foods I ate and the amount of calories I consumed and seriously, I would weigh myself up to 5 times a day (this just stopped recently when I realized my problems and I talked to my boyfriend about this he threw out our scale!!) It was not until recently I realized the toll it has taken on my body and most importantly my mental health. I literally would beat myself up if I ate 1 slice of bread or God forbid a cookie and you can just forget about a bowl of pasta, it was a complete sin in my eyes to eat this; and if I ate a meal which I considered to be “bad” I would stare in the mirror making sure I didn’t gain anything anywhere and add in 2-4 extra work outs a week to burn it off! I was always fit and healthy (was a runner my entire life) but it wasn’t until I was fully embedded in the Crossfit community and surrounded by people telling me you’d be better & you could easily look like the women of the CF Games if you ate like this and removed this and that from your diet that I developed an unhealthy relationship with food. I don’t want to obsess about what I am going to eat daily, I don’t want to worry about going out to a restaurant and looking at the menu thinking none of this is “allowed” what am I going to do and have a small anxiety attack and start immediately thinking that I am going to have to double up on work outs or be extra careful the next few days so I don’t go “overboard”. I want to enjoy food like I used to, I don’t want to go to a friend’s party and see cake and immediately have an anxiety attack b/c eating one slice may not make my muscles “pop”. I am sick and tired of living life this way! I love Crossfit and I love the community surrounding it I just think that we need to stop putting so much emphasis on what foods are “allowed” and what foods are “bad” and focus on health and healthy eating which does not include lists of rules and charts of what is ok and what isn’t. We don’t need to criticize others who do not want to follow Paleo it’s not the end all be all and you shouldn’t tell people that they would be healthier if they stopped eating certain foods and start restricting this, that, and the other thing! Please let’s put the emphasis and focus back on the WOD’s and less on this is what I ate today, this is what I buy at the grocery store, etc…

  60. Wow. Incredible post and self-experimentation. I hate those ‘strong is the new skinny’ pics too. Yet another way to bombard us with unrealistic expectations. It is just tyranny in a different form. Thank you for your post!

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  62. I’d recently started thinking the exact same thing about the “fitspiration” images I’ve been seeing on Pinterest and Tumblr. It’s all well and good to want to be fit and healthy, but if that drive is coming from the same place as the use of “thinspiration” is, that’s not good or healthy. I try to keep this in mind when I think about my fitness goals because I was very lean as a teenager, even up into my very early 20s (now 23), but I’m not sure if I got back down to that level of leanness if I would really be healthy.

    BTW a quick edit in a photo editing software can even out the color/light levels in the photos so they’re a quicker comparison to the eye, if you want.

  63. I am happy that you adress the “Strong is the new skinny” movement. I totally share your concerns. The women they usually present as role models for “strong” women are women who rank high in the crossfit-games. That qualifies them elite-athletes. They probably aren´t that lean throughout the year. Along with dedication and discipline for their sport they probably have amazing genetics that allow for the athletic achievement they are able to accomplish and also for the ability to reach that level of leanness. I would like to ask, as you still menstruated (though delayed) if you think you ovulated (if you can tell). Some sources claim that women stop ovulating (or menstruating) when body fat % falls under 18% which I know for myself is NOT true. Also, I know a lot of women who were very lean (by body fat %, not weight) when they conceived their children. This makes me wonder if low body fat % is a problem per se or if it only inhibits fertility when it is caused be malnuurishment….Thoughts on this are welcome!

  64. Well written and interesting points. I too want my daughter to grow up strong and healthy with little body image worries. The idea of working so hard to maintain frustrates me. I need to learn to be content with the awesome body I’ve created. To learn to work with in the norms of reality. Perfect reading Thanks.

  65. AMEN! I’m calling for a new religion Kaleontology.

    So many children, men and woman alike could learn from your inspirational experiences and educational posts. You really have such a way with words that reaches out to people and engages them.

    Add to that you are a personal inspiration to me, as I have a similar background story to your own and have just in the past year begun my journey of a happy and healthy lifestyle in my mid-thirties :)

  66. This is such an incredible post. Thank you. The ideals of the media – in either extreme, waif-like or shredded – are just that, extreme. Optimal health needs to be the striving point, but that’s not what we’re bombarded with daily. Thank you for taking on this experiment, and for stopping when it got dangerous, and for speaking on the fact that your ego did kick in and the debate of screwing your health was toyed with. Ego is huge, but health is so much more important. Again, thank you for this post.

  67. I cannot thank you enough for opening up & posting this. We are indeed bombarded with just as many impossibly “fit” images as the ultra thin super model types. I’ve been seriously working out for a little over two years. I still have to work on my diet, but I’ve surpassed whatever limits I had when I first walked in to sign up for a gym membership. My journey is far from over, but it’s very difficult to fully congratulate oneself when you see how well you’re NOT doing (compared to other super fit women).

    I know about diuretics & once read in an article talking about The Biggest Loser shows that women would go so far as to remove tampons before the weigh-ins. It’s a fine line between healthy/not sacrificing basic nutrition & going too far. Be that as cutting calories down to low, sticking your finger down your throat, ignoring missed periods due to strenuous exercise, forgoing meals days at a time, etc.

    I’m a recovered bulimic & still deal with body image issues. But I’m in such a better place now. That’s not to say there won’t be fat days, but as long as I pick myself up (not guilt trip myself into a depression) it won’t be an issue. Your post really made me feel good about you & me! I have a 3 y/o daughter & certainly don’t want to pass on any negative body image issues. Thank you for writing this!

  68. WOW! you have pretty much written my journey – (although I haven’t reached that level of leanness). Wanting to be skinny; now wanting to be lean and ripped; tracking, macros, food obsession, working out obsession — all of it! Thank you Thank you for posting this – this has given me a lot of perspective!!!!

    • oh yeah, and I forgot to mention in my comment, I had that picture of Dara Torres up on my refrigerator too!!!!!!!!

  69. Thank you for this post! I have been struggling with bulimia that was fully triggered by extreme calorie counting and exercise. Thanks to websites like (myfitnesspal and weight watchers), the obsessed (like me) are given a great tool for tracking “progress” or in my mind “perfection”. I saw each day as an opportunity to eat/exercise in the perfect amount to retain a 500 cal deficit. I’m in treatment now (and unfortunately have gained some weight), but I know that I’m healthier. My nails are stronger, my skin is clear, and I am generally happier. I used to think I was STRONG and therefore healthy, but treatment has helped me see a different story. Again, thank you!

  70. Amber! You have such a lovely writing voice. I appreciate your honestly and open viewpoint.
    Xxoo
    Anna (5’3, 139lbs, curvy, happy, healthy and Hot)

  71. Again, you leave me in tears. I made this journey for my 30th birthday, 4.5 years ago. I can very much relate to your entire post. I am currently striving to find that healthy balance amidst digestive and structural issues. A life of joy and great health is what I desire as well and yet, after seeing oneself look the way that is celebrated by society (and which I also find stunning) it is annoyingly difficult to release the vice grips on one’s mind.
    Having others, like you, share their experiences definitely helps.
    I will be intrigued to also know how you handle the journey back to a body composition that doesn’t require such obsession to maintain. That transition, for many, is more difficult than the leaning down phase.
    Thanks again for all you do!

  72. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for sharing your experience and being so honest and candid about it. Thank you for spreading such a crucial message! Well done Kaleo! :)

  73. I’ve been looking forward to this post since your experiment ended. Thank you so much for this. On Pinterest I am always bombarded with images of super lean fitness models with captions stating how bad women want to look like this. I think you look great in the before picture…health and happiness will trump leanness for me every time.

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