Just over a year ago I published my most shared blog post to date: I’m Calling for a New Paradigm. My experience during what I now refer to as my ‘Fitness Model Diet’ fundamentally changed my approach to weight loss and fitness. I’d like to share some of the internal shifts I’ve made in the last year, and relate them to the trends I observe in the Fitness Industry.
First a brief review of my Fitness Model Diet. Over the course of 12 weeks, I dropped from a weight of 160 to 148 (at my lowest) and a body fat percentage of 12%. I hovered between 148 and 152 for about 2 months, and began to experience some symptoms of underweight and undereating, in spite of being at a scale weight that qualified as healthy and consuming 2200-2400 calories a day, which most people would consider not only adequate but probably quite indulgent. Perhaps more concerning, I also began to develop symptoms of body dysmorphia, a sign of disordered eating. I recognized what was happening to me and ended my experiment. To read a more in depth account of my experiences, click on the post I linked above, as well as this one, the follow up I wrote a couple months later.
In the months following, I increased my calories to where they’d been before my experiment and regained weight to 160 pounds. My symptoms resolved very quickly and my health and weight have been stable ever since. (More recently I’ve decided to purposely gain more weight in order to add some lean mass and hopefully see strength gains in the gym, I’ll discuss this further down).
My biggest takeaway from this whole experience was a new understanding of body fat; not only it’s role in maintaining metabolic health, but the disordered view our culture has of it. While it’s clear that in great excess body fat can impact health negatively, what is less commonly understood is that a certain amount of body fat is essential for health, particularly in women. Body fat is not an inert substance. In addition to insulating internal organs and storing energy, it plays a role in the production of hormones (including leptin, estrogen andresistin), and regulation of endocrine function. Just as too much body fat can throw hormonal regulation out of balance, so also can too little.
In the last year, I’ve taken a step back from the pursuit of fat loss that had been my primary focus for several years. I’ve begun to evaluate the messages the Fitness Industry sends with a more critical eye. What I see really disturbs me.
Fat Loss at All Costs
A simple Google search of the terms ‘diet’ and ‘fitness’ reveals that fat loss is THE defining goal of virtually every fitness and diet program. Try to find a ‘success story’ that doesn’t hinge on the visible reduction of body fat. Fat loss is, quite simply, THE barometer of success in this world. When fat loss is achieved, the program is deemed successful. Most programs are marketed specifically as fat loss plans. We are, as a culture, myopically obsessed with fat loss.
The human body requires a certain degree of ‘fatness’ for proper endocrine function. Women need more fat than men, and some women need more fat than others. As the body approaches that lower limit of adequate fat reserves, it initiates endocrine adaptations that inhibit further loss (downregulation of metabolism, loss of reproductive function, catabolism of lean mass, etc), such that the leaner a person is, the more extreme the measures they will need to engage in in order to see continued fat loss. The fitness and diet industry are ready with products to sell! Programs that place extreme restrictions on calories and macronutrients, and exercise routines that require extreme degrees of intensity or duration, usually combined. And it works! These extreme diets force the body to drop even more fat, with spectacular aesthetic results that are illustrated in dramatic before and after photos.
A clear message emerges from these dramatic images: Fat loss is good! Weight loss is success! Fat is bad! Weight gain is failure!
The end result is that healthy people at healthy weights internalize the message that they need to lose weight, because they don’t look like the bodies in the after pictures, so clearly they aren’t successfully managing their weight! They engage in increasingly extreme dietary restriction. Enough is never enough. There is always more fat to lose, another diet that promises fat loss success. Smaller and smaller we get.
I’ve experienced this mentality over and over during the last year as my weight has steadily increased. Every time I post on my facebook page about my weight gain, I get advice about how to turn it around. Even when I say specifically that I am gaining weight on purpose, I still get advice about how to lose weight. It’s like my words don’t even register beyond the weight gain. If I’ve gained weight it must be bad, and I must want to change it. The concept of a person, especially a woman, intentionally gaining weight is completely foreign. Even when I say ‘I am gaining weight on purpose’, a few people always seem to hear ‘help me figure out how to lose weight’. It is surreal. One person posted elsewhere that my diet ‘clearly isn’t working for her, since she’s gained 10-15 pounds recently’. See that? Weight gain = failure. End of story.
Obviously there are many people for whom fat loss is a healthy goal. When weight and body fat become a threat to a person’s health, weight and fat loss is important. But there comes a point at which the hyperfocus on fat loss becomes unhealthy. When a person is at a healthy weight, pursuing fat loss is no longer a health-promoting goal, it is at best an aesthetic pursuit, and at worst a risk to long-term health. The body will resist losing those last pounds of essential fat, and forcing the issue can set up a metabolic state that leads to adverse health outcomes and potentially even trigger eating disorders. Fat loss isn’t always good.
So, over the last year I’ve shifted my own goals, and I’ve also reevaluated the approach to weight loss I use with clients. I’ve been eating at a small calorie surplus and am now hovering right around 170 pounds. I have, essentially, gained 20 pounds in the last year. My current weight puts me just over the ‘healthy weight’ cut off on the BMI scale, I am officially overweight. In the last year, the primary focus of my training and diet has been strength and mass gains. I have gained some lean mass, and I’ve also gained some fat. This is not a failure. I am not planning to ‘cut’ after some arbitrarily approved ‘bulking’ period. In fact, as of right now, I have no plans to lose weight or fat, ever again. I do not wish that all my gains had been muscle. There is nothing wrong with gaining some fat. It does not make me inadequate or undesirable or unhealthy. Even having a BMI that qualifies as overweight doesn’t make me any of those things. My weight is just a number. A data point. It is not a value judgement. Do you want to see the body that a year of eating lots of food and focus on GAINS has produced?
By the numbers, this body is overweight. I am part of that ‘70% of Americans are overweight or obese’ statistic. Maybe we need to re-evaluate the numbers and statistics.
For reference, here is the body that restriction and focus on fat loss produced:
148 pounds, 12% body fat.
Neither body is ‘better’. Some people will find my current body more attractive, others will find my leaner body more attractive, others still will find both hideously unattractive. It’s ok. I’m not here to tell you one body type is better than another, or fish for compliments, or try to garner anyone’s approval for the choices I make for my own body.
What I AM here to tell you is that there is another way. That fat loss doesn’t HAVE to be your goal. That all different body types can be healthy and beautiful. That you can be more if you want to. That less isn’t the only acceptable option. That if the endless pursuit of fat loss isn’t making you happy, isn’t improving the quality of your life, isn’t working…you can choose another approach. Choosing another approach isn’t failure. It is simply different, and there is a place in this world for different. We are not all shaped the same.
These days when clients approach me for weight management coaching, the first thing I have them do is really evaluate where they are. Many, many people who believe they need to lose weight are actually, objectively, already at a healthy weight. Trying to force their body to shed more weight, more fat, may not be the most health- and quality of life- affirming option. Taking an approach of building a stronger foundation may be a more sustainable, and ultimately more enjoyable, choice. Choosing to end the relentless pursuit of fat loss is not an admission of defeat, it is not a failure. It can be a very healthy, very positive statement of self-respect.
I can’t tell you which body you should like better, but I CAN tell you which one eats ice cream, kills workouts and has more sex. The ‘overweight’ one.