Before I knew anything about nutrition or fitness, my weight would naturally ebb and flow throughout the various stages of childhood and adolescence. I put on weight before big growth spurts, subsequently leaned out as I grew taller, and once again gained weight once I hit puberty. All natural and common phases a human body goes through. For some reason, as we grow into adulthood, there is a common notion that our bodies should no longer be in a state of flux. However, this would require everything about our health, lifestyles, and priorities remaining the same.
After graduating college, I was a fully-grown woman, and when looking at these three variables, 1. Health – less than ideal (hello, missing period), 2. Lifestyle – I was working crazy hours at a desk job I hated, and 3. Priorities – partying and more partying. As a result, I was carrying more fat and less muscle than I do today. When I backpacked for a few months in Southeast Asia a few years ago, my hormones were still out of whack, my lifestyle consisted of a strict budget and surviving off of meals of rice, vegetables, and nuts for the most part with a TON of walking, and my priorities were to soak up every moment in a sober state. As a result, I lost both fat and muscle over the course of those three months and came back to the States about ten pounds lighter. I can go on and on about the various phases of my life I’ve experienced, but the point I’m trying to make is that our bodies will naturally change in accordance with these factors. And that’s perfectly OK. We don’t have to hustle to “get our body back” or white-knuckle our way through maintaining a body we obtained through extreme priorities (i.e. neglecting other areas of our lives for the sake of a better body) or a lifestyle advantage (i.e. endless hours to be active).
Accepting the fact that my body will always be in a state of flux was a huge relief, as it eliminated the stress associated with maintaining a certain aesthetic. Our bodies will navigate numerous phases in our lives, many of them solely based on physical changes (pregnancy, fertility, menopause, injuries, etc.), so it’s important to learn to flow WITH them, not against them. What is gained can always be lost and vice versa, so detaching from a state of being that will inevitably change is incredibly freeing, and I would argue necessary for contentment.
While I firmly believe in allowing our bodies to take various forms throughout our lives, I also understand the desire to maintain a relatively stable body composition in a stress-free way when our health, lifestyles, and priorities are consistent. And to learn how to adjust our nutrition/eating habits in accordance with any changes of these factors. Constantly gaining and losing weight due to the diet hamster wheel can be incredible taxing, both physically and mentally, so finding our balanced baseline is ideal. This is our own personalized lifestyle and food habits that allow us to maintain our weight (if we want to), show up with energy in our daily lives, perform well in physical activities, sleep well, and most importantly, not stress about food or our bodies. Essentially, this is a personalized form of moderation and intuitive eating. For someone who’s never experienced disordered eating habits or yo-yo dieting, this may seem like a walk in the park, but for those of us who have been in the thick of it, this can seem impossible.
So, how does one find their balanced baseline? Through experimentation, journaling, modifying, and repeating this series until you find what works best for YOU. If you’ve been on an endless number of diets or nutrition programs designed by someone else, this might sound exhausting. And I get that. But wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to become your own guru and learn what works best for you, once and for all? This may very well be the last time you have to give a lot of thought to your food, and when I was in the thick of my food and body obsession, I would have given anything for that outcome. While this process is highly individualized, there are some big picture items that are immensely helpful:
1. Be Clear About What Foods You Enjoy/Don’t Enjoy - Make a list of foods you enjoy and another for those you dislike. From the list of foods you enjoy, highlight those that are one-ingredient foods. One ingredient foods are whole food items, such as meat, eggs, avocado, oatmeal, vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, etc. There’s no need to overthink this and ask whether peanut butter fits the bill (it does), so just use your best judgment as to whether the food is mostly natural and whole. Try to incorporate these items more often than the processed foods listed, but you can eat anything. Don’t eat anything from the list of those you don’t like. This is the first step is honing in on what YOU want to eat, not what someone has told you.
2. Portion Sizes – It can be difficult to gauge portion sizes if you’ve been restricting, binging, or following a nutrition plan, so this one requires patience. In addition to a sufficient amount of mindfulness. When sitting down to your meals, pay attention to how much you need to actually feel satisfied without feeling stuffed. Write down how long the meal sustained you before becoming hungry again, your energy levels for the following few hours, any subsequent cravings, your performance in your workout, and any other metric you deem important. For example, I realized that I have more stable energy, am full for a longer period of time (increased satiety), and don’t have cravings if I have a serving of protein the size of my palm at breakfast. Any less and I become hungry shortly thereafter. Note that ideal portion sizes can vary from meal to meal.
3. Pay Attention to Hunger Cues – this is a big one, as many of us don’t know the signals our bodies are sending us due to years of ignoring and overriding them. To start, make a list of the stages of hunger and divide into five categories. I will dive into these stages more thoroughly in a later post (there are eight), but for the sake of simplicity and being able to act on this immediately, we’ll start with five.
- One – you’re completely ravenous
- Two – you’re hungry but it’s tolerable
- Three – you’re satisfied, comfortable, and energized
- Four – you’re full and ate beyond comfort by a few bites
- Five – you’re overly full and experience discomfort
For each of these stages, list the physical indicators and signals your body sends you. For example, when I’m ravenous and in stage one, I experience lightheadedness, headaches, and sometimes get shaky. In stage two, I experience growling in my stomach that is only mildly distracting. In stage three, I feel light, energized, and don’t have additional cravings. When in stage four, I feel a slight dip in energy with some pressure in my stomach. In stage five, I experience tightness in my stomach, extreme lethargy, and may even feel pain in my stomach depending on how much I have overeaten. The goal is to stay within stages two and four, so understanding what these stages look like for YOU is extremely important. Bringing awareness to how and when you typically end up in stages one and five is also necessary.
4. Gym Performance – this one took me a long time to come to terms with, because I felt that if I was manipulating my food intake in any way, then I was reverting to my obsessive patterns and behavior. However, my body doesn’t know when I’m about to workout, so I need to fuel it appropriately based on feedback from my body even if I’m not hungry. For some, working on an empty stomach is preferred, while others would have a terrible workout. Some prefer a snack of fat and protein, while others do better with a snack primarily composed of carbohydrates (note that this is largely based on the type and duration of the workout). For me, I realized that a small snack that is primarily composed of carbs is best for me before lifting heavy weights or doing Crossfit. However, I can do yoga or go for a leisurely run on an empty stomach or have a fat-based snack and feel just fine.
- Post-workout is also individualized. Most will find they don’t need to guzzle a protein shake immediately following a workout unless competing with multiple events in a day or back-to-back for a few days. Simply following hunger cues here works best for most people.
5. Other Feedback Signals From Your Body – there are endless forms of feedback from our bodies, but the other key players are sleep, hormones, energy, and cravings. If your sleep starts to suffer, you may need more carbohydrates or to eat more in general (before bed can be especially helpful). For women, our monthly period cycles are great indicators of whether our bodies are happy and content. If it’s irregular or missing, your body is telling you something. If your energy is low or inconsistent, we have some work to do there. Finally, if you experience cravings after every meal or at a particular time of the day, we need to look at when you’re eating, how much, and how much protein, fat, or carbs. In order to accurately assess these factors, journaling will be critical.
6. Mindfulness – You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? This is an imperative piece of the puzzle, and journaling throughout this process automatically brings an increased level of awareness with food habits. But we need a method of bringing more mindfulness and presence throughout our days beyond this initial experimental stage. Meditation is a great way to bring more mindfulness to our days, as it teaches us to notice our thought patterns, detach from them, and choose a different narrative. When rewiring our eating habits for the long-haul, this is a non-negotiable. You can read about the importance of meditation and the impact it had on me here.
Monitoring all of these factors through journaling and then making adjustments based on the data gathered can seem tedious, but consider it an investment in your long-term health and happiness. And one that requires short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. Seriously, the value of understanding your body and what it’s telling you is invaluable.
The state and composition of our bodies will always be transient, so learning to detach from a specific outcome and allowing our bodies to ebb and flow will eliminate so much suffering. At the same time, it’s understandable to want to feel our best on a consistent basis, not stress about food, and to not experience frequent weight fluctuations when our health, priorities, and lifestyles are consistent. Or to make small adjustments if we can and want to when these factors change.
By focusing on the big picture items above, you’ll be well on your way to developing an eating framework that is designed by you, FOR YOU: your balanced baseline. Once this has been firmly established and practiced, making small changes in accordance with health, priorities, or lifestyle is infinitely easier, and mostly importantly, they’re built on a stress-free foundation of love and self-respect. Sounds like magic to me!