How Ditching the Dogma and Embracing the Evidence Helped Me Overcome My Food Obsession

My initial exposure to the world of dieting came in 2004 at the age of 16. After receiving a few comments about my weight and my ability to eat as much as my brothers, I asked a personal trainer about diet and nutrition.

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As you may recall, Atkins was all the rage throughout the first decade of this century, and my trainer had eagerly jumped on board.

“Eat 4-5 times per day, and don’t have more than 15g of carbs per meal.”

These were his explicit instructions to me.

As was expected, I dropped 10-15 pounds fairly quickly, and I instantly assumed the decrease in carbohydrates was the cause of my weight loss. To be fair, this decrease did cause the weight loss indirectly, but it wasn’t the true cause—it was simply correlation.

What was the cause of the change in body composition and scale weight?

1.     Overall decrease in calories

Fast food after school and before volleyball practice was a consistent part of my routine, so removing the extra bread, tater tots, and soda removed a large chunk of calories right off the bat.

The quality of my food choices increased dramatically as a result of restricting carbs, as most processed foods were now off the table, and I didn’t consciously increase my fat or protein intake either.

Overall, I was consuming less food and calories across the board, which was the true cause of the fat loss.

2.     Water Loss

For every 1g of carbohydrate consumed, our bodies hold 3-4g of water. When we decrease our carb intake, it’s very common to experience fast weight loss within the first two weeks. This is largely a loss of water, not fat.

Do you think I had any clue that these two factors were the true causes of my weight and fat loss? That would be a resounding NOPE.

I relied on the opinions of “experts” at the time, and I didn’t have any clue that the information being touted wasn’t based on sound evidence. Embarrassingly, I was regurgitating this information to others left and right.

I truly thought carbohydrates were the source of all illness and fat gain, so the removal of them from one’s diet was the holy grail.

I was flat out wrong, yet I believed this vehemently for almost a decade.

The Carb Mind F*CK

As a result of believing inaccurate information, in addition to being unwilling to having my opinion changed, I wasn’t open to the notion that my overall food intake was the cause of my weight fluctuations.

Rather than take a high-level, holistic view of my diet, I narrowly focused on the number of carbs I consumed.

I believed it was impossible to gain weight without carbs and that the only way to lose fat was to decrease them, so I doubled down. It fewer carbs was good, none must be better, right?

At this point, my view of food was so distorted that I was obsessively eating avocado, eggs, bacon, and any form of additional fat while keeping my carbs extremely low. The new narrative at the time was (and still is with keto), “you have to eat fat to lose fat”, so I didn’t mess around.

Butter in my coffee? Sure!

The fattiest steak on the menu? I need it.

Extra avocado on my already fat dense meal? It’s not a meal without it.

Note that there isn’t anything wrong with these choices, but rather the false information I believed that was governing them. It had nothing to do with what made my body feel good, so I couldn’t even tell you how my body responded.

The large quantity of fat in my diet led to an overall increase in calories that far exceeded the decrease in carbs, so I started to gain weight. WTF?

I must not be low enough on carbs.

Maybe I need to eat more fat to burn the fat. 

Everyone is saying that undereating can lead to weight gain, so maybe I need to eat more.

And so I took it even further by decreasing my carb intake, increasing my fat intake, and eat more in general. Not surprisingly, my weight continued to climb.

I felt like an utter failure, and my neurosis around food was at an all-time high.

Luckily, IIFYM (if it fits your macros) began to make its way onto the dieting scene at this time, and the premise essentially states that we can eat whatever we want, as long as we hit a specific number of carbs, protein, and fat every day.

This was also gaining popularity amongst the Crossfit community due to the higher carbohydrate content of most of the plans, which led to improved performance outcomes.

This illustrated a few things:

  • The three macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), in addition to alcohol, comprise our overall calorie intake.

  • We can adjust our macros up and down and transfer between the three-four, as long as the calorie target remains the same.

  • There is room for processed foods in a diet, so long as the overall calorie and macro targets are met.

  • Carbs often aid in athletic performance, especially of the anaerobic variety.

  • Carbs are not the enemy, more fat doesn’t lead to fat loss, and calories are king.

  • I WAS SO WRONG. Like, dead wrong.

  • I anticipated that tracking and counting my food wasn’t a good idea for me mentally, but I was so curious about this concept of eating that I decided to partake. 

I quickly realized that my fat consumption was through the roof, my protein was decent, and my carb intake was far too low for the amount of Crossfit I was doing. Additionally, my calorie intake was certainly over maintenance (the amount needed to maintain my weight).

My dogmatic nutrition world was shattered!

I started enjoying rice, tons of potatoes, and processed foods, and I reduced my intake of added fats, like the butter in my coffee, avocado on everything, and fatty cuts of meat.

To be clear, I didn’t go crazy with decreasing my fat intake, but it was now within a moderate range.

I began to realize that I don’t need the additional fat to feel satisfied as I once thought I did.

My plates started to look balanced—my version of balance—with a serving of protein, carbs, and vegetables at most meals, and the fat came from cooking oils and whatever was in the leaner meats. 

Damn—I started to feel great! My performance in the gym improved, I slept better, my hormones started to level out, and I started dropping some fat.

Do I advocate for counting macros?

No, I don’t. At least not long-term.

I quickly realized that counting and tracking my food wasn’t healthy for me mentally (nor worth it), and it isn’t for many. However, I am grateful for some of the lessons I learned:

  • Science and evidence-based approaches reign supreme when it comes nutrition and changes to body composition. I.e. calories absolutely do matter.

  • People on the internet will often claim that the method that worked for them (n=1) will work for everyone. This can greatly harm their followers.

  • Having blinders on about the basics of calories in vs. calories out spun me in circles for years and only furthered my food obsession.

  • Carbs are beautiful creates, and I love them.

  • Most of us eat a lot more fat than we think we do, which is not a bad thing in isolation, but it is often hindering fat loss. And may not be great for our health, either.

  • By knowing what actually works via science, we’re empowered to make changes accordingly if we wish.

  • If a nutrition plan or diet makes claims that sound too good to be true—i.e. “eat as much fat and protein as you want and lose weight!”—it is.

  • Tracking and counting food can be useful for short periods of time to bring awareness to our skewed perceptions of our intake.

  • Tracking and counting food can further neurosis if we attach moral value to the outcome and we can’t eat comfortably without it.

After years of trying almost every diet under the sun, I’m finally content with a moderate approach that is tailored to me based on my lifestyle, preferences, and activity levels.

Opening my mind to scientific evidence was tremendously helpful in getting me here.

Dietary dogma served me in the opposite way.

Science and evidence-based nutrition is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with food, but it’s an important one.

And it’s a great way to start embracing the concept that food is just: food!

How to Have Your Cake & Eat It Too During Fall & Winter

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Fall is in full swing for most of us, and there are so many seasonal foods, drinks, and traditions to enjoy throughout the next few months. I LOVE it!

However, years ago, despite my love for the seasons, the months would pass without me allowing myself to enjoy the full experience. 

Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin bread, mulled wine, hearty casseroles—they weren’t on my list of approved foods, and I hadn’t developed the skills of enjoying the things I wanted without going overboard.

So, I didn’t enjoy them at all.

I deemed them completely off limits, and once Spring rolled around, I would be filled with regret and sadness that I didn’t give myself permission to live in the moment (or season). 

What a damn shame!

Looking back, I meet my former self with compassion and understanding.

After being told for years that so many delicious foods and beverages were poison that would lead to rapid weight gain and/or deteriorating health, it’s no great surprise I acted the way I did.

If this sounds familiar to you today—cut yourself some serious slack!

You’ve been told that everything in your midst is either “good” or “bad”, and you likely haven’t been given the tools to improve your mindset and behaviors around food—the essence of food freedom.

Today, so many of my clients come to me distraught, depleted, and disappointed by their inability to experience life while also keeping their goals and well-being in mind. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s entirely possible with a few strategies.

Pick and choose what you really enjoy

  • Eating everything you might have the slightest craving for will leave you feeling physically unwell, so focus on what is REALLY good to you. I.e. “Is it worth it?”

  • Ask yourself if you’re eating or drinking things simply because they’re in front of you (i.e. stale, run-of-the-mill pumpkin bread vs. a bomb-ass homemade variety).

  • Simply eating whatever is in front of us is typically a byproduct of feeling deprived. In reality, you can choose to eat these foods whenever you want, so you’ll want to raise the bar with your food standards. You deserve the best!

  • Note that this can take time after years of being disconnected with our bodies and preferences, so we’ll need to constantly reassess our experiences.

How do those foods make you feel?

  • In response to the first point, you might be asking yourself, “well what if everything in sight IS really delicious and amazing?” Fair question.

  • We have access to so many enticing things in today’s world, so we need to be mindful of how our choices are going to affect us physically, emotionally, and energetically.

  • I love pumpkin beer, but it gives me a serious headache, so I stay away from it. Pumpkin spice lattes and other seasonal beverages are delicious, but the sugar doesn’t make me feel great if I drink a whole one.

  • Sometimes it’s worth it to accept the trade-off of feeling subpar to enjoy something delicious, and that’s a completely valid choice. Just ensure you’re being mindful and aware enough to be the one deciding!  Food isn’t in the driver’s seat—you are. 

Adjust the Dose As Needed

  • This is one of the most important tools to be aware of: simple portion control. I understand that this concept seems simple enough, but it’s often difficult to execute for many (and it once seemed utterly impossible for me).

  • This is often due to the all-or-nothing mentality with food, so the thought of only having a couple bites or sips seems completely unrealistic. This takes PRACTICE.

  • Practice will lead to wins, where you witness yourself only have a few bites, enjoying yourself, and still feeling physically well.

  • Wins lead to self-trust, and you’ll develop the confidence to know you’re the one in the driver’s seat.

Put It All Together

  • Using self-awareness before making decisions regarding food and asking ourselves:

  • “Do I really want to eat this, or am I simply eating it because it’s in front of me?”

  • “Does this actually taste as good as I want it to?”

  • “If I eat this, how will I feel later?”

  • “If it won’t make me feel great, am I willing to accept the trade-off?”

  • “Will a few bites satisfy me?”

  • “How much can I eat/drink of this while still keeping my physical and emotional well-being in mind?” I.e. “What’s my balance point in this situation?”

Enjoying the seasons fully is a testament to how we’re enjoying our lives at large, and this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation like restrictive ways of eating lead us to believe.

Choosing to dedicate ourselves to finding our own version of moderation when it comes to seasonal experiences takes just that: dedication. Especially in the beginning—but it gets MUCH easier over time. 

We tend to be so afraid of freedom due to lack of self-trust, but the only way to build this is through practice and dedicated consistency.

You absolutely can enjoy everything these amazing months have to offer, and you don’t have to sacrifice your well-being in the process.

The Dreaded Boomerang Effect

One of the primary concerns when considering the concept of giving up control around food is the boomerang effect—eating everything in sight and in massive quantities.

The truth is that yes, it’s common to feel the urge to eat a lot of these foods, and it’s also very common to act on this impulse. This can be a necessary part of the process for many people.

 Going to town on these brownies

Going to town on these brownies

However, it doesn’t last forever, because with a newly formed sense of awareness and connection to our bodies, the desire to eat in a way that isn’t uplifting—emotionally or physically—isn’t enticing.  

The allure of these foods quickly diminishes when we realize and accept how they make us feel, and we also become aware of why we’re making the choices we do. This includes overeating in general, too.

These foods are typically processed foods that have been on our “bad” list for years, but I often see clients fearing fruit, rice, and other natural carb sources too (as I once did) or foods that are higher in fat if they’re coming from a low-fat background. Everyone’s food rules are different, so the roads to unlearning vary accordingly.

 It can be incredibly helpful to be aware of the boomerang effect prior to embarking on a more intuitive way of eating in an effort to reduce the fear of it occurring, as it’s nothing to be afraid of!

It can propel us towards healing much more quickly than “dipping our toes in while still holding on to our controlling ways” ever will.

The caveat here is the necessity of presence, awareness, and connection.

Without these elements, we’re simply acting on the opposite side of the same coin: treating our bodies disrespectfully and allowing our egos to run the show while not learning anything about ourselves in the process.

However, it can take time to develop these skills after years of neglect.

The goal is to learn how to effectively and consistently implement the practices of presence, awareness, and connection while simultaneously unlearning the rules we’ve been told about our own bodies.  

Sound complicated?  It really isn’t once you have an idea of how and where to start! 

Meditation: This is the simplest, fastest, and most widely available way to develop a sense of presence and awareness of both our physical bodies and our internal landscapes.

When we sit in silent meditation, we’re forced to bear witness to our thoughts and any discomfort that arises. As a result, we become aware of our thoughts, emotions, and urges related to food and our bodies. This is absolutely essential to the process.

Pause before, during, and after eating: meditation will naturally lead to greater awareness during daily activities, but making a concerted effort to check in with our physical bodies and our emotions to understand what we really want and need in that moment is extremely important.

It takes time for this to become a habit, so be patient with yourself! Start by checking in before eating, especially snacking, and once you’re consistently implementing this at least 80% of the time, you can then add “during” and “after” to your practice.

Journal: We can evaluate the choices we’re making and their short-term and long-term effects much more effectively and quickly when we write them down and put our thoughts on paper. This enables us to connect the dots and really get clear on how our choices are affecting our bodies (energy levels, digestion, menstrual cycles, workout performance, skin, etc.).

Additionally, and often more importantly, we need to write about how our emotional and internal states are contributing to the choices we’re making. Does stress lead to overeating and eating foods that don’t make you feel well? Are you using food to cope when you feel lonely? Do you tend to eat highly processed foods during the work week because you’re miserable at your job? These are a few of the REALLY important things to understand about ourselves, and even bringing awareness to them is often enough to change our behavior.

Keep an open mind: this may seem obvious, but it’s impossible to “unlearn” rules if we’re convinced that we already know everything there is to learn. I certainly fell into this trap when I first began my journey, as I was all-in on eating according to hunger and satiety signals, but I wasn’t willing to let go of my dogmatic low-carb and paleo approach.

It wasn’t until I accepted that I may have more to learn that I was finally able to fully connect with my body and listen to what it was telling (read: screaming at) me.

The process isn’t black-and-white

The outcomes of these steps aren’t necessarily prescriptive, rigid, or black-and-white, and this can cause a sense of unease with many former dieters due to the freedom involved. And I get it! I’ve been there.

However, while it’s human nature to crave certainty, most things in life don’t fall into this category, and our relationships with food are no exception. This stuff is layered and nuanced—cultural ties, personal memories and emotions, forms of celebration, fuel for performance, personal preferences, suitability to lifestyles, effects on cognitive abilities, type and duration of activity, and many more. 

It will take time to discover how all of these layers stack up and align for YOU, but the beauty of this tailored approach is that it’s created by you, for you—with your own body and intuition as your guide.

The boomerang effect might be part of your journey, but it certainly isn’t the last stop. It’s merely a byproduct of unlearning everything you’ve assumed over the years, and freedom is surely on the other side.

We Can Use Our Past Extremes to Our Advantage (Before & After & After & After Pics)

The exploration of our edges and living in extremes can be incredibly valuable. For most who struggle with their relationships with food and their bodies, they’ve inhabited one or both ends of the spectrum. I sure have spent my fair share of time on both ends. 

Swearing not to eat until I felt faint, vomiting, insane amounts of exercise to burn off and earn my food, only eating foods from a specific list, intermittent fasting on top of an already restrictive diet, swearing off all coffee and alcohol, and trying every diet known to man.

 Around 2006 - Before my weight was brought to my attention for the first time in high school.

Around 2006 - Before my weight was brought to my attention for the first time in high school.

 2007 - After several months of restriction, I was LOST. Zero period & absolutely miserable.

2007 - After several months of restriction, I was LOST. Zero period & absolutely miserable.

 Circa 2008. I went up and down several times per year in weight during college, which the highest being 15-20 lbs. more than today.

Circa 2008. I went up and down several times per year in weight during college, which the highest being 15-20 lbs. more than today.

Binging until I physically couldn’t move and was in so much pain, eating in secrecy, anxiously eating while hungover or drunk after days of restriction, eating chocolate chip cookies every time I passed through the kitchen every Thanksgiving break, stuffing myself with food—didn’t matter the type—and eating well beyond what my body wanted, binge drinking until I blacked out multiple times per week, drinking so much coffee I nearly induced panic attacks, and not moving my body for days.

 Post college 2012-2013! Still boozing until I blacked out a couple times per week, eating garbage all weekend, and being incredibly strict during the week.

Post college 2012-2013! Still boozing until I blacked out a couple times per week, eating garbage all weekend, and being incredibly strict during the week.

 After returning from three months abroad in Asia in 2014. My body dropped weight without giving it a second thought after I committed to only listening to my body and doing what FELT good and true to me. Major turning point for me.

After returning from three months abroad in Asia in 2014. My body dropped weight without giving it a second thought after I committed to only listening to my body and doing what FELT good and true to me. Major turning point for me.

 Last weekend! Letting my intuition guide my choices, which aligns with the season of life I’m in.

Last weekend! Letting my intuition guide my choices, which aligns with the season of life I’m in.

Like a pendulum, I swung from one extreme to the other, and looking back, I learned a lot while I inhabited both.

  • Restriction and living according to rigid rules are soul-sucking.

  • My body doesn’t subscribe to a playbook, as it doesn’t have the same needs day-in and day-out. I need flexibility with how I eat and move.

  • Someone providing me with rules about how to live instantly makes me anxious. I hate nothing more than being told what to do, especially arbitrarily.

  • Overdoing it on things that are “pleasurable”—like processed foods, booze, significant amounts of food, sitting on my ass for too long—makes those things unenjoyable. In fact, it makes me resentful of them.

  • Spending all of my time thinking about food, either how little or how much I’m able to eat, is a substitute for feeling something deeper; a distraction.

  • Inhabiting one end of the spectrum for too long will—without a doubt—force me to the other end.

  • My body doesn’t feel alive, energetic, or like it’s my own when I’m under or overdoing it with food or exercise.

  • It’s nearly impossible to overdo it with too little or too much when I’m present. Disconnection—both mind and body—is necessary for us to live in extremes.

  • I’m most myself energetically, physically, emotionally, and mentally when I’m balancing pleasure and discipline, and these two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

  • Going to extremes on rare occasions can be nourishing for the soul, although rarely for the body. It’s OK to make this sacrifice when I’m actively choosing this, and the choice is coming from a present, centered, and grounded place. I.e. I’m not using it as a distraction.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, and I wouldn’t have been able to discover these valuable nuggets of information without exploring the edges of extreme behaviors and states of being. 

Does everyone need extremes to live in balance? No. But if you have a personality type similar to mine, where you “have to touch the stove to know it’s hot”, as my dad used to say to describe me, then it may be best to view these experiences with gratitude.

They teach us our limits, and they allow us to know ourselves on a much deeper level. The facilitate our growth, and they put us on the fast track to self-discovery.

This is all contingent upon us being ready to accept the lessons by establishing a foundation of self-worth and respect, of course, otherwise the motivation to cease the cycle of self-harm won’t exist.

However, sometimes the birth of this foundation is derived from hitting rock bottom. From being so obsessed and controlled by food and our inner demons that we have no other choice but to make changes.

Regardless of where you are in your journey, don’t be afraid to reframe your “negative” experiences and use them to your advantage. Make a list of everything you learned, the things you’ll no longer tolerate, and how those moments will benefit you going forward.

Perspective is a magical thing, and the lens through which we’re viewing ourselves, our past, and our future is everything. How can you use your past to inform your present and future?

Focusing on Food BEHAVIORS & Why Decreasing Intense Exercise is Helpful When Healing Our Relationships with Food

 Yoga and walking were the only activities I did for a few months while I honed and solidified my eating behaviors.

Yoga and walking were the only activities I did for a few months while I honed and solidified my eating behaviors.

I distinctly remember my first foray into intuitive eating. I was living at home in Albuquerque, NM with my parents after graduating college while I studied for my CPA exam, and my body and mind were utterly exhausted from years of binge drinking and obsessing over my body and food.

After years of following rules, counting carbs, starving then binging, and soaking up every latest-and-greatest celebrity diet, I decided to turn inward. I declared that my body would be my guide while I leveraged a few loose (very loose) guidelines.

My main prerogative was normalizing my relationship with food, so I focused on my behaviors:

  • Eating when hungry; stopping before I was full
  • Bringing awareness to when I was eating out of boredom or another emotion
  • Paying attention to my habits of mindless eating and snacking
  • Asking myself if my choice now was worth the consequences later (it certainly was at times)
  • Only engaging in calming and stress-free physical activity, which included yoga and walking

That last item is key, because had I engaged in my usual exercise routine of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and long runs, it would have been much more difficult to practice and solidify the aforementioned behaviors.

Intense physical activity can be a hell of a lot of fun, but it forces us to pay more attention to our food, lest we risk feeling like crap, throwing our bodies out of balance, and experiencing subpar or decreasing performance.

If we’re demanding a lot out of our bodies, it makes sense that we have to fuel them appropriately via adequate calories, protein, carbs and fat. This means paying more attention to our food, not less.

For someone overcoming obsessive and neurotic food behaviors, this isn’t ideal.

Where to Start

Overdoing exercise often works in tandem with restrictive food behaviors, so releasing both at the same time can be unsettling.

However, trust me when I say that this puts you on the fast track to understanding your body, normalizing your relationship with food, and then being able to return to your usual fitness habits (if you so choose) with a much more enjoyable counterpart: the fuel.

So, where do you start?

By slowly scaling back your intense activity and replacing it with more stress-free movement:

  • Slow walking (no power walking)
  • Yoga (no sculpt or intense power yoga)
  • Strength training (that doesn’t go to failure and leaves plenty of rest between sets)
  • Leisurely hikes
  • Any mildly strenuous outdoor activity, like skiing, snowboarding, or rock climbing. Bonus points for the calming effects of nature!

If you’re currently exercising five days per week intensely, replace three of those days with one of the activities mentioned above. Please note that this doesn’t mean walking for hours either—the goal is less, not more!

Notice I’m not asking you to completely remove your favorite activity—simply to scale back temporarily.

Utilize this time to reconnect with your body and SLOW DOWN. It’s really difficult to connect and listen when we’re moving a mile a minute. Which I understand is many of our baselines, but try to keep your eye on the long-term goal here:

To be able to return to your intense activity with a newfound understanding of your body, how to fuel it, and your food behaviors—all while approaching it with a sense of calm, trust, and ease.

Weight loss is often an ancillary result of this approach too, which is shocking to most clients (as it was for me in the beginning too).

We’re taught that more is better, both in volume and intensity, but that simply isn’t true. Our bodies aren’t mechanical machines—they’re independent ecosystems that are always trying to find a place of peace and balance.

It’s amazing what can happen when we finally meet them there and decide to be on the same team.

Sounds pretty nice, right?

Before you jump into tracking macros or trying another restrictive diet that promises to provide all of your answers, ask yourself if your behaviors around food are sound.

These are the building blocks for any changes you’ll make going forward—take the time now to build your foundation.

As my dad used to tell me as a child after I attempted every short-cut in the book during my first go-round:

“Do it right the first time, and you’ll save yourself so much time in the end.”

-       Bill

 

Maintenance Caloric Intake - What It Is & Why It's Magical

The concept of eating at maintenance caloric intake is a tremendously underutilized tool, particularly for women.

In fact, when I ask women what it looks and feels like to eat at a maintenance intake, most look at me like I have two heads.

What the hell does maintenance even mean?

 We work harder by cutting more and more calories, but this backfires at some point.

We work harder by cutting more and more calories, but this backfires at some point.

This is the caloric intake at which our bodies are neither gaining nor losing weight. In the land of dieting, we often forget about this magical state. We’re brainwashed and/or misled into thinking that if we’re not restricting and actively dieting, then the only other option is to gain weight.

NOT true.

Eating at maintenance provides a slew of amazing benefits, and this is especially true for women who have been dieting for extended periods of time and aren’t seeing the results they want in the gym.

1.     More energy and brain power

Under-eating, or eating below maintenance caloric intake, can cause symptoms that begin to become our new normal if we do it for long enough. A notable one is experiencing low energy in the form of brain fog or general physical fatigue, and the positive effects are often immediately felt after increasing food intake to maintenance levels.

2.     Gains in strength, muscle mass & performance

As someone who already struggles to put on strength and muscle mass (and let’s be real—most women have a far more difficult time putting on muscle than males), this is especially important. Have you been working your ass off in the gym, only to have nothing to show for your results?

I’ve been there, and it took a LOT of convincing myself to finally increase my food intake in an effort to see some gains. (Full disclosure: this didn’t happen until about 2 years ago, and progress is still super slow). However, it just isn’t possible for many of us to eat at a deficit and gain muscle mass unless we’re fairly new to training.

This is why it’s common to see transformations of women who are new to healthy eating and resistance or strength training. They lose fat and gain muscle at the same time—however, this occurs less frequently the longer we’ve been training consistently.

Aside from gaining strength and muscle mass, improved performance in conditioning workouts (such as Crossfit, Orange Theory, HIIT, endurance) can be felt almost immediately.

3.     Restoration of metabolic and hormonal function

Our bodies evolved to protect us from starvation, so hormones increase or decrease (depending on their function) while when we’re in a calorie deficit, and our metabolisms slow.

This is essentially done by decreasing our NEAT—non-exercise activity thermogenesis—i.e. we move less throughout the day. 

This means we need to decrease our intake, or increase our deficit, to continue to see fat loss. Eventually, we find ourselves in a hole, where our caloric intake is quite low, we’re not losing fat, we’re not gaining muscle, and we feel like total dog shit.

We may also experience low libido, missing or irregular periods, low thyroid function, poor digestion, and awful sleep.

At this point, the only way to go is up, and you may just gain back your hormonal and metabolic vitality. HUGE win!

4.     Establishing body fat set point

Our bodies tend to find “set points”, or body fat percentages where they’re comfortable and don’t easily fluctuate from.  Some experience this by not being able to hold a higher weight, while others experience the opposite.

The longer we remain at any given weight while consuming an appropriate number of calories (i.e. this won’t work if we’re always under-eating), our bodies adapt and re-establish the set point. This means we have more flexibility with our take when our bodies feel safe by way of adequate intake, as opposed to constantly feeling stressed.

Note: this appears to be largely anecdotal at this time, but many experience this phenomenon.

5.     MORE FOOD

I think this speaks for itself if you love food like I do, as this girl has a big ol’ appetite.

If you’ve been undereating consistently for a long period of time, as many women have been (and I did), then it can be scary to eat more out of fear of gaining weight. But it can also be magical, as your cravings will likely decrease, and you’ll settle in to a more consistent and fulfilling relationship with food.

This might include keeping your “standard” choices the same, or keeping your meals consistent, but adding in dessert more often, enjoying more cocktails, etc. OR you may want to beef up each of your meals OR any combination of these two approaches!

Overcoming Fear of Fat Gain

One of the biggest complaints I hear from women regarding this concept is the fear of gaining fat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with gaining fat, and someone women actually need to for health reasons, but we don’t have to increase our calories to the point of fat gain if we don’t want to.

How does one accomplish this feat?

By slowly adding food back. This is much easier if you have somewhat of a routine already in place when it comes to food, as you can simply add 100-200 calories every week to your daily total.

Please note that this is different for everyone, so this is very much a starting point. You will have to pay attention to the feedback from your body! A few lbs. are completely normal due to increased water and food mass—i.e. it doesn’t mean fat gain. Start with 100 calories per day, and if you’re relatively weight stable, begin to add more and repeat until you observe fat gain via the scale, clothing, mirror, etc.

Time to Build Your Balanced Baseline

After increasing calories to maintenance, we want to ensure we’re developing sound habits. After under-eating for extended periods of time, many women have skewed perspectives of how much food they actually need to eat, so re-establishing an appropriate intake is essential.

I discuss strategies to find your balanced baseline here, and it’s important to take the time to discover what this looks like for you.

Why?

Because you’ll be enjoying life while spending less time and precious mental energy thinking about your food, and you’ll also feel a million times better. What’s not to love, right?

Once you have remained at this caloric intake for several months, your hormones should be normalized—if not optimized—your energy is high, your mood and sleep are great, digestion is rocking, and gym performance is on par with your goals (or at the very least you feel great during and afterwards).

You are then in a much better position to make changes to your body if you so choose.

Want to add muscle? Great—start with 100-200 calories per day and see how your body responds.

Want to lose fat? Great—start by decreasing your intake by 200-300 calories per day and increasing your activity via walking a couple times per week and see how your body responds.

By discovering and hanging out at maintenance for at least 3-6 months, your body will be primed to make changes down the road.  This is starkly different from continuing to decrease your current caloric intake when you’ve been trucking along at a notable deficit for months or years on end, only to binge, rebound, and develop a tumultuous relationship with food.

Is this approach sexy? Not to the mainstream, as we don’t see physical fat loss results in 12 weeks.

More often than not, we’re staying the same (if not gaining a couple) BEFORE we can see fat loss results down the road.

But an elevated mood, physical performance, optimized hormones, better cognitive function, and a stable and nourishing relationship with food sound sexy as hell to me.

As much as your current thought patterns will attempt to convince you otherwise, I encourage you to play the long game. Your future self with thank you!

5 Tools for Developing Your Own Eating Framework - For You, By You

 Tacos are one of my love languages, so I can put them down if I'm not paying attention and implementing the tools below! But, they have to be worth it - I'll rarely eat a regular old taco.

Tacos are one of my love languages, so I can put them down if I'm not paying attention and implementing the tools below! But, they have to be worth it - I'll rarely eat a regular old taco.

As I'm sure you know, everyone has a different definition of intuitive eating.  Some believe it’s a general framework for each individual based on previous experience with tracking food or eating in a structured way (i.e. taking what we learn and applying it in a less rigid way), while others are against any form of structure whatsoever and believe our bodies and inclination towards pleasure (social and otherwise) should be our guide.

As per usual, I fall somewhere in the middle and believe that some structure can be really beneficial in the right context.  You may benefit from structure if you:

  • Have a history of restrictive eating: some women may actually be prone to undereating based on their history with dieting, especially if they gravitate towards a diet comprised of mostly whole foods that involve high levels of satiety. Tracking food intake can ensure you’re actually eating enough.
  • Participate in intense or goal-oriented physical activity: Not being mindful of food choices when participating in intense activity, such as crossfit, can be really detrimental to our bodies (hello, fucked up hormones), and this can be done innocently. Leveraging evidence-based approaches to nutrition to support our bodies through athletic endeavors is something to be mindful of. Additionally, this structure can allow us to actually improve upon our sport!
  • Are busy AF, as most of us are. This is a huge reason why I use structure when it comes to my own eating habits a lot of the time. I don’t have the luxury of cooking a fresh meal based on my cravings of the moment, so I utilize an eating framework specific to my needs and preferences that is quite flexible. This also enables us to spend a lot less time thinking about food in general.
  • Have aesthetic goals: I’m not opposed to aesthetic goals, provided they’re coming from a place of calm, acceptance, and detachment from our value as human beings, and following some structure to ensure we’re pursuing our goals in a healthy and sustainable way is important.

With this context in mind, you may feel that eating with some structure is right for you—keeping in mind that this is outside of the general recommendation of honoring hunger and satiety signals most of the time.

We all know how difficult it can be to navigate the world of food after years of yo-yo dieting and sensationalistic rules about what’s “good” and “bad”.

You’re now able to choose for yourself, which can seem overwhelming, intimidating, and frustrating at times.

You may not know what questions to be asking yourself when developing your own personalized structure, so these tools are to be used as a guide when getting to know yourself and your body, in addition to the foundational principles of intuitive eating.

Five Tools to Build Your Personalized Eating Framework

1. Point of Diminishing Returns

We all know the feeling of taking the first few bites of something delicious, only to have the satisfaction diminish as the meal goes on. If you’re used to eating everything on your plate, regardless of the portion size, ask yourself how much you’re truly enjoying the food every few bites.

Is it still appetizing to you, or are you zoned out and mindlessly finishing everything in front of you?  The more we eat, the less enjoyable food often becomes, so ask yourself if continuing to eat is worth it to you based on your pleasure in the moment, your body’s signals, and your goals.

It’s completely acceptable (and possible) to have a few bites of something and move on with some practice.

This occurs more quickly with bland, whole foods (unseasoned, limited cooking fats, lack of sweetness) and the inverse is true with highly palatable foods with high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat—neither of which are better or worse than the other. The key is to be mindful of the fact that foods in the latter category are going to require a greater degree of mindfulness.

Furthermore, those foods are usually calorically dense, so even a few bites can make a difference.

2. Enjoyment Gap

This was really enlightening to me after being on the low-carb diet train for so many years. I never stopped to ask myself if the copious amounts of fat were necessary for me to feel satisfied, let alone if my body responded well to them.

The premise of this tool is assessing whether we’re just as satisfied with a less calorically dense option as the high calorie option.

For example, I feel just as satisfied with chicken thigh or ground bison as I do with a ribeye or shredded pork (lower fat vs. high fat options), but I don’t find cauliflower rice to be a suitable substitute for white rice in most cases. It’s not worth the decreased number of calories, as I won’t be satisfied with my choice.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to make these decisions, and I encourage you to challenge what you think you know to be true about your preferences. You may be surprised by how heavily influenced you are from your former diet days!

3. Discretionary Calories

By having a simple, yet flexible structure on which we base many of our meals, such as including a serving of protein, carb, and vegetable in each meal to meet our fiber and micronutrient needs, we can then play around with the other food choices to fill in the rest of our caloric needs.

This may sound similar to “If it fits your macros”, where you can eat whatever you want as long as the total number of each macronutrient (fat, protein, carb) is within a target range each day, but there isn’t any counting involved here.  

Additionally, I’m not advocating that you fill your day with foods that are devoid of nutritional value. This is where that whole concept of balance comes into play.

It’s simply a matter of ensuring you’re structuring most of your meals in a way that support your physiological needs, while also including foods that aren’t nutritious yet you really enjoy, such as ice cream, lattes, dessert, dark chocolate (holler).

For me, discretionary calories usually include chocolate, red wine or tequila, tortilla chips, and snack bars.

I know the big bases are covered with my staple meals due to the high protein and fiber content, and I enjoy the rest while staying mindful of the appropriate amount for me. This requires some trial and error as you get to know your true preferences and cravings.

4. Is it Worth It?

Ask yourself how much enjoyment you’re really going to get from the food and drink in front of you when you know it doesn’t support your body physically or any goals you may have.

The extra glass of wine may be worth it due to the amazing taste or the quality time you’re spending with family or friends despite a potential hangover, and other times, you may be at a miserable social gathering and don’t believe the hangover the next day will be remotely worth it.

Can you find a middle ground, where you’re enjoying yourself and are participating without going overboard?

You may want to pass on the cake in front of you, as it’s a stale, run-of-the-mill cake that you can get any day of the week, and you wouldn’t even be thinking about it unless it was right in front of you.

Alternatively, your grandma may have baked her famous cake for a birthday, and you’re going to relish in the special nature of it.

Not all experiences with food are created equally, and we owe it to ourselves to determine which ones are worth it to us.

5. Allow Ebb and Flow

This may seem contrary to everything I’ve written thus far, as these are tools for creating structure (albeit loosely), but I also firmly believe in the “intuitive” aspect of this way of eating.

Allow preferences to change, and always honor feedback from your own body. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Furthermore, our lifestyles and preferences are always changing, so it can be to our detriment to hold firmly to this loose structure. After all, we’re trying to get away from rigidity, so don’t use this as an excuse to slip back into old patterns.

In fact, I would say that if the thought of using any form of remotely structured eating gives you a sense of anxiety or mistrust in your body, then don’t use it. You can always give this a go at another time if you feel inclines.

Allow your body and mind the time away from any thoughts about food and simply eat in a way that you enjoy.

These tools are essentially methods of checking in with ourselves to determine what our preferences are in the short and long-term. It takes time to navigate the appropriate answers for ourselves, and they may change frequently as our lifestyle and preferences do.

Years ago, the extra alcoholic beverage was always worth it, but it rarely is today.

I seldom partake in dessert at the office, as there isn’t anything special in taste or meaning the majority of the time. They’re not worth the caloric allotment, and I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on anything either.

The freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that I make with my cousins during Thanksgiving? Worth it 9 times out of 10.

The choices are always yours, and there isn’t a wrong way to do this, as your eating framework is created for you, by you.

Take it one decision, one meal, snack, drink at a time, and commit yourself to learning about yourself and your body. 

It requires a larger investment upfront when comparing to rigid diet rules and meal templates, as you have to make your own decisions and learn slowly over time, but you'll thank yourself in a year.

And don't forget to have some fun with it!