You know all those women’s health magazines, that are telling you “how to be healthy”, eat healthy, “get 6-pack abs,” and “lose 10 lbs in 7 days!”? The pinterest boards titled “#fitspiration” and “fitness motivation”? Just google “fitspo” and you’ll see what I mean: “Suck it up, and one day you won’t have to suck it in.” “This month’s choices are next month’s body.” Or the worst of the bunch, “What have you done to earn this today?”…plastered on top of an image of 8-pack abs.
For years I strove to achieve that “perfect” body, at least from what the media told me was “perfect”. My idea of how to be healthy and fit had been built from the bottom up by the female physiques featured in popular magazines, on social media outlets, those instagram “fitspo” girls, and my peers, who were fed the same conventional BS. When this wasn’t enough, I supplemented the advice with conventional, mainstream knowledge— you know, the kind that says you should eat a 1,200 calorie a day diet if you want to “look good and be healthy”, even as a competitive athlete, training hours and hours a day.
Here’s the schtick with magazines and the media. They have to sell you something you don’t have, otherwise they wouldn’t make any money, right? So they give you something that is totally unattainable by most people, and try to give you the “shortcut ways” of how to achieve “the perfect body.” But you know what? These mainstream media lies will probably wreck your health and your body image for years to come, like it did mine, rather than make you healthy.
So, in addition to those 100-calorie pack, chemical filled snacks, fat-loss supplements, magazines and workout routines they’re trying to sell you, here’s some of the lies (ie: bullsh*t) the media trying to shove down your throat…oh, sorry. I mean, tell you “how to be healthy.”
Lie #1: Eat (much) less and exercise (much) more to get healthy.
Obsessed with achieving my aesthetic goals, I over exercised, slept very little, and subsisted on an extremely low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, as a college athlete training 4-6 hours a day. My behavior never struck me as abnormal— so many of the people I encountered in college, in the corporate “real” world, and at home were obsessed with the media image and advice of trying to “get in shape.”
Sure, eating a real-foods based diet and keeping a healthy, sustainable exercise routine (read: not insane) is key to attaining an ideal body weight. It’s when we enter the extremes that you encounter serious problems on either end of the spectrum.
What the media never told me, though, was that when a woman eats a very low carb and low-fat diet for a long period of time (read: too low-calorie, regardless of what fad diet she’s following) her body thinks it’s in starvation mode. As a result, her body becomes constantly stressed, not knowing when it’s going to get enough food, her hormones get all out of whack, and her system starts holding on to any body weight fat she’s trying to lose, whether she could use to lose it or not. Even if she initially loses weight going low carb, progress will eventually stall, and then she’ll most likely gain it all back, plus a handful of extra pounds.
So, you want to lose some water weight, then put your body in starvation mode, totally messing up your hormones and metabolism for years to come, leading you to gain weight in the long run? Go right ahead, my friend. It’s your body, not mine. But my body is OVER that BS.
Lie #2: Eat low-carb and low-fat to lose weight.
“Fat makes you fat”, right? No, “carbs make you fat”. “Is butter a carb?” Wait. That must mean that both carbs and fat make you fat, right? So we should go low-carb and low-fat to lose weight, right? WRONG. Even when I started eating paleo and doing a few Whole30’s, I realized I was afraid – no – slightly terrified of eating even healthy fats and carbohydrates. That’s what the media has done to our psyches. When roasting vegetables or dressing a salad, I would only use a teaspoon or two of oil, fearing that more would cause weight gain. A freaking teaspoon.
Through careful research (not from magazines!), I slowly came to realize that fat wasn’t going to make me fat at all – it would actually help me burn fat. I gradually incorporated more and more healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and fattier cuts of meat into my diet, which my run-down stomach, thyroid, and hormones welcomed with abandon.
But carbohydrates were another big, scary issue for me, just as they are for so many people, even after they have long been eating paleo. Even when I was training for my half marathon and eating more sweet potatoes, plantains, and winter squash than I ever had in my life, I was only “allowing” myself to eat them because they were on the list of foods that were safe for my stomach and I was exercising enough to work them off. Eventually, I learned that adding carbohydrates back into my diet fueled my activity levels and my weight stayed stable. I was shocked to find that adding more carbohydrates to my diet was such a cure-all, when I’d been told so long to avoid them to lose weight.
Lie #3: Weight training makes women bulky…
…so we should just do endless hours of cardio and abs to get skinny and fit. Right? Which is exactly what I did, and what I saw almost every single one of my peers doing both in and out of college. WRONG. You know what lifting weights does? Increases your lean muscle mass. Which makes you burn fat, be strong, and feel like a freaking bada** (i.e. awesome) You know how weight training can make you “bulky” as a female? If you’re on steroids. Or if literally all you do for your job is lift weights, eat, sleep and repeat, and take lots of supplements to get that way.
Under regular exercising circumstances, women don’t have enough testosterone to “get bulky” like most guys. Sure, you burn calories while you’re doing cardio, but chronic cardio can also make you lose muscle mass. With weight training, you burn calories during the workout, and as your muscles get stronger, you burn more calories even when you’re not working out.
Lie #4. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
This literally makes me cringe every time I hear or see it. Also known as, a recipe for developing disordered eating patterns and excessively restricting your food choices to things you think will make you “skinny.” If being skinny means having no muscle, no energy, low hormones and no menstrual cycle, combined with lots of bland salads and tasteless proteins, that sounds like the worst thing in the world to me. It is, and I’ve been there.
You know what tastes better than “skinny feels”? Real, delicious, nourishing food, that makes you feel amazing, strong, and healthy. The kind of mentality doesn’t make you feel like you’re trapped in a box of restriction, and that you’ll totally fall off the wagon into a binge if you have a tiny piece of chocolate. I’ve been there too, and I never want to go back. Because life’s too short to eat boring, tasteless food, and live unhappily all the time.
Lie #5: Don’t eat after 7 pm if you want to lose weight.
I used to religiously stick to this rule when I was at the peak of my disordered eating days, following the media’s (BS) advice. I would work out for hours, go eat the smallest dinner I could muster, and then count down the hours on the clock until I could go to bed, refusing to eat anything until breakfast the next day. I vividly remember my stomach growling while I would lay in bed, so hungry I would’ve eaten literally anything.
But I couldn’t “allow” myself to eat until the next morning if I wanted to reach my weight loss goal. Which I would never reach, because I was never satisfied, no matter how much weight I lost, even when I could fit into tiny childrens’ clothes sizes. Which actually happened. Remember how I mentioned doing chronic cardio can make you lose muscle mass, and totally mess up your hormones? So can starving your muscles by not eating enough, especially after workouts. Which is exactly what happened to me. See the picture above of me hiking in Hawaii in 2011 – zero muscle mass, zero butt, no arm muscles, no menstrual cycle, barely enough energy to get through the day.
Lie #6: Don’t ever stop short of perfect – you can always be better.
Also heard as: If you don’t feel totally exhausted after a workout, you didn’t go hard enough.
If you read my adrenal fatigue story, you know that restricting my food, over-exercising, and totally stressing myself out over achieving a “perfect physique” literally ran me into the ground with adrenal exhaustion and tons of hormonal issues. No matter how tired I was, I refused to take rest days. Or when I did, I was only thinking about when I would get back to the gym for my next workout. Vacations gave me anxiety because I knew I wouldn’t be able to work out every day. I never listened to what my body really needed – what food, what exercise, what rest, etc. And because of that, it eventually gave up and couldn’t take it anymore.
You need to learn to respect and listen to your body, give it rest days when it needs them, whether they’re planned or not. And that does not involve pushing yourself, day after day, until you just can’t push yourself anymore. You need to learn to work with your body, not against it, to be the healthiest and happiest you can be.
So, in short…
If you want to lose weight the extremely unhealthy way, lose your menstrual cycle, mess up your hormones, disrupt your metabolism, totally destroy your body image and any hope of maintaining a healthy relationship with food and your body, go right ahead and follow the media’s advice. As for me, I’m following my body’s advice.
After years of struggling, I am finally healthier, happier, less stressed, have much more energy, and live a much more balanced life – all by making the simple change of listening to what my body really needed to heal itself. And guess what? The secret to being happy and feeling great in your own skin doesn’t involve any of those mainstream media pieces of bullsh*t. I take care of my body now, I don’t fight it anymore.
Since I ditched that “advice” and started listening to my body’s core wants and needs, I’ve never felt better and more free of restrictions.
I’ve come to a point in my life where I eat what I want because I love it. Because it makes me feel good and nourishes my body, not because I’m trying to control my weight. I exercise (lifting, crossfit, yoga, walking, swimming, etc.) because I love it. Because I feel freaking and have an amazing time with friends when I do it, not because I’m trying to control the way my body looks, and hating myself for it. I’m eating more, lifting weights, I don’t do chronic cardio, my hormones and metabolism are finally back on track, and I have a much healthier relationship with food and my body. And get this – I’m actually a ton stronger than I was before, even after I had to take a break from working out at all for 6 months, and it took me a year to get back to what felt like a “normal workout routine” for me. Maybe it’s karma, but maybe it’s that I’m finally treating my body well.
Remember, no one knows your body better than you, and no one lives in your body other than you. So don’t let some magazine cover tell you how you “should” look, eat, exercise, or anything. Eff. That. And I say a big F YOU to negative body thoughts and the scale. Because you’re so much more than a number. And now, I work as a Health & Nutrition Coach to help other people find their freedom too.
Stop, and listen. Start working WITH your body instead of fighting it. You have to learn what works best for you, and what makes you feel your best. Respect your body along that journey, and you’ll find health and happiness.
Hungry for more? You might like these too:
My Struggle with Adrenal Fatigue
Recovery. My Adrenal Fatigue Story, Part II
Freedom Friday: Real Food with Dana
Is Your Type-A Lifestyle Putting You on Track for Adrenal Fatigue?
Do You Have Leaky Gut? I did. Here’s how I healed it.
This article first appeared on Further Food.