Want to Get Lean in 2018? Maybe You Should Stop Dieting

*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or dietitian. I don't know what exactly is best for YOU - I'm just sharing my own experience.*

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Let's take a look at an all too common scenario: 

You're eating 1500 calories, which (according to fancy calculators) should be a 500 calorie deficit aka enough for you to lose weight. However, you've been eating 1500 calories for months and months and months and months and you still just can't lose weight. You up your cardio, work out more, train harder, and still nothing. The next logical step is to further increase the deficit, right? Okay, now you take calories down to 1200 calories. If you're not a very small human or stepping on stage in a physique show, this intake is probably unbearably low for you - you're cranky, hungry, miserable, and have trouble adhering to this low intake. And now you're stuck.

Does that sound familiar? If it does, I get it. I get how frustrating it can be and how you can feel like you're doing everything "right" but getting no results. However...have you considered not dieting?

I know. You're thinking "What the fuck? Why would I do that? I want to lose fat! and get lean!" I get it. But hear me out. 

Let me preface this by saying that this advice doesn't apply to everyone. If you haven't been dieting or eating in a caloric deficit recently and want to start dieting to get a little leaner, then great! You go do your thing! If you've been dieting, as in eating in a caloric deficit and actively trying to lose weight, for several months during the past year, with no real break (single days or weekends don't count here)....then this is for you.


BACKGROUND:

Two years and about 8lbs of difference here. 

Two years and about 8lbs of difference here. 

Weight loss, fat loss, dieting, whatever you want to call it typically requires a few things, including: some sort of caloric intake that is lower than what you need to maintain your weight, a decent hormonal environment that is conducive to fat loss, and progression of the deficit to accommodate your body's inevitable adaptation to said deficit.  These factors all work together to help fat loss occur and all three are incredibly important.  Another key component here is stress. Stress continues to be the biggest struggle for me (and the major contributor to my PCOS) and others, and managing stress levels is also a key factor in the fat loss equation. When I refer to stress, I don't just mean feeling stressed out about a looming deadline, exam, or relationship issue.  Stress encompasses more than just psychological stress - eating at a lower caloric level is a stressor, training is a stressor, etc. To make a long story short, fat loss is complicated and several different things play a role in successful dieting. 

When you diet, and you do so for awhile, things start to downregulate and adapt. Your body is built to adapt to accomplish the important task of keeping you alive, so it adapts to the energy intake you give it and starts to get pretty damn efficient at utilizing that intake to keep you going.  In the example at the start of this post, some adaptation has definitely occurred. Again, great for the whole survival thing, not so great for fat loss efforts. So what is the answer? It depends. But one solution could be to take some time (like actual months, not days or a week) to build up your food intake, regulate hormone levels, and get yourself adapted to a significantly higher calorie intake. Is it easy? No. Is it uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it worth it? ABSOLUTELY. 

I'm going to use my own experience as an example here, but please note that I'm not special in any regard here. Physiology is pretty standard across the board and I have a few conditions that make my circumstance unique (PCOS, gluten free stuff, amenorrhea) but not shockingly different. 


MY STORY:

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October 2016: I'm about 141 lbs here, very dieted down after a very long competitive season, my stress is very high from life stuff, and I'm headed off to my first strongman nationals. I'm definitely the leanest I've ever been and my gym performance is actually pretty decent. I'm dieting on 1600ish calories, which was typically where I HAD to go to start dropping weight. 

 

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January 2017: I take time off of dieting and start to ramp calories back up. I get diagnosed with PCOS and amenorrhea after some hormonal issues and missing my period. I end up gaining a good bit of weight quickly (due in part to the PCOS). Stress levels are okay, but not great.  I'm probably about 148 here. Calories are up to about 1800+ here. 

 

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March 2017: I'm feeling okay about my physique but it's the heaviest I've been in awhile, around 150 or so,  but my coach talks me through it. I know that hormonally, my body isn't ready to diet just yet and I'm not mentally ready to do that either. Managing stress is super key for me and my PCOS, so I'm working on that. I'm probably eating 2000+ calories here. 

 

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July 2017: I'm working on maintaining my weight and I'm up to about 155lbs, which is much heavier than I've been in quite some time. It's uncomfortable but my physique is starting to change, my hormone levels are in a positive spot, and I'm getting really really strong. Calories are about 2300+ here. 

 

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December 2017: I've been dieiting for about a month and a half to two months now (am 151 here), have lost 7lbs, gym performance is better than ever, hormones are great, and everything is moving right along. My calories are about 2100 on training days and 1850 on rest days. I've had my calories adjusted (to the current levels listed) ONCE and am continuing to drop weight in a slow and steady manner, have my strength increase, and have my physique change in positive ways. 

Dieting this time around has been easy. But easy is earned. It took a lot of time to build back up and periods of discomfort to get to a place where my body was ready to diet down again.

I did nothing crazy, extreme, or incredibly special here. Seriously. There was no special supplement, or training style, or "diet hack" (lololol at that term). It was just trusting the process and making a commitment to set myself up for success. That meant being comfortable with being uncomfortable and truly embracing the fact that my self-image is not dependent on my body-image. My worth is not tied up in my weight or leanness or whatever. In fact, it's been a pretty awesome experience to watch my body change and realize that I'm dieting on 600 more calories than I had been at this time last year.  It's a great feeling to feel like my body is working with me, not against me. 


NOW WHAT DO I DO?

If you're stuck in a place where you feel like you're spinning your wheels and getting frustrated, the answer may not be to add more stress. Bodies are amazing - they can change, adapt, overcome, and do incredible things. But they need some kindness and some relief. So how do you accomplish that?

  1. Build up calories, slowly: Add a small amount of calories, about 100, (primarily in the form of fats and carbs) every week or two and continue to build up until you're at a level that is at or above your ideal maintenance level. This will be tough, mentally. But remember the long-term here.
  2. Train hard: Use all that extra food to get really fucking strong. Train hard, enjoy the strength gains, and focus on your progress here. 
  3. Maintain a higher weight for awhile: Build up and then maintain there for a bit, at least 2-3 months. This varies by person but resist the temptation to immediately start dieting. Again, see the big picture here.
  4. Get some accountability: If this process is a struggle for you, I highly recommend seeking out a coach to guide you through it. If you don't want to hire a coach, find a group of people, friends, etc. that can help keep you accountable to your goals. Accountability is key and it helps to have someone or a group of people that you can vent to who understand the process.

I know that not dieting is much easier said than done, but dieting should not be a lifestyle. For your health, sanity, and long term progress, taking periods of time where you eating in a surplus and/or maintenance level is incredibly important. It may not be comfortable, but having periods of temporary discomfort to benefit your long-term health and goals is absolutely worth it. 


P.S. there is SO MUCH new stuff happening over here, let me give you a brief rundown:

PCOS & FHA: 1 Year Update

*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor. What has worked for me won't necessarily work for you and you should always, ALWAYS take the advice and recommendations of your medical professional.*

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Well, it's been just about a year since I was diagnosed with PCOS and FHA (functional hypothalamic amenorrhea). You can read much, much more detail about my initial diagnostic progress, actions taken, and my progress thus far in these two posts:

Dealing with PCOS & FHA: My Experience 

Dealing with PCOS & FHA Part 2: Carbs, Stress, and Weight Gain

I've hesitated on writing a new update because, well...things are pretty great! At my last endocrinologist appointment all of my bloodwork was normal (including my testosterone), my periods have been mostly regular, and everything has felt surprisingly normal. 

Since July, there have been a few tweaks made to my training and my nutrition that have been a sort of litmus test to see how things have come along. The past year has been one giant experiment: how would my body react? would my hormone levels stay normal? what works for me? what doesn't work for me? My coaches, Anthony and Annie at Complete Human Performance, have been absolutely incredible with helping me through this entire process and providing amazing guidance. It truly has been a big collaborative process and I can't thank them enough for helping me through this tough year. With that being said, let's play catch up. 

Training:

Training has involved a lot of playing with different types and styles of programming, working around some nagging things that are really a result of old injuries, my hypermobility, and the fun stuff that comes along with having autoimmunity issues. I've spent the majority of the year training submaximally and building up a lot of volume. A LOT. OF. VOLUME. Particularly for things like my squats (sets of 20, anyone?) I've also spent a lot of time working various sticking points in all of my lifts and  just steadily building over time. I haven't really competed since my meet in March, minus a literally last minute decision to help fill a weight class at a strongman show which I treated as a training day. 

I have most of my competition plans for 2018 laid out and am currently starting a 3 month powerlifting meet prep and starting to push the intensity of training. A large component of being able to do this is learning how to work around my cycle. Since my period has started coming back with regularity, it has decided that I now have a 17-21 day cycle (why, tho?!) so I really only get about one to one and half weeks of normal non PMS/non cycle hormonal levels. The biggest implication of this with my training is that I get very extreme joint laxity before and on my cycle, which means I have to be extremely mindful of positioning, technique, and various other factors when I'm training. I don't tend to experience any extreme variations in strength or abilities around my cycle, but I do monitor it closely to make sure I train accordingly.

Nutrition:

This has been the area that has experienced the greatest change over the past year. Last year, I dieted very hard and made some really great progress physique-wise and then once my body had enough, it really had enough. As I have alluded to in previous posts, I put on a decent bit of weight (around 15lbs or so), which is a bit more than I typically try to put on in an off-season.  It has been incredibly difficult, both mentally and physically, to watch this unfold but it has also been incredibly rewarding.

The most beneficial thing I have done for my body, my sanity, and managing these issues has been: not losing weight. Seriously. I spent almost the entire year not dieting and in fact, spent most of the year bringing my calories way up and keeping them there. If you're dealing with FHA, the one piece of advice I would give is: STOP DIETING. Stop. Stahp. Stop it. There are exceptions to this, of course (and your doctor knows better than I do), but bringing food up and maintaining it there has worked absolute wonders for me and several other women I know. 

After implementing the carb cycling I discussed in part 2, my period returned to normal, as did my hormones, and my physique began to normalize out a bit after a few months. I still carb cycle between my rest days and training days but I've gradually added in a little more carbs on rest days and that seems to be working quite well.

I've been able to begin actually dieting for my season next year with a very slow and steady approach and I'm eating about 600 calories more than I did when I was dieting last year. My coach has only lowered my calories once or twice throughout the past 2 months and I'm continuing to see progress. I'm steadily losing weight in a way that doesn't feel brutally hard, isn't impacting my cycle, and isn't impacting my performance. Honestly, it's been...easy. THAT is what spending a year of not dieting and really trusting the process will do. It wasn't easy, especially mentally, but it was absolutely worth it. 

Mindset:

Stress management still continues to be the most difficult thing for me to implement. It's easy for me to get overwhelmed, spread myself too thin, and get caught up in all of the things I am doing. The difference now is that I am more aware of when this is starting to occur and I do my best to mitigate it. I've made some really big decisions to help with this and while they are scary, they're more than necessary. I've also really thrown myself into things aside from just training and competing. This year has been an incredibly year of growth and quite honestly, I don't think it would have gone that way if I hadn't had really great people in my corner to support me directing my efforts to other things. Managing my expectations regarding my body and training continues to be a huge component of making this entire process manageable. 

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And that's where I am at! I have another follow up in January to make sure my hormone levels stay normal while I'm dieting and training hard. I'll continue to make updates as things change as well. 

Onward and upwards. Always. 

The Problem With Empowerment

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Empowerment: a word that has garnered so much attention and use in the past few years that it is almost played out. Naturally, I want to ramble on about. Before I move on, let me be perfectly clear, I am ALL ABOUT “empowering” women….I just have issues with how we (the collective we) do it.

Let’s start with the word - empowerment.  Empowerment is defined as authority or power given to someone to do something. More colloquially, most of us define empowerment as the process of garnering confidence, strength, and fortitude to do things and feeling secure in the doing of those things. These definitions are perfectly adequate and do, indeed, serve their purpose. BUT….is that really what we mean when we say we want to “empower” people? We want to GIVE them power? We want them to garner power from another source? Are we supposed to lead people to some magical fountain of empowerment so they can drink from it and then BAM, they’re confident, secure, and strong?

Personally, I don’t love that idea. I don’t want to give anyone power because power isn’t mine to give. I think most people would agree that, when we say we want to empower people, we aren’t talking about an exchange of confidence forces. We want people to stand up and fight for themselves and do so with confidence. We want people to stand in their own power. It may seem like I’m being petty with linguistics here, but language matters. And more importantly, how that language is used and how those ideas come into fruition, matter. They matter a great deal.

At times, it seems that things written in the name of empowerment have taken on a rather less than “empowering” tone. There is a lot of “empowerment” that is done by shoving one group down so that another group may rise. Lately, it seems as if empowerment has really come to mean “making one better than someone else” and that’s just bullshit. That is not helping others stand in their power. That is not “empowering”.

NOPE.

NOPE.

In my own realm, I’ve seen this illustrated most strongly (ha!) when it comes to the idea of strength versus aesthetics. The idea that women who get into sports like powerlifting, strongman, etc. that are judged on strength are somehow above, better than, or just frankly more fucking feministy, than women who choose sports that are judged on aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, I think lifting is about the most power-building (literally) thing that women can engage in - but do we really need to shove other women down to make that point? Furthermore, does the commentary on what women wear, what we look like,  and how we adorn ourselves actually serve to further the goal of helping women stand in their power?

Whether I am reading an article about bikini competitors or reading an article about women powerlifters, I feel as though I’m being told how to present my body. Look, I get it. A sport which is predicated on being on stage half naked IS inherently a bit more about how you present your body - that’s the sport. That’s, by definition, what someone signed up for. And you know what? More power to them. Insinuating that those individuals are somehow less, and women who compete on a platform are somehow better, is just exercising the same comparative bullshit that most women who lift have come to hate. I think intention is important here as well - is someone posting things on social media as a way to garner attention to take people’s money and provide  a, shitty at best and dangerous at worse, service to them? Are they posting as a exercise in confidence? Are they trying to share their story? Are they trying to criticize others? All of these things matter. And quite frankly, you as the consumer get to chose what you consume. You can unfollow, you can ignore, you can scroll on past. You can change the conversation and show that there is not one “right” way to fitness by sharing your own story and selfies, if that is something you chose to do.

It seems as if the borderline constant comparative banter and judgement occurs as a knee jerk reaction. There is a recoiling from and rebelling against what, for most women, was sold to them as they only way to do “fitness”.  Most women have been told that in order to be “fit” you must exercise a certain way, eat a certain way, post on social media a certain way, and if you don’t...well then, you aren’t fit. More importantly, the “cooking breakfast in your underwear” (credit for that illustrative phrase to Dani Overcash) model of fitness was sold to them as the only way to attain worth. The idea that one has to display themselves in a particular way or only do particular activities in order to check the box of “fit” is, indeed, totally fucking useless.

Can we not, though?

Can we not, though?

On the flip side, I don’t think making sweeping condemnations or generalizations about the intention of groups of women, and somehow framing those condemnations in a “well, clearly we are better” way, is useful. I know I am very guilty of thinking of that way and saying those things - and honestly, I still find myself doing that from time to time.  I don't want others to make sweeping generalizations about me, so why would I not extend that same courtesy?

We, the collective we, have to move past this. Instead, we can embrace that there is the radical notion that maybe, perhaps, some women may chose to present their bodies in a certain way and pursue certain activities because *gasp* they like them! And those activities make them feel good! And those things aid them in standing in their power. (Note: I’m not here to entertain a debate about whether one can have power if they conform, intentionally or unintentionally, to the “male gaze” or societal standards. That’s a different topic for a different time).

So what do we do? How do we help women stand in their power? We accept. We raise each other up. We refuse to settle for the tired trope of strength vs. aesthetics, because at this point, it’s just fucking lazy. We stop the comparative bullshit and the shoving of people into boxes. We stop judging women solely on how they choose to present their physical bodies. We  stand in our power. We help women to stand in their power.  We do better, because we deserve better.