There is no denying the benefits of health culture as promoted through social media, and the positive impact it has had on society today, progressively driving our awareness that self care, a healthy diet and regular exercise are not only good, but vital for our long term health and wellbeing.
Nonetheless a danger lies in ‘knowing just enough to not know you might be wrong’. Diet and exercise for health and wellbeing is different from diet and exercise to maximise athletic performance. Being an athlete can have huge aesthetic benefits but ‘peak condition’ is not a sustainable long-term condition. This is because, in the bigger picture, it isn’t actually what’s optimally best for our health. If you’re an athlete you know this through experience, but if you’re a normal person looking at pictures of an athlete's ‘in season’ body on instagram you may not.
Being an athlete is often about pushing your body past its normal limits. It's about maximising your body’s output to achieve the unachievable. Think of it like a race-car driver, who will drive his car at full speed on race day, but won’t drive full speed in order to get to the track before the race. The danger with instagram and other visual forms of social media, is that pictures of competing athletes (particularly those who partake in body-building as a sport) have somehow become the aesthetic benchmark for our bodies.
But peak athletic condition must mean peak health, right?
More and more people are beginning to realise that the miraculous plan of 1100 calories a day combined with gruelling weights programs and hours of cardio in order to achieve this very fixed aesthetic is damaging our bodies and metabolism.
If you’re caught up in the social media health culture, considering starting a fat loss program, or are inspired by pictures like the aforementioned to change your physique, here are a few points you should first consider and understand:
Metabolism is Complicated
Gaining and losing fat changes the way your body regulates your body weight. We often refer back to the simple Energy Balance Equation (Energy Stores = Calories In - Calories Out) to explain the way our body processes food for energy and how fat loss occurs. If it were that simple, then the age old concept of ‘eat less and exercise more’ would make absolutely perfect sense. Whilst it is a great place to start, the truth is it’s far more complicated.
Many things affect the amount of energy we expend aside from just exercise, including Resting Metabolic Rate (the number of calories burned at rest), the thermic effect of eating, and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT!). Likewise, calories listed on the food label are not always accurate, and don’t account for the bioavailability of nutrients from food, meaning how easily they are absorbed so we can use them for energy.
Our Ability to Lose Fat Depends on Our Genetic Makeup, Lifestyle and Environment
Aside from the above variables, it is worth understanding that every single factor in our lives (from genetic makeup, to activity levels through childhood, diet history, the environment and pollution levels where we live, to the levels of hormones that our bodies produce), are some of numerous factors affecting our metabolisms.
Understanding that things aren’t always what they seem, and that they’re more complicated than they look, is the first step to understanding a healthy approach to diet and exercise, and that extreme calorie cutting or exercise regimes are not the way to successfully achieve our goals.
Metabolic Adaptations Don’t Always Mean Damage
Simply losing weight won’t damage your metabolism - this part of the theory is hype. But, when you cut calories your body undergoes a series of adaptive changes that slow the metabolism down to compensate, which is what the majority of us experience when we hit a weight loss ‘plateau.’ Because of this adaptive response, (which studies show can last as long as seven years) a person who has dieted down needs to maintain a lower caloric intake than someone who has always been the same weight.
The danger lies where we continue to cut calories to further progress our weight loss, causing our metabolism to slow more, ultimately getting us caught in a cycle that leaves us at a long-term, extreme caloric deficit that is both stressful and abusive to our body’s stress response. This long-term abuse can lead to adrenal fatigue, which is metabolic damage. Symptoms of this include: difficulty getting up in the morning, an inability to handle stress, regular and unexplained fatigue, cravings, mild depression, insomnia, a weakened immune system, asthma and allergies, dry skin, joint pain, low blood pressure, low sex drive, loss of muscle tone and weight gain.
Wasn’t this everything we started exercising and eating better to try to avoid?
This doesn’t mean that weight loss isn’t possible, and that good nutrition and exercise aren’t the answer for it. What it means is that we have developed extremely skewed expectations toward what we are trying to achieve, and how quickly we ought to achieve it. A bodybuilder’s physique is an extreme condition, which requires extreme dietary measures. The physique is easier or harder for a competitor to achieve based on their own baseline physical, metabolic, and environmental conditions. Somewhere along the line we’ve been telling ourselves this is desirable, and from desirable we progressed to making it not just what individuals on intensive diet and exercise programs with genetic advantages are doing under the guidance of professionals, but what normal people should naturally look like - if we don’t look like a bodybuilder, we’re must clearly be unhealthy and overweight.
Adjusting Our Expectations
I have nothing against figure competition - if your goal is to become a bodybuilder, power to you! You can also do this without damaging your metabolism, provided you recognise it as an extreme condition, a sport, and get the guidance of well qualified professionals to guide you through the transition, in season, and post-competition period safely.
Looking to these short term, extreme diets held by figure competitors and athletes when you are not one, and implementing them as ‘healthy eating lifestyles’ for results we plan to maintain long-term, is quite a different story. You cannot make these drastic changes to your diet, inflict them on your body, and expect your body not to react. You also can’t walk around looking like a bodybuilder on competition day 24/7 for the rest of your life. Bodybuilders don’t walk around looking like a bodybuilder on competition day 24/7 for the rest of their lives!
Set yourself a realistic long-term goal for your physique, as well as several progressive short-term goals (actions for you to take to get you there). Make gradual realistic changes to achieve them that you can maintain. The adaptive metabolic backlash is less extreme, the less extreme you are with your approach. Additionally, as we discussed, metabolic adaptations can last for years, so your healthy lifestyle changes need to be ones you can maintain for years also. If you’re hungry, stressed, miserable, and struggling, you’re probably not being as realistic as you could be.
Adjust Your Routine as Your Body Adapts to it
As you lose weight, your body will become smaller, and a smaller body requires fewer calories. A plateau can be a sign of your losing enough weight to match your new food intake and energy expenditure for maintenance (rather than continued loss). In a nutshell: your body is adapting to its new diet.
This is a point where you’ll want to check in with your goals, and wise to bring in a third party (a friend you can trust to be honest, training buddy, GP, coach or professional) for an outsider’s perspective as our own view of ourselves can sometimes get warped in the process. If your goal is to continue to lose more weight and your caloric intake is still within a healthy boundary you will need to be willing to further reduce calories and continue to exercise regularly, perhaps increasing the intensity of your workouts.
If you have lost enough mass (this means fat and muscle), and/or your caloric intake is already low enough, you may want to think about avoiding further reductions to the amount of food you eat, and instead focus on other goals, such as building strength and increasing muscle mass to alter your body’s composition, which will require you to continue to eat enough food.
Find Ways to Increase NEAT
Focusing on developing a healthy environment for yourself that encourages and requires you to be active, rather than isolating food and exercise as a means of manipulating your weight, will yield far better, realistic long-term results than anything.
Naturally lean people tend to be active people. They spend time outdoors, walk rather than drive, cycle to work, have pets they walk and play with. If you spend the majority of your day at a desk, and an hour a day unwillingly dragging your limbs through a workout, losing weight and staying lean will always be a battle.
We don’t all have the luxury of an active job. Some of us work in environments that require time sat at a desk or in meetings, but here are some nifty ways to stay more active day to day and increase your NEAT, and metabolic rate as a result:
- Change your mode of transport: walk, bike, hop, skip or jump to work
- Walk up the escalator or take the stairs
- Carry your groceries to your car instead of using the trolley
- Clean the house and walk the dog yourself instead of hiring someone
- Use a standing desk, or sit on a balance ball
- Stand and wait for the kettle to boil
- Wear a pedometer and set yourself goals
- Take ten minutes to stretch when you wake up, and before you go to bed
- Fidget more, tap your fingers, raise your heels and wiggle your toes
- Do dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher
- Actively play with your kids or pets
- Put on music and dance around the house
- Set active meetings and social events; instead of sitting down for coffee take a walk in your local park, meet friends at a climbing wall or to take a new class
Be Kind to Yourself
Create a positive relationship with both yourself and with what you are doing. Apart from this making the process more enjoyable, research has actually proven that a positive attitude and flexible eating are linked to a healthier body weight, whereas stress and poor self-image are linked with the opposite.
Above and beyond any exact physical goal, you should be working towards creating a lifestyle that you find enjoyable, accessible, and engaging, as well as active. There is no easy answer and it takes time (as well as genuine understanding of what is required to reach different levels of body composition) but the best version of your body lies in this ‘sweet spot’ between healthy habits and a life you enjoy.
This blog was written by Phoebe Wynn-Jones. In 2011, hit by a moderately-sized truck travelling at a less-than-moderate speed, Phoebe was told she would never walk again. Using holistic nutrition, yoga and boxing as a means of recovery, she went on to complete her education in Biochemistry and became a qualified nutritionist in 2012.
Phoebe has since consulted on, opened and developed multiple locations within the food and fitness industry in Los Angeles, London, New Jersey and New York. She is now working out of her fight gym MBOX and other venues across East London as a nutrition coach and industry consultant, specialising in nutrition for combat sports competitors and endurance athletes. Find her on the web at impressedhealth.co.uk or on instagram @phoebej_nutrition