Fitness, Health
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Health & fitness: first undo what you thought you knew

Dieting in the form of restricting food intake or over-exercising has been part of the lives of many people, especially women, since adolescence. After decades of trying, I wondered if achieving that svelte, toned physique was even possible. But now almost two years into my own fitness journey, I’ve found that what seems counterintuitive to what we’ve programmed ourselves to think all these years is what actually works.

Dieting. It’s a ubiquitous thought that has the power to permeate every meal, every social gathering, basically every waking moment. Like many women, I’ve tried almost every fad diet du jour, many of which entail entering into extreme caloric deficits with the promise of making you lose 10 pounds in a just a week or some other claim that’s potentially harmful and frankly, just too good to be true.

On the surface, the logic of cause and effect tells us that if you eat less, you lose fat and weight, therefore if you starve yourself, you lose even more fat and more weight. Right? Right if you want to lose water weight fast, but gain it back soon after, plus a few extra pounds.Wrong for sustainable weight loss and reaching a healthy, balanced state.

If you want to lose weight and stay that way, you HAVE to eat.

Yes, including carbs. And good fats. At the very least, your body needs energy to perform its basic functions such as digestion. Add to that the extra calories burned when you move, work, and do intense exercises. If you don’t eat, your body is pretty much a car running on dangerously low fuel.

Without getting too medical or technical about it, research says the physiological reason can be simplified as such: when you starve yourself, you lose weight in the short-term because of the caloric deficit, but because your body assumes you don’t have enough food available to survive in the longer term, it triggers the body’s natural response to prolonged calorie deprivation by holding on to fat stores to conserve energy and by slowing down the metabolism1,2. This is how human beings cope when faced with famine.

What has to be undone is the tendency to associate food with guilt, instant weight gain, shame, or treating it as an enemy. Food is fuel. It is essential, making it mandatory for us to establish a normal relationship with food. But there’s more to it. Learning to treat “food as fuel” entails understanding exactly what your body needs to function well. Processed sugar is not the kind of fuel your body needs. Neither is an excessive amount of unhealthy fats or simple carbohydrates. I’ll save the specifics of food types for another post, but you get the gist.

WHAT HAS TO BE UNDONE IS THE TENDENCY TO ASSOCIATE FOOD WITH GUILT, INSTANT WEIGHT GAIN, SHAME, OR TREATING IT AS AN ENEMY. FOOD IS FUEL.

We already know we have to make healthy food choices and choose healthier alternatives whenever possible. This part isn’t new. What is new is this:

Healthy eating doesn’t mean ‘giving up’ delicious comfort food. Healthy eating is NOT as hard as you think.

Instead of thinking of healthy eating as giving something up, think of it as gaining something new. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s forbidding you from enjoying your usual comfort food. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about creating healthier versions of all-time favourites is the challenge of figuring out how to recreate them using different ingredients. Because I have a very sweet tooth, one of the first healthy recipes I tried were that of cakes and decadent desserts. I couldn’t believe how good they tasted considering they were dairy-free, processed sugar-free, gluten-free, flourless and made from ingredients you don’t normally associate with desserts. But don’t take my word for it, try some of the treats I’ve made.

To say that healthy eating is hard is an inaccurate generalisation. Yes, it’s hard to get rid of sugar cravings especially after years of our bodies getting accustomed to highly processed, sugary junk (side note: I read an article in the New York Times on how the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to blame various diseases on saturated fat), but it can be done. Is it hard to eat a plate of zoodles with homemade turkey bolognese sauce and an egg? NOPE. Is it hard to eat an avocado or a banana or drink almond milk? Nope. Is it hard to eat a chocolate cake made of dates and beans rather than processed sugar? No, not for me.

The same way we had to ‘get used’ to processed junk heavily marketed in our youth, we can also get used to loving food in their natural state, prepared in the simplest way — the way food was meant to be enjoyed. Then we’ll realise how badly we’ve been duped because natural, whole foods taste a whole lot better than processed food. Plus, you know it’s much better for your body, right? Remember, healthy eating (or eating well) is meant to be a pleasure. It’s not torture or restricting oneself. It’s about enjoying food in its best state and being good to your body in the process.

What ‘dieting’ also means for former perennial dieters like myself is over-exercising. I used to spend hours at the gym and wondered in frustration how much more effort I have to exert in order to lose the extra fat and finally get a glimpse of that long-elusive six-pack. With the same cause and effect logic applied earlier, wouldn’t more exercise mean more calories burned? Sure, in the short term. But over-exerting yourself has far more sinister effects you’d be better off avoiding altogether.

There are a lot of research out there, but what convinced me to recalibrate how I work out is the fact that over-exercising can cause adrenal fatigue from constant stress. To cope with this, the body over-produces cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone.’

An elevated level of stress hormones resulting from over-exercising is linked to a host of chronic illnesses, fatigue and depression.

As a rule, I don’t perform high-intensity exercises for more than an hour a day, 5 to 6 days a week. You may take it up to two hours, but prolonged over-exertion over a sustained period of time can be detrimental and counterproductive. You’re also opening yourself up to injuries because you’re not giving your body enough time to recover and heal the micro tears in your muscles or tensions in your joints as a result of exercising. This brings me to another lesson I learned:

Rest and sleep are just as important as working out.

It only makes sense to give your muscles, nerves, bones, and connective tissue time to heal and grow. Research suggests that muscle growth doesn’t happen while you are working out, it actually takes place during the resting period. It is during this time that the body replenishes whatever it lost during physical activity.

I get a lot of questions about how I lost the fat around my belly, legs, and arms and coaxed my ab muscles to come out of hiding. Combined with healthy eating, the ‘tip’ I give out the most based on my experience is: lift heavy. As heavy as you can lift.

Lifting heavy weights will NOT make women bulky.

Your muscles will get stronger, denser and there’s research to suggest that this means burning more fat and calories even during rest. Women do not have the same levels of testosterone that men have in order to bulk up the way they do. Unless you take testosterone supplements, you’re a rarity if you bulk up just by lifting heavy weights. I won’t get into the science of how many calories muscle burns versus fat because even experts can’t quite agree, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve increased the amount of weights I lift over time and as a result, I’ve gotten leaner as evidenced by clothes getting too big for me, and more importantly, I’ve gotten so much stronger. Beyond aesthetics, gaining more strength everyday has really become my long-term goal.

Where strength is concerned, it has also become my measure of progress, not the number on the scale. A quick search through Instagram will show you countless accounts of women who post progress photos along with the hashtag #screwthescale. And rightly so. It is common knowledge that muscle weighs more than fat, but many still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that it is possible to get leaner (and thinner) even if that number on the scale is going up.

Really, screw the scale.

The best measure of progress is how strong you’ve gotten (i.e. how many push-ups you can do, how heavy you can lift, etc.) and how lean you look. Are those abs starting to peek through? Are those pants looser than ever? Do you feel much healthier and happier? That is progress, isn’t it?

Self-confidence, mood, happiness and overall well-being are linked to the way we feel about ourselves as a result of what we eat and how we take care of our bodies. There are no quick fixes and there are no secrets. It’s all about hard work and consistency. Another problem people face is the expectation that change will happen right away. This is an even bigger challenge than undoing what you thought you knew about food and fitness. But one of the most important things to remember is this:

You have to trust the process.

Trust that your decision not to put sugar in your coffee today is going to add up to all your other small, but good decisions every single day. Trust that if you stay on track, results will come, even if it takes some time. Trust that the body will react accordingly if you treat it correctly. Trust that because these principles have worked for thousands of women all over the world, there’s a big chance they will work for you, too.

In a nutshell

  • If you want to lose weight and stay that way, you HAVE to eat. Food is fuel.

  • Healthy eating doesn’t mean ‘giving up’ delicious comfort food. Healthy eating is NOT as hard as you think.

  • An elevated level of stress hormones resulting from over-exercising is linked to a host of chronic illnesses, fatigue and depression.

  • Rest and sleep are just as important as working out.

  • Lifting heavy weights will NOT make women bulky.

  • Screw the scale.

  • Trust the process.

 

(Click here to see my journey and here to try some of my healthy recipes.)

– Recipes blog

– Asphaire on Instagram

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