Metabolic Health Is a Feminist Issue

campfire[Note: I am by no means an expert on metabolic health. I hardly know anything about it. I just know it’s an idea with major liberatory potentialFor more information about it, check out some of the links below]

Recently, after blogging about the thigh gap and taking Go Kaleo‘s recommendation to read Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2, and then reading Caitlin’s post that reminded us that, hey, we actually need to eat, the penny finally dropped for me.

Yes! I finally understand that metabolic health is a big deal. Huge. Bigger than the next fad diet, bigger than any particular training program, bigger than aspiring to have ripped abs or a thigh gap.

After we posted about fitness models earlier in the month, we noticed some fascinating discussion on a figure competitors’ discussion boards about ways to train smarter with more calories. Sam drew my attention to former figure competitor Clara Ross’s post about how she destroyed her metabolism and her decision to retire forever from competing to restore her metabolic health.

One of the missteps that Clare Ross admits she made was to go beyond her coach’s advice.  She ate fewer than the recommended calories. She did more than the recommended cardio. She did not take rest days.  Ross thought she was training harder and better than everyone around her. She pushed through the exhaustion and didn’t think about any health consequences.  She says:

“In reality what I was doing was conditioning my body to cope with and anticipate ongoing famine and severe physical hardship. Faced with this, it did exactly what it is supposed to do – it adapted. It learned to do more and more with less and less.”

I have long been aware of the so-called “famine response” or “starvation response” to drastic reductions in calories.  Fitness Mantra defines it as “a proportional reduction in metabolism in response to reduced availability of food.”  If the body reacts this way to severe calorie reduction, that explains why the metabolism slows down when we go on extreme diets.  But that’s just half of the story.

If eating less slows down the metabolism, then why shouldn’t eating more speed it up? In his Diet Recovery 2 plan, Matt Stone recommends more or less that we do exactly that if we have suffered metabolic damage. By definition, if you have slowed your metabolism by eating too little, then even apparently normal amounts of food will be more than your body strictly needs.

His plan follows many of the basic principles of Intuitive Eating, which is the approach I use and is working for me.  He recommends that people eat regular meals with snacks in between if they’re hungry, eat enough to feel satisfied (not more, not less), eat what appeals to you, listen to your body and respond to its feedback (i.e. make adjustments where necessary), eat nutritious foods as the main basis but there is also unlimited freedom to supplement with “junk” food as desired.

He is big on taking fluids only in response to thirst. Most of us drink more than is optimal for our metabolism, he claims.

He does do a quite a bit to fill in the sorts of things that we should be striving for to achieve metabolic health, with an emphasis on body temperature, warm hands and feet, regular bowel movements, uninterrupted sleep, and urination every 4 or so hours and your pee should be yellow or gold, not clear.

But this post isn’t about Matt’s plan, it’s about the more general idea of metabolic health and its relationship to anti-dieting. For reasons I won’t go into here, I’m happy to stick with intuitive eating, at least for the time being.

I love this takeaway point in both approaches: under-eating will not sustain long term weight loss because the body will adapt.  This one little fact goes a long way to explaining why diets simply do not work.

It also explains why you need to keep eating and keep moving.  Activity as much as food stokes the fire of metabolism.  We have all heard of the idea of “calories in, calories out.”  Many of us, like Clare Ross, have interpreted this to mean simply that if we eat less and move more then we will automatically lose weight.

“Eat less, move more” is one of the main tenets of the Weight Watchers program, a plan on which the more you lose the less you get to eat.  They are awful at recognizing activity as requiring more food to keep the body functioning adequately. When I last went there, it was totally optional to add food to compensate for activity points, and it was definitely regarded as extra-virtuous NOT to eat more if you earned extra points through activity. That’s one of Sam’s reasons for hating Weight Watchers.

In terms of metabolic health, you can see why this makes no sense.  If you move more, you need to eat more to keep your metabolism working. Otherwise, you risk going into the famine response. Your body, like Clare Ross’s body, will adapt to the new conditions, thus further reducing what it “needs”.  At a certain point, however, this becomes unsustainable.  Even Weight Watchers has a minimum amount of points you need to consume in a day.  For those like me whose “plan” kept them at that minimum, losing weight eventually became impossible.

Amber at Go Kaleo linked to a metabolic calculator that she likes to recommend. Based on your age, height, and activity level, it tells you how many calories you need to consume to maintain an “energy balance” of optimal metabolic functioning. I’m always astonished when I put in the numbers because it tells me I should be consuming over 2600 calories a day! That’s about double what Weight Watchers recommended for me and 800 more than I was told to eat last fall by my sports nutritionist and my personal trainer.

I have stopped attempting to lose weight or even to lose fat. Instead, I am simply doing what I can to gain muscle through resistance training and to increase my performance as a runner, yogi, and swimmer. I eat when I feel hungry and focus on whole foods in satisfying amounts. I enjoy sweets.

I do not know how much I weigh because I stopped weighing myself on January 1, 2013. This might be the single most liberating thing I have done for myself in the past year.

Without being overly preoccupied with body temperature and without needing a long period of what Matt calls “rest and refeeding,” I feel well on my way to firing up my metabolism so it functions more effectively than it did when I was caught in the cycle of chronic dieting.

Metabolic health is a feminist issue because women are taught much more than men to under eat, to starve themselves in order to look a certain way. The message that diets don’t work has great potential to free women from the false promise that dieting will lead to thinness and thinness will lead to happiness. The further message that we can eat our way back to good health is liberating and empowering.

If instead of dieting, we eat what we need, and engage in fitness activities with performance goals that will increase our physical functioning and fire up our metabolisms, we will be stronger and freer. I like this idea:  Instead of going on a low carb diet, increase your activity level to the point where you need to eat carbs.

Let’s move and let’s eat!

[disclaimer:  Matt Stone is not a feminist. The book has good information for those interested in learning more about metabolic health.]

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