body image · diets · eating · fat · fitness · motivation · sports nutrition

“Nutrition is the foundation of health and fitness. You simply cannot out train a poor diet.”

The quotation above is from Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between nutrition and fitness and thinking about where there’s room for improvement in my efforts to be the ‘fittest by fifty.’

Unlike my co-blogger Tracy who has decided that sports nutrition counseling isn’t for her and who has stepped away from the scale, I’m continuing with habit based nutrition counseling. I’m a numbers geek, I like tracking, and I’m looking forward to getting leaner in the year ahead.

It’s not about hating the body I’m got, I’m quite fond of it thanks, and it can do amazing things, but I need reminders to give it the love and attention it deserves. With three kids and a busy career, I sometimes struggle to take care of myself. I’m not quite the opposite of the food obsessed dieter but it’s true that for me, more often than not, convenience and the needs of others, take precedence over my own food choices.

Whether it’s a banana and a protein bar before Crossfit, a drive thru coffee and bagel on the way to rowing, a pizza slice post Aikido or instant oatmeal as a warm bedtime snack, some of my food choices aren’t the best. And given the demands I place on my body, I need to do better.

For some reason, for me, physical activity is easy. I love it, can’t get enough of it, but nutrition is another matter. And yet, eating well supports everything else I do. And I do a lot so I need to eat very well. So I’m setting out to work on the foundation this year, to try to pay as much attention to nutrition as I do to other aspects of sports performance. I’m trying to think of eating as part of sports training. Nutrition counseling helps serve as a reminder that this matters.

I’ve blogged here about my reasons for wanting to be leaner but I need to balance that goal with making sure I eat enough to support my physical activity.

I just did another check in at the Bod Pod this week and I’m happy with my progress so far. I’ve lost another 4 lbs overall but more importantly, as part of that overall, I’ve also gained 2 lbs of muscle since my last check in, and so my per cent body fat is down 2%. Yay Crossfit! Yippee new muscles! I’ve joined Tracy in the merely “excess fat” category, heading towards “moderately lean.”

I’m also now following the Lean Eating program at Precision Nutrition.

You’ve probably read a few wonderful rants I’ve linked to by Krista Scott Dixon. Here’s my faves:

In addition to having put together the best women’s weight lifting site on the web, and having a PhD in Women’s Studies she’s also the Coaching Program Director for Precision Nutrition.  I’m actually working with another Precision Nutrition Krista though. Krista Chaus is another woman with a pretty impressive bio.

“Since beginning her competitive career as a strength athlete 10 year ago, Krista has become one of the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Top 20 Female Powerlifters. She is also a National champion, provincial record holder and two times Commonwealth Championship medalist.

Recently, Krista has turned her competitive attention to the physique side of the industry, capturing 7 overall finishes in bodybuilding in 2008 and placing 5th at the 2009 Arnolds Amateur Bodybuilding Championships.  She’s currently working towards a National bench press record with the Canadian Powerlifting Association.” from her PN bio

It’s not a diet, in terms of short term change. Instead, I’m trying new habits on for size and trying to make them part of my life. The first big change for me is that one will sound familiar to those who’ve been following the blog: slow mindful eating.

There’ll be no vibrating forks for me though. I’m hoping to pay more attention to my food and less attention to electronic gadgets at the dinner table.

Anyway, wish me luck.

body image · weight loss

On feminist philosophy and weight loss

There isn’t a lot of feminist literature on the experience of losing weight and keeping it off so I was very happy to read Ann Cahill’s paper “Getting to My Fighting Weight” published in the Musings section of the journal Hypatia (25 (2):485-492, 2010). It’s a very gentle piece of philosophy, light on prescription, rich in personal experience and narrative.

I love the idea of  “fighting weight” as a concept that goes beyond boxing and martial arts though I admit that’s what I originally thought Cahill’s piece would be about. I expected a piece on “making weight” or “weighing down” the way one does for fitness competitions, races in light weight rowing, and martial arts competitions.

Cahill also notes there isn’t a lot of feminist work out there that is positive about the experience of losing weight and staying at the new weight.  One possibility of course is that this phenomenon is so rare. Estimates vary but most agree that only about 1 in 20 people who lose weight keep it off for more than five years. Most feminist literature looks at weight loss as part of the larger effort to control women’s lives by imposing an impossible regimen of dieting, self monitoring, and self regulation.

The philosophical literature which Cahill cites will be familiar to many of us. Most feminist philosophers of my generation will have read, in grad school, the two B’s: Bordo and Bartky. Bartky’s 1990 book Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression and Susan Bordo’s 1993 book Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body were the first feminist philosophy works that discussed the political dimensions of women’s efforts regarding our appearance and the high cost we pay for this concern.

Bordo’s book came out the year I graduated but I read some of the articles that went into it along the way. Bordo’s writing about eating disorders was the first time I’d thought about dieting’s effect on women’s lives in the context of feminist philosophy.

Maybe for younger scholars, Cressida Heyes’ work will have played this role. Heyes’ terrific 2006 paper, “Foucault goes to weight watchers” is also published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia (21 (2): 126–49).

Cahill is a beautiful writer and I love her language when she talks about reconciling her decision to lose weight with her feminist values:

“I realized that maximizing my ability to move, quickly, effectively, strongly, was entirely conducive to my feminist aspirations and
activities. I wasn’t aspiring to skinniness or frailty, just the opposite: I wanted to bring strength and vigor to whatever struggle I chose. I wanted to get to my fighting weight.”

I don’t know of any philosopher who has set out to write principles that ought to guide our efforts at weight loss. Cahill doesn’t do that exactly either but she does describe the principles she chose and why they mattered to her. I admire the guidelines she adopted, on feminist grounds, to guide her weight loss journey. In short, there were to be no changes that couldn’t be permanent, no classes of foods off limits, no special or different foods, and no displays of food denial. I liked reading about her choices and how she approached them as a feminist and as a philosopher.

Instead, Cahill dropped weight through the methods of food journaling, calorie tracking, and exercise. Both Tracy and I have blogged about our different reactions to food tracking here on our blog. Tracking and the Panopticon was Tracy’s post on this subject which I followed up with Another Perspective on Tracking. It was interesting in the weeks that followed that post to hear which side of fence our friends lived on. “I’m with you, I track everything,” said one friend, while another agreed with Tracy that the process was “nasty and oppressive.” Everyone had done it and we all had a view.

One of the more philosophically interesting parts of Cahill’s project was how others saw her results.

“I might have called it getting stronger, or deepening my bodily flourishing, or becoming more intentional about the intersection of my material existence and my material culture. But in the context of contemporary culture, what I had done was ‘‘lost weight,’’ and people’s reactions to that weight loss were a fascinating part of the experience.”

Cahill strikingly writes about the downsides of losing weight. Like me, she isn’t so happy with the phenomena I call “skinny face.”

One thing that may have made Cahill’s experiences different from those of many of us is that she came to her plan without a history of body loathing and dieting. Prior to this it sounds like she didn’t even weigh herself regularly. And even now she doesn’t dislike her former, larger body. That’s so lovely and rare.

“I don’t look back at photos of myself from a year ago and shudder. That was a different body that I lived, with its own set of possibilities, practices, and abilities. And there are certainly cultural contexts where that body would be more useful and conducive to my survival than the one I’m living now. Come the apocalypse, those extra pounds would come in handy.”

I did wish Cahill spent more time addressing the dreaded D word, “diet” and I wanted to hear more about how she’s been keeping the weight off. I’ve been down her road of significant weight loss (a few times actually) but I’ve never succeeded in staying at the lower weight. At times I also wanted to hear her draw more general conclusions and principles but Cahill sticks wisely with philosophical reflections on personal experience.

If you’re a feminist interested in the phenomenon of weight loss and you have access to the holdings of a university library, I strongly recommend that you go read Cahill’s Musings piece. For the rest of you, well, this is why I care so much about open access publishing. The beautiful and important work of feminist academics ought to be more widely available, not locked away behind the firewalls that guard the ivory tower or the paywalls that guard the publisher’s websites.

And if you’re like Cahill, someone who has lost weight and kept it off, do her experiences accord with your own? I’m both personally and professionally curious.

body image · weight loss

Lower death risk for the overweight, go us!

From the New York Times: “The report on nearly three million people found that those whose B.M.I. ranked them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight. And while obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level (B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9) were not more likely to die than normal-weight people. The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between B.M.I. and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts said.”

This is in keeping with a declaration made by The New York Times in 1912 when they declared Elsie Scheel, “the perfect woman” at 171 lbs.

Read more here: The ‘Perfect Woman’ In 1912, Elsie Scheel, Was 171 Pounds And Loved Beefsteaks

Blogger Kate Harding described Scheel in these terms: “Miss Elsie Scheel’s BMI would have been 26.8, placing her squarely in today’s dreaded “overweight” category. At Banana Republic, to pick a random contemporary store, she would wear a size 8 top, a 12/14 bottom, and probably a 12 dress with the bust taken in.” (Kate Harding is the author of the BMI Project.)

I’ve written a bit about the so-called obesity paradox, Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections.

That’s okay. I’m not worried. I’ve been in the overweight category all of my adult life, even at my thinnest. Given my 122 lb base of muscle and bone, I’ll always be overweight. Which is, I’ve argued here, part of the problem with weight and BMI as measures of anything meaningful.

I often wonder about the effect of news like this on the naturally lean. One of thing that interests me is that it seems it just doesn’t matter how big the health benefits of being overweight are, no one would suggest that underweight people try to gain weight. It’s just too tough. Why doesn’t this work the other way?

sports nutrition · weight loss

Great reading for the fitness geek on your gift list

Timothy Caulfield’s new book The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness aims to set the record straight on what the latest research in food and fitness does and doesn’t show. Caufield is sick of all of the myths and hype surrounding food and fitness trends.

For the most part The Cure for Everything is a fun, fact filled exercise in debunking. I like a good debunking as much as the next philosopher. What science minded academic doesn’t?

Here are some highlights from the self described science nerd and health nut:

  • When it comes to weight loss, exercise is just a tiny part of the story. 90% or more of it is diet. Caulfield thinks there is a reason so much funding for sports and exercise programs comes from food manufacturers. They’re anxious to redirect attention.
  • That said, we should all exercise more than we do. It’s incredibly good for us, even if we don’t lose weight. What sort of exercise? Heavy weights and intensity. Forget “moderate” exercise, intensity is where it’s at and what makes a difference. Governments encourage “moderate” exercise because that’s where there’s the biggest bang for health improvement buck but really, it’s intense exercise that offers the most individual benefits. Governments rightly worry that if they shared this message we’d all give up, go home, and watch yet more television.
  • There’s no such thing as toning and the best way to visible abs is low body fat. (That’s why heroin addicts look ripped.)
  • Stretch if you want to but there’s no evidence to say it’s good for you and some evidence to show it hurts performance. (Yes! Thank you.)
  • The food industry touts the ‘everything in moderation’ ideal but the truth is that some foods have no place in a healthy diet. Rather by the time you eat all the foods you need to eat, there’s no room for them in the daily calorie count.
  • Don’t bother with vitamins and supplements. Eat real food.
  • And there’s nothing particularly good to say about detox and cleansing diets.
  • Most surprisingly (for me) was his critique of yoga. I wasn’t shocked that homeopathy isn’t medicine but I was taken aback by his claim that yoga is not very good as exercise though it is probably good for stress relief. I’ll worry less now that I’m not very good at yoga but I still enjoy it anyway. Hot yoga on a cold winter day feels wonderful. And I’ll be curious to hear what yoga buffs make of Caulfield’s claims. (Hi Tracy!)

You can read the short version here on Huffington Post, 9 Health Myths Debunked by Timothy Caulfield.

Caulfield leads the Faculty of Law’s Health Law and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta and is a Canada Research Chair  in Health Law and Policy. He is also a pretty serious track cyclist (a former Canadian master’s champion in sprint cycling) and the same age as me, 48. Oh, and he’s got cool glasses.

What counts as fitness, according to Caulfied? In an interview with Healthzone he says:

In our society, fitness is about looking good, about esthetics. My definition is not tied to sexy abs. It’s tied to feeling strong and vigorous. It’s about biological markers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. You get all that from working out. If your goal is to look in the mirror for drastic changes, you’re going to be disappointed.

Some of this will be familiar to readers of Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer which I talked about here.

Both books cover lots of the same ground although I found Caulfield’s conclusions a little gloomier. Reynolds tends to sprinkle the bad news with the good. She’s also a health reporter and he’s an academic and the difference in background shows. Though both aim to be popular books sharing research in a field many of us care deeply about, if you actually want the science and some details about the studies Caulfield will be a better read.

Both books also make clear that the truth doesn’t provide much fodder for catchy motivational slogans: Exercise intensely for long periods of time and you might just stay the same! Both cite the same study showing women who exercise a lot, and regularly, still gain weight as they age. They just gain less. That’s good health news but won’t exactly make for a very good poster at the gym.

The bit that I found hard to take, though I don’t doubt he’s right, was Caulfield’s assessment of what’s required for long term weight loss and maintenance. People who lose weight and keep weight off in the long run have some traits in common. And this group, because they’re rare, have been studied closely.  First, constant vigilance. They remain as focused and determined as they were when losing weight and they log and track just as carefully as when they started. Second, they exercise a lot. Third, they also don’t eat very much. Yikes.

During the course of writing the book, Caulfied himself dropped 25 lbs and went into the very lean category in terms of body fat. He did with some simple rules: no junk food, very limited quantities (he only ordered starters not entrees) and half of everything he ate had to be fruits and vegetables. He speaks in frank terms about hard this was, about hunger and resisting temptation. He’s kept the weight off but still finds it a struggle.

In the end I like ‘s assessment of the book. On his blog Weighty Matters he calls it an “evidence based romp.” Three words he says he’d never thought he’d string together.

You can hear Caulfield interviewed on the ABC here and his book is also reviewed  in the National Post

weight loss

Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections

The connection between obesity and health isn’t as straightforward as we might think.

Those of us who puzzle about the connection between obesity and health  ask whether it’s possible to be fat and healthy. I’d like to think that it is.

But until recently it didn’t ever occur to me that some people could be healthy because they’re fat and that for them not only is losing weight not necessary it might even be had for their health.

It does seem though that not only can fat people be healthy, in some people it seems losing weight increases a variety of disease risks. Researchers call this the “obesity paradox” though as they come to understand it it might be a misnamed phenomena. What matters, they think, is metabolic health, not obesity after all.

I find this fascinating but it does make me worry about weight loss in my case. I’m a clear case of a metabolically healthy, significantly overweight person.

See the following story from the Vancouver Sun,

I’ve italicized the bits that make me nervous!

“According to a recent study funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, people who are obese are less likely to die from pneumonia than people of normal or low weight. The study of patients at six Edmonton hospitals found that obese patients were 56-per-cent less likely to die, an example of what the researchers call “reverse epidemiology.”

It is far from the only example. The authors cite studies that reveal paradoxical outcomes for obese patients suffering from coronary artery disease, end-stage kidney disease and heart failure.

Other recent CIHR-funded studies have revealed that some obese people appear to be protected against the very illnesses most associated with obesity, specifically type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

These seemingly contradictory findings are fuelling research into the so-called Obesity Paradox, according to CIHR researcher Antony Karelis at the University of Quebec.

Karelis has found that about 30 per cent of obese people appear to display metabolic health indistinguishable from those of young lean individuals, including normal blood pressure, low levels of bad fats, high levels of healthy fats, high insulin sensitivity and low inflammation.

Metabolically healthy obese (MHO) adults also have less fat in their livers, muscles and around their vital organs, but more subcutaneous fat under their skin, he said.

“Some [obese] people collect fat under their skin where it is less likely to go into the liver and the heart or the pancreas and cause all kinds of trouble,” said Karelis. “Fat on their thighs is associated with health benefits, but abdominal fat is more associated with [poor health].”

Karelis argues that identifying people by their metabolic health, rather than their weight, is key for doctors making decisions about how to treat their patients.

“We know these people exist and that they have a lower risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Karelis said. “They have a better inflammation profile, a better hormonal profile and they are physically stronger.”

There are signs that weight loss may be harmful to people who are metabolically healthy but obese.

MHO individuals who participated in a six-month weight-loss study showed deteriorated insulin sensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. Metabolically abnormal obese study participants — those who display inflammation and unhealthy fat profiles usually associated with obesity — showed improved insulin sensitivity, suggesting their health could benefit from weight loss.

A 2009 study in the journal Epidemiology of middle- and older-aged obese adults found an increased risk of death associated with weight loss. Another CIHR study found that weight loss in obese post-menopausal women increased their risk of developing diabetes.”

Since diabetes seems to be the main risk caused by messing with a good thing, i.e. losing weight when you’re metabolically healthy to start, I think I’ll keep on eye on this in my case if I make progress to a leaner me by year 50. We’ve got a type 2 diabetic in the house so monitoring my blood sugar at least is easy.

body image · diets · fat · fitness · weight loss

I hate you Weight Watchers

Inspired by this recent anti-WW rant, Weight Watchers Probably Won’t Help You Lose Tons of Weight, So Maybe Stop Dieting?, I decided to write my own.

There aren’t many companies I have strong feelings about but WW is one of them. These are my feelings based solely on my experiences and your mileage may vary, yada yada yada. If it works/worked for you, great, though I suspect you are in a very small minority.

Like the author of the above post, I first went to Weight Watchers as a child, accompanied by a loving, well meaning parent. My mum has struggled with her weight all of my life and was at that point a regular attender of WW.

These days she’s also moved on from WW or “wrestling” as we dubbed it–you know a blend of fighting fat and WWF.

So when I first went to a WW meeting I was 12 or 13 years old. I have intense memories of this period of my life: my first diet. I was in Grade 6. I felt very grown up.

I did it part because I wanted shorter, grown up hair, but ‘friends’ thought I ought to lose weight first. Short hair was for svelte girls, not chubby awkward girls in knee socks.

I weighed 133 lbs when I first stepped on those scales and that number appalled me. The last I looked I wasn’t yet a 100 lbs. Where had those extra pounds come from? Keep in mind though that I was the tallest person in my class. I was probably 5’4 or so that weight shouldn’t have been as horrifying as it was.

I’m not sure I was even really overweight. When I look at pictures of me then I don’t see a fat kid. I see a slightly chubby almost teenage girl, on the verge of hips and breasts. I think she ought to have run more, played outside more but young me was a bookish, studious introvert, no lover of sports and games.

The people there were kind to me. No one thought joining was a bad idea. Indeed, I was called mature and told that it good to take care of this little problem now, before it got out of hand.

And in their defense I don’t think they knew then what we ought to know now about the dangers of dieting, especially setting up dieting habits in children. They really did think they were helping.

I remember coming home to find out there was lemon meringue pie for dessert (my parents were bakers) and that I couldn’t eat it, too many points. My mum gave me a one night reprieve for pie. I was to start the diet tomorrow.

I don’t remember how many weeks that first diet lasted. Not very many, I don’t think. I don’t think I lost any weight. It was the beginning though of a lifetime of weighing and shame associated with my size.

The good news was that even though I quit/stopped going, I did get my first real haircut anyway and it looked just fine. The world didn’t end.

Weight Watchers and I had an off and on relationship for about 30 years. A bad relationship but I kept going back, thinking they’d changed and that this time it would work.

Fast forward now to the last time I tried Weight Watchers.

Here are three things that I realized that will forever keep me away:

First, lots of the long term members and leaders seem to have seriously disordered eating habits. I actually heard an argument between a long term member, probably a life member, and a group leader about how many points you’d have to write down if you put a muffin in your mouth, chewed on it for a bit, and then read the label and spit it out.

Yes, gross. Disgusting. Ew.

The ‘chew and spew’ method never actually occurred to me as a method of sort of having your cake and not eating it too. Just yuck.

Maybe I’ve led a privileged life but the most messed up eating habits I’ve ever encountered were at WW. Life members boasted of still carrying their scales everywhere so they could measure and count every morsel they ate. They seemed thin but scarily obsessed with ever gaining the weight back.

Second, the WW approved weight for my height seems to me to be absurd. As absurd as it was to call 12 year old me overweight. I just laugh at their numbers. Even at a size 8, I’m not in their range for my height. I’m too muscular. I feel vindicated now after my visit to the Bod Pod which measures your per cent body fat. I’m almost out of the WW range for my height with 0% body fat!

My doctor offered to write me a note recommending a higher, more reasonable goal weight but the leaders refused to change my goal weight. They thought I should try it out first.

Third, they can’t handle people who actually exercise and do lots of physical activity. The leaders looked in disbelief when I told them how much I was riding my bike. Why would you want to do that? Clearly it’s not helping you with weight loss.

And yes, you get extra points for physical activity and you can spend those points on food, but you can spend them on whatever you like. Above the basic minimum for food groups, there’s no guidance at all how physically active people ought to supplement their diet. You want to spend them on all aspartame sweetened WW desserts, then go for it.

If you are biking, running, swimming….whatever, on a regular basis, then you need information about sports nutrition and WW isn’t set up at all to help with that. I ended up supplementing WW with advice from someone whose expertise was sports nutrition and then eventually, I just dropped out for good.

Good riddance Weight Watchers.

body image · fat

No more headless fatties, why not use images of active fat people complete with heads instead?

It’s time to expand our imagery of the obese.

Not at all fat people are unhappy. And some of us even have heads.

I’m interested in the politics of obesity, both as an ethicist with an interest in medical matters and the health care system, and as a significantly overweight person whose been obese off and on most of my adult life. And as readers of this blog know, I’m interested in the connections between being fat and being fit.

Sometimes I want to use different language–I’m big and strong, not obese (a medical term, based on BMI) but at other times I want people to realize that when they’re talking about obesity I’m part of the story. So too of course are all the Olympic athletes who count as obese.

I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about fatness. But that’s just not true.

Along comes Stocky Bodies, a great new take (and pun) on stock photography. There’s loads of great images: fat people riding bikes, doing scuba, making crafts, using computers, and even (gasp) eating.

From their website:

The ‘Stocky Bodies’ image library was created in response to the stigmatised representations of overweight and obese people in the media and popular culture.

Such depictions tend to dehumanise by portraying subjects as headless, slovenly or vulnerable and reinforce stereotypes by presenting subjects as engaged in unhealthy eating practices or sedentary conduct.

Our library of stock photos was created to provide positive and diverse representations of the lived experience of fat that begin to break down the typecasting that heightens weight stigma. This is an important objective as research has strongly associated weight prejudice with widespread social and material inequalities, unfair treatment and heightened body esteem issues.

The photographs for the image library are the outcome of an interdisciplinary project between Dr Lauren Gurrieri of the Griffith Business School and Mr Isaac Brown of the Queensland College of Art. The participants are everyday people who are involved in fat-acceptance communities and keen to see change in the representation of fat bodies.

Our images challenge oversimplified and demeaning representations of weight prejudice by showing subjects engaged in everyday activities, such as bike riding, shopping for fashionable clothes and performing their jobs. The documentary imagery to be shown through the library is a non-stigmatising view of what it is to be fat and live an affirmative life.

‘Stocky Bodies’ is a free resource that can be used by the media, health professionals, social marketers, educators and others.

Thanks KR!