I’ve studied nutrition for more than 12 years. I have a certification in Holistic Nutrition. I’ve read countless articles, blogs and social media posts on health and fitness. There is loads of advice on nutrition, weight loss, and every kind of exercise. But there is one thing I’ve read little about over the years: the fickle nature of the human body, which makes every health experience as unique to us as our DNA.
Every single one of us metabolizes food differently. We respond to foods differently. We respond to exercise differently. We each have different “problem areas” that we struggle with. So much of the nutrition and fitness world is “one-size-fits-most”, when in true relation to our bodies, one size doesn’t truly fit many.
This is why dietitians, nutritionists, coaches and other professionals work one-on-one with clients to assess individual needs. It is also why general advice to a wide audience may be overall beneficial, but will usually need to be altered to fit each person’s needs. So let’s get into it – I’ll talk about my personal experience as a reference.
My health journey began in late 2008 after my grandmother’s cancer diagnosis (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia), as those who have been around for a while probably already know. I went from the standard American diet, to eliminating processed foods and additives, to cutting out all red meat, to the Mediterranean diet, to at last becoming about 95% plant-based in Spring 2019.
For nearly three years I have consumed the healthiest diet on the planet, and my body responded exceptionally well. My insomnia went away. I stopped having migraines. I ceased having pain in my knees due to decreased inflammation. I felt better than I ever have and my weight has been steady at the lowest it’s ever been – until the last six months or so.
At 36 years old, I’m finally beginning to recognize just how much our own bodies can differ over time and in different stages of life, let alone from person-to-person. The way our bodies respond in our teens and early 20’s will be different from our late 20’s to late 30’s, and I can only imagine will continue the trend during each decade of our lives.
Here is what leads me to this topic, and something I’m certain you will be able to relate to no matter your gender, size or body type – weight distribution is seldom proportional! Some of us gain weight only in our midsection, or only in our butts, or our thighs, or maybe our chests, arms, faces…I have a feeling you know exactly what I’m talking about, and this is why the health journey is so unique for each of us. For me, my weight gain happens only in my waist, and in particular my lower waistline.
Do you relate to this? If so, keep reading because I’m going to get personal.
My weight stopped holding steady last summer. It started fluctuating a few pounds. Up and down, back and forth. My diet hadn’t changed. I was still walking daily and was generally active. Nothing changed, and yet…
Cue the holidays when fat and calorie consumption (thanks, comfort food) was on overload, and my weight fluctuated a few more pounds on the upward trend. It wasn’t until post-holidays when I returned to normal that I realized just how much things had changed. My eating habits had gone back to normal, and I’d actually increased my fitness over the holiday season thanks to a health insurance-provided Peloton membership. But those extra pounds? A few went away, but the rest wouldn’t budge. Did I land on a new normal that was four pounds heavier than my old normal?
The problem is, I wasn’t happy with what I saw in the mirror. Four pounds doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’m petite and short-waisted, so those four pounds were very visible. And also very stubborn.
Here is what has me so so frustrated. In the plant-based world, we get the same generalized advice: “just eat plants and you’ll naturally lose weight. There is no need to restrict calories, just maybe cut out even those healthy fats like nuts and avocados, because even though they’re healthy they’re still fat, which means 9 calories per gram. Do this and the weight will fall off.” Easy peasy, right?! Anyone can do that!
It’s not that simple, and frankly it’s the promises of simplicity from any diet that leaves dieters so utterly frustrated when it turns out to be anything but simple.
I ended up having to majorly restrict calories – down to 1,000-1,200 per day – in addition to cutting out fats in order to have any success. I even had to stop eating tofu as it has a lot of healthy fat as well. I also was doing cardio and core strength every week day, with upper and lower body strength two days per week and yoga three days per week. My weight never has returned to where it was before, as I’m gaining muscle that I didn’t have before so I’m landing about three pounds heavier than my old normal.
However, my waistline has flattened and toned up. I started loving how my body looked, and decided I could move from weight loss, to weight maintenance. But, I proceeded with caution.
I continued my same fitness routine and continued to restrict fat. But I didn’t take my calories back to where they’d been before. There is a generic calorie calculation that tells you how many calories per day you need based on your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. For me, I “should be” consuming 1,660 – 1,800 calories per day. But when I do, even if I’m not eating fats, I start to gain weight.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned that – even with daily exercise – I can maintain my weight at around 1,300-1,400 calories. Any more than that and my weight creeps up. Which means that “one-size-fits-all” method of calculating your calorie needs? Yeah, that’s bullshit. That may work for the “average” person – but how many of us are average?
It isn’t as simple as calories in vs. calories out. Or one of my personal favorites – one pound is 2,500 calories, so if you haven’t overeaten by 2,500 calories then that extra pound on the scale must be water weight or bloating, it can’t possibly be fat. According to my fitbit, my calories out each day are averaging around 1,800, while my calories in don’t exceed 1,400. By that account, with the knowledge that 2,500 calories = one pound, I should be losing a pound every 6.25 days. But instead I’m actually maintaining my weight at that level.
While nutrition may be a science, and scientifically one pound may be 2500 calories – that just doesn’t work when translated to a real, living breathing human being. There are far too many variables of the functions of the human body, metabolism being only one, that we can’t possibly calculate or know. For example – how many calories we’re actually burning during exercise, while we sleep, while digesting food, hell even just by our heart beating!
We also can’t know how many of the calories that we consume are actually going to be used by our bodies. My body doesn’t seem to need as many calories to function as science says it should – and while I’m not an athlete by any means, I’m certainly not sedentary! And we know what happens to excess calories – they’re stored for future use, usually in that problem area we struggle with. So, if we’re determining our daily calorie needs based on a generic calculation, we could be setting ourselves up for disappointment while thinking we’re doing things perfectly right. So pay attention to your body and let it tell you how much food it really needs.
Do you ever notice how you can eat something, and actually see the changes on your body afterwards? I feel like this, for me at least, showed up after I ramped up my fitness regimen and started toning my problem area. Honestly – I had a side of fries and a gyro after an entire month of eating super healthy, and all of a sudden my tummy looked a little flabby in my workout gear. So much so that I actually thought for a moment that my sports bra shrank – until I took a waist measurement and saw that I’d gained 1/4″! That is how freaking fickle my waistline is.
I feel like since diving into my fitness journey I’ve learned more about my body than ever before, and this revelation is a part of it. I intend to keep this in mind on future posts that I share about nutrition. Some things are certain – carcinogens increase risk for cancer. A high-fat diet is responsible for type 2 diabetes, not sugar. Animal foods increase cancer risk, heart disease and stroke risk, and inflammation.
But how our body processes and metabolizes food, calories and macros? There is so much inconsistency that it’s almost irresponsible to make blanket statements about weight loss, or to declare how easy a diet is, or guarantee results from any diet or workout.
Let us be patient with ourselves as we examine our bodies and learn what we need for success, whatever our goals may be.