I think that everyone — but especially women — go through a unique relationship with food over the course of their lives. Today I’m sharing the changes I’ve made over the past several years that have had the biggest impact on my body composition, performance, and happiness.
Could I be leaner than I am right now? Yes. Do I want to be? Yes, because I’m always working to improve myself — but not by much. Whereas in the past, I thought skinniness = happiness on an infinite ascending curve (where happiness increases as skinniness increases, and there is no endpoint), I now have a clear sense of where my “healthy median” is: where I feel energized day-to-day, I’m not hungry all the time, I can recover well from training, and my hormones are functioning at healthy, happy levels. I try not to stray too far above or below this set point.
Also — Note that I listed three things in the title, and the most important of those is without a doubt happiness. If the way you’re eating is consistently detracting from your happiness, and if the way you’re fueling isn’t consistently making you feel good… you probably need to make some changes of your own.
My best changes from the past several years
1. I stopped being afraid to eat more. I stopped calorie counting many years ago, but for me, I still had some picture in my head of what was and wasn’t a reasonable amount for me to be eating (???!). I had to completely throw out the drawing board and write a new one. I once had a nutritionist tell me that at 5’8”, my body is a “stretch limousine, not a taxi cab.” Things that you have to take into consideration when deciding how much food is right for you:
- Your activity levels – Including and outside of exercising. If you have a more active day job, or more active weekends, for example, you need to take this into account. If you’re a fidgety person who hates sitting (like me), you need to take this into account. (Google “NEAT.”) If you’re running 40-60 miles a week, or if your mileage has just jumped up, you need to take this into account.
- Your height and weight – Larger people need more fuel. It’s science. Even if you are larger for your frame but trying to lose weight, your starting energy expenditure is going to be higher than someone who is smaller and of the same frame size. So take this into account and don’t make drastic cuts. The same thing applies if you are tall and thin. Your body needs more fuel than someone who is 4” shorter than you, just at baseline.
- Your metabolism – There’s a lot of mixed research on metabolism speed, but from my personal experience amongst teammates and friends, I do think metabolisms vary. In college I had a friend of almost the exact same height and of a similar build. We were running similar mileage and doing the exact same workouts. But she ate like a bird and I was always starving. I think that as adults, most people can identify whether they’re someone with a “fast”, “slow”, or “normal” metabolism. I’ve had a fast metabolism since I was young, and my mom and brothers are the same way. I would encourage you to resist comparing the amount of food you need to what others are eating, as bodies are so individual.
2. I started frontloading my calories. This has made a HUGE difference in the way that I fuel. Step 1a was eating more overall, and step 1b was redistributing my calories. Before the cycle would look like this – Start the day eating the way I “thought” I should be eating. End up hungry an hour or hour and a half after eating. Have a massive blood sugar drop around 2 PM. End up at the mercy of my low blood sugar, sometimes making poorer food choices, and all of the time consuming the majority of my calories in the second half of my day. Now, I eat proactively instead of reactively. I always have a very big breakfast plus a mid-morning snack when needed, and I’ve made my lunches more hearty. As a result, I feel much more well-fueled. I’m eating the majority of my calories during the time of day I’m most active (and need them the most). Come dinnertime, I’m not eating a massive meal, and afterwards, I’m satisfied and not having crazy cravings.
3. I stopped depriving myself. No foods, except what I’m allergic to, are off limits to me. I don’t believe that “fit people” only eat protein, brown rice, and vegetables. Fit people eat all foods, they just prioritize foods that are good for their body and make them feel good.
The other side of this: when you prioritize fueling your body with healthy, from-the-earth and –farm ingredients, your taste buds start to change. In turn, you start craving low-nutrient foods less. It takes trusting your body to realize that allowing yourself to eat “bad” foods does not mean your body is going to want “bad” foods all the time. Now, I honor whatever cravings my body has, I enjoy it, and I move on. I don’t say “I shouldn’t eat that” and I stand up for myself when people say “You’re really going to eat that?!” Eating junk food no longer turns into a weeklong downward spiral of despair, self-hatred, and overeating/trying to compensate. It has taken me a lot of years to get to this place, but it’s been so incredibly worth it. Fight against diet culture, stand up for yourself, and start honoring your body’s cravings instead of fighting against them. A great book on this topic is Melissa Hartwig’s Food Freedom Forever.
4. I started eating more fat. This was a huge dietary change I made after my freshman year of college, which was disastrous for me running-wise. Eventually I’ll dedicate a whole separate post to this (because I feel so strongly about it!), but simply put: FEMALE RUNNERS NEED FAT!! When most people try to “diet” or even “eat healthier”, fats and carbs are two of the foods that are usually first to go. But fat is so important not only for appetite regulation (eating too low fat of a diet will make you hungry all the time, and can give you crazy sugar cravings especially), but it’s also incredibly important for female hormonal health. A good training diet is plentiful in healthy oils, avocados, natural nut butters, fatty fish, egg yolks, etc.
5. Non-nutrition-related… I started consistently strength training. The famous longtime University of Colorado coach once said that strength training is even more important for females than it is for males – because of hormones, bone health, and body composition, and I can’t agree more. Research shows resistance training:
- Improves bone density
- Improves hormonal health (in both males and females… but in different ways)
- Changes body composition in favorable ways, even in otherwise active people
- Creates resistance to injury
- And so much more
Since committing to lifting more consistently than ever before, I’ve watched my body undergo changes I’m really proud of, and without having to make any crazy changes to my diet. I can eat more at rest (muscle is active tissue and actually burns calories, whereas fat does not), my abs are tighter and more toned despite not doing a ton of targeted “ab work”, my legs are more shapely and defined, my back and arms are more developed, and my waist has actually shrunk. My body is not perfect by any means, and I still have a lot of things I want to improve, but noticing all these changes has been fun. The benefits of lifting will also become a separate post at some point!
I want to know: As you look back on the past several years, what are the best changes you’ve made for your body and happiness?!