My mum was weird about food when I was a kid. She’d have us eat massive amounts of junk food for dinner on Fridays – multiple packets of crisps and mars bars, not just some pizza or something – and then she began to go through phases of weird diets and being pointed about what I ate. I distinctly remember her having me eat a sausage sandwich and 2 cream cakes for lunch daily, then telling me my face was too round. I also remember her vowing to eat nothing but cereal because she was too fat. No surprises that I didn’t really understand much about balanced meals and healthy eating by the time I got to adulthood, then.
I was pretty overweight for most of my adult life, with occasional drops down to almost regular BMI at particularly active times. I was also pretty anti diet culture and vowed to never count calories because that was stupid, and I didn’t really like to think about weight because it made me feel bad and it was all shallow rubbish anyway. But I’m not blind. I could see that most parkour regulars were leaner than me. I knew I huffed when I ran. I knew I wasn’t keen on what I saw in the mirror. So what could I do?
When you look at weight loss now, pop culture gives you two basic options. They’re probably more complicated than how I see them, but I’m a pretty simple person. Here is what I see in front of me:
Option one is to be beach body ready. I have to strive to eliminate those “problem areas.” I should exercise for weight loss, burning as many calories and as much fat as possible. My aim should be to get as thin and as hourglass as possible within a basically safe weight range, then wear tiny waisted jeans. Or I can join some kind of slimming club – count points, listen to calorie burning tips, listen to people talk about their metabolisms and so on. Did you eat off plan yesterday? That is NAUGHTY. You have been BAD.
This is not for me. I wasn’t exercising to lose weight – all I wanted was to be able to train more and better! I wanted to have lower bodyfat levels and more muscle mass, but I wasn’t interested in looks. I wanted to run and climb and tear my trackies on walls, not pose in jeans.
Option two is to reject weight loss completely and be happy as I am. BMI is rubbish, restricting calories is always pointless and bad for you, and that beach body chick is unrealistic anyway. Just eat what you want and work on strength only. Anything else is just giving in to diet culture and there are no health implications with being overweight. Also, everyone ends up at their natural predestined weight anyway, so there’s no point. Restricting food is punishing yourself and hating yourself.
Well… this kind of doesn’t work for me either. It’s a lot harder to pull yourself onto a high wall when you are heavier. It’s harder to run, too – you have more to carry. You’re weighed down when you jump. And I’m afraid I’m going to err on the side of caution with the health stuff and go with the medical scientist guys.
I think it was the strength training and weight lifting that pushed me over the edge. In weightlifting, your bodyweight is a vital piece of information – if someone weighs 52kg and squats 80kg, it’s a different game entirely from a 75kg person squatting the same. And then there’s the concept of power to weight ratio – you want to have the muscle mass to be able to move yourself explosively without weighing enough that it is harder for that muscle mass to do it. I don’t care about jeans or bikinis, but I care very much about being able to do stuff. And so, with advice from the long suffering Emmet, I decided to lose weight – but if options 1 and 2 both seem wrong to me, what should I do?
It turns out that there’s an option three. You can just decide what you want to do and then do it. You don’t need to worry about whether it’s supporting sexist ideas about what a woman should be if you want to drop ten pounds and make pullups easier. You don’t need to experience actual guilt over eating a cookie (why do people do that? Feel guilt about being a dick on public transit or something, not eating a cookie. Just eat it or don’t). You don’t need to buy into celebrity diets or try to keep up with a Kardashian. You don’t have to want to punish yourself for how you look because you think your power to weight ratio will be better in a lower weight range than you are currently in. You decide what you want, what is probably actually sustainable for you, and you do that thing.
The best thing about taking option three is that it is different for each person. Would you like to be an ultra badass triathlete? Cool! Your body composition will probably be pretty different from someone who wants to be a MEGA POWERLIFTER, which is also incredibly awesome. Are you gonna be a big heavy roller derby blocker who just shrugs jammers halfway across the room? Ain’t nobody gonna mess with that. Good choice. I imagine you might feel comfortable being built very differently from a dedicated ballet dancer or an acrobatic flyer. It’s all good. You do you.
So what next? Well. That’s almost as contentious. You’d think that reducing your calories would be a pretty non controversial thing, but NO. Upon starting to eat a certain amount of calories daily (making sure I had a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate that worked well for me), I was told the following COMPLETELY TRUE FACTS by a variety of people who had previously had little to no interest in my diet:
- calorie counting is unhealthy and will give you anorexia (no it won’t – Anorexia is a horrible, horrible condition that takes years to recover from, and you don’t catch it from calorie counting like it’s the bloody flu)
- Weighing food is obsessive and miserable and makes you obsessive and miserable (not really. It only takes a few seconds to weigh something like a portion of rice)
- Calorie counting means you won’t eat enough and will try to eat so little you get ill (not really, unless that’s your goal. There are plenty of ways to figure out a reasonable level for you that will create a caloric deficit without actually resorting to starvation)
- You will go into a magical STARVATION MODE that means your body stores everything as fat (how exactly would this work, if you are taking in less? Do you photosynthesise and store that as fat while you use your food energy to walk around and function?)
- Your metabolism will break (why do people think your metabolism is like a small device inside you that arbitrarily breaks down if you don’t overeat? Your metabolism is based on your mass, age, gender and activity level. It is not magic. Technically it will slow as you lose weight, in that having less mass means you need fewer calories to do your thing)
- You’re eating too much meat/the wrong kind of rice/a cookie/not enough fibre/too much carbohydrate/too much fat/too much protein and are probably DYING (dieting means that everyone needs to advise you, apparently. Even if you’re already being advised by someone who actually knows their shit, and ESPECIALLY if you’re not eating whatever the people around you expect you to eat)
Great. Really helpful. The good news is that people do get tired of this as you fail to spontaneously combust, starve to death in front of their eyes or gain 400kg because your metabolism broke down.
If your nutrition plan is sensible and you stick to it, you’ll start to lose weight. As your shape changes, you can expect the following from the people around you:
- Helpful critiques about your current appearance – my favourite moment was when someone pointed out how undefined my forearms were. Um. Thanks?
- Helpful reminders not to go TOO FAR. If you are a woman, people may want to let you know how important it is to maintain your current breast size (because that’s your most important feature, right?) or that you don’t want to look too much like a man or a female bodybuilder, which is pretty much the same thing (it turns out that both sex changes and becoming a competitive bodybuilder take a lot of time and very specific efforts, so don’t worry about this)
- People trying to get you to eat junk food. Just this once. Oh, go on. You can “afford it.” This is weird as hell and kind of creepy. If you do this to people, please stop or at the very least tell me wtf your motivation is, thanks
- Other people starting to tell you how skinny they used to be or how healthy their diet has been lately. I do not know why. I can barely find matching socks in the morning and I am more likely to be thinking about giant space fish than your diet, unless you’ve started one of those weird milkshake scams or have decided to only eat fruit for two weeks, in which case you are weird. Either way, though, I’m not the food police so please stop
- Other people telling you how fit they used to be until they turned 30/took an arrow to the knee/had a kid/got Netflix, giving you reasons why they could not possibly run at lunchtime/go to a gym/do zumba/bench press 3 times their bodyweight like they used to and/or informing you how hard their pilates/yoga/jog/body pump was last night. And not in a conversation way – I’m up for talking any gym bullshit – but an EXPECTANT way, like you’re meant to approve or disapprove or something.
What are you meant to do with all this?
I just don’t know. To get serious for a minute, losing weight did great things for me. I felt better, strength exercises were easier and I gained so much energy. I could run more, do more parkour, do pullups, lift heavy. Even my breathing was easier. I slept better. The actual process of following a sensible nutrition plan was not difficult – it took a long time, but as it wasn’t an extreme diet or particularly restrictive, that was no biggie.
Peoples’ reactions and expectations are another matter. Ten minutes on the internet blasts me with statements about how weight loss is self hate and self abuse, that I’m not light enough, that my legs are too big, I don’t have abs, I have too much muscle, I don’t look like a woman, I’m not feminist enough, I’m giving in to the patriarchy, riots not diets, how to cut belly fat, ten foods to never eat, how to avoid bloating. I’m too fat, I’m not fat enough, I should smash my scales and I should check my diabetes risk because IT COULD HAPPEN.
But I don’t belong to any of these people. I don’t have any need to meet their expectations. I will choose what I want to do, I will make sure it is sustainable and actually realistic, and I will do it. I will consider my body composition in relation to my health and the activities I want to be good at. I will track and measure as much as I want, or not at all. I’ll never be thin enough for some, and I’ll never be anti diet enough for others, and that’s okay. I’ll be a tiny ball of determination and enthusiasm about everything, including nutrition, and that’s good enough for me.