Is weight simply a matter of willpower? You might think so, given the number of dieters who add on exercise, subtract food, and expect excess fat to melt away. But it does not always happen that way. Older athletes notice the fat that creeps on year after year seems harder to lose. And others who have slimmed down complain how easily they regain lost body fat.
The Endocrine Society (www.EndocineSociety.org) took a close look at why we can too easily accumulate excess body fat, as well as why it’s so easy for dieters to regain lost fat. (1) They describe fat-gain as a disorder of the body’s energy balance system, not just a passive accumulation of excess calories. They highlight many factors other than food and exercise that influence body fatness, including genetics, the environment, and evolution. Continue Reading
Hey ladies, has your monthly “visitor” stopped coming? Some active women feel relieved when they no longer get a monthly menstrual period. (Yes! More freedom, less discomfort, no more cramps.) They may believe having no period is a sign they are training hard, like a real athlete. Others believe they have stopped menstruating because they are exercising too much or have too little body fat. No. Many very thin athletes who exercise hard have regular menses.
Absence of periods (called amenorrhea) can be linked to serious health problems, including loss of calcium from the bones, almost a three times higher incidence of stress fractures today and long-term problems with osteoporosis in the not-too-distant future. If you should want to start a family, amenorrhea interferes with the ability to conceive easily, and can also contribute to future problems with infertility (even though normal menses may have returned).
Amenorrhea is not sport-specific. Sports that emphasize lightness (ballet, running) have the highest prevalence. Up to 44% of these athletes may experience amenorrhea (as compared to 2% to 5% of women in the general population).The question arises: among a team of female athletes, why do some of the women experience menstrual problems and others don’t? The answer may relate to nutrition. Woman with amenorrhea commonly under-eat. Their bodies have inadequate fuel to support the menstrual process, to say nothing of nurture a baby. Under famine-like conditions, menstruation can stop to conserve energy.
If you among the estimated 20% of active women who have missed three or more consecutive menstrual periods and are experiencing amenorrhea, please stop rejoicing and go see your gynecologist. Amenorrhea is abnormal. It can be a red flag for body image problems (i.e., claiming to feel fat even when emaciated), an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and restrictive eating. Amenorrhea is part of The Female Athlete Triad, along with low bone mineral density (which leads to stress fractures) and restrictive eating patterns (including eating disorders). Amenorrhea can create undesired health issues.
Resolving the problem
If you no longer get regular menstrual periods and feel as though you are struggling to balance food and exercise, please get a nutrition check-up with a sports dietitian as well as a medical check-up with your doctor or gynecologist. To find a sports dietitian in your area, use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics referral networks at www.SCANdpg.org or www.eatright.org.
The most important change required to resume menses includes matching your energy intake with your energy output, so you eat enough to support both exercise and normal body functions. Historically, doctors gave the birth control pill to women with amenorrhea; this forced menstrual bleeding. But taking the birth control pill is a “Band-Aid approach” and does not resolve the underlying problem.
You are likely eating too few calories if you are hungry all the time and think about food too much. You can achieve energy balance by exercising a little less (add a rest day) and by eating a little more (add a healthy snack or two). Your goal is to consume about 15 calories per pound of body weight that you do not burn off with exercise. That means, if you weigh 100 pounds, you my need to eat ~1,500 calories to maintain your weight PLUS another 500 to 800 calories to replace the fuel you burned while training. That totals 2,000-2,300 calories for the entire day, a scary amount of food for some women.
Tips for resolving the issue
If eating this much sounds overwhelming to you, the following tips may help you get “back on the healthy track.”
If you cannot let go of your compulsion to lose weight, at least be less restrictive. Cut back on your eating by only 100 to 200 calories at the end of the day, not by 500 to 1,000 calories during the active part of your day. Small deficits can result in losing excess body fat and are far more sustainable than the food chaos that accompanies starving-stuffing patterns.
Rather than striving for a certain number on the scale, let your body achieve a natural weight that is in keeping with your genetics.
When you under-eat, your body burns protein for energy. Some of the protein comes from your diet; for example, the protein in your omelet gets used for fuel instead of building and repairing muscle. Some of the protein comes from your muscles, hence, you experience muscle wasting and that can lead to weaker bones and stress fractures. A 120-pound athlete should target 60 to 90 g protein per day. If you think your diet might be low in protein, track your food intake at www.supertracker.usda.gov.
Exercise alone is not enough to keep bones strong. Enjoy milk on cereal, low fat cheese on a lunchtime sandwich, a decaf latte in the afternoon, and a yogurt after dinner.
Sunlight on the skin helps make vitamin D. If you are an “indoor runner” (a “treadmill rat”) who gets little sunshine, be sure to choose foods fortified with D (milk, some breakfast cereals), fatty fish like salmon, eggs, and mushrooms. In the winter months, you may need to take a vitamin supplement.
While excess calories from fat are easily fattening, a little fat at each meal (15 to 20 g fat per meal, or 45 to 60 g fat per day) is an important part of a sports diet. You won’t “get fat” by eating fat. Your body uses fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K; these vitamins are important for good health. To boost your intake of healthy fats, sprinkle slivered almonds on cereal, snack on a banana spread with peanut butter, enjoy salmon for dinner, drizzle olive oil on steamed veggies, and add avocado to your turkey sandwich.
Is there long-term damage?
Loss of bone density can be irreversible and lead to early osteoporosis. The younger you are, the better your chances of recovery. My advice: nip this problem in the bud now!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels active people at her private practice in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). For more information, read her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners and new runners. The books are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com for online education and CEUs.
Are you good enough? If you listen to the voice that rattles around in your brain and constantly reminds you that you are inadequate, too fat, too slow, and too dumb, you will never be good enough. For some competitive athletes, their drive to be not just good enough, but perfect (perfectly lean, a perfect student, a perfect employee, and of course, a perfect athlete) can drive them crazy, if not drive them into an eating disorder. At what cost will you achieve perfection, including having the perfect body? At what point will you become unhappy enough to seek help?
Speaking at the MEDA (Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association) Annual Breakfast on Nov 2, 2017, Kate Ekman, a plus-size model (that’s all of size 6, mind you) talked about her struggles to rise above her “I’m not good enough” voices. She heard that message from not only herself but also from many others in the fashion industry.
Today, Kate has overcome those negative thoughts and she reminds us that we can be happier letting go of perfection and instead striving to be “good enough.” We can spend our lives comparing ourselves to others and always come up short—to compare is to despair—or we can start each day by saying “thank you” to our bodies.
Your body is the home to your heart, your soul, your brain and all the wonderful things your friends truly like about you. Your friends don’t care if your hair looks great, or if you look phenomenal in a dress. That’s not why they like you. Your appearance does not determine your self-worth. An imperfect body is perfectly OK.
As a sports dietitian, I spend way too many hours helping athletes take better care of their bodies. I remind them: there is no proof the thinnest athlete is the best athlete. The best athlete is genetically gifted, well trained, well rested, and well fueled. The thinnest athlete commonly sits on the bench, injured again.
If you struggle to find the perfect balance of food, exercise and weight, please check out www.MEDAinc.org — and well as the books, excellent podcasts, and information at www.EDcatalogue.com. As Beth Meyer, executive director of MEDA, Inc. says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up every day and not have food or your body make decisions for you?” Your body is indeed perfectly good enough the way it is. Enjoy the day!
Athletes get hungry. Sometimes they need to devour very large portions to satisfy their appetite. Sometimes they binge eat in a way that feels out of control. There’s little doubt that dieting athletes who deny themselves of their favorite foods can easily end up “eating the whole thing.” Emotions also contribute to binges; smothering your feelings with ice cream and chocolate sauce can quickly distract you from pain and sorrow. Fatigue plays a role as well; a tired brain is unlikely to make smart food choices.
If you find yourself routinely binge eating, you want to work with a registered dietitian (RD) who can help you find peace with food. Put aside your shame and embarrassment (RDs have heard this all before), and use the referral network at www. SCAN dpg.org to find a local sports dietitian. This health professional can help you stabilize your eating so you will enjoy better sports performance as well as sanity and less time thinking about food.
If you want to try to resolve binges on your own, here are a few tips gleaned from the book Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It by Rachael Rose Steil.
• Keep notes about your binges. Write down some of the reasons for your binge. Are they emotional? Psychological? Physical (due to extreme hunger)?
• Have you ever tried to find a “cure” for your binge eating? Make a list of everything you have tried. How well did it work?
• If you are binge eating “quality foods” that are nutrient-rich, your body is probably hungry and needs fuel. Give yourself permission to eat these foods—and enough of them to resolve hunger. Don’t stop eating just because you “think you should.”
• Think about a food you desperately wanted but didn’t allow yourself to eat. Could you have enjoyed a small amount of that food when you first craved it—and then observed how it made you feel? (Maybe that donut wasn’t as wonderful as you had thought?)
• Is your “perfect diet” contributing to food obsessions? Write down your fears about eating certain foods? Separate fears from facts.
• Draw a horizontal line and write binge eating on the far left and restricting on the far right. Where do you think you are along this spectrum? How close are you to the middle (eating in a balanced way)? What can you do to work towards that happy medium?
• What would your life look like without thinking about and obsessing over food? Is your binge-eating life consuming? Is your drive for eating a perfect diet actually taking you down the path to self-destruction?
• Write down what you learn from each binge. The binge is not a failure but rather an event you can use as means to better understand yourself and your body, and to move forward.
With best wishes for finding peace with food,
“Between Halloween and New Year’s Eve, I feel surrounded by chocolate. It’s everywhere!!!” reported a self-proclaimed chocoholic. “I try so hard to not eat it, but I inevitably succumb, and I inevitably gain weight. Thank goodness for January First!!!” If you share the same love-hate relationship with chocolate, keep reading. And be thankful this so-called “bad food” offers benefits. Continue Reading
“I religiously track my food and exercise. I’m eating 1,300 calories (the number my tracker told me to eat if I want to lose 2 pounds a week). I’ve been following a strict diet and the scale hasn’t budged. My friends tell me I am eating too little. I think I must be eating too much because I am not losing weight. I feel so confused… What am I doing wrong?”
I often hear this complaint from weight conscious people who don’t know if they are eating too much or too little. They believe fat loss is mathematical. Exercising 500 calories more, or eating 500 calories less, per day will result in losing 1 pound (3,500 calories) of fat per week, correct? Not always. Weight reduction is not as mathematical as we would like it to be. Continue Reading
Nancy, I hear so much talk about carbohydrates—and I’m not even sure that they are. My doctor said I should eat a low carbohydrate diet to help with a medical issue. I don’t know what to eat. Thanks for answering this embarrassingly basic question…
Answer: While your question “What are carbs?” may seem very basic, you are not the only person who is confused. Case in point, a client who said he had stopped eating carbs – but then reported he ate oatmeal for breakfast and whole wheat bread with his lunch. Both of those foods are “carbs.” He was actually trying to say he had given up eating refined white flour and sugar. Continue Reading
In this era of highly competitive sports, more and more runners, cyclists, soccer players and other serious athletes are eagerly seeking information on how to fuel optimally. Performance nutrition is also of interest to Marines, special operations troops such as the Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams, and others in the military who need to perform at a very high level to both survive and to carry out their missions. Hence, effective fueling practices are a topic of great interest and research for the US Armed Forces.
At this year’s annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (the nation’s largest group of sports medicine professionals, exercise scientists, and sports nutrition researchers; www.acsm.org), civilian as well as military exercise scientists presented the results of their recent nutrition research, some of which I have highlighted below. This information might be of interest to you, whether you are a competitive athlete or soldier who trains for hours in the summer heat, winter cold, at high altitude, or for in preparation for a strenuous event—be it a military mission, Ironman triathlon, or an adventure race. Regardless of your reason for exercising, fueling your body wisely and well can greatly impact your ability to perform optimally today as well as invest in your future health and well-being.
Highlights of research on nutrition for military performance:
The question now arises: Can athletes who eat a high quality diet with leucine-rich food (meat, fish, chicken, cheese, whey) + probiotic-supporting fiber-rich food (vegetables, fruit whole grains) reap the same benefits? Sounds like a winning combination to me!
When compared by sex, the men, understandably, tended to have less body fat—except when compared to the best performing women. The amount of the male or female marines’ muscle-mass determined athletic performance more so than their body fatness. The best-performing men and women in groups one and two had significantly more muscle than the men and women in group three. The researchers concluded that muscle mass may have a stronger association with performance during strength, aerobic, and anaerobic tests than does percent body fat. This is a good example of how the leanest athlete is not inherently the best athlete. For some athletes, building more muscle might be more important than losing body fat.
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes, teaching them how to eat to win. Her popular Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com, as well as information about her online workshop and teaching materials.