Women are told to eat less and move more. But that’s crap. Instead, we should be told to eat enough and lift heavier. Let’s dig into it.
We all know that society is constantly putting pressure on women to look, be, and feel a certain way. Whatever the trending look is, women are expected to keep up if they want to be deemed as “attractive.” Fast forward years later of undereating, women are speaking up expressing bloat, infertility, constipation, fatigue, and more. Guess what? Diet culture took those issues and turned them into a fear-mongering diet.
Oftentimes, this causes women to fall victim to fad diets, take unnecessary supplements, and perform more exercise than they should in order to lose weight or fit a specific mold. Majority of the time, they don’t stick to it because of how unrealistic and unsustainable it is.
- “Try this Fat Targeting Ab Workout to Lose Your Love Handles”.....like targeted fat loss is even possible, but okay.
- “Look Unrecognizable in 30 Days With This Low-Carb Diet” ….don’t forget, carbs are bad for you and give you insulin resistance.
- “Intermittent Fast to Balance Your Hormones and Fix PCOS”....forget breakfast with friends.
- “Restore Your Gut In 30 Days”...with this overly restrictive diet that takes the fun out of life.
There is no doubt that these approaches “work.” That is not the argument. Of course you will look unrecognizable when you deplete your body of nutrients. Of course your body will function better with no alcohol, no added sugars, less highly processed and greasy foods, and more veggies, lean protein, fruits, whole grains and dietary fiber. However, what will this cost us women? Our happiness. Our social health. Mental health. A good relationship with food. Granny’s pie.
Is it really worth that?
Where is the balance?
What if there were another way? One that doesn’t yield instant gratification but results in long term health and longevity. One that addresses all aspects of health and realizes they are connected (mental, social, physical, and spiritual). In all honesty, what is easiest short term is usually harder on us long term and what is harder in the short term is usually better for us long term.
All of us can follow a restrictive FAD for 30 days. The strict rules are comforting and give guidance. But did this really fix the deeper rooted issue? Did it really give you a life-long habit worth keeping? Probably not. It usually ends in a binge for us women.
Here’s the thing- our bodies need carbohydrates, proper nutrients from real foods, adequate protein, and appropriate rest and recovery to have a diverse gut microbiome, balanced hormones, and lean muscle mass. Your body and mind also need granny’s pie, a nice breakfast with friends, and a girl’s night out. Without fear, shame, and apologies. Over here, we advocate for women to enjoy ALL foods and still reach their goals. As a Clinical Registered Dietitian and Women’s Health Specialist, I would even argue that this balanced approach does more good for your hormones and gut health than an approach that either a) stress you out or b) results in a restrict / binge cycle.
Here is where we change the narrative and change the game.
Lift the weight.
With women, we see some hesitations to lift weights because they will get “bulky” and “look like a man.” But this is far from the truth. It takes a woman years in the weightroom with programmed protocols, while also being in a caloric surplus to look that muscular. Sometimes, steroids are involved. If you want this look, great- be ready to spend years of hard work. If not, also great- it takes years of hard work to get there anyways.
Instead, weightlifting actually can improve a woman's feminine traits as it can improve your body composition (reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass). This is how many women get that “toned” look.
Building muscle also boosts your metabolism, which means you can eat more food! Muscle utilizes more energy (calories) due to its thermogenic effect, so those with more muscle burn more calories throughout the day….just by having muscle. This means they also need more calories to stay fueled. See thee narrative shift- we get MORE FOOD! YAY! And as you continue your weightlifting journey… you may realize you didn’t need to lose THAT much weight and the scale wasn’t a metric you needed to be so obsessed with. You might find that “magic” scale number you had in mind is not where you feel your best and strongest.
There are many physical health benefits that come from women who lift weights regularly. As women age, bone density declines, especially during menopause and post menopause. Weightlifting has also been shown to improve overall bone-density in women, can decrease their chances of osteoporosis, prevent bone-related injuries such as fractures, and improve posture. Studies also show lifting weights can lower your chance of heart disease and diabetes. Mayo Clinic states that strength training for only “two times a week can help improve your heart health”.
The physical benefits are great, but the mental benefits are just as great. Research also shows that weight lifting can reduce your stress levels, anxiety, and depression. For many, the gym is a form of therapy for these reasons.
Finally, the part I love- lifting weights helps to feel strong as f$ck, empowering women to be more than a skinny bod. We spend enough time being kicked down. But when you pick up a heavy weight, get a new personal record, or help the guys pickup the couch on moving day (cause you’re that strong)- it’s a whole new feeling. One that is far better than a new weight on the scale. There is no going back after that, because you will love the feeling of being fierce and strong.
Eat enough and stay fueled.
Contrary to popular belief, women do not and should not spend much time in a caloric deficit. Rather, women need to fuel their bodies completely- eating enough to support the lifestyle they want to live.
Science lesson….when at a caloric deficit (for weight loss), the body is intaking, metabolizing, absorbing less than it is burning. Nutrient needs are not met (technically), so the body draws from body stores to meet the energy (calorie) needs. Bam- weight lost. Over time, the body adapts. This is called metabolic adaptation. The metabolism / resting metabolic rate (which makes up the bulk of calories burned in a day) lowers. It does this through downregulating reproductive health (hey, hormones), slowing gastric motility (hey, bloat and all foods sitting like a lump in the stomach), and making us tired to keep us from burning too much (hey, poor workouts and fatigue).
“Wait, Sabrina. You’re telling me that eating less actually does more harm than good?”
YES! However, I understand that sometimes weight loss is needed. I get it. Heck, I have been in a weight sport for 12 years now and have worked with obesity for the last 6 years. I support it when it’s needed. But, for the reasons stated above, I limit caloric deficits to 4-12 weeks at a time and then reverse diet out of them. Reverse dieting is the process of slowly adding calories back into the nutrition regimen (without weight gain) to increase the metabolic rate back to where the body performs best. ALL NUTRIENT NEEDS ARE MET. I have my ladies stay here for longer than I have them in a caloric deficit and only enter a deficit when absolutely necessary.
All foods fit. Enjoy them all.
This is a biggie. Have you ever told yourself you can’t eat something because it is “bad” for you? Just for you to eventually eat that food and then MORE of that food because you feel guilty, anxious, and/or defeated? We want to help break that cycle, and we recognize that this is a common issue that many women face. When we allow ourselves to eat all foods, (without demonizing them) we are less likely to follow that vicious cycle. But, we also know that it is easier said than done. Working with a Registered Dietitian and talking about these episodes can help minimize them and allow you to work towards a healthy relationship with food.
It is okay to admit that too many greasy, sugary, and highly processed foods are not great for our health. We know that. It does not mean these are off limits. It means we have them in moderation. Make the bulk of nutrition intake wholesome and balanced. One of our dietitians, Michael Horner, has a really great approach that we have all adopted. He suggests leaning into the fun food when it offers more than convenience- such as mental, social, and emotional health benefits.
If there are foods that are restricted due to medical issues, consult your Dietitian and medical team. As a Dietitian, I can tell you that there are very few instances that people have to completely eliminate certain foods forever. As we get to the root cause of some conditions (such as GI issues), we have periods where we may need to completely eliminate something to address the trigger, but this is meant to be short term. Another example is for those with insulin resistance or diabetes. They can still have carbs (and fun treats). Although in moderation, we work to pair these fun sweets with a protein to help minimize the glucose spike. My point is that most foods can fit into therapeutic diets as well. Might be more strategic, but it is possible.
Does this need more context? Sleep and rest is underrated but is easily one of the most important aspects of health. Have you noticed that no matter how divided the medical world is, everyone says the same thing on this subject- “get sleep. It is important for your health!” That should tell you something.
Find time for self care and protect your mental health.
Take a moment to breathe and just be. It’s okay to be still. To pour into yourself. Sit back and reflect on life, your behaviors, and your feelings. Are there areas in your life that need more attention than others? Are there priorities that need to be addressed or adjusted?
Hold on to your tribe.
Surround yourself with people who pour into your life, just as you pour into theirs. Your support group should raise you up- in the good time and bad. They are your people. They tell you when to suck it up and push harder but also give you permission to chill out and slow down when needed- offering gentleness and love. This is hard to find. When you find it, hang on and embrace it.
So, next time you are told to eat less and move more- say “that’s bull crap.” Look them in the eye, and unapologetically say “no, I should eat enough and lift heavier.” You deserve to thrive, girlfriend.
Sabrina Goshen is a Registered Dietician and Owner of Aligned Health Practice
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