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Women, Weight Loss, and Modern America: A World in Need of Revolution

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The question I most often get asked when I tell people about my work in evolutionary nutrition is: why should I trust you?  Why should I trust it?  Why is this better than any of the other diet options out there?

Oh.  Let me tell you.

The world is full of ways in which people, especially women, are supposed to lose weight.  There are low-fat diets, low-carbohydrate diets, Lean Cuisine diets, Jenny Craig diets, Weight Watchers diets, juice-cleanse diets, vegetarian diets, vegan diets, slow-carb diets, high-carb diets, blood-type diets, food-combination diets, high-protein diets, USDA-recommended diets, grapefruit diets, low-GI diets, Mediterranean diets, Skinny Bitch diets, Gwenyth Paltrow diets…

Low calorie, high-exercise diets.

Some of these diets more than others are guilty of encouraging restriction.  But guilty they all are.

And modern America in general.   What lies behind each of these diets is a certain mindset in which expending more energy and eating less is going to make everyone skinny.  It isn’t the particularity of each diet that makes it restrictive, but rather the modern mentality that women need to be thin, and the way to achieve this thinness is to eat less and to exercise more.  Period.

First, this is wrong.  It’s scientifically wrong.  Study after study after study shows that the more someone exercises, the hungrier she is, and the more she eats.  “Yes,” you might assert, “But what if she has enough willpower to stop herself from eating more?”

She may in fact have this kind of willpower.  I did.  I do.  But scientifically, that doesn’t matter.  The body has a strong homeostatic mechanism.  Bodies, based on the foods they are ingesting and the health of their biochemistry, have set points.  If a woman is consuming fewer calories than she is expending, her body down-regulates the speed of her metabolism to match that caloric intake, rather than maintaining the original metabolic speed and burning more calories.   This is a fact.  This isn’t to say that burning those calories is impossible.  But it is damn difficult.  If a woman’s body is detecting starvation in any way, it’s going to fight tooth and nail to hang onto that fat.

For this reason, caloric restriction is a flawed concept.  It does not work.   Sometimes people with enormous willpower can do it, but it’s a leviathan of an effort to maintain, and often comes at a price.

This price is the second reason the world needs an Evolution Revolution.  

High levels of exercise put wear and tear on a body.  Contemporary America is hyper-exercised.  Yes, exercise is important.  Yes, exercise helps build brain power and memory.  Yes, exercise maintains cardio fitness and can promote longevity.  But within reason.  There is almost no reason in today’s ideas about exercise.  When I lost weight, I was putting in sometimes fourteen workouts each week, many of them sprint workouts, and the rest weight-lifting.   The world was in awe of me.  Few people told me I was killing myself.  Instead, people congratulated me and looked at my thinning thighs with envy and reverence.  They thought I was a hard-ass, a paragon of Shape magazine excellence, and said breathless things like “If you want an athlete, look at Stef.

And I did sort of kick ass in the gym.  I became a better mid-distance runner than athletes on my college track team.   But this work was a) giving me incredible knee pain, b) inflaming my system in general and ramping up inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, c) shooting my cortisol and adrenaline levels through the roof, which stressed me out and hurt my sleep, and d) keeping my body in constant starvation mode.  I was inflamed, and I was hungry all of the time.  That hunger felt unpleasant, and it also upregulated my body’s natural responses to starvation.

So exercise is one way to convince a body it is starving.  Another way is with caloric restriction.  This is such bad news for a woman’s health, I’d put it right up there in terms of madness with crystal meth and thinking Vin Diesel should still be making movies.

Caloric restriction is bad for a woman’s health because her hormone production shuts down the minute her body’s leptin levels drop below what it’s programmed for.  These hormones include testosterone, prolactin, estrogen, and progesterone.  They are absolutely crucial for fertility and reproductive health.   A woman cannot conceive or maintain babies without them.  Moreover, they are crucial for other bodily functions.  These include sleep, memory, nutrient transport, libido, bone strength, immune function, energy, the oxidation of fat stores, and happiness.  This is not a joke.  Hormones are necessary for all of these things.  Including happiness.   Millions of women today, because of the modern mentality about weight loss and health, scrape by with minimal levels of these vital hormones.

I am not happy about this.

I am not happy about one final aspect of the modern mindset either.  It’s related: It is what the mindset does to a woman’s mental health.  The reason I say it’s related is that the physiological stress and the hormone issues I described above make the mental health problems harder to bear.  But the mental health problems take their root in the very nature of the modern mindset.   The modern mindset is about discipline and restriction. And any diet that begs discipline and restriction begs poor mental health.

A restricted diet is a diet that encourages women to think about what they can not have.  From this point, women become obsessed with food.  They think about what to eat, and when.  They worry if they are eating too much.   They know that in order to lose weight they have to ignore their hunger signals.  They cease listening to their bodies.  And then they don’t know what to do, when to eat, how to eat, how much food is appropriate and when.  This creates anxiety.  Without the normal, healthy partnership between self and body, a woman’s brain is lost, floundering, unhappy, and seeking desperately a kind of ease and contentment about food that will not come.   She needs to know what and when to eat, but she cannot listen to her body.   She develops a restricted, disciplined, control-based mentality.

Modern America is a factory for eating disorders.

Sixty five per cent of women 25-45 and eight in ten women between the ages of 15 and 30 experience disordered eating, which includes negative relationships both with their bodies and with food.

The insidiousness of the modern mentality with respect to women and mental health does not stop there.  Yes, the mindset encourages obsession and anxiety.  Yes, it encourages restriction.  Yes, it stresses a woman out about how much she should be eating, and whether she should be listening to her hunger signals.  Yet perhaps worst of all: it fails.  Modern ideas about calorie restriction and weight loss do not work, and for this reason, a woman suffers even more.  She beats herself up.  “But I’m supposed to be able to do this!  This is how weight loss is done!  If I can’t do it, why even bother trying?!”  This phenomenon is so common I sometimes take it with me to the punching bag.  Women around the world hate themselves for not being able to do something impossible.

Un. Real.

Of course diets do not work.  They are physiologically stupid.  I mean– no, not always.  Not necessarily.   Some diets that women undertake are extraordinarily well thought-out, and they do work decently.  But the general sentiment in America of caloric restriction coupled with high exercise rarely gets people to their desired weight loss goals, and never gets them to optimal health.   The modern mindset about weight loss is doomed to fail from the start.

This is why we need an Evolution Revolution for women’s health.  We can do it.  It’s easy.   It really is.  More on that in the final post of this series: The Healthiest and Easiest way to Lose Weight in the World.

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

20 Comments

  1. A timely post in light of HBO’s Weight of the Nation. Looking forward to the final post!!

    • Yeah, am reading your review @now! I’m not watching, so I really appreciate it. :)

  2. Love it! I can’t wait to hear what else you have to say. Thanks.

  3. Yo…loving what you’re putting out there and how you’re doing it as well. (you’re hilarious) If you haven’t already, check out the website http://www.bulletproofexec.com/ – The guy is a biohacker who has written a bunch of articles about the Paleo/Primal/Bulletproof/Evolutionary way of eating and he references some good studies regarding health and stuff. I think you may find it interesting.

    • Hi Alex! Thank you. I do know him. AND I GOT YOUR BOOK YESTERDAY. Super super pumped. When I got home, my mother said “hey, have you ever heard of Geneen Roth? I’ve been really loving her books lately.” Serendipity! :)

  4. The first 2 studies you linked are identical, how do those 2 studies prove people eat more when they exercise more? The first one is about a fall in exercise energy expenditure in people who lost weight which seems pretty normal. The second one is about exercise energy expenditure in different climates.

    In one study a 800 calorie sucrose diet was able to prevent the decline in metabolism in 6 healthy obese woman when compared to an isocaloric zero carb diet. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3740086 So I don’t think it’s necessarily true that all “diets” will lower your metabolism.

    I personally think you have to create some sort of calorie deficit to lose weight. It wouldn’t make sense that you would just spontaneously lose weight for no reason without an energy deficit, where does the food go if it’s not metabolized in some way? Excess exercise and low calorie/carb diets are the extreme end of the spectrum, they lower metabolism and damage your body. You can restrict calories in a sane way though that doesn’t involve punishing your body.

    • Hi Cliff,
      You make an excellent point. My point was to demonstrate the sensitivity of the body to fluctuations in energy availability, energy expenditure, and energy intake. From what I have currently bookmarked, here’s a study from a couple decades back:
      Effect of Exercise on Spotaneous Calorie intake in Obesity http://www.ajcn.org/content/36/3/470.short
      Rate and extent of compensatory changes in energy intake and expenditure in response to altered exercise and diet composition in humans from 2004: http://ajpregu.physiology.org/content/286/2/R350.full.pdf+html
      and
      A TIME article http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1914974,00.html

      You make an interesting point about the impact of different macronutrients on hyper-low caloric intake. However, just because metabolic rate is maintained does not mean other health markers aren’t falling off rapidly.

      I also believe that a calorie deficits are important for losing weight. And I know for a fact that they make people lose weight. My point here is that calorie reduction is not the most effective or healthiest way to do it. The way to do it is to try and health body systems such that hormone levels normalize and an appropriate appetite ensues, along with increased insulin and leptin sensitivity. Rectifying insulin and leptin sensitivity goes a long way towards weight loss, in my opinion.

  5. Another great post! I’m not sure if you remember but I commented a few posts back about my struggle with infertility due to all the above mentioned items and I just wanted to say that I finally got my period! After almost a year it has returned but I’m not sure if would have been possible without changing my way of eating, my lifestyle, and my mindset. It’s still a daily battle to love myself at this weight (10 lbs or so above my “comfortable” weight) and trust my body and eat when I’m hungry. I’m so used to ignoring my hunger signals and not eating what I want that it’s really scary. There’s so much more that I can say but I just want to sum up that it is possible to regain fertility naturally. Thanks so much for everything you do!

  6. I love you! I just found this blog, and luckily I have the day off because I want to read the whole thing. This article in particular speaks to me, I am paleo, and I still have problems letting go of the “fat-loss” mindset. I try to focus on just being healthy, but old habits can be hard to break.

    • Great! I love you too. Welcome to our world! I promise I won’t stop speaking until you hear me.

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  9. Is there a way you can test your leptin levels? How can you improve them? I love your fierceness and passion for this subject. Thanks for being such a great role model.

    • Nope! Doctors won’t do it because it’s only for experiments. Ridiculous. People who are normal weight and don’t have circadian problems and do not “graze” when they eat are most likely leptin sensitive, imho.

      Women’s reproductive systems seem to be finely attuned to how much leptin they have. If a woman has lost a significant amount of weight, her hypothalamus is going to detect that, and possibly start a starvation response (ie, halting menstruation.)

      No, not on ketosis, but I generally don’t recommend it, especially for thin/normal weight women. I generally shy away from making outright recommendations, but it would be even harder for me to engage in speculation with you without knowing more. YOu’re trying to fix PCOS, but from what angle? It is my belief that a PCOS diagnosis means nothing without blood tests, because the cysts on the ovaries are just an indiciation that hormonal balance is off, not necessarily spelling out in which ways.

      Best of luck you to, Kate. :)

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  13. Oh, Stef,

    I loved every single word of this post.

    I am so glad your voice is out there, creating a revolution.

    Yes, yes, yes – keep it coming!

    XO, Karly

  14. A healthy diet is not an overnight crash course; it is a lifestyle change aimed at correcting the years of excesses.
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