A few years ago (thinking back to 2012), I would step on the scale each morning first thing upon waking. At the time, the marathon was my obsession of choice and I wanted to do well at it. That number on the scale would tell me more than just a subjective measurement of my weight, but determine how confident I felt that day, whether or not I would choose to tack on extra miles to my run or extra time in the gym, and whether or not I listened to my hunger in how much I ate. At the time, I had this idea in my head of what my “ideal” race weight should be, and the closer race day approached, the more frequently I weighed myself. In a lot of ways my perception of my potential to race well relied more on whether I was at my “ideal race weight” rather than my fitness level. And whether I realized it or not, my morning ritual of stepping on the scale was negatively impacting my self-esteem and my ability/willingness to properly fuel my body for the level of training I was engaging in. While I thought the scale was a means of me controlling my weight, really it was the scale and my perception of my weight that was controlling me.
The scale can be a useful tool for monitoring weight, if taken in perspective of the big picture and used properly. However, research has shown that too frequent weight checks are associated with less self-esteem in young women and it's important to not allow the scale to dictate feelings of self-worth.
We live in a society that, when it comes to weight and nutrition, less is “more.” Media has shaped us to believe that the less we weight, the more beautiful and confident we will feel, and the less we eat the better we are able to control our weight. For a while, I too bought into this "less is more, food is the enemy" type mindset, and over the past year I've noticed a recurring theme in working with athletes and active individuals who are simply not eating enough to support their level of activity. Whether the deficit is intentional or not, I get it. I get how difficult it can be as an athlete these days when society's greatest emphasis seems to be on less: eat less, weight less, etc. BUT when it comes to athletic performance, weight management and how the human metabolism works, LESS most definitely does not always equal MORE.
One of the biggest questions I tend to get is "how many calories do I need to consume per day?" or "how can I better support my training needs without gaining weight" and my answer tends to be the same each time: it's not a perfect science, and you need to be eating more than you think! In my studies to become a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics last summer, I ran across a concept called "Energy Availability" and it really struck a cord with me and got me thinking:
"Am I truly eating enough to support my training and my health?"
"I know I eat fairly well, but am I eating as well as I could be to truly optimize my training?"
To put it simply, energy availability is what's left over to manage and support your body's primary functions after energy expenditure from exercise has been subtracted from the calories we consume in our diet. This leftover energy availability is what supports the functioning of our organs, rebuilding and repair of muscles, production of hormones and red blood cells, supports proper immune function and MUCH more. So often we become focused overly focused on calories to fuel individual workouts or to attain a certain ideal weight that we forget about the calories needed to simply support the day to day functioning of our body!! When energy availability is chronically low, regardless of whether we are intentionally cutting calories or not, the calories we do consume get prioritized towards our exercise energy expenditure and it's the bottom line or our foundational health that gets sacrificed. Without sufficient calories to support optimal health and well-being, our body switches into "starvation mode" and metabolism slows, we experience chronic fatigue and impaired immune health, depression and irritability, disordered eating thoughts, gastrointestinal issues and more.
Food Energy Intake - Exercise Energy Expenditure = Energy Availability
When I took up this long-distance triathlon stuff, I anticipated the training to be challenging. What I didn't anticipate was just how difficult it would be to properly fuel to support a high level of training over the long haul. I LOVE to eat (especially chocolate :) and I and I am never one to skip a meal, so "wanting to eat" enough was not the issue. But when I think back to training for my first Ironman two years ago, my struggles to meet my calorie needs were more rooted in the fact that I was overly stressed and burning the candle at both ends, ill-prepared in regards to meal prep, not used to eating calorically-dense foods and perhaps just plain naive. And while I got through that race and it went well, I knew my health was hurting and I needed to fuel moving forward with even greater intention of taking care of my foundational health first, performance second.
It was not until I began researching more into this concept of energy availability last summer that I realized that I didn't have to have an eating disorder to be at risk of the female athlete triad: that training hard and struggling to keep up with my energy needs automatically put me at risk. This was the primary reason I had my bone mineral density and body fat % tested last summer and again this winter (both were very healthy, thankfully!), that I had my doctor run comprehensive lab tests to ensure my values were within a healthy range (I was borderline anemic with very low Vitamin D levels). Knowing my numbers and where I stood was the first step in ensuring I was doing my best to optimize both my performance and long-term health. With that, I began taking a vitamin-mineral supplement as an "insurance policy" and that I now err on the side of pushing myself to eat more (especially on high-volume training days and weeks) even if my appetite is not there or I simply "don't feel like it."
The Female Athlete Triad occurs along a continuum, and it's easy for athletes to fall within that middle ground and have impaired health without the typical signs and symptoms such as amenorrhea or weight loss. PC: http://fuelaotearoa.co.nz/
These days I try to not weigh myself too frequently, and when I do, I take that value with a (very small) grain of salt because I know it does not paint the entire picture of health. Likewise, I’m not big into tracking my calories, but occasionally do with the intention of ensuring I'm eating enough. My main area of focus has been on meal prep and carrying around my big 'ol red cooler full of good eats throughout the day. Just as packing my gym bag sets me up for success in getting in my workouts, packing my cooler sets me up for success in helping me to strike that balance of eating the right things and more importantly, ensuring I am eating enough. It's something I'm working intentionally on, but PLEASE don't think it's something I always get right. Some days I over fuel, some days I under fuel ... some days I have GREAT body image and other days I don't ... It's a continual process and it's the long-term trend that I am most concerned with.
About 8 weeks after my Ironman this past fall, I weighed myself at the cue of my pants fitting a little tighter. I had gained 4 lbs and was ELATED at the thought of having successfully done so! Why? Because as an endurance athlete it's been a struggle to keep my weight up, because I am now comfortable enough in my skin to appreciate that extra bit of curvature and my self-worth and self-esteem are no longer dependent on the number on the scale, and because I know a few extra pounds meant a few extra nutrients fueling my body :)
Frequent Weight Checks Tied to Less Self-Esteem for Young Women - Published November 10, 2015
Are You That Triathlete? Case Study #2: The Calorie Counter - By Matt Dixon - Published Jan 11, 2016
How Restrictive Is Your Diet? - By Matt Fitzgerald - Published Feb 24, 2016
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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