Food. Diet. Body Image. Macros. These are pretty loaded terms (for me, and I’m guessing potentially a lot of you), especially lately. My relationship with all of the above is constantly evolving. And it’s been a long and bumpy road to get to where I am now. As I eluded to in my last post I’m in the middle of a mindset shift. It’s not easy, often scary, and definitely our of my comfort zone (ugh – I hate it when that happens). But before I get into all of that, a few important disclaimers (aka *asterisk time*):
- As this has been a long road, it follows that this post will be a long read. So buckle up.
- My qualifications as a health/nutrition professional are absolutely zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. The only thing I’m an expert on is my own experience. If you feel you need expert help – by all means get some – just not here.
- In what you read below, I may get a bit feisty, or come across as angry. And while I am a bit angry – at the end of the day, all anger and blame lies with me. I am an intelligent individual and I am the one who made the choices I did – no one else.
Now that that’s out of the way…
What exactly is this mindset shift of which I speak? I’m not counting macros (macronutrients: fat/carbs/protein) anymore. No more weighing, measuring, planning and tracking using My Fitness Pal. As of this writing, I’m about 3.5 weeks in. After a year of fastidiously tracking more days than not, these past 3 and a half weeks have been equal parts thrilling, liberating, confusing and terrifying.
Background: after avoiding it for months, when it seemed like “everyone” (ok not everyone but a lot of people anyway) at my gym, on Instagram, podcasts I listened to was counting macros, I decided to give it a try last February.
Further background: I was up a few pounds still from the holidays, but pretty much at a healthy weight that I had achieved a year and a half prior WITHOUT ever tracking macronutrients or calories. I had even said to friends previously that I could “never count macros,” as it would make me too crazy and obsessed. I told others that I already knew what I was doing food and nutrition-wise. So why did I decide to take the plunge?
See above. Everyone was doing it. As someone who likes to work out, I was also lured in by the prospect of PRs and performance boosts. And as someone who has spent a lot of her life being heavier, I wondered, could I get “super lean”? Was it possible for me to have abs?
So I embarked on my macronutrient quest as sort of an experiment. Something I would just “try and see what happens.” See how lean I could get. The funny thing is, I intuitively knew from the get-go that I couldn’t do it forever. I knew it wasn’t sustainable long-term. But I ponied up and paid the money to an online service that took some information from me and gave me protein fat and carbohydrate numbers to shoot for each day (*I chose the cheapest option with no ongoing checkins with a coach, probably not something I would do again), bought a digital food scale and got to work.
For the first few weeks, it seemed like a lot of work: logging, weighing and measuring all the things. And for someone that likes to cook a lot and is not happy eating the same thing day in and day out, entering recipes into the app to spit out a macro breakdown could also be tedious. I remember telling people in those early days “it feels like I have an eating disorder” (hmm…telling) but just as with any other discipline, it gradually became habit and got easier.
Two more things before I go on. First of all, if you’re reading this and currently counting macros, please don’t feel judged. I wish you well. I don’t think counting macros is “bad” for everyone. For some people, it might be a great, sustainable long-term solution, or helpful to achieve your goals. I’m just choosing to go another route.
Secondly, all physical outcomes aside (more on that in a sec though), there are some reasons why I’m really glad I counted macros:
- It helped me see what is really in food. I’m not talking ingredients. I mean carbs, fat and protein. Take nuts and peanut butter. You hear all about them being a “source of protein.” Yes, they are A source. But they’re actually made up of way more fat than protein. Similarly, I had always considered milk a good protein source (which it is) but didn’t really know/consider it to be a carbohydrate source too.
- It helped me see that ANY food is ok and can be part of a healthy diet. As long as it fits into your macronutrient goals for the day, nothing is off-limits. Not to say all your carbs and fat should be coming from ice cream (I wish?) but counting macros did help me incorporate some foods back into my diet that I had previously avoided at all costs. I have began eating brie cheese on a way more regular basis (which is a huge quality of life booster, trust me) since seeing how easy it is to fit into my macros.
- It helped me see what my body needs. I know now that for someone as active as I am currently, I need a LOT of protein. But I also know that I perform better with some carbs in there too. And that fat is not only tasty but makes meals more satisfying.
- As a planner, I got a lot of satisfaction of using the app to input meals ahead of time and see how the numbers all worked together. In some regards, macro counting suits my personality and tendencies.
So, anyway, back to my story. Some additional context, if you remember from one of my very first posts, I was also pretty sick a year ago. While this started before I counted macros, I will never know how much of the changes in body composition and appearance were due to illness and how much was from counting macros.
Either way, I started getting leaner. And people were noticing. Including myself. I actually remember texting a close friend after seeing a picture of myself towards the end of last February. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember thinking it was weird/not like how I saw myself. My mom has since told me that after seeing a picture of me around that time, she was really worried.
But I kept on. Any other misgivings aside, when you’ve spent more time than not being heavy, being called thin or “skinny” (even when I didn’t actually want to be skinny) never gets old. The compliments and affirmations become almost addictive.
So why stop? It doesn’t sound too bad so far, right? Leaner body, eat anything I wanted… Even though I had days and weeks off (birthdays, holidays, etc), I kept counting macros throughout the year. And while my weight didn’t plummet (I reached my lowest in recent years last June, but by less than 5 pounds), I was probably the leanest I’d been as an adult.
Here’s where the dark side comes in. I told you earlier that before counting macros, I had told friends it wasn’t something I should do because I’d become too obsessed. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. I saw myself doing things I didn’t like, things I knew weren’t healthy. I made excuses about why I wasn’t eating certain things. I occasionally avoided social situations. On weeks when it seemed like I’d be out with family/friends a lot and wouldn’t have “control” over my food, I got really stressed out and definitely blame obsessive.
I weighed myself weekly before macros, but that was another anxiety-inducing event (so much so that several friends separately encouraged me to ditch the scale – I haven’t weighed myself since December).
Although some performance markers improved at the gym, I felt less strong overall. Some bodyweight movements were improving, but it felt like other things were stalling or going backwards. I didn’t feel like myself. And a certain monthly indicator that I was healthy as a female was becoming somewhat out of whack.
But what I think was the most worrisome was how out of touch with my body and intuition I was becoming. I no longer knew what I truly wanted to eat. I made my food choices based on the numbers in an app. Did I eat things I liked and enjoyed? Absolutely. But that wasn’t my top priority.
I would severely undereat at breakfast and lunch on days when I knew I’d be eating out or had some sort of event in the evening. Ignoring my hunger became routine, if a snack didn’t fit with my macronutrient plan for the day.
I also took the freedom of “being able to eat anything” too far, and returned to an old habit I thought I had broken from: undereating at meals so that I could have a big dinner and/or a treat after. While this is totally fine once in a while, it does become a problem when it becomes the norm and not an exception.
The convenience of scanning a bar code on a package and having the nutrient breakdown magically appear in my app also meant that I started eating more and more packaged foods because they were easier to count (oh the irony of what a “quest for health” can do).
While I knew I was consumed and unhappy, I also felt trapped. I felt like there was no way out. I didn’t trust myself or my body to know what to do without these rules that I clung hard and fast to (even though I had done it without them before). I am a huge rule follower, and I worried that a lack of rules would send me into a tailspin.
I put macros on a hiatus for a couple weeks around Christmas (and again when my grandma passed away) but kept going back out of fear and familiarity (now that I write that, it sounds almost like someone stuck in an abusive relationship).
…so what am I doing now? How did I pull the trigger? How am I healing my relationship with food and my body? Come back for part 2 (I’m realizing that I have a lot to say on this topic and one post will not do it justice).
For now, just know that if you are going through similar struggles: you CAN do it. There is hope.