I get it body positivity advocates. The fitness women on the internet who tell their followers they have the solution to "fixing" their relationships with food...then send them to a “how to track your macros” landing page are completely dismissing that disordered eating is an emotional issue. This mentality is keeping many stuck in disordered thoughts and behaviours. Not all macronutrient advisors use this selling approach but it has become very widespread.
This is likely all these women know, and rather than be angry at them, let’s show them compassion because it appears they haven’t fully healed from their own food issues. I personally love to work with this type of client and help them do the deeper work on themselves. Always remember, anger is an expression of self judgement. If other people's choices are making you angry, this is an emotional sign to look inside yourself.
Before we go any further, allow me to give a brief run down on what macronutrient tracking AKA flexible dieting or IIFYM (if it fits your macros) is so that all readers are on the same page. The energy molecules we obtain through food are protein, carbohydrate and fat. They all work differently in the body, everyone's needs are different and each macro plays an important role in our health. When using this approach a person will have targets of these 3 nutrients to hit for the day (plus a fibre goal if done optimally). This nutritional method is commonly used for fat loss, hypertrophy (muscle gain), sports performance, and in some cases general understanding of the energy we obtain through nutrition. You will have a better understanding of why macronutrient deficiencies and imbalances cause disharmony in the body later in this blog.
I appreciate the macro coaches who tell it like it is! I’m sure we can all agree that honesty is a favourable quality! You'll hear honest and ethical coaches say things such as:
“I will teach you how to eat for performance.” Yup, calories are energy and increased energy leads to improved strength and endurance!
“You can get shredded for your bodybuilding competition without a tilapia and asparagus meal plan.” You may not compete in bodybuilding or even understand why someone would want to. I don’t compete either but hey, this is an honest statement and it’s not up to us to judge anyone’s competitive sport choices. I am friends with some very respectable bodybuilders who take an optimal approach to this sport.
“You can lose a few pounds while choosing what foods you eat and execute this approach eating as much as possible in the process.” I understand, some of you are anti weight loss. I'm not, and for those who are choosing to lose weight from a place of self love in a growth mindset, maximizing your metabolic rate is effective and safe. Choosing your own foods is optimal for flexibility and psychological health, and allows for much more freedom as opposed to a fixed meal plan.
This is all honest representation of this tool and none of these points are misleading. If you’re reading this blog and you aren’t a part of the fitness community, maybe you don’t agree with intentional weight loss. I’m not going to invalidate your beliefs and your values. However some people choose to lose weight from a place of self love, and if they have a good macronutrient advisor they can do it eating a lot (often more than what they ate prior as I've observed in many cases) and have an educational experience. The anti-diet crowd always expresses that it’s no one’s business to tell others to lose weight and what to do with their bodies. Okay, but it appears there are a lot of people on the internet now saying that all weight loss is inherently bad so aren’t you telling others what to do with their bodies too by putting out this strong message that is so against losing weight? Just consider this and maybe consider that finding a middle ground would be helpful for everyone.
That said, I don’t agree with calling IIFYM a lifestyle like many do. It’s a tool and it’s not an ideal method for everyone. It’s not for people who get overwhelmed with numbers, people who are losing weight from a place of self hate as opposed to self love, and it definitely is not eating disorder recovery. Any athletes reading this who believe it is, please know I worked one on one with a counsellor for a long time before I executed this. If you went from obsessive clean eating to tracking macros without doing the emotional work, I have a strong sense you have a lot of healing to do and I would love to guide you!
I came to a place in my recovery when I chose to track my food and I’m so grateful I did because it was the tool that finally got me out of this very tricky trap I was stuck in.
The Female Athlete Triad
This is an exceptionally challenging battle and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Living with the female athlete triad was not only physically draining. My mental and emotional health was also suffering. I felt ashamed that I was a grown woman who was not menstruating. In order to embrace my femininity and heal my feminine energy, it was imperative to start this part of my healing journey by getting my period back.
Symptoms Of The Female Athlete Triad
- No menstrual cycle for at least 3 months. I went without for 3 years
- Hormonal acne
- Decreased bone density
- Little to no sex drive
- Extreme fatigue
- High risk of stress fractures
- Inability to concentrate
- Heart irregularities and chest pains
- Brittle nails and hair, in some cases hair loss
Clearly not a good time! I like taking a holistic approach to health, using scientific methods and making sense of things on the spiritual side too! The spiritual meaning of amenorrhea is denial of womanhood and dislike of the self. Anyone reading this who has lost their period resonate on some level? I sure do! When I developed my ED I was coming up to the age of 30 and was really stressed about "getting older." I wanted to look "perfect" and underwent self punishing diets to try to achieve this.
What I believe to be the most common contributing factor nutritionally to the female athlete triad based on my own personal experience and of those I’ve worked with, is not eating enough carbs or fats, or both in some cases.
Who’s ever been on a carb depleted diet before? Even worse, who’s been on a carb and fat depleted diet? A common issue we are facing in the health and fitness industry is advisors glorifying protein while demonizing carbs. Some are all about the "healthy fats" while others promote all fruit or juice diets, and people are finding themselves with macronutrient deficiencies. Protein is a functional molecule and when our bodies aren’t getting enough carbs and fats (energy molecules), we use protein for energy and then our protein intake is no longer supporting us in the ways it’s meant to. Macronutrient deficiencies take a toll on our health.
When I was battling orthorexia/anorexia athletica I was terrified of eating carbs! That’s right. No bread, no rice, no fruit, no oatmeal, no potatoes, no cookies, no fun! Oh, and I was a powerlifter for the record. Definitely wasn’t embracing the eat big lift big philosophy back in my ED. There are 4 calories in one gram of carbohydrate. I ate maybe 10-30 g of CHO a day for a long time. I finally snapped and had a binge phase, then got stuck in the restrict, binge, purge cycle for a period of time.
As I was recovering I made a choice to eat carbs everyday and eat treats in moderation. I was really proud of myself. I was eating much more on a consistent day to day basis than I had in years and I put an end to bingeing and purging through the work I was doing with my counsellor. I had also let go of the guilt I used to feel when I ate a treat. But then I kept waiting for my period. Month after month, nothing came. I was so lathargic and had gained weight due to binge eating, yo-yo dieting and running my metabolism into the ground. They tell us weight restoration is the key to getting your period back and I feel many people have a misconception about what weight restored means. There I was heavier than I’d ever been with no period. From a body image perspective I had forgiven myself, but I certainly didn't identify with the body I had at that time.
I figured I would make a doctors appointment with a “female health specialist” to begin healing this. She told me this wasn’t a problem and it was normal to not get your period. So did the next one I sought out. And the next one. I told them I was recovering from an eating disorder and still they didn’t believe my case was problematic. This went on for months.
A friend of mine was obtaining nutritional advice from 2 intelligent natural bodybuilders and when he told me HOW MUCH he ate I was intrigued. It got me thinking about how I felt like I was eating a lot but maybe I really wasn’t. I recalled how I used to eat when I was first living on my own as a young adult before my ED. Pasta, sandwiches, sushi, fruit, cereal, pizza and ice cream were all a regular part of my diet. I was also very lean back then, but not underweight of course like I was during my ED. I read about metabolic typing understanding that genetically leaner people require a lot of carbs compared to average. I realized that I really needed to learn how to eat more carbs but I felt so lost when it came to that macronutrient. It was painful to be honest. I needed guidance and an educational strategy.
I tracked my food for a few days to see what I was honestly taking in. I was averaging 150 g CHO daily. It was significantly more than 10-30 g which was a start and I really felt like it was a lot of food.
I did more research about the set weight point theory. A person can be well above or below their set point range if they’re not eating enough. This lead me to conclude that since I was heavier than what my natural body composition was that I’d have a better opportunity of getting my period back upon being in my set point range again. Our hunger and satiety hormones become imbalanced during eating disorders. Everyone’s experience is different and some people face extreme hunger in recovery. Others, like myself in the past have no hunger signals. This makes it quite challenging to intuitively eat enough!
I evaluated myself and what it entailed to track my macronutrients. Well to start, I’m one of those nerdy individuals who enjoys math. Actually one of my biggest strengths is my mental numerical data recollection. I recall exact numbers from various circumstances in life. Phone numbers, birthdays, etc. I even used to recall how much we brought in for tips at various bartending events in my hospitality days. Literally another bartender would ask “does anyone recall how this event went last year?” and I’d reply “we each took home $368.50.” This bizarre skill made tracking macros quite easy for me.
I was also well aware that I wasn’t fully recovered and that I was going against the mainstream body positive belief that paying attention to calories is harmful. That said, evidence based protocols with caloric goals like Minnie Maud are used in anorexia recovery so I personally didn’t see anything wrong with myself having macronutrient goals following an evidence based approach in orthorexia recovery as I knew it would improve my health. This was coming from a place of self love and I was choosing to do this in a growth mindset as opposed to fear. I was facing fear head on by significantly upping a macronutrient that I was uncomfortable eating. Can we all appreciate and accept that not all people who choose to pay attention to their caloric intake or to lose weight are doing so because they hate themselves? If that was your case, that’s your story, not everyone else’s. I believe your story is valid, because I believe everyone's stories are!
I hired my macro advisors after doing my due diligence. Clearly I was working with the guys who train people how to eat a lot (shout out to my friends Ripped Geek Fitness). My gut instinct told me their advice would bring back my period. I was correct of course because that’s what happens when we listen to our guts! I was done listening to the advice of strangers on the internet who insisted the set weight point was solely based on gaining a bunch of weight when I knew I was notably above my set point and that this was problematic for my health. I was done with being stuck in a body I didn’t identify with, not feeling hungry and not menstruating.
Facing fear is a courageous act and the first day I received my macronutrient recommendations I was advised to eat about what I’d already been taking in protein and fat wise. But the carbs! I mentioned earlier when I tracked for self awarnesss purposes I discovered I was taking in 150 g on average per day. I was advised to eat 250 g daily PLUS one day a week at 325 g. I can’t describe how I felt in that moment reading my recommendations as a former carbophobe who felt like 150 g CHO was a lot. I was floored and determined to face this fear head on!
Some people are emotional eaters. Others are emotional not eaters like myself. Even today, as a fully recovered woman who guides others to heal their relationships with food and their bodies, if I am having an emotionally challenging day I will procrastinate with eating. I catch myself and I eat whatever is appealing to me. I will accept personal responsibility and prioritize nourishing my body because I know that no matter what is going on around me and how I'm feeling inside that I deserve to eat.
To summarize the benefits of my experience, I made the empowered choice to hold myself accountable to eating way more than I was comfortable with, lost several pounds (eating more and losing weight, what a concept!), got back to my healthy set weight range, GOT MY PERIOD BACK, increased my energy, and my sports performance soared. Then I began eating even more. And more. And more. This is called reverse dieting. Gradually adding in more and more calories. The gradual increase was optimal for my mental health seeing that I was already floored with the initial recommendations. We make changes in shifts and I would have felt very overwhelmed if I upped my carbs to the max overnight. Along the way it was challenging enough. I ended up eating 10-15x as much CHO daily as I did in the depths of my ED!
The long term goal was to intuitively eat and that’s what I do now. I eat at least 300 grams of CHO/day as an intuitive eater and I’ve been known to put back a lot more some days too. Although I’m not tracking my intake now, I understand how much energy I’m taking in on average due to the education I received. Those who understand food science would know this is a lot of carbohydrate for a small woman like myself. Especially considering that I’m in my mid thirties and I don’t even powerlift anymore. My body just uses a lot of calories. Now I’m not saying this in a condescending way at all, but I highly doubt the majority of the women reading this eat 300+ grams of CHO daily so this volume of food would be hard for most to grasp. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this intuitively but it was my intuition that told me this tool would reverse the female athlete triad, rev up my hunger signals and provide me brilliant long term knowledge for nourishing my body. Plus, it was fun for me which is clearly a positive thing. It opened me up to trying even more foods which was great for my recovery. I always continued to do my self development work in the process so I was in a healthy mindset.
Body positive and anti-diet advocates - I completely understand why you are pissed off that this tool is being promoted as a lifestyle and the cure to disordered eating by some famous internet coaches. But I hope you can appreciate that the female athlete triad is a serious health condition and show some compassion for those of us who couldn’t intuitively eat our way to the other side. Also, I really truly feel we would all benefit from respecting one another's values. Some people have body composition goals, some don't, the end. We all have a lot of work to do spreading the message that disordered eating is an emotional issue as it appears many still don’t understand this. Let's band together and do this from a place of LOVE. I'm all for collaborations and appreciating different perspectives. Athleticism isn't going anywhere and eating disorders effect athletes in different ways than they do non-athletes. The triggers we face are different, our experiences are different and our recoveries are different.
I observe a lot of influencers online irate over food tracking apps. I know plenty of people who have had other health issues where tracking their food supported them. The pregnant women I've personal trained who developed gestational diabetes absolutely had to understand their carbohydrate intake in a very precise way. A loved one who had 3 near death heart complications in a short time used a food tracking app to monitor cholesterol, protein and electrolytes in the process of staying alive. I understand the argument is that these apps are easily accessible to children, that they can be triggering for people with susceptibility to eating disorders, and some people with eating disorders, and that the apps are often misused. I agree that when these apps are used without the guidance and recommendations of a trained nutritional or medical professional it can be problematic. However generalizing and saying that food tracking apps "cause" eating disorders is not accurate or helpful for anyone. Nor do I believe the apps should be labelled as inherently bad when there are people who are benefiting from them.
Note, I knew I wasn't fully recovered when making this choice and my family and friends supported my intentions for tracking. As such, I received a lot of encouragement and motivation "you can do it Alicia, you can eat all that food!" They were patient with me while I learned. However this also meant I had a group of people who had my back and could call me out if any disordered behaviours showed up. I told myself prior that any disordered thoughts or behaviours I experienced would actually be a positive thing because I could see clear signs pointing to the parts of myself I'd benefit from working on.
I also want to touch on the fact that people who have a history of restrictive eater disorders and exercise obsession often possess the quality of compliancy. Adherence to strict diets and exercise programs, following "rules", no excuses, and all that jazz. There were times I had to check in with myself if I was taking my macros too seriously. For example if I didn't want to go to a social gathering because I wanted to hit my macros instead, rather than freak out about food, I learned how to address my social anxiety issues.
In conclusion, some very important points to make about IIFYM when a person hasn’t been working on their emotional wellness and isn’t continually working on it:
- Those following this method are not immune to disordered thoughts and behaviours such as restricting, binge eating, purging, etc. I’ve seen plenty of macro people online participating in these behaviours in various ways (intermittent fasting or “banking” calories, purging via forced perspiration, bingeing because they are consuming poverty macros, 10 K calorie challenges, etc)
- In the beginning it’s helpful to measure intake of some foods to visually see how much to eat. This can become obsessive and some never stop. I’ve heard it all from asking a restaurant server for a package of an ingredient to scan into a food tracking app, to bringing a food scale to restaurants, to weighing Oreo cookies, to weighing veggies with next to no calories, to calling a hotel lobby to get an employee to hunt for exact macro breakdown of a food in the breakfast buffet
- Junk food obsession. It’s hard coming from a background of orthorexia where you didn’t allow yourself to eat anything fun. But overdoing it with junk food can happen in this community. I had a phase where I struggled with having aversions to “clean” foods I’d overdone in the past! Some still to this day make me sick, such as kale and eggs. So there were times I’d choose something less healthy for the sake of getting my calories in. We see this in the anorexia recovery community too. Calories are better than no calories for sure, and I developed a long term solution to creating a more wholesome diet. I tried new healthy foods that weren’t my orthorexia foods and discovered new staple foods that worked for me. This obviously works in my favour as an intuitive eater now. Of course I eat treats here and there too because I'm all about balance
- Many fall into eating a lot of diet foods such as chemical shit storm syrups and sauces, fat free (and taste free) everything, and stay trapped in a poverty mindset always fearing they will run out of calories if they eat the real deal. I felt like it was an effort to eat as much as I do in the beginning but I’ve even seen some people with really high targets do this. Like I said, scarcity thinking - this isn’t about the food
- Many aren’t flexible at all. They still follow strict meal preps, don’t eat at restaurants or social settings where they don’t know the exact macros, and stay chained to other restrictive qualities of their eating disorder
- Many still restrict and eat ultra low calorie. I do not advise doing this unless you are maximizing your metabolic rate
- I’ve noticed protein treats are huge in this community. Although this isn't harmful, it's not overly fulfilling. I personally feel that substituting ice cream, donuts, cookies, etc with whey protein creations of those things is not a very open minded approach to eating. This links back to poverty thinking again. Yes, the real donut does contain a lot more fat than the protein one. So what? It actually tastes good!
Of course, we see many make this claim on the internet too “I’ll never stop tracking macros!” If you are a die hard IIFYMer, yet you say you’ve found food freedom, keep looking. Food freedom doesn’t involve using a tracking app for the rest of your life. Macronutrient education is a tool, not a crutch. As valuable as tracking was, that's what I needed in a past phase of my life. I never intended to do it forever and I've experienced an abundance of benefits embracing intuitive eating.
If you’d like to cut the chord with tracking your macros but you don’t know how, I can help you! I love to help people transition from IIFYM to intuitive eating. Contact me for your complimentary 30 minute food freedom discovery call HERE! For a flexible dieter looking to make this transition, I can provide you a lot of insight and help you make this empowering shift in a one month coaching intensive. A very short time investment for something that will greatly enhance your quality of life!