You want to get your menstrual cycle back, and you’ve been told that to do that, you need to eat more. But you just can’t stop restricting yourself, because you don’t want to gain weight. Wouldn’t it be great if you could eat more, overcome amenorrhea, and not gain weight?
Western medicine and diet culture have convinced us that as soon as we eat more than we have been, we’ll pack on the pounds. That’s based on the belief that our metabolism is static, which simply is not true. Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani explains how our metabolic rate changes to adapt to the amount of fuel we’re taking in and the amount of energy we’re expending, so that nourishing yourself differently does not necessarily mean changing your body.
She also debunks the myths behind calorie counting and why calories have little relevance to how our bodies burn fuel. Hint: we don’t poop charcoal.
Read the transcript
[Tina] I’m just not prepared to gain weight and I can’t stop restricting myself. What can I do?
[Jen] It’s a really scary state to be in, and you have my compassion for that. A lot of athletes get into a place as a result of the demands of the sport, whether it is judged or refereed, where they feel that the appearance of their body, that feels integrally linked to the way that they’re nourishing themselves, is a must. It’s an absolute.
Health must come first in athletics. Part of honoring one’s body as being able to do miraculous things, is to sustain and maintain the body, but I recognize that we’re not talking about pie-in-the-sky idealism, we are talking about some pragmatic things. So if we’re getting really pragmatic, you may need to finish a season before you deeply address what’s going on. And I get it, but what’s important is that as soon as your season is over, you really focus on it. And if you cannot make those changes at that point, we’re really not talking about RED-S anymore, we’re talking more anorexia nervosa,regardless of what your body size is, and that needs to be named and addressed as such.
However, even during the season, you need to recognize that nourishing yourself better and differently does not necessarily change your body; it just fuels it and prepares it better for the sport. We’ve come to believe, because Western medicine has propagated this and so has diet culture, that the second you eat more than you’ve been eating while your weight is at a certain point, you will necessarily gain, and this is wrong, and here’s why. Western medicine teaches us that our metabolism is static. It doesn’t move, it’s fixed, and that if you eat less or move more, you will lose weight, and that if you eat more or move less, you will gain weight because the metabolism is fixed and it’s simply calories in, calories out. This is not true. Because of the way we evolved to be responsive to inadequate fuel, in fact, our metabolisms are gorgeously dynamic, and they’re all there to help protect and care for us. The diet industry wants us to fear and reject our bodies, when in fact they’ve been evolving for millennia to do things just right. So we’ve really actually got to trust our bodies.
Here’s what actually happens. Let’s say that somebody starts out with a metabolism about here, and they’re eating about this much. The numbers don’t matter at all. If you eat less, you will burn fewer calories and then if you eat less, you will burn fewer calories. Through all the mechanisms that we’ve talked about physiologically that change how our bodies use energy. Similarly, let’s say we’re down here. When you eat more, your metabolism rises, and then when you eat more, your metabolism rises. So well before any weight changes actually happen, you’ve just repaired your metabolism by nourishing better. And so many people will get stuck with, “Well, if I’m not losing weight at this amount of caloric intake, if I eat more, I’ll gain.”
Incorrect. If you eat more, your metabolism will get faster. We know this in any number of super interesting ways, but one of my favorite stories and a study I love to cite, is about the modern Hadza nomadic people, where a number of years ago, Western scientists wanted to prove that those worthy beings that walk lots and lots every day because they are a modern nomadic tribe, must be burning so many more calories than the average quote-unquote American couch potato, and they wanted to have this sort of superiority study that proved this. So they got consent from this tribe to do really intricate metabolic measurements of how much fuel they were burning each day, as they walked miles and miles each day. To their shock, they burned exactly the same number of calories as somebody who didn’t move very much.
And they were like, “How is this possible? This blows up everything we’ve known.”
Well yeah, it’s about time. The reason is that our beautiful cave person brain is fundamentally conservative of our energy in our best interests, so of course when people are walking, or when athletes are moving, that takes fuel, and all of the energy that’s taken in will be put towards managing that activity. But because the body can’t tolerate being in such caloric deficit, it slows down the metabolism of other body systems. So it slows down the brain, the heart, the digestion, the hormones, the heat, so even though of course it takes a certain amount of fuel to do a certain piece of physical work, the rest of your metabolism is going too slowly if you’re under fueling. So the key is fuel for your movement and fuel for the basic operations of your body, and that is what burns more. But it really undoes the idea that, you know, a certain workout “burns this many calories” from a fixed metabolism. It’s nonsense; it may burn that many, but then your metabolism is going to use that many fewer elsewhere. So you’ve got to try to challenge what you’ve been taught.
In addition, the very notion of the calorie is actually incorrect because at the turn of the 1900s, a scientist wanted to know how much energy a given quantity of each type of food held, so he took a known quantity of fat, of protein, and of carbs, and he incinerated them to charcoal and he called the number of calories to turn food into charcoal its caloric value. Pro tip: we don’t poop charcoal, so the fact is, that that really has little relevance to human metabolism and how we use this fuel. So yeah, you know, roughly speaking there’s going to be certain things that have more caloric value or more energy value than others, but as far as sort of, “Oh, this has 243 calories,” that’s nonsense; that’s complete nonsense. So let’s look at ourselves as these beautiful mammals who need to be fueled properly, not only to run our underlying operating systems, but also to do the magnificent things we do with our bodies.
[Tina] Thank you; that’s beautifully said. Thank you.
check it out
Recovering from RED-S is hard. It’s even harder if you’re working through it alone. Even if you have professional support, they’re not available 24-7, and that can lead to going down search engine rabbit holes that have the potential to derail everything.
Our online resource, RED-S: Realize. Reflect. Recover, will answer all those questions swimming around in your head about recovery. It will give you the opportunity to connect with the experts you’ve come to know here, and to surround yourself with a community of others who are going through it too. THANK YOU! to Athletic Greens and Tracksmith for supporting this YouTube series and RED-S: Realize. Reflect. Recover.
Go to athleticgreens.com/reds to get five free travel packs of AG1 and a free one year’s supply of vitamin D3+K2 with your subscription!
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more about Dr G:
Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, CEDS-S, FAED, is an internist who specializes in eating disorders. She practices from a deeply anti-diet, weight-inclusive perspective and partners with therapists and dietitians around the country to ameliorate medical roadblocks in patients’ recovery journeys. Her book, “Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders,” is for patients, families, and practitioners. You can find Jen at https://gaudianiclinic.com