**About this photo.
I though about using two side-by-side comparison photos as the featured image of this post, but I decided that this photo, in which I am enjoying a fun time with lovely friends and birthday cake, is a much more accurate representation of the theme of this post.
I usually write posts regarding scientific research and provide general practical information about health-related issues. This post is not like those, but rather is a more personal one. It’s about my experience with weight gain and how it has changed my life.
Some of you may or may not be aware that within the past couple of years, I have gained roughly around 15 pounds, and it has had a tremendous impact on how I experience life. But before I talk about the weight gain, I think it’s important that I mention how and why I got to my lowest weight.
A few years ago, around late 2015, I became very interested in exercising and eating “healthy” foods, which can be more accurately referred to as dieting. These things peaked my interest for the same reason that many others are attracted to them, because I wanted to lose weight. I always had this mentality that being smaller needed to be my goal if I wanted to be more liked and accepted. While I didn’t necessarily feel unwanted or unloved, I had this subconscious desire to be thinner, no matter how small or large my body was. So in order to indulge this desire, I began working out at home using workout videos, under the impression that more was better, and that I had to work as hard as I possibly could in order to achieve my goals. So naturally, I gravitated towards the most intense workout I could get my hands on, which turned out to be Beachbody’s Insanity program. This consisted of lots of high-intensity interval training for about 45 minutes (one can argue that that is not real HIIT) about 6 days per week. The motto of this program is to “dig deeper,” and it focuses on pushing yourself to the absolute limit, to the point at which you have nothing left to give. So of course, by the end of every workout I felt exhausted, sometimes even dizzy and nauseous. I also hated working out, I dreaded my workout time every single day, and always looked forward to my weekly rest day. Despite all of this, I still thought I was doing the right thing, the healthy thing, the admirable thing. And forums and articles on fitness websites like bodybuilding.com did nothing to make me think otherwise. They actually encouraged this sort of exercise, pushing the “grind” and “no days off” mentality. And I trusted these sources, they were “fitness gurus” after all.
So along with this workout regiment, I started to adhere to the nutrition program that comes with the Insanity program. So I followed the instructions. I used their formula to figure out how many calories I should be consuming per day in order to achieve my weight loss goals. This formula and others like it are based on an over-generalization of how the human body burns energy. It takes information like a person’s height, weight, age, and activity level to determine how much they need to eat for maintenance. The activity factor is very ambiguous as well because it allows the person to judge how active they are based on some vague examples they provide. And of course many people, myself included, will steer towards a lower number in order to “play it safe” (because God forbid you gain weight). Then you take this number and remove about 20% for weight loss or add about 20% for weight gain. Now, I’m 5’1” and have never really been “overweight” and I had weight loss goals, so you can imagine how low of a calorie intake that generic formula provided for me. So I was eating 4 to 5 meals per day which consisted of things like high fiber cereals, protein powders, oatmeal, whole wheat breads/pastas, low-fat and fat-free dairy, extra lean meats, etc. This number and types of meals and the macro-nutrient ratios eventually changed, but the calorie goal remained the same. So I was doing Insanity 6 days per week and consuming 5 meals per day, totaled to about 1300-1400 daily calories. Now this number might not seem all that low when you consider that one of the most common weight loss recommendations, particularly for women, is to consume 1200 calories per day, so when you consider my height and activity level, 1300-1400 calories as a deficit seems to make some sense. Well, my body begged to differ.
It was never easy for me to adhere to the dietary guidelines that I was attempting to follow, and thus began a binge-restrict cycle. I would usually stick to my diet plan for about 5 days and look forward to the weekend when I’d have my “cheat meal”. God, to this day I can’t stand that term. The weekdays were always tough. I remember constantly thinking about food, always looking forward to my next meal. Sometimes I did have to push through some hunger pains, while other times my stomach felt pretty quiet. But my appetite was always active, and I was constantly craving sweets and hyper-palatable foods, which is why I often gravitated towards protein bars and protein oats. I would actually go to bed every night planning and thinking about what I’d be eating for breakfast the next morning. Food became my whole world. And then the weekend would arrive, and I’d be so excited for my glorious “cheat meal”, knowing exactly when and where I’d be having it. I always went into this day with the intention to eat freely with flexibility and without too much restriction, while also not “gorging” on food . This rarely ever worked out as planned. My “cheat meal” would turn into a “cheat day” and sometimes even a “cheat weekend”. As soon as I’d start eating the “unhealthy” meal, I wanted more and more of anything and everything. I would immediately feel as though I had lost all control over my food choices and like this giant appetite had taken over my body. And I felt bad both physically and mentally during these situations. I felt like I was a bad person with no self-control and that I needed to be more disciplined. But somehow that didn’t stop me from continuing with the binge. The more I ate, the worse I felt; and the worse I felt, the more I ate.
Social situations were very difficult for me as well. When friends would spontaneously suggest eating out or having a cookout, I would either not show up in order to avoid “temptation”, or I would go into the event feeling extremely anxious about whether or not I would “give in” to the food. Lots of those times ended in a binge.
After about 3 months of this, I had already lost some weight, and I started to feel physically different. The first thing that happened was my period stopped. I thought this was odd, so I did what a millennial like myself does and googled my issue. As it turns out, amenorrhea (loss of period) is pretty common for women that are highly active, including those that actively do Insanity. The advice that was usually given within the fitness community for this issue, which I find very disappointing in hindsight, was to continue doing what you’re doing, if you’re okay without having your period. After all, menstruation sucks anyway, right? So I didn’t think much of it and continued business as usual. Then things got really annoying. I started to find myself having trouble falling asleep at night. I would lie awake for much longer than was normal for me before falling asleep. I was also finding myself waking up several hours after falling asleep feeling extremely hot and sweaty. The nights with disrupted sleep would leave me feeling like absolute garbage the next day. So after going about 3 months without my period I went to see a doctor about it. Blood work revealed that my sex hormones were severely low, and I was also diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which is what they believed had caused the amenorrhea. When I asked what caused the PCOS, I was told that they don’t really know what causes the condition, but that most women with it are extremely overweight (which I was not), so they found the situation pretty odd. Regarding bringing back my period, I was told “you could gain a bit of weight, but I don’t think you wanna do that just to get your period, right?” OF COURSE MY RESPONSE WAS NO. So I was prescribed birth control pills instead. Easy peasy.
At this point I had stopped doing Insanity and had switched over to strength training instead. My sleeping situation continued to worsen as time went on. There were many times in which I felt absolutely exhausted from being chronically underslept, but when it came time to sleep, my mind was racing, my eyes felt as though I had to force them shut, my heart felt accelerated, and I struggled for hours to fall asleep. And then my worries about not being able to sleep made it even more difficult to fall asleep. Geez, how ridiculous can a body get? The exhaustion was affecting my mental health as well, and I’d find myself feeling completely joyless when I was underslept. So I started to do things like wear blue light blocking glasses in the evening and meditating close to bedtime, and wearing sound blocking ear plugs to sleep. These things sometimes helped but they didn’t solve the issue completely. Meanwhile, I was taking birth control pills in hope that my period would return, but to no avail.
At that point, I was pretty thin, and my weight was the lowest it had been since my middle school years. But for some strange reason, I’d look in the mirror and see only the things that were “wrong” with my body, and I’d think “I just need to lose a few more pounds.”
And then there were the comments from others. People would look at me after not seeing me for a while and say really positive things like “You look so good! You lost a lot of weight, how did you do it?” And people would make all sorts of implications that my worth had somehow increased because my body had shrunk. And I would feed off of this, and I allowed it to encourage me to continue to maintain my lower weight and perhaps lose a bit more.
After several months of having sleep troubles, mood swings, extreme cravings, binge-restricting, very low libido, and no period, I began looking into actual nutrition, not the pseudo-macro-centered-get-shredded-nutrition, but nutrition that focuses on enhancing the body’s functions and aims at making people feel their bests. I started to find that lots of people, especially women, were experiencing or had experienced similar situations to mine, and the advice that was usually given to them in this new wellness-sphere that I was diving into was “eat more, do less.” For a long time, I’d hear this advice and think “I’m shorter and smaller than the average American woman, so yeah, these women might need more food and less exercise, but that doesn’t apply to someone like me.” Plus, all of these macro/calorie calculators on the internet generated very similar numbers to the ones I had been following, and lots of people swore by them, so they had to hold some validity, right?
I was too terrified of the possibility of weight gain, so I began changing parts of my diet, while keeping the overall energy intake about the same. I removed gluten, which turned out to work wonders for my digestion and chronic headaches/migraines, which I had been experiencing since my teenage years. I also started to move towards a more whole-foods based diet, and eating less of the protein bars, protein powders, and low-calorie diet foods. I also ditched the birth control pills (they weren’t doing anything for me anyway) and started to notice some improvements like less hunger pains, less cravings, and more satiation from meals. But my improvements eventually plateaued, and I was still having sleep troubles, mood swings, and struggling with some milder binge-restrict habits. And I still had no period damnit!
At this point, my diet was squeaky-clean and consisted of mostly whole foods and home-cooked meals, but I was still tracking everything while aiming to stay under a specific caloric intake. So I finally realized that I needed to try letting go of tracking, at least for a little while, and see what would happen. This was absolutely terrifying; I had been tracking my food religiously for close to 2 years, and I didn’t even know how to gauge hunger anymore. I had become conditioned to eating according to the rules I had set for myself, so I didn’t know where to begin.
I decided to kickstart this process by doing a Whole 30, which is an elimination diet that removes lots of the common food intolerances and helps people figure out what whole foods work for them. I chose to start here because a couple of the rules of the Whole 30 include not weighing and measuring your food and not weighing and measuring your body. The point of this is to help people learn to eat intuitively while consuming whole foods (that are not engineered to make people crave more and more). During this process I felt SO FREE. Of course, it was nerve racking to eat without stringently controlling the quantity of my food, but I also felt like a weight had been removed from my shoulders because I was allowing myself to really hone in on how I felt and eat according to that. At first, I didn’t know what hunger was, didn’t know when I was full, nor did I know when I needed to eat more, so it took some getting used to. There were times when I under-ate and definitely other times when I over-ate, but it was all part of the process of re-learning my hunger and satiation cues.
After completing the Whole 30, I was much more comfortable with eating without tracking and had a much better idea of what it meant to be hungry and what it meant to be satisfied, and yes, this meant that I was eating more overall. I began noticing some changes taking place on my body, and I have to admit it was quite difficult seeing myself get bigger. It was definitely a psychological struggle. Sure, I continued to lift weights, but some of the weight gain was definitely fat, and I knew this. So I had to fight the urge to go back to restricting because I knew that I needed to watch this new way of eating play out. About 3 months after I stopped tracking my food, BAM!, my period returned, and I was overwhelmed with joy. I remember crying out of sheer excitement. Things only got better from that point on.
Within a few months, I was finding myself falling asleep at night time without the help of ear plugs nor white noise nor sleepy time teas. And I was dreaming consistently! I had forgotten that dreams were a thing. Even being sleep deprived became much easier. One day after a poor night’s sleep was feeling much more manageable than it had before.
And another wonderful thing that happened was that my urge to binge diminished and my anxiety around food in social situations was drastically reduced. Eating out and trying different foods and pastries during special occasions became much less frightening and so much more enjoyable.
My libido benefited a lot from this as well, which was certainly delightful.
But here’s the thing, I gained about 15 pounds and have remained there for a while now. And it is insane how much better I feel, how much saner I feel. And I definitely feel attractive as well, which is something that I would not have believed 3 years ago. So I’ve realized that “feeling attractive” and “having confidence” has so much more to do with my mindset than it does my weight. I didn’t know it was possible for me to have confidence in myself at my current weight. When I was at my lowest weight, I held a subconscious fear that weight gain would result in me being less liked by others (though I would not have admitted this). But my experience has been the exact opposite. Since the weight gain, I feel much more in control of my food choices and much less ravenous, I feel much more confident, my sleep is close to perfect, my energy is fantastic, and I am much more social as a result of all of this. Life now revolves less around food and more around love and human connection, as I believe it should.
But I want to point out that there were plenty of opportunities for me to change before I actually took a turn in the right direction. While I don’t want to portray myself as a complete victim in this situation (I do acknowledge that I am responsible for my own actions), I think it’s important to recognize the things that contributed to my aversion from seeking out true health. First of all, western society has glorified small bodies for a long time, and is teaching females of all ages that being thin results in being wanted and more vaguely being loved; this is where I think it all begins. This then feeds into the way you’re treated by those around you, which also influenced me to continue my self-destructive behavior. People like to comment on weight loss, and I have been guilty of this as well. When we see someone that is looking noticeably smaller, we rush to share our congratulations and compliments with them, usually with good intentions. We want to make the person feel recognized for their “hard work” and dedication and spark some sort of joy, but this can be harmful because we don’t know what may be going on beneath the surface. We may actually be reinforcing some harmful behaviors, and feeding into the person’s idea that their value lies in the shape and size of their body.
The fitness community should have been another place where I found encouragement to dial down physical activity and food restriction. But instead, I encountered the complete opposite. Even when it came down to a woman losing her period, which is a huge red flag that her body is enduring way too much stress, the response was that it was not so important nor damaging. The so-called “fitness community” generally pushed the idea that more work equals better results and that grueling workouts were the way to achieve your goal of being really shredded. Some of this community swear by the “if it fits your macros” motto, which encourages people to stringently aim towards hitting the macronutrient/calorie numbers generated by a generic formula. Lots of them are firm believers that food is as simple as calories in versus calories out, which is a huge oversimplification of what truly goes on within the body and a person’s psyche, especially when dieting. Oh and that’s another thing, a good portion of this community claim that the IIFYM way of eating is not a diet because it has room for “flexibility” because you can technically meet your macros with whatever foods you wish. I find this absolutely ridiculous because IIFYM tells people to limit themselves to a certain calorie/macro range in order to achieve their aesthetic goals, which is EXACTLY what a diet is. I should mention that there are some wise people within the fitness community that provide some very useful and great information. The problem is that these people are few and far between, and are mostly drowned out by all the pseudo-experts that flood the community.
Western medicine also did me no favors in this regard. I saw multiple doctors regarding my amenorrhea, and none of them really urged me to exercise less and eat some more food. Instead, they decided that because I didn’t look particularly sickly or like what they might consider to be “too thin”, there was no need to encourage weight gain and opted to treat the symptoms of my condition with synthetic hormones.
And lastly, I should have seen my urgency to binge for what it was, a symptom of being underfed. I thought that I lacked self-control and that I was emotionally weak, when in reality my body was simply physiologically responding to the absence of nutrients by generating cravings for energy-dense, fast-absorbing, hyper-palatable foods. What I interpreted as a lack of will-power, was really my body’s best intention at survival. It was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, ensuring that I stocked up on energy whenever possible during this “famine”.
The point that I am trying to make is that weight loss does not always equal health, and that sometimes weight gain is actually what people need. I’m not trying to shame smaller bodies nor am I saying that having aesthetic goals is a bad thing. I’m also not anti-weight loss at all, and I know that the US is plagued with obesity, and that many people would benefit from following a healthier diet and losing some weight as a result. Also, I am all for people doing what they please with their own lives, and if someone truly is happy counting calories/macros and striving for fat loss and living their lives according to that, then so be it. Who am I to judge that? I’m simply speaking for the people that may feel trapped by the diet and fitness culture, those who have experienced a decline in their health and quality of lives as a result of trying to look a certain way. I think that perhaps we ought to change the way we express certain things regarding weight and body sizes. I want to bring to light the idea that we as a society have placed way too much emphasis and value on how our bodies look, and it has had some detrimental effects on so many individuals. Everywhere I go, I hear ongoing conversations again and again on new weight loss fads and how someone is trying to lose x amount of pounds by the end of the summer, or the year, or what have you. And I know from experience that focusing on and rigidly trying to manipulate our weight can suck up so much mental and emotional energy. Imagine the things that we could accomplish if we used that energy towards other things, bigger things that would actually make some sort of positive impact on the world. And imagine how much more pleasant life would be if we focused a little less on the rolls on our bellies and the cellulite on our thighs, and instead paid this attention to the things that actually make us happy.