Women's Health (UK)
SLOW AND STEADY...
Cutting cals to shed pounds in a hurry? Read this first
It’s 3pm on a Tuesday and you should have your eyes and attention trained on the Excel doc in front of you. Instead, they’ve been diverted to your weather app; specifically, the forecast for Mykonos 14 days from now. Thoughts turn to the inevitable bikini pics and the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to forge a flat stomach between now and the departure lounge. While you know that so-called summer bodies are built in winter and good nutrition is for life, the pre-holiday body panic can feel as difficult to opt out of as the hotdogsor-legs snap and the jump-in-the-pool Boomerang. And it isn’t just the impending sunshine break that has the power to make you part with salary and sense in the name of slimming down stat – there’s also the matter of getting one or both sets of limbs out at the onslaught of summer parties and weddings. So what is it about these date-in-the-diary events that makes even the most sensible among us want to shrink? ‘These occasions tend to be understood as particularly important because you feel like you’re on display,’ says psychologist Jess Baker. ‘Underpinning this is the fear that you’re going to be judged. You seek other people’s approval and believe that changing your body and looking your “best” is the way to win this,’ she says. Dialling up the self-scrutiny is social media: a window into the ‘best side’ of billions and the real-time validation that comes with a quick check of your likes. ‘Sharing images of yourself on social media – or knowing that you’re going to appear in content that others post – means not only opening yourself up to praise (the idea of which is a motivator in itself ), but also judgement and criticism from a wider pool of people than you’ll actually encounter at the event you’re counting down to,’ explains Baker. ‘It’s natural to want to protect yourself from negative judgement, and so you try your hardest to look what you perceive to be your ideal.’ The bigger the stage and more dazzling the glow of the spotlight you’re in, the more pressure there is to shine brighter than the highlighted cheekbone of a Jenner sibling.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
But suddenly cull calories out of nowhere and not only will your rumbling stomach take umbrage, your hormones are bound to have strong opinions, too. They’re the biological equivalent of couriers, delivering messages around the body, so do things that interfere with their natural rhythm and shit will go down. It’s an inconvenient biological truth that your body has a healthy weight zone in which it would like you to stay. And, given that it’s motivated by the historic sole purpose of procreation, the ideal muscle/fat ratio may not chime with your spring/summer 2018 goals. ‘Restrict your food intake significantly and the endocrine system sends out a hormonal cry for help along the lines of, “I need more calories, feed me more,” in an effort to keep your weight from falling,’ explains registered dietitian Priya Tew. ‘Your appetitereducing hormones leptin, peptide YY and CCK (cholecystokinin) decrease, while the appetite-enhancing hormone ghrelin increases,’ she adds. ‘Your body is now so concerned about entering what it perceives to be a famine state that it will move this optimal weight window higher as a backup plan,’ says Tew. ‘Its priority is to stop you from starving – and this way, even if you find yourself without food again soon, your body will have more fat stores to survive off.’ In short, attempt to put your body on a crash diet and it will repay you by increasing your fat stores. Mission far from accomplished. Plus, if you’ve ever walked past a Pizza Express mid-diet and teared up at the smell of fresh dough balls, you’ll be well aware of the fact that crash-dieting triggers an emotional response just as it elicits physical fluctuations. ‘Two people can be following exactly the same diet and have very different emotional reactions,’ explains Dr Joanna Silver, counselling psychologist and eating disorders specialist. A history of disordered eating is an obvious indicator that crash-dieting could be problematic for you, but it isn’t always that clear-cut. ‘A person’s emotional response to a diet can also depend on the importance and meaning they place on losing weight.’ Have a date circled in your diary that you care deeply about looking good for and you heighten your risk of an emotional fallout. Dr Silver cites the example of the seminal deprivation study ‘The Minnesota Starvation Experiment’, which saw 36 men have their daily calories cut to just 1,500 for six months. Researchers concluded that being deprived of food led to depression, mood disturbances, general apathy for life, an obsession with ‘food-getting activities’ and gloomy relationships – even after they resumed normal eating patterns. Last year, researchers at the University of Helsinki reached a similar conclusion: that ‘disordered eating’ (arbitrarily deciding when they were hungry or full – regardless of how they were feeling – or habitually weighing their food) among 24-year-olds led to ‘lower psychological wellbeing’, even up to a decade later.
HARDER, FASTER, STRONGER?
The idea that you get out as much as you put in can prompt you to rev up your fitness schedule in order to get bigger results, quicker. But, when it comes to eliciting healthy changes in the body, going hard and fast isn’t often the finest modus operandi. ‘Resistance training – such as weight-lifting, TRX and certain Crossfit workouts – creates micro-tears in your muscle that can take up to 72 hours to repair,’ explains Niko Algieri, director and co-founder of Equilibrium Total Balance (weareequilibrium.com). These tears are the key to building strength,
Going hard and fast isn’t always the finest modus operandi
but only if you allow your body to recover subsequently. Go back to training the same group of muscles the next day or suddenly demand more from them than they’re used to, and not only will those micro-tears become extensive and painful, you’ll also slow down the recovery process. Continue to book back-to-back classes and you’ll put yourself at risk of injury, too. But that’s not all. ‘In some cases, extended periods of resistance training or cardio can put your body in a catabolic state,’ explains Algieri. Which means? ‘After a while, your body begins to use up its preferred sources of energy – glycogen and glucose – and once these stores are exhausted it starts to break down tissue in order to burn protein found in the muscles as energy, which can lead to loss of muscle and strength, interrupted sleep and even flagging energy levels.’ While it’s difficult to estimate when catabolism will kick in – no two human bodies are the same – studies suggest that an average athlete working out at a moderate level will run out of glycogen after one hour and 45 minutes; with high-intensity exercise it can happen after as little as 15 minutes. As to the question of how long you should leave between workouts, there’s no hard and fast rule and it’ll vary depending on your age, level of experience and the intensity of the exercise. For those workouts that push your body to its max, some experts recommend leaving 48 hours – the time research suggests it takes for muscle soreness to peak post-exercise – before returning to it, while others suggest a full 72 hours if you’re a beginner. If you want to stay active during that time, know that your muscles can take movements in different directions and planes, and Algieri suggests some active recovery, such as steady-state cardio.
Your endocrine system is just as opposed to over-training as it is to you cutting out food groups and slashing calories. ‘Train intensely for over an hour and your body releases cortisol, which works to provide your system with the glucose energy it needs to help you fight or flee,’ explains Algieri. ‘And if cortisol levels remain high, the body continues to consistently produce glucose so your blood sugar levels stay raised.’ But
Put your body on a crash diet and you’ll up your fat stores
– face palm – your cells won’t actually be using that glucose for energy. ‘Sustained cortisol release also suppresses insulin, the hormone whose job it is to transfer glucose from food to cells to use it for energy.’ So your cells remain hangry for fuel, send SOS hunger signals to your brain and the next thing you know, you’re one step away from taking down an unnecessary carbonara. And the underutilised glucose floating around in your bloodstream? ‘That gets stored as body fat,’ adds Algieri. Right. To avoid this series of unfortunate events, he advises calling time on intense workouts after an hour – and being as rigorous about rest days as you are about your end goal.
According to Dr Silver, one way to futureproof your mental health ahead of a nutrition or exercise overhaul is to examine your motivation – especially if wanting to ‘look your best’ is in fact code for wanting to look like your best mate on her extensively documented Caribbean honeymoon. ‘Comparing your body with those in your social circle is unfair on you and the object of your scrutiny,’ says Dr Silver. ‘Even if you get to a point where your body appears to be a similar size or shape to theirs, you may have vastly different genetic make-ups, so
measuring yourself against them isn’t just pointless, it’s dangerous.’ And perhaps unsurprisingly, it won’t do your relationship any favours, either. ‘It can wreck your self-esteem and, in many cases, ruin friendships. A friend will be able to tell if you start looking at them as a dress size, rather than as a whole person.’ To get a handle on whether you’re simply tweaking your diet and fitness to live your best life or you’re in the grip of crash-dieting, Dr Silver suggests regularly tuning into not only how this new regime is making you feel, but how it’s affecting your behaviour. Case in point: social life. It’s a heavy irony that the blinkered focus you employ in a bid to look and feel your best can chip away at your here-and-now joy. Wine and pizza with ex-colleagues? Risky. Attending a friend’s barbecue where you know you’ll be cajoled into sausages and Sauv? No chance. ‘Occasionally turning down an invitation because you need time for yourself or can’t face the inevitable hangover is fine – sensible even,’ says Dr Silver. ‘But if you’re cancelling dinner plans to avoid being around food, that’s a concern. If it becomes a habit, then it could feed into feelings of isolation.’ And lonely isn’t a realistic springboard from which to create your healthiest self.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
It’s clear the dangers of crash-dieting are real – so what of the argument that it could have a place in the long game of healthy living? This is the takeaway from a brand new study by University of Oxford researchers. After spending nine weeks consuming nothing but shakes and soups, participants lost over 10% of their body weight. ‘A meal-replacement diet is a good chance for people with unhealthy habits to break them and establish new ones,’ says lead researcher Professor Susan Jebb. ‘Our research was done on people who were obese, and I would only advise people to consider such an approach if they’re more than 2st overweight.’ In other words, unless your GP is concerned about your weight and you struggle to adopt healthy habits – eating nutritious food, working out in a way that challenges your body, practising self-care – a speedy purge of pounds is not for you. A much better approach is that which you’ll find on the pages of this magazine each month: it’s achievable goals, forming good habits and that much-touted word, balance. ‘It might take you weeks or even months longer than the date on your calendar to reach your target– and you might never get to that ideal,’ explains Tew. ‘But any changes you make are more likely to be sustainable steps in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a healthy you.’ Try to cheat the system and your body and mind will suffer – plus, you’re not guaranteed to get the end result you’re pining after anyway. But play by the rules and your changes will last long after the tan has faded or the wedding pics have been printed.