I recently finished Renaissance Periodization’s “Renaissance Woman: Fat Loss, Muscle Growth, and Performance Through Scientific Eating.” I’d been eyeing it for a while since the first time Meg Squats shared that she uses RP for her nutrition plans. Their focus? Using scientific research to help athletes meet their performance goals through nutrition.
For the past few years, I’ve been in a perpetual cut. Cutting can be a useful phase for athletes, but it’s just that: a phase. For the folks at RP, they recommend that a hypocaloric meal plan — eating fewer calories than you burn — last no more than twelve weeks, or three months. And here I was, practicing powerlifting, weightlifting, crossfit, and yoga, cutting for roughly four years.
No wonder I was struggling with my relationship with food.
As women, we’re taught to always be smaller, to take up less space, to appear dainty and petite. Yet, in reality, as women, we have as many different body types as we have women in the world: we’re all unique. Some women are naturally small, some naturally big, some somewhere in between. Some of us are muscular up top, some below, and some struggle to maintain muscle at all. It’s a beautiful variety that the majority of us are taught to suppress throughout our lives, always struggling to look like one very specific (often white, thin, and cis) ideal.
The more I started training intensely, the more I felt “out of control” with food. By “out of control,” of course, I mean that I couldn’t stick to my restricted calorie intake. I needed more. So much more.
Turning to Research
In theory, I knew that many athletes with a similar training regimen a) ate a lot more than me and b) went through various nutritional phases to more efficiently improve their performance. Somehow I imagined that this didn’t apply to me because I still hadn’t met my elusive goal weight. A weight, which I know realize, I will never see when I step on the scale because the muscle that I’m so proud of weighs much more than that.
Reading the RP book was like turning a switch on in my mind. First, they say that any diet shouldn’t last longer than three months. More than three months and you run the risk of tiring both your mind and your body by pushing it too far and too hard on too little fuel. Secondly, they encourage athletes to have three distinct periods of eating: cutting (a hypocaloric, or reduced calorie diet), maintaining (an isocaloric, or eating roughly as many calories as you expend in a day), and bulking (a hyper caloric, or a diet than exceeds the amount of calories you need in a day).
They recommend about three months for each phase, but maintenance can last longer. Our bodies are incredibly smart and they adapt to what we give them. If you reduce the amount of food you’re eating, your body learns how to use that fuel for the activity that you’re doing. Over time, your metabolism learns to slow down, expecting only that amount of energy per day and operating on just that.
In one of the most interesting and enlightening parts of the book, the authors describe Female Athlete Triad and Bone Loss. In a long-term dieting state, in which many people often continue to reduce the amount they’re eating, the body can think it’s in a starvation environment, shutting down reproductive activity and, subsequently, estrogen production. Estrogen stimulates bone growth and repair, so without it women are at higher risk for osteoporosis, in addition to the other health issues than can arise from chronic dieting.
Estrogen is an important hormone that signals bone growth and repair to occur, largely through its effects on the Osteoblasts, which are the bone-building cells of the body. Once estrogen is greatly lowered, bone growth and repair slows significantly. Since bone breakdown and turnover is always occurring, the net result of low estrogen can mean chronic bone loss. Not in days or week or months, but years.
Likewise, dietary fats are incredibly important for maintaining healthy hormone functions. The saga of low-fat foods drilled into us — or at least those of us who grew up in the 90’s — is, unsurprisingly, another blow.
On a personal note, I’ve been struggling with hormone balance for the past year. Fortunately I have not had any serious symptoms, but I have been working on fixing “leaky gut,” tiredness, and what’s likely an estrogen dominance. My lack of focusing on getting healthy fats while reducing my calorie intake as much as possible may not be the entire cause, but certainly didn’t help.
Now, I’m in maintenance. Finally. I’m not trying to reduce how much I’m eating, do more cardio, or stress about seeing a bigger number on the scale when I weigh myself. I’m fueling my body as it needs and letting it do its thing without judgement.
I’m finally allowing myself to buy bigger clothes because I’m bigger. I have bigger muscles. I have more body fat, which is way healthier than where I was. I have more energy. I have more strength. For me, that means bigger clothes. It also means being damn proud of that fact, despite the negative thinking I’ve had about it my whole life.
I believe in body positivity. I also recognize that it’s easy for me to say that as a relatively thin, white, cis woman. I also recognize that I don’t really apply this line of thinking to myself and I often do the “everyone should be body positive but me” thing. I’m working on calling myself on that because it serves no one.
I plan to do maintain for about five or six months before I enter a bulk. For the first time in my life ever, I will intentionally be gaining weight. I could never have imagined doing that before. Not when I was just a thirteen year old middle schooler already on her first diet. Not when I was in college, stressing over how I looked in pictures. Not last year, when I realized that the weight I was gaining wasn’t coming off.
Finally. Finally the goal is to take up more space. To have more energy. More confidence. More freedom. Most importantly, more trust in my self and my body. Because the diet industry certainly doesn’t know my body better than I do.
As a note: this is just my personal experience and I don’t think it’s the best option for everyone. In the past, I have struggled with an eating disorder and disordered eating. If that sounds like you, or if you feel you need to improve your relationship with food, please reach out for help. I did and I’m still grateful for it.