Confessions of a skinny girl – or – From here, to there, and back again: a story about body recomposition in one part
TL:DR – girl loses 16 kilo by eating steak.
Here’s a confession: During my teenage years, I was rail-thin and mostly unhappy about it. Shopping for clothing was done in the children’s section, lingerie brands didn’t make bras in my size (a fact that amused my classmates greatly), and shoes were rarely manufactured for such narrow feet. I was drafted to the Israeli military at the age of 18, and was far from surprised to find that the smallest size of issued uniform was still much too big – even after having it tailored as slim as it could go.
I was never a particularly huge eater, but I had a healthy appetite and a love for food, often of the junk variety – the close proximity of my military office to a McDonald’s had my doctor worried I was clogging my arteries. Throughout my high school years, strangers and peers would often ask if I was suffering from anorexia – an eating disorder which is accompanied by excessive weight loss and classified as a psychological disorder. It boggled my mind to consider that talking in company about the overweight was a taboo, but the underweight seemed, to my teenage self, as “fair game”. “Are you not eating enough?” “Why are you so skinny?” “Why can’t you just eat more?” “Look at yourself, are you anorexic?”. The A-word followed me around and defined my teenage years, without suffering from the illness for even a single day.
My weight shifted between 39-42 kilos as I moved to Germany in 2006, being 24 at the time. It quickly became clear to me that often accusatory attitudes towards the naturally slim were not entirely restricted to Israelis – my first day in Berlin (and in Germany) had me hungry after a long flight – telling my then-boyfriend I’d be ready for a bite to eat, his sister muttered: “gut dass sie etwas essen möchte, sonst wird sie sterben” (“it’s good that she’d like something to eat, she’ll die otherwise”). During events, family and friends would ask my boyfriend if he “wasn’t feeding me enough”. It hurt, and I felt hopeless. Powerless to change, unhappy with the hand I’d been dealt.
Years went on, until I stopped smoking at the age of 27 (after 12 years of lighting up). Almost immediately, my metabolism changed and I started gaining a bit of weight, almost effortlessly. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Eager to ride the wave, I kept a journal of everything I was eating in an attempt to reach a golden goal (which I had arbitrarily set for myself) – 2000 calories a day. Being a vegetarian at the time made it difficult. Instead of gaining weight slowly and healthy in the form of muscle, the lack of access to healthy fats and significant protein meant I was consuming most of my calories from carbohydrates like wheat, starchy vegetables, and sugar, as well as overwhelming my digestive system with legumes. I knew little of nutrition at the time and didn’t make a significant effort to understand what was happening to my body. I saw the number on the scale go up, and that made me happy. I didn’t realize I was taking my body to unhealthy extremes and taking my psyche along for the ride.
Riding the wave was highly successful, and within a few short months I had managed to force my body to easily accept more calories (going “high carb” is admittedly not so difficult after the first week) and by the age of 28 I weighed close to 60 kilos. For a young woman of 1.60m, this put me in the high average percentile – but weight on the scale (and BMI) only tells part of the story. My movements were slower, my migraines getting worse, I was constantly sick and I seemed to not be able to stop the movement of the scale – I kept getting heavier. I was clocking in at 34% body fat – far too much for a young woman and far outside the healthy range for any age and or body type. I was, for lack of a better term (literally), “Skinny Fat”. I was nearing the age of 30 and setting myself up for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. I was becoming depressed, and very confused. I was unhappy at 40 kilos and unhappy at 60. I felt hideously underweight, I felt painfully overfat. I had self-esteem issues reaching back throughout the years, and eating carbohydrates beyond my capacity had done little to fix the problem, despite thinking I had found the golden ticket to “average alley”.
For the sake of my health and wellbeing, I needed to lose body fat – but dreaded losing too much weight. The ghosts of my youth would come back to haunt me. They’d say “she’ll be bony and gaunt” or “REAL women have curves”. I told the ghosts of my youth to stuff it, and got down to business.
It was clear that I needed to work towards the recomposition of my body – in with the muscle, out with the fat. The first thing would be to tackle my nutrition. I had stopped being a vegetarian shortly beforehand, which made matters simpler, but not necessarily easier. As I turned 29, my partner-in-crime was enthusiastic about attempting to drastically reduce refined carbohydrates, and this to this day remains one of the hardest, yet most impactful and rewarding decisions I’ve made in regards to my diet. By simply avoiding gluten, rice and potatoes (and reducing sugar significantly), I saw a 3% drop in body fat within mere weeks. I also began avoiding the staple foods I consumed during my exercise in vegetarianism – soy and tofu (not to mention seitan), a decision which had an absolute and immediate positive impact on the condition of my digestive system. I could suddenly eat a meal without feeling lethargic and tired – and the mid-afternoon hunger strikes were gone.
Out went the pastas, pizzas, donuts, baked potatoes, falafel wraps, and biryanis. In came the organic steaks, sashimi, soups, salads, cheese, fried eggs, bacon and dark chocolate. By my 30th birthday in mid-2012, I was down to 53 kilos and 28% body fat by the power of nutrition alone. 28% body fat was finally out of the “overfat” category (and outside of the danger zone), but the composition of my body was still leaning towards fat, as opposed to muscle. This was the point where I had to make some hard decisions – keep losing weight in an uncontrolled fashion, or make an effort to build up muscle tone.
Actually, stop the press. In reality, that was a no-brainer. What WAS difficult, however, was mustering up the discipline needed to get myself into shape. Issues of motivation, “willpower” and self-discipline are probably a topic for a separate post, but are worthy of being mentioned in this context. Here I was, a young woman with moderately good health and a lifetime ahead of her, drastically changing her nutrition and lifestyle. Did I really want this? Did I really need this? Was I really prepared for what I was getting into? Did I really understand what I was doing to my body? I wanted to be healthy, live a long life, look great, and feel great. Could I do this, as a run-of-the-mill girl, or was this a privilege kept for celebrity fitness trainers and TV doctors?
I took close to a year off to take time off and reevaluate my goals. That might seem like a long time – but it was sorely needed. I dealt with a major house move, a pet suffering from severe injuries and requiring surgery, and trouble at work. I hit the books and tried to understand more about the relationship between what we eat and how it affects both us as the planet. Both “The Perfect Health Diet” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” were fantastic aides in helping me achieve a more all-incompassing view of my body in the context of the world around me – and how to work on keeping myself happy and healthy in the long term. I felt that the best way to successfully take the next step would be to arm myself with science, facts and understanding.
Eating breakfast and incorporating snacks between meals helped keep my metabolism up as I started with moderate physical activity (walking, Wii Fit, swimming twice weekly) and slowly added weight training and cardiovascular activity at home. Lifting weights builds lean muscle, and muscle mass increases your metabolism and uses up lots of energy during the day. It’s also pretty straightforward – start lighter, increase repetitions and ease yourself into lifting heavy (I alternate between 5kg and 10kg weights). Cardio is great for heart health and expends a ton of energy, but isn’t as straightforward – finding an activity you enjoy which keeps you motivated for an extended period of time is trickier. I went through running and swimming before settling on Zumba (dance fitness) and regular walking (5-8km a day). Swimming once in a while lets me keep my water legs (I used to compete as a child and miss the water terribly) and does wonders for the muscles in my upper back (desk job, doncha know?).
This brings us to today, July 2013, and things look a little different. I started my journey to a healthier me at the age of 28, at 60 kilos and 34% body fat. Now, at the age of 31, I clock in at 44 kilograms, 16% body fat and 34% muscle mass – a total loss of 16 kilos and 18% body fat. I’ve lost the majority of the weight I gained during my “carb fest” and added strength, endurance and visible muscle girth to my limbs.
Being fit, healthy and feeling strong(er) feels fantastic, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the past few years is that I can be my own catalyst for change and motivation is something I can manufacture if I care enough about my goals. Nothing here was easy, besides making the decision to change – experiencing myself with a strong will is something which I expect to last me a lifetime. To those who cheered me on, held my hand, taught me and inspired me, the depth of gratitude which I owe you is deeper than I can express. But I’ll try: Thank you for caring along with me.