Body Fat

I’m taking a course called “Fitness and prescription” [Conditionnement physique], which is (naturally) all about prescribing fitness interventions. Fair enough. We’ve just finished a unit on body composition, in which a short section at the end delineated “guidelines” to follow on how to address weight gain:

– Eat often; eat larger portions; snack; drink milk and juice with meals (fair enough)
– Eat high-calorie foods, but stick to low-fat options (uhhh)
Above all, do not gain too much fat. Aim only to gain lean body mass (wait, what?)

The prof went on to explain that while weight gain is necessary, fat gain shouldn’t be the goal. At this, I raised my hand. “What about women with amenorrhea? They’d definitely benefit from gaining some body fat.” Cue blathering about “critical fat mass” and women below 13% body fat and yes, amenorrheic women might benefit from gaining some fat, because sometimes women who drop too low in body fat percentage skip their menstrual cycle for a few months.

Well. As someone who skipped 30 months of her menstrual cycle, fat gain was definitely in my interest. So I gained weight. On larger, more frequent meals, full-fat dairy products, additional carbohydrates. Lots of vegetables and fruit throughout. This was by no means unhealthy. I am now the proprietor of a body with more lean mass, and (yes) more body fat. I had to go above and beyond my previous “high” weight to restore my menstrual function, and I’m maintaining here without exactly trying. I exercise regularly. I eat when I’m hungry and as my schedule allows. I eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t usually get enough sunlight or enough sleep.

I’m not entirely comfortable at this weight, but this is where my body wants to be right now. This is where I can drop and do sprint workouts whenever, make the half hour trip to school in the morning and back again in the afternoon (weather permitting). This is where I can lift heavy (for me) weights, or skate or ski, or attend random classes, or train for a 10k race. I can spontaneously go to yoga (as is the plan tonight) with a friend and stretch beyond what I believe I can do.

I have health-related goals, like working out more regularly or attending yoga classes at least once a week because they relax me or going to bed earlier to ensure I sleep enough or walking in the sunlight to maximize my vitamin D even in these frigid winter months, but weight loss or anything related to food-restriction can’t be a part of those.

Just a friendly reminder that body fat is an endocrine organ. Hunger/satiety hormones such as leptin, grehlin, and neuropeptide y are directly related to body fat levels; these communicate with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then uses this hormonal information to regulate a huge number of physiological processes, such as appetite and temperature and yes, fertility (generally via pro-hormones). This is a gross over-simplification, but all that to say that we actually do need body fat, and sometimes fat gain can be the primary goal. This culture of fat-fearing needs to stop.

Women need enough body fat to be fertile. End of story. While I have no intention of having children any time soon, I value the proper functioning of my body and see my menstrual cycle as a sign that I’m on the right track, health-wise. Enough body fat also regulates appetite, and I’m not chronically hungry any more (meaning I can think of things beyond my next meal). These are well worth the “extra” (required) weight.

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The Learning Process

It mini-blizzarded today:

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(That was the beginning of it; if you look closely you can see the white particles 😉 ).

It’s been an interesting sort of day. Organic chem first thing in the morning, followed by driving through said blizzard in a snow storm to an appointment with a medical internist, a drive back to school for another class, a Costco shopping spree with the parents, supper, and then to my long three-hour Monday night class.

Today’s appointment wasn’t unduly productive. My blood-pressure, though low, as per usual, is stable, unchanging. “And when was the last time you menstruated?” She asks. “It’s been about two years.” I reply, shifting. “Well, you should take a calcium supplement and a vitamin D tablet daily.” Prescription in hand (because apparently my drug plan covers these), I walk out the door back to the minivan, twist the key in the ignition, and wipe the snow off my now-covered windshield with a flick of the control.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a gynaecologist. He’s putting me through all sorts of hormonal testing. I’m a fun case; nineteen years young, apparently healthy but for the lack of my menses. I recently finished what’s known as the “Provera Challenge” (a 10mg/day for ten day dose of progesterone), which should in theory cause menstrual shedding; I have a feeling it won’t though. I’m fairly positive I have hypothalamic amenorrhea. Cause: excessive exercise and rapid weight loss.

At my first appointment two weeks ago; he asks me when I stopped menstruating. I said sometime between November of 2011 and February of 2012 (I honestly can’t remember), following excessive weight loss. He asks if that’s from an eating disorder, overexercise..? I shift, say “something like that, both, yes”. He asks if I’m exercising currently. I say, frankly, no. He asks me why not. I say that I’m trying not to stress my body out.

I’m in a good place right now. The vast majority of my disordered behaviours have been corrected. What remains is doing what I can to optimize my health. I miss exercise because I truly love to move, but I know it’s not necessarily the healthiest thing for me right now. I try to be active in that I walk the 2.5 kilometres to school when I feel energetic and it’s not too sub-zero degrees outside. Food isn’t really a source of stress for me anymore; I still love it, but it’s no longer the center of my universe. I eat whenever I’m hungry, and generally eat exactly what I want. I’m not constantly obsessing over it, half-starved and counting minutes until the next time I can binge-purge.

I think that a large part of why I’ve not been able to blog consistently is that I’ve just not felt like I “have it together”. I don’t have a triumphant story to tell about how I’ve completely overcome my struggles and found health and happiness and wonderfulness.

What I do have is this: a stubborn “snap yourself out of it and face it” mentality with renewed vigour for life and a new understanding of myself that’s allowed me to drag myself from a horribly self-destructive cycle. I have this: the on-going story of someone who flirted with dangerous behaviours and now has to rectify all wrongs. And at the very core of it, there’s just me. I’ve found happiness and also fear and vulnerability, the stuff that my disordered behaviours had been covering up. On most days I’m doing well, but some days are a struggle. I feel strong and healthy in general, but at the same time I know that I’m underweight relative to me and have to take responsibility for these aspects of my health that are under my power to change.

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One of my biggest fears in starting to blog were that I would present this perfect façade of my life while neglecting to acknowledge the less-pleasant bits. It’s the less-pleasant bits that have shaped me, that make me relatable and real.

My life is pretty darn wonderful. I have a lot to appreciate and to be thankful for. The fact of it is that sometimes life is also scary and overwhelming, or underwhelming and boring. Sometimes I’m on top of the world, and sometimes I’m overcome by insecurities. And sometimes I feel the need to share, to relate to, and to connect. All that’s okay,

Which is my promise here: to be real. This is my learning process – one of the only things I can guarantee is that I’ll stumble around and make mistakes and probably fall flat on my face once or twenty times. I can also guarantee random happy moments, because those are extremely frequent occurrences hereabouts.

I’ll definitely blog about food, because I love to cook and create quick and easy recipes that nourish the body and the soul, and also because the meal is one of those cultural things that bring us all together. I also want to blog about my quest to recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea, because I know that a lot of young women such as myself are in a similar situation and there’s strength in solidarity. I want to talk about culture and things like gender equality and concepts of health, because these things spark lively discussion.

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In short, I’m just going to blog about The Learning Process.