The fitness industry is full of extremes. It feels like every few years the pendulum swings from one end of the spectrum on an issue to something on the opposite end.
In general, I blame the nature of marketing and social media — the more provocative, sensational, and contrary to common belief the statement is, the more views it gets and the more likely it is to go viral.
And yet, the less likely it is to actually be helpful.
Look, I get why polarizing viewpoints feel good — when you feel like you’ve tried things to lose fat and feel like none of them have worked for you, it’s comforting to hear someone say that the studies are all wrong and what you’ve been told all along is bullshit. It feels good to have something else to blame.
But it’s not helping. In fact, it’s made it all so much more confusing.
The biggest place where I see the proverbial pendulum swinging wildly lately is whether pursuing fat loss and tracking your food intake is healthy.
Not long ago, fat loss was always talked about as being a good, healthy, and very noble thing to do. I grew up in the 80s and 90s so I had a front row seat to the thighmaster/step aerobics/low-fat craze/invention of diet soda era of human history. So “dieting + weight loss as an always-worthwhile life-long pursuit” is one end of the spectrum.
In more recent days, the narrative has shifted to “pursuing fat loss is unhealthy and tracking your food leads to disordered behaviors”. And honestly, I get that sentiment because it’s been my experience and the experience of many women that I’ve worked with because, well, quite frankly, we grew up in the era of human history I talked about above — where body dissatisfaction is normal and perpetually “being on a diet to lose a few pounds” was expected of us all.
Now it seems that we live in world divided — one camp still overtly fat-shaming people while screaming “fat loss by any means necessary” and one camp telling people in no uncertain terms that tracking what you eat and wanting to lose body fat or change your body in some way to conform with society’s standards of beauty is unhealthy and a sign that you lack self-love and self-acceptance.
Which begs the question — who’s right?
As with so many things in life, there’s a lot of nuance and gray area here. And since I’m not qualified to speak about the experiences of others, I thought I’d start by sharing my own experience as an almost-43-year-old perimenopausal woman.
How Losing Fat and Tracking Macros Became Obsessive and Unhealthy for Me
I started tracking macros and actively pursuing fat loss back in early 2018. It was very successful — not only did I lose a lot of body fat, but I also gained a ton of muscle and I looked shredded. And that success with altering my diet to manipulate the look of my body, became an obsession with gaining even more muscle and getting even leaner.
By April 2019, my body fat percentage was 16%. For reference, a healthy body fat percentage for women is between 25-31% with women who are physically fit and have a higher muscle mass typically between 21-24%. I was well below both of these ranges which actually meant I was in the “too little body fat” category, which is a very unhealthy place to be — especially as a woman since our bodies require more body fat to function optimally.
And it was at that time that I started to feel the effects of how unhealthy it was for me to be there at 16% body fat.
IBetween April 2019 and June 2021, I experienced several unexplained stress fractures, a boat load of anxiety, increased perception of stress, a resurgence of depression symptoms, a higher-than-normal resting heart rate, and stalled performance. Ultimately, I found out that what I was dealing with was Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (or RED-S for short) which stemmed from Low Energy Availability (LEA) thanks in large part to me not eating enough to sustain the amount of physical training I was doing for fear of gaining body fat. You can read more about that here.
Upon learning this, I stopped tracking my food on June 30, 2021. I knew I needed to heal my relationship with food and my body and it didn’t feel possible at the time to do that while tracking my intake. I also knew that my body needed a break from pursuing and maintaining my leanness.
So, between July 2021 and January 2023, I didn’t track anything and I didn’t weigh myself. I didn’t even let my doctors weigh me. At the time, I was better off not knowing what I was eating and how much I weighed, so I could just let my body heal.
During this time, I ate what I felt like whenever I felt like it to allow my body to recalibrate. I stopped micro-managing my body and allowed it to change in whatever way it needed to to support me. And I did one of the hardest things for a woman to do — I allowed myself to buy clothes a full size or two bigger instead of hoping and praying to “get back in to” things that once fit me. I also worked with a mental health professional, got medication to manage my depression and anxiety, cut back my workout intensity, focused on stress-management, and in doing so I healed my body and my mind.
How Losing Fat and Tracking Macros Became Healthy for Me
When I finally decided it was time to step on the scale again in January 2023, I was fully prepared to see that I’d gained 15lbs (or more). I was two clothes sizes bigger and it was plain to see that my body was carrying a lot more fat.
But I actually weighed exactly the same as I did back in June 2021 when I stopped tracking my food. I hadn’t actually gained any weight, which you might think would have made me happy, but it actually made me sad — here’s why…
My body composition had changed dramatically. The only way I could have packed on this much body fat AND not gained weight is that I lost muscle mass — as an aging female, this is something I definitely didn’t want. And I can honestly say that at that point it wasn’t a value or aesthetics issue — I had done the inner work to make peace with that. No, it was bigger than that for me this time. I saw the trajectory of the path I was on and knew it wouldn’t get better as my estrogen levels naturally started to decline through perimenopause unless I did something to change it.
During those 18 months of not tracking food or weighing myself, I wasn’t aware of exactly what I was eating, but I 100% wasn’t getting enough protein, fiber, or micronutrients. I fell into convenience-eating habits — more easy-to-grab-and-go carbs and fat. This lack of awareness around the composition of what I was eating during that time resulted in a few not-so-great things:
- My bloodwork results were moving in a negative direction — I was suddenly low in ferritin and high in bad cholesterol.
- I was losing hard-earned muscle from not eating enough protein and not strength training often enough.
- My energy levels were lower and wildly unpredictable, so I moved less.
- My metabolism was slowing down.
All the things I often see in a lot of the women that come to me for coaching.
Because, it’s as the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets managed.” (Also, that’s not just a saying, it’s heavily supported by scientific research as well). When I stopped measuring and tracking what I ate, I stopped managing what I ate and I was falling into the same traps I saw so many other middle-aged women falling into and they were beginning to take their toll on me.
Lucky me, this is my wheelhouse, so I knew this was changeable. So I decided it was time to buckle down — I hired a nutrition coach (shout out to Amanda May at Black Iron Nutrition) to help me get back to tracking consistently but this time WITHOUT all the perfectionist mental drama and all-or-nothing stuff threatening to drive me off a cliff. Together, we focused on getting me to eat a more balanced macronutrient profile, with more protein, fiber, and micronutrients, as well as adding more strength training back into my life.
Over the next 12 weeks, we focused on intentional but sustainable fat loss all while regaining my strength and improving my daily nutrition, hydration, and stress management habits. Then, MOST IMPORTANTLY, we reversed me out of fat loss and bumped my calories up into performance-boosting ranges. This means that I’m no longer eating in a calorie deficit or trying to lose body fat.
I am still tracking my intake currently as a means of ensuring that I’m fueling my body well (I tend to undereat when training and stressed) and in a far more balanced way for the way I train and live my life. And muscle mass is such a critical component of healthy aging, so now I’m back to eating enough protein and strength training enough to regain and maintain my muscle. Now, my focus is on eating to support my training and recovery while maintaining my body composition. The data I track now is educational, not used as a restriction tactic, and helps me make better fueling decisions.
Let me be very clear, when I stopped tracking to deal with my mental health and my RED-S symptoms back in 2021, it was absolutely the right decision for me at the time. No regrets.
But I’m not there anymore.
Currently, tracking macros and maintaining my current body fat percentage is the right decision for where I am now. And because I did the mindset work, the therapy, and tended to my body image in the meantime, I was able to approach it from a much healthier place this time around. And I have a wonderful coach who will remind me to “eat the damn cheesecake!” (love you, Amanda) and will call me out if I start going off the deep end again.
Now, it feels healthy and self-loving — not self-controlling — to be paying close attention to how I fuel my body every day and how those fueling habits support the life I want to live.
Does Accepting Your Body Mean You Can Never Change It?
Over the years, I’ve come to learn that my relationship with my body is very similar to my relationship with my husband, my dog, my mom, my sisters, and everyone else I love and care about deeply. Loving them and caring about them doesn’t mean I have to stop hoping they will change, grow, and evolve in exciting ways.
Loving my body doesn’t mean I can’t pursue changing it or improving it in some way.
Because the reality is, just like the people we love in our lives, our bodies are constantly changing. They are never NOT changing.
Why can’t we guide them toward changes that we believe are positive?
Why can’t we want something different for our bodies and ourselves AND still love and accept them at the same time?
I see great parents all around me raising their children with love and care, while hoping their children will change and make better choices, but loving them wholly anyway. Why can’t we do this for our own bodies?
Body acceptance, to me, isn’t about choosing never to pursue change. It’s about believing that even if my body doesn’t change, I can still be happy and feel valuable.
Is it Okay To Care How You Look?
In a perfect world, we would be judged on our inner character, not our outer looks. But the reality is that the world does judge us based on how we look outside.
And we, as a species, are biologically programmed to care what our fellow humans think of us. To tell people that they should evolve past caring about how others see them is basically asking them to stop being human.
Additionally, telling someone that they shouldn’t care about whether others think they are fat grossly underestimates the challenges that people in bigger bodies face every single day from all angles — the clothing industry, the fitness industry, the medical profession, the trolls in the comments on social media, etc. Asking these folks to be mentally tough and “know their value” enough to outweigh the perpetual onslaught of negative messaging they face every single day is silly, out of touch, and massively privileged.
But even when you are able to achieve the monumental task of uncoupling your self-worth from how others see you, it doesn’t mean you can shut down wanting to change. Nor should you. Your ability to change and grow is one of the greatest gifts of being human — your potential gives your life purpose and meaning.
In all areas of self-help, they teach us to change for ourselves, because it’s what we want for ourselves at the core of our being. So, what if you really want to lose body fat? What if you want the clothes you spent a fortune on to fit you again instead of buying a whole new wardrobe? What if the bouncing and rubbing of flesh during physical activity has become uncomfortable? What if you want to look on the outside as fit as you feel on the inside? What if you want to be taken more seriously in your profession and know that being very overweight and living an unhealthy lifestyle is holding you back?
Should you feel bad about wanting these things for yourself to improve your quality of life?
I say, who am I to judge? I mean, I’ve got my hands full making decisions for myself so why would I be the right person to choose what other people do.
There are very real physical and mental health benefits to maintaining healthy body fat levels. (Note: I’m not talking about having some pinchable body fat on your belly, some “love handle” action, or other “jiggly” parts. There is a big difference between people who are of normal bodyweight obsessively and compulsively trying to burn and eradicate any amount of body fat from their frames by any means necessary, fueled by internalized fat phobia and self-loathing, and being someone who has more body fat than is considered healthy trying to lose some of that body fat in order to get healthier. Human bodies aren’t actually designed to be super lean and often function better with some visible body fat.)
And fat loss can also be a powerful and tangible target to aim at when trying to live a healthier lifestyle, because (contrary to what you see from fitfluencers on social media) not everyone LOVES to eat broccoli and exercise. Most people have a full-time job (not in health + fitness) and families, and tons of conflicting priorities to juggle. With all we have on our plates, it’s hard to do things that are difficult and time-consuming without a big important purpose behind it. And honestly, not wanting to feel awful at some point way off in the future isn’t always a compelling enough reason RIGHT HERE AND NOW to make healthy choices when there are fires everywhere that need your attention.
From my perspective as a coach, I feel it’s my job to educate people with solid information that’s supported by evidence so they can make autonomous, informed decisions. In my role, I also ask a lot of questions to get my clients to reflect on why they feel they need to change their bodies. I help them work on their mindset around fat loss and self-monitoring when they decide to go those routes and I encourage a lot of self-reflection along the way. But it’s not my place to judge others or their choices. I cannot give anyone the answer for them, but I can guide them toward finding it for themselves.
So, circling back to the original question posed in the title of this post … is it unhealthy to pursue fat loss and track what you eat?
It depends. But in my experience, it often comes down to WHY you’re doing it and HOW you go about it.
Contrary to what you might hear from opponents of the practice on social media, the general consensus in the scientific studies on tracking food intake as well as other forms of self-monitoring is that it is not inherently problematic. Actually, the research continues to show time and time again that those who use these self-monitoring techniques are far more successful at improving their body composition and maintaining healthy eating habits in the long term.
But … and this is a capital BUT … those findings don’t negate or invalidate the experience of people (like myself) who may find the practice of tracking food and trying to lose body fat to be miserable, borderline obsessive, and otherwise bad for their physical and mental health.
Like many things in life, it’s not the tool that’s unhealthy, it’s how and why you use it. Think of it this way: you can use a hammer to build a house or you can use it to tear it down.
When it comes to tracking your food intake and trying t lose body fat, how and why are you wielding the hammer?
For example, if you want to reign in your spending to save to buy a new house, you have to first become aware of what you’re spending, then create a budget, then follow the budget. Tracking and controlling what you spend isn’t inherently bad, but you could absolutely become obsessive about it and turn it into a self-punitive process. Same with tracking and regulating your food intake.
I absolutely believe that there is a way to track your food, pursue fat loss and other aesthetic goals that is healthy and constructive. And there is also a way to do it that is unhealthy and destructive. I have personally done both and I’ve coached many others on both sides of the spectrum.
The healthy way is rooted in self-respect and comes from a deep internal desire to improve your quality of life where you use the data captured to create more awareness of how and what you’re eating, take more responsibility for your own behaviors, and make more informed decisions.
The unhealthy way is rooted in cruelty and punishment and comes from a place of being compelled to “fix” yourself where you use the data to create disordered eating habits, become overly obsessed with and fixated on calories, and suck the joy out of eating and living.
Personally, it took me years of deep, uncomfortable inner work on my mindset and beliefs as well as mental health support to move from the unhealthy application to the healthy application. But it was absolutely worth it because the mindset that drove me to make fat loss and self-monitoring so destructive was problematic in many other parts of my life. So when I stopped tracking food and pursuing fat loss, my mindset stuff just popped up in other places. Same theme, different plot.
But the bottom line here is that there is no one approach that will work for everyone for a number of very complex reasons. I highly recommend working with a nutrition specialist who is compassionate to both sides of this argument and doesn’t fall firmly on one side or the other. Because this isn’t a black-and-white issue and you need someone supporting you who knows the signs to look for and can help you navigate the gray area. And obviously, if you suspect that your eating habits are disordered or are interfering with your ability to live your life well, I lovingly encourage you to seek help from a medical professional who specializes in treating disordered eating.
And if your curious about how to go about losing fat in an intentional way without losing your mind, check out this webinar and workbook I created.
I’d love to hear from you — What has your experience been with tracking and fat loss? Have you seen both sides like me?