How to lose weight while eating normally: does intuitive eating work?

This website describes a way of eating normally that allows you to lose weight, without dieting and without exercising. The method is simple and it sticks. It leaves you with an unimaginable freedom: escape from the endless mood swings, anxiety and despair that often accompanies fluctuating weight, starvation diets, binge eating and junk food addiction.

The internet is filled with pleas for help. “How to lose weight in a week?” “How to lose weight fast and easy?” “How to lose weight quickly without exercise?” “How long do you starve yourself to lose 20 pounds?!!!”

These are the wrong questions. The right question is, “How to lose weight and keep it off?” “How do you lose weight once, and never do it again?

Note: Someone should never be vilified for their size. Hatred and condemnation solve nothing. If you are happy, healthy and fat – much love to you. If you are happy, healthy and thin – much love to you. Everyone is free to live the life they choose. Body size has no correlation with worth. If you have achieved health and happiness in your present form, nothing else matters. This article is not for you. Instead, this article is for those who are underweight or overweight, as the result of self-enforced eating regimes that have spiralled out of control. It is for those who are a normal weight, but whose inner lives drown in obsessive thoughts about food, body image and dieting. It is for those who believe that their fullness signals are broken and/or that they are trapped in an addiction and dieting cycling from which they cannot seem to break free.

Being overweight is not a crime. It doesn’t lower your value as a human being. Weight, however, can affect your health. It can affect your ability to do and/ or enjoy activities. It can affect your self-esteem. It can affect nearly all aspects of your life.” – Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits for Weight Loss (available from Amazon).

 

What does normal eating even mean?

In the developed world, more than half of the population are overweight or obese. A significant portion of the remainder struggle with body weight and eating issues of some kind. By ‘normal eating’, therefore, I do not mean average. Rather, I mean the way that you would eat, if you had no prior experience with dieting. The way that you would eat if you were fit and strong and absolutely happy with your body. The way that you would eat if you had only a rudimentary grasp of nutrition – the same level as a young child (that fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk, eggs etc help your body to grow; that carbohydrates give you energy; and that cakes, sweets, chocolate etc are manmade concoctions designed to accompany real food at parties and special occasions; not a staple diet, eaten by the plateful, on their own.

Normal eating means three balanced meals a day (not six miniature servings spread out in refrigerated Tupperware containers or long periods of intermittent fasting); with occasional snacks if necessary to stave off hunger – or more regularly for those who are younger and/or exercising extremely.

It means eating until full and satisfied; without the need to envision ‘fullness scales’, ‘hunger charts’ or chewing each mouthful in a slow, meditative trance; stopping at 80% full (whatever that is) and re-evaluating in 20 minutes. It means aiming for complete and utter satisfaction: a stomach that has no desire to eat more. It means relying on your body to gauge fullness signals well, without second-guessing or panicking about getting it ‘right’ down to the exact mouthful: knowing that if you eat too much at one meal, you will be less hungry at the next – and vice versa: that your body will sort it out.

It means eating food that you like, without restricting macronutrients or any dietary group, sub-group or ingredient (except in the case of diagnosed allergies, foods that you dislike, and, perhaps, trans fats, which appear to have no positive qualities). It means a mix of fat, carbohydrates and protein, with liberal quantities of micronutrients in their original form, ie. within food. This may (and often will) involve a combination of man-made foodstuffs (flour, sugar and white rice) with liberal quantities of high-nourishment food, such as full fat animal products, full fat dairy products, fruit, vegetables, fish, eggs etc. See more about how to begin eating normally.

Finally, and most importantly, it means knowing that the addictive aspect of meals and snacks is in the combination of great taste with low nutrition. Rather than a toxic element (as in the case of nicotine, alcohol and drugs) the danger is in the removal of nourishment combined with enhanced taste: a fake food counterpart. This results in a substance with no satiating qualities, delivering an extended duration of pleasure (because there is no cue to stop) with no reward. Read more about the mechanism of food addiction here.

The marvelous thing is that, unlike other addictive substances, where abstinence is the sensible policy: there is no addictive agent to abstain from within food. Every single ‘desired’ item – every ‘treat’ that you believe you adore – can continue to be eaten with nourishing food, because the raw materials of every ingredient in junk food item (with the exception of a few minor additives and caffeine) are chemically the same as those found in real food. It is food, just with the micronutrients removed. Add them back in.

Junk food addiction is most similar to the rapidly growing (but never talked about) addiction to online pornography (we don’t hear about this because it is such a new phenomenon and people are ashamed to talk about it, as they are with binge eating). It is easy to understand, however, that a porn addict is not expected to abstain from sex their entire life in order to recover; rather they must replace the fake 2D simulations with a real partner. Rather than abandoning sexual arousal in all forms, they must seek it with real people: live humans who offer the potential benefits of love, kindness, warmth, protection, resources and offspring. If you are trapped in a cycle of overeating, you don’t need to abandon delicious tasting food; instead, seek meals that are delicious AND nourishing. Add the benefits back in, so that the signal of pleasure signals something real.

Our tastes evolved to guide us to food that best supports our metabolic function with respect to characteristics like freshness, ripeness, digestibility, nutrient density and availability and absence of toxins. The problem with modern processed foods is not that they’re tasty but that they, through chemical tampering aimed very specifically at modifying taste and mouth-feel alone, create a disconnect between tastes and the various health-promoting characteristics historically associated with those tastes. Making people drawn to foods that provide the taste, but not the other nourishing qualities required to eventually satisfy the specific hunger for that taste, ergo why the very tasty whole foods ‘high everything diet’ can eliminate cravings whereas junk food overfeeding typically doesn’t.

Nothing I’ve personally experienced or seen suggests that a very bland diet makes it easier to maintain a low weight without starvation symptoms. Beginning dieters (at least the ones who seek help at fitness forums) are often the ones who take the bland diet approach to the worst extreme, since they usually know nothing about cooking, but still want to avoid junk food and are scared of fat and sugar, they end up with an incredibly dull diet of rice, chicken, egg whites, raw vegetables, curd cheese, sour-tasting bread and protein shakes. This group of dieters are also the ones most susceptible to starvation symptoms after having lost a few pounds, like intolerable hunger and fatigue, as well as rebound weight gain (ie. bulking) and commonly develop serious eating disorders.

In contrast, people who successfully lose weight long term while maintaining a relaxed relationship with food I find are consistently the ones who actually learn to cook and make food that is both nourishing AND tasty, as well as satisfying their taste for fat and sugar. – AaronF, commenting on 180degreehealth.

Does intuitive eating work? A review of mindful eating and weight loss

Almost all of those who have written books about ‘mindful’ or ‘intuitive eating’ make it clear that the emphasis is to normalise eating habits, while setting aside concerns about body weight. Intuitive eating weight loss success stories are not well publicised, because those who recover from eating disorders and yo-yo dieting know all too well the danger of placing an unnecessary focus upon weight. In almost all cases, it is a desire to be thinner that drives the first diet, which goes on to trigger a cycle of starvation, binge eating, junk food addiction and weight gain that can span decades – read more about this here: how to stop binge eating. Once you escape from this cycle, offering someone any advice that suggests that their current physical form is not acceptable becomes a form of ‘fat shaming’ and thus abhorrent; immoral. It is clear, also, that health is a separate issue from weight and that one does not necessarily predict the other; thus there can be benefits to focusing on Health at Any Size (as per the book by Linda Bacon, available from Amazon). Finally, there is a very real concern that temporary weight gain (as can be expected by those who are below or very close to their optimal weight) may lead participants to give up on an intuitive eating approach before it has had a chance to ‘work’. In other words, body image distortions and our fear of fatness are anticipated to interfere with the ability to eat normally and we are thus advised to forget about body weight for the time being. Unfortunately, this approach is problematic for many people, because this arouses our immediate suspicion that you cannot use intuitive eating as a weight loss program and that, to succeed, you must embrace the possibility that you will be fat for the rest of your life.

Here lies the problem: if you don’t believe that eating ordinary food, at ordinary meal times (as much as you want) will result in a normal, healthy weight, you will never truly test the theory…failure will become self-fulfilling. If you are overweight and believe that calorie restriction is necessary to lose weight, you will self-sabotage every attempt to eat intuitively. This is because, at some point in the future, you believe that you will be forced to restrict calories again. No matter how you frame it, this normal eating endeavour is therefore a cunningly framed period of relief, a time-out, before the serious self-imposed famine begins. This is even more true if you have dieted ‘successfully’ for long periods in the past; if self-sustained starvation is an entirely feasible future for you. In this case, it is not an unfounded fear that a diet is coming, but a near certainty. Each attempt to endure calorie restriction is harder to initiate and endure, of course, but, until you give up completely, that day is coming. It is therefore irrational NOT to overeat at every opportunity; you would be a fool not to.

To compound matters, each time you fail at ‘intuitive eating’, you strengthen your belief in dieting, while eroding your faith in your ability to eat normally. This reinforces the idea that the only way out is more starvation: that another famine is coming; reinforcing your desire to overeat in the present again.

Why does intuitive eating work for weight loss sometimes? How do some people manage to do it?

In the most publicised intuitive eating examples, people appear to go on free-for-all extended binges, grow tired of it and then return to a normal, nourishing food intake, with their weight following suit. Why can these people lose weight with intuitive eating but not others?

The difference, I suspect, is that some people embark upon an intuitive eating plan immediately following a period of extreme restriction. Believing that intuitive eating is the answer, they begin by consuming enormous quantities of junk food, for days on end, without any nourishing food at all; indulging to such an extent that the sensation of sickness and exhaustion that arises is so clearly connected to their junk food intake, and the shock of it breaks the false connection between junk food and pleasure in the brain.

Usually, however, an attempt to eat intuitively occurs more discreetly. If you are overweight already – to be seen guzzling down junk food publicly requires immense bravery. It also requires the willingness to gain weight in the short term – sometimes a dramatic amount. Thus, most who attempt to eat intuitively end up consuming a combination of normal, nourishing meals, with junk food snacks and binges eaten on top of this, often alone, in between meals or in the evenings. This means that the body continues to gain some level of nourishment (enough to avoid an immediate plunge into fatigue and sickness) and avoids noticing the sickness that 100% junk food consumption brings.

The normal eating described on this website does not involve binge eating junk food on its own as part of recovery. Rather, it involves stopping eating fake food meals and resuming three normal meals a day.

But even if you do this, how do you know that it will result in your returning to an optimal weight?

How to lose weight without dieting or restricting calories in some way

Talking about calories is not ideal (because hunger cues are a far superior method of gauging how much food to eat – and the only method that you should follow) but some form of calorie estimation is needed to explain the situation. The premise is this: your body wants you to be the optimal weight for its own survival, therefore (once nutrient needs are met and you have escaped from addiction) your appetite will drive you, via hunger and satiation cues, to eat the calories required to maintain this optimal weight.

The body wants to be healthy. There is a natural tendency to come back to that point of health. Health is the rule, rather than the exception. It’s innate. It’s something that you’re born with. It’s part of you. – Dr. Andrew Weil (author of a huge number of books on Amazon)

Let’s use this calorie calculator from Women’s Health and Fitness Magazine to estimate ‘maintenance’ calories used by a hypothetical woman who is 35 years old, 1.68cm (5 feet 6 inches) tall, with a ‘light’ activity level. (Maintenance calories are the number of calories that are estimated to be needed for someone to maintain a specific weight). Let’s look at how many calories it takes to maintain her bodyweight at two different points 100kg (220 lbs) and 65kg (143 lbs), the latter of which, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume is her optimal bodyweight – the point at which she naturally settles when consuming a normal, nourishing diet.

As the screenshots show, when the woman eats 2,468 calories daily she maintains her weight of 100kg (220 lbs). When she eats 1998 calories a day, she maintains 65kgs (143 lbs). Why the difference? Because fat people require more energy to move their bodies around. **Please note that this calorie calculator provides only an estimate (as all calorie calculators do). Many people need more calories than is shown here (especially younger and more active people).

How many calories to lose weight

Looking at these two rough estimations, we can see that the difference between the maintenance levels is 470 calories a day (2468 – 1998 = 470). This is close to the conventional [conservative] recommended daily reduction in calories for those on a diet (500 calories).

How to lose weight: how many calories

Let us now look now at the calories required for this woman to maintain 80kg (176 lbs). At this point, she must consume 2199 calories a day to maintain her weight. This is now 201 calories a day above her maintenance calories at her optimal weight (2199 – 1998 = 201). (Remember 1998 is the number of calories estimated to maintain her optimal weight as established above).

Let’s assume that this women started her weight loss journey at 100kgs, whereupon she began subtracting 470 calories from her existing diet. Now that she is 80kgs, she decides to continue subtracting 470 calories from her current maintenance level at 80kg. According to most diet experts, this is an entirely reasonable approach: most people recommend a reduction of 500-1000 calories a day. She errs on the side of caution, however, and continues as above, subtracting 470 calories. This gives her a daily intake of 1729 calories (2199 – 470 = 1729) – still more than many dieters consume while trying to lose weight, however, this is now lower than her maintenance calories at her ideal weight.

From the right-hand screenshot above, we can see that eating 1729 calories every day would eventually lead our hypothetical woman to weigh 45 kilograms (99 lbs) – a severely underweight result for a 5 foot 6 woman (a dangerously low BMI of 15). It is clear, therefore, why a calorie intake of 1729 rings alarm bells for this woman’s body. She may be consciously aware that the starvation attempt is short term, but the body does not.

What sort of alarm bells begin to ring? Well, to be precise, your body enters adaptive thermogenesis, a survival mechanism whereby you use less energy when food is sparse. In addition to increasing the hunger hormone, ghrelin, your body begins burning protein from your muscles, and uses your skin, organs, bones and connective tissues for fuel. In order to protect the most important parts of your body, all of the less important functions begin to decline. Symptoms that may be particularly noticeable after eating fewer calories than your body needs to survive, include: an inability to keep warm; hair loss (from the head); fine hair growth (on the arms / legs); eroding teeth (and bones – you just can’t see it); cracked skin; fatigue and insomnia; weak muscles; ceasing of menstruation in females (indicating the food supply is too poor to support the growth of a fetus); impaired cognitive function: irritability, impulsivity, apathy, depression and anxiety.

As an example, let’s look at the side effects experienced by men in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (a clinical study performed by the University of Minnesota in 1944/45) who lost weight over a period of 24 weeks, eating 1600 cals a day (a mild calorie restriction by modern diet standards). This experiment involved strong, healthy 22 – 33 year old men with no prior physical or mental health issues. These are some of the side effects they suffered:

  • Declining physical energy: a reduced basal metabolic rate, body temperature, respiration and heart rate
  • Preoccupation with food, including development of strange eating habits – coddling food / ritualised eating habits (despite the men having no prior dieting history or any desire to lose weight prior to the experiment), obsessively collecting recipes and studying cookbooks
  • Compromised mental faculties, including a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment
  • Sex drive vanished
  • Hysteria and anxiety about their health
  • Severe emotional distress and depression, including declining personal motivation and an increase in mood swings, irritability, apathy, indifference towards socialising, avoiding conversation with others and avoiding personal development (they reported that all other areas of life became unimportant – background noise). Men showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. One man even chopped three fingers off his own hand with an axe and was unable to say whether he did it on purpose or not! The study is reported to have driven the men to ‘the threshold of insanity’.
  • Note: In the recovery phase afterwards, the men often consumed up to 10,000 calories a day. Many ate ‘more or less continuously’ and were binge eating to the point of sickness up to eight months later. One man ate so much he had to have his stomach pumped.

For the woman above, therefore, eating 1729 calories a day signals a disaster. Although only a few hundred calories a day less than needed to maintain her optimal weight, this small deprivation accumulates fast; so fast that this is predicted to have her maintain a weight of 45 kilograms (99 lbs).

The calorie calculator used above may or may not be accurate, but the concept remains valid: any reduction in calories below the number required to maintain your optimal weight is an emergency of varying degrees. The only sensible way to lose weight, therefore, without signalling the arrival of disaster, is to eat the number of calories required to maintain your optimal weight – the amount of food that your body wants to eat. Of course, eating maintenance calories while overweight, is a reduction in calories from what you have been eating previously (otherwise, you would not have gained weight in the first place).

So, after this sinks in, we can see that yes, it is true that to maintain a lower weight, you must consume fewer calories overall, however, you do NOT (and should never) consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its optimal weight.

In most body-transformation programs, maintenance is an afterthought. In The Lean Muscle Diet, it’s the starting point. You begin at the end, with your final goal: maintaining a lean, athletic, muscular physique for life. You build your diet around your target body weight. That way, when you get there, you’re already eating the right foods, in the right amounts, to maintain that weight. – The Lean Muscle Diet by Lou Schuler and Alan Aragon (read on Amazon).

After having been sold the notion that 1200 calories a day is a possible target for women to aim for while losing weight (especially when, after starving for significant periods, you find yourself consuming hardly anything and still not losing weight, because your awesome clever body is trying so hard to save you) it can really be hard to fathom that your optimal calorie intake might be between 2,000 – 3,000 (or above) calories a day.

A beautiful series of photographs by Peter Menzel helps to reassure. He photographs a typical food intake for a large number of people from all around the world. These images are from his book What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets (available from Amazon). The two strong, beautiful women below consume well over 3000 calories a day.

3000 calories a day

The woman above is a farmer and mother of eight called Maria Emelinda Ayme Sichigalo, from Ecuador. She is 37 years old, 5 foot 3 and typically eats 3,800 calories a day. She weighs 54 kgs (119 lbs). The bottom image shows Robina Weiser-Linnartz, a baker from Germany. She typically eats 3,700 calories a day. She is 28 years old, 5 feet 6, and 65 kgs (144 lbs). Note that in both cases these women eat good quantities of nourishing foods, combined with what appears to be rice and bread.

So how do you know what your optimal calorie intake is, given that calorie calculations provide estimates for a general population only and energy needs vary from a day to day basis? More importantly, what evidence is there that your body will oblige by encouraging you to eat this amount of food? Is ‘optimal’ code for ‘slightly overweight’ in most cases (a terrifying notion for many dieters) given that the overweight range appears to be the most healthy population set in modern society?

These questions can be answered by examining the concept of a natural set point: an ideal body fat percentage that the human body seeks to maintain.

 

A natural body fat set point – does it exist? Why would our body WANT to lose weight?

There is often talk of humans having evolved a ‘thrifty gene’ – primed to gorge and accumulate fat in times of plenty. The idea is that we evolved to prepare for famine; binge eating whenever the opportunity arises; cursed by our genes to acquire enormous fat reserves if at all possible. Fat, of course, has many benefits. It provides an accessible store of energy, keeps us warm (thermal insulation) and cushions internal organs, protecting them from injury. But, is there such a thing as too much fat? Are there upper constraints?

Consider the following. Each of these concepts supports the notion that a body fat set point exists:

The ability to store, ration and barter food offers a HUGE evolutionary advantage. Evolution occurs far more quickly than we realise (read the 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending to get an idea of just how quickly – available on Amazon). In less than 2,000 years, for example, wolves have evolved into the huge number of dog species that exist today (yes, this evolution was directed by humans, but nonetheless, dramatic changes in temperament, behaviour and appearance are clearly possible in a short time frame). In the last 10,000 years humans too have evolved much more than we realise: we have adapted to climate (changing skin colours); become lactose tolerant in many parts of the world; and developed massive capacities for learning and language. In other words, we are NOT the same creatures who roamed the savannah; not even remotely. Humans who thrived in the last few thousand decades are not those who binge ate supplies before anyone else could get their hands on them. The survivors are those who were expert at storing, rationing and preserving food supplies to last through the winter; sharing feed with their relatives and co-operating in bartering with others. Assembling large food supplies meant goods to sell and the accumulation of wealth. Wealthy people have historically had the best access to mates, with fitter and more numerous offspring. As a random example, in The Long Winter (which I just happened to read to my children, available on Amazon), Laura Ingalls Wilder describes how those who survived the months of snow had stored up huge stockpiles of wheat and potatoes. Slaughtering of animals was delayed as long as possible, because killing a cow for immediate supply of meat meant there would be no calf and milk in spring. In other words, the survivors were not the gluttons who gorged down food the second it appeared: these people would have been shunned by the tribe, as they would have compromised the survival of all.

Studies indicate that animals fed low nourishment food gain weight; if returned to their normal diet they return to their original weight. Calorie intake rises when nutrient level is poor and reduces when high nourishment food is consumed.

The idea that body weight is regulated by a system with a set point is old and well-known. …[]… It was first proposed by Corbit and Stellar (1964), who found that rats fed ad libitum stabilized at a higher weight when given what the researchers considered more palatable food. Other studies had similar results (Keesey & Boyle, 1973; Peck, 1978). Sclafani and Springer (1976) found that rats regulated their weight at a higher level when they were allowed to eat supermarket foods (e.g., salami, cookies) in addition to lab chow. Supermarket food caused a 260% increase in weight gain.

Kennedy (1950) proposed that body fat is regulated by a system with a set point. When the caloric density of their food was cut in half, after a few days rats doubled the volume of food that they ate. Other labs found similar results. In spite of changes that had a big effect on eating behavior (e.g., meal size), rats kept their body weight nearly constant (Collier, Hirsch & Hamlin, 1972; Levitsky, 1974). After rats were food-deprived for a few weeks, they ate more than usual until their weight reached what it would have been without the deprivation (e.g., Mitchel & Keesey, 1977).

When body fat is below set point, research suggests that two changes take place. First, hunger increases. Humans report more hunger than usual (Keys et al., 1950); rats eat more often (Levitsky & Collier, 1968). Second, allesthesia decreases. Food stays pleasant longer. In humans, this is revealed by pleasantness ratings and meal length (Cabanac, Duclaux & Spector, 1971; Cabanac & Frankham, 2002); in rats, by meal length (Levitsky & Collier, 1968). – Seth Roberts (excerpts from What makes food fattening)

We get full. Duh. Unless we are addicted to junk food or literally starving, we don’t overeat at every opportunity. The hormone leptin varies with the amount of bodyweight; other hormones regulate hunger and satiation: these provide an obvious mechanism for communicating that a set point has been reached. Many dieters suspect that they have broken their internal satiation mechanism, or that they no longer have the capacity to respond to this. But if we forget this for a minute (I will address this in a subsequent article), and dwell on the fact that a full signal even exists at all, this suggests that there is such a thing as having eaten enough. If we are naturally primed for endless gorging, we would never have evolved a full sensation – we would eat and eat until bloated at every opportunity. This is not the case. You may have forgotten that this sensation exists in your body, because it may be so long since you regularly ate normal, nourishing meals (or it might be drowned out by loud junk food cravings) but it is an undisputed fact that the human body has a ‘full’ signal. Eating past this point is unpleasant (unless the food is low nourishment, of course, in which case there is never any signal that you have eaten what you need, because you have not). If you have ever fed a toddler, you know that this is true. When a toddler is full, he/she will push the food away, sometimes throwing the whole plateful to the floor. We evolved a full sensation, because once certain nutritional needs have been met, there are benefits to stopping. Although periods of famine may have been common, and although periods of feast may have been less so, they were still more common than you might think – notably during late summer and harvest season.

Imagine two men in a tribe. One lies by the fire gorging non-stop from the food pot. He is sleepy, full-bellied and slow, at risk of being attacked from behind. His body is cumbersome and a hindrance to running, leaping and fighting. His friend, on the other hand, prances around the camp attending to other important needs. He uses his spare food to barter with others for prize possessions. He flirts with the women. With all the extra time that is not spent eating, he conducts daring feats; acquires more food for winter; builds a stronger, warmer hut for his family; teaches his offspring how to hunt. He spends his time engaged in useful activities such as preparing skins for clothing and bones for adornment and weapons. Which man spawned the most surviving offspring???

In a natural setting, such as modern primitive tribes, humans have toned, athletic builds, even with an abundant food supply, such as is described in The Blue Zones Solution by Dan Buettner (available from Amazon). Also: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A Price (available from Amazon).

Many people in modern society maintain their bodyweight for years on end with no apparent effort – even while surrounded by junk foods. How on earth is this possible, given that a deviation of a few calories a day would result in significant gains or losses each year? It is possible, because our body is awesome at telling us how much to eat. Our body is an fine-tuned survival machine that desires homeostasis: a return to optimal settings (maintaining a steady temperature, heart rate, oxygen intake and an optimal intake of water, nutrients and calories). Those who are ‘naturally thin’ even in the modern environment, may have slight genetic variances that makes them less likely to never go on their first diet, thus never disrupting their faith in their ability to eat according to their own hunger cues. Children who eat to appetite, for example, and are fed normal nourishing food, are almost always lean, strong and happy – filled with energy.

Both overweight and underweight people have more difficulty conceiving and suffer a greater number of birth complications. Someone who is too thin cannot suckle another baby and support an additional life. Conversely, obese mothers take much longer, on average, to fall pregnant. Clearly our body recognises that there is something wrong in the food supply of both situations. There must be an optimal middle ground.

Most people find strong, toned bodies of the opposite sex more attractive. If being overweight signalled ‘access to an awesome food supply’ and was a behaviour that boosted survival chances, we would find this sexy. This is not the case. Despite magazines trying to convince us that scrawny women and extra-muscly men are our role models, and human rights advocates trying to encourage us to appreciate body weights of all sizes, our instincts remain unchanged. What men want and women want has not been distorted by the media (however, sadly, our perceptions about our own sex have been – this is because we never really know what the opposite sex wants: we rely on what others tell us).

The research clearly shows that whether or not people say they value physical attractiveness they still base their actions on it. Hell, even the people who truly believe that they don’t care about physical attractiveness still care about it just as much as everyone else when it comes down to who they actually date.

Hotness, at its roots, is health and virility displayed in a very obvious and nearly impossible to fake way. In fact, this is arguably why we even value physical attractiveness in the first place. Sexiness is conspicuous health.

Exercise and nutrition doesn’t just affect how strong, lean and toned we look. That’s the positive change we see on the outside, yes, but that’s just the very tip of the iceberg. Leading a healthy lifestyle and lookin’ like da bomb also affects our longevity, mood, willpower, energy levels and all of our organs – including our brains. This is why we all intuitively assume that the cover of the book gives us clues about what’s inside.

For example, regardless of your race, healthy people’s skin looks a little different. A higher intake of vitamins and minerals (good nutrition habits), higher levels of oxygenated blood (good exercise habits) and a healthy amount of melanin (exercise, nutrition and sunlight) will turn your skin redder and yellower, giving you a healthier “glow”. It will probably go a long way to clearing up acne and improving your complexion too, but even just that ever so slightly different colouring subconsciously looks really damn hot to others. – by Shane Duquette on Bony to Bombshell

The fact that study after study indicates that a similar body type is most attractive to most people, means that this is the optimal vehicle for the survival of human genes. After all, that is why you find such bodies desirable (your genes want you to procreate with them 🙂 ). This means that appearance is not just a trivial, surface-deep aesthetic, but an embodiment of everything successful about the human survival machine (yes, I have been reading The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins – available on Amazon). Clearly there are small variations upon this theme (you might prefer blue eyes) but the underlying model is the the same.

Note: if you fear that you are a genetic outlier, I will debate this conclusively in another article. For now, I can leave you with two things to ponder: the obesity epidemic has occurred in the last 40 years. It is impossible that the gene pool has changed so extensively in such a short time. Secondly, if identical twins are both fat, despite being separated at birth, it is plausible that these twins have other genetic traits besides the one you fear: for example, a ‘high achieving, perfectionist, follow-rules-closely’ trait (or some other awesome characteristic that has big pay-offs in normal circumstances, but backfires terribly when following flawed and dangerous advice like lose weight by eating less than you need to survive).

Please think about the factors listed above carefully. Hardly anyone talks about the fact that overeating (from a historical / evolutionary perspective) affects MUCH more than just body weight and health. Time spent on one activity is taken from another. It is completely unreasonable that we have evolved to spend as much time as possible eating.

So what weight should I be? What is my set point?

Ideal body weight

Image sourced from Built Lean

If we accept that humans have an optimal body fat set point, which may vary depending upon our sex (male / female), age, ethnicity, pregnancy / breastfeeding status, activity level etc, what is it? What weight do we end up if we abandon dieting and resume normal eating?

Firstly, it is important to note that the question does not concern weight per se, but bodyfat percentage. As evidenced in the photograph below, bodies of the same weight can appear vastly different, even when they are same height.

Women who weigh 70kgs

All of these women weigh 70kgs (154 lbs). Photograph by Nicole Partridge

Secondly, it is important to grasp – to really grasp – the fact that ultra-thin women and extremely muscled men are not the most desired by the opposite sex. You may find the image below reassuring. It is a Photoshop mashup of a fictional woman (the female form that women think is hottest on the left and what men desire on the right) and is a great reminder that strong, healthy body with a normal layer of body fat looks fantastic.

Most attractive body woman

These ‘ideal female bodies’ were created by Bluebella who polled men and women about their favourite body shapes

This notion is confirmed when looking at photographs of real people at various body fat percentages. While the sculpted bodies on the left are clearly the result of significant effort and dedication, which bodies are you most attracted to?

ideal body fat percentage

Image sourced from RE Fitness

Finally, it is worth really thinking about your ‘ideal bodyweight’ and evaluating whether it really is ideal (this is not to imply that you can consciously select your optimal weight…but knowing that the goal is more easily obtained than you imagined can be uplifting)! Most body weight charts were first devised by insurance companies (these claimed to present the ranges of body weights that had the lowest incidence of disease – if your weight was above these, you had to pay higher premiums – see a humorous summary of their unreliability by Dr Halls). An inaccurate bodyweight chart (such as those that flood the internet) can lead you to chase an unobtainable, scrawny weight your entire life – a goal that is far removed from what actually looks great on a real, living human body.

A website that is of enormous help in shattering false preconceptions is My Body Gallery. This is a place where people share photos of themselves at various bodyweights, entering information such as age and height. Photos are not airbrushed and professionally composed: they are ordinary and normal (uploaded by users) so you can get a clear sense of what people look like in the real world.

women weighing 68kgs

These women are all 5 foot 6 – my height – and 68kgs (150lbs). If you met these were women on the street, you would NEVER think they need to lose weight. Instead of gazing critically at various body parts, imagine that they just walked up to you. You would think that they were healthy, glowing, strong, beautiful women. Yet, this is over 10kgs higher than I had first thought I should aim for (the first weight loss chart I ever laid eyes on indicated that an optimal weight for my height was 56kgs (123 lbs)). When I think about my diets over the years, 68kgs (150lbs) was the weight below which weight loss became more and more difficult. (Another thing that My Body Gallery makes clear is that the difference between a HOT body and an ordinary body is how muscled / toned / strong the figure is – more on this later! For now, don’t worry about exercise: it is not necessary for weight loss).

The point I am trying to make, is that after years of examining isolated body parts at close range in the mirror (and then, perhaps avoiding the mirror entirely) you may benefit from stepping back and examining your physique as a whole – looking at photographs of yourself in the past at different weights and seeing the times in your life when you really looked great. When I did this, for example, I noticed that at my extreme leanest, I looked gaunt and sick. At a slightly heavier weight (not fat, just normal) I looked healthy and strong and happy.

Finally, look at the bodies of these elite athletes, photographed by Howard Schatz, with their body weights recorded below. (Before you write yourself off as not being comparable to these, bear in mind that, in the pursuit of weight loss, many people exercise to the same levels as extremes as athletes – they are just not coached as well, and starve themselves in the process!) These photos are a helpful reminder that peak condition does NOT mean waif-like: that normal levels of fatness on healthy strong bodies look amazing.

body types of different athletes

In case you are viewing this on mobile and/or cannot read the fine print, the weights of the athletes (from left to right) are as follows: TOP: 185lbs, 150lbs, 135lbs, 140lbs, 178lbs. BOTTOM: 152lbs, 244lbs, 161lbs, 282lbs, 140lbs, 135lbs.

Just as counting calories is not necessary, taking skinfold measurements or submerging yourself in a water tank is not needed to evaluate your precise quantity of fat. Our eyes do a far better job of accounting for all the variables than any formula could ever do.

So how lean will/should you be? What is this optimal weight that your body dreams of?

The more nourishing your diet is, the lower your weight will be (the closer you will get to your ideal body fat level). But if you emphasise nutrients at the expense of calories, the hunger wars begin and you will not win. Your diet can and should be nutrient dense, but it must also be calorie rich and you must eat until every calorie need is satisfied. That is, until completely full.

You must consume the raw materials needed to build and regenerate a great body, and the energy to move and dance and play. If you consume normal, nourishing meals, your body will signal fullness once you have eaten the right amount to maintain your ideal weight.

If you have been severely restricting immediately prior, and/or are underweight, you are likely to overshoot your previously optimal weight by a small margin in the short term (because you need to repair the damage that dieting caused), but you will return to your ideal weight far more quickly than those who binge exclusively on junk food in an impossible effort to satiate their hunger.

For those who are significantly overweight, there is also another interesting aspect, which I am wildly speculating may happen:

Spontaneous reduction in calories may be possible – a reduction in hunger

Let’s say that you are significantly overweight, as I was, and suddenly begin feeding your body normal, nourishing meals. Now let’s say that once you realise that you are free of all addictive cravings, you discover that you have normal ‘control’ again. That is, your desire to eat all kinds of junk food vanishes and you can make normal choices about what to eat. And let’s say you choose to eat large quantities of high nourishment food a lot of the time (but with no fear about ‘forbidden ingredients’) because nourishing food is nice and because, despite wanting a permanent solution, like everyone else, you want to lose weight as fast as naturally possible 🙂 . Within the first few months or so after resuming normal eating in this way, I found that (again, the reasons for this are pure speculation) my hunger levels dropped off intermittently, quite dramatically. Perhaps my body knew that I had large energy reserves plastered all over my body (which surely it would, due to leptin signalling, for example) and that after demonstrating that the food supply was very high quality and was not likely to disappear (ie I was suddenly fulfilling all nutrient and energy requirements regularly, day after day) that there was no need to demand as many calories. It seemed as though my appetite would dip quite low for a few days, and then rise up again (and of course, I would continue to eat as much as needed to feel completely full and satisfied, so my body NEVER had an occasion where it felt like the food supply had suddenly vanished). Each time, I would just feed myself as my appetite demanded and then it would drop off again. After a while, as my weight reduced, my hunger became more even and steady. This caused me to lose significantly more weight in the first three months than I *should* have based on estimations of calorie maintenance levels, as conducted at the start of this article. Over 20 kgs (44 lbs), to be precise. I can only hypothesise that my body really felt like the enormous weight gain was so detrimental, that once I started feeding my body well, with regularity – and high nourishment – it dialed back hunger intermittently to get rid of it. But even if it happens slowly (which it did for me as I levelled out towards my optimal weight in the end) to lose weight naturally, WITHOUT DIFFICULTY, WITHOUT ANY RESTRICTION, HUNGER OR STARVATION IS. JUST. F*CKING. AMAZING! God, I don’t know how to convey the joy that this brings.

[This is draft one. To be updated / expanded as soon as I have the chance]!