Guest Post, Paleo For Women: Can You Be Healthy and Overweight?

If you haven’t yet heard, Wednesdays are our Guest Blogger Series day! It’s a day where Stacy and I get a bit of a mid-week break while getting to share with you some of our favorite online bloggers.  And for their hard work, they get the benefit of your readership – we encourage you to please show all of them your support by visiting their blog and social media links at the end of this post!

This week’s guest is one of my favorite bloggers in paleo and a truly needed and unique voice. Stefani of Paleo for Women has a special talent in speaking directly to the emotional and health needs of women in a field that is completely dominated by alpha male voices. In a world where it’s seen as a legitimate attack to insult a woman for her appearance and the people expect the leading female lights of paleo to all look like Wonder Woman, it’s easy to be discouraged if your paleo road doesn’t produce those results.

Even more so, it’s not like Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson often talk about the female specific issues, nor are they truly able. However, even these luminaries have acknowledged the absolute value Stefani is adding to the paleo movement with her voice and knowledge. Today, we are absolutely honored to be hosting such a powerful and thought-provoking post and encourage you to read it entirely, then share with the people in your life that may need to hear it.

Stefani burst onto the scene relatively recently (if you didn’t hear about her intermittent fasting for women post you might want to check if you’re actually living under a rock and didn’t know it). We met her at AHS and she made a big splash in our lives almost immediately. Check out Stacy’s episode of Live, Love, Eat for a truly cathartic experience. That podcast was the beginning of an awakening for Stacy that has propelled her into healthy mental state. Since Stefani came into Stacy’s life, I’ve seen a big improvement in her confidence and happiness and for that, I own Stefani a lot. -Matt

The murky waters of weight status: can you be healthy and overweight?

In July 2012, I wrote a guest post at the Whole 9 blog titled: “How Perfect is the Perfect Body?” The answer, fairly definitively, was “that depends.”

This is because a stereotypically ideal body does not in fact indicate anything definitive about the individual’s health.  It is entirely possible to be a lithe,  shiny machine of a human being, but still have some sort of internal metabolic disaster.  It is also possible to be overweight and to have a healthy internal environment.

There are three primary phenomena that make this possible: first, many health markers other than weight status are crucial for lifelong health.  Secondly, the conditions for women are a bit complex:  having more fat can be healthier (within normal ranges), and fat loss can be less easy because of hormonal set-points.  And finally, a person’s health status can never be truly understood without the context of her history.

Other crucial markers of health

Fitness

Many studies show that fitness is a better indicator for health than both BMI and body fat percentage. This is true both within and across body fat ranges—indicating that someone who is overweight but athletic might be healthier than someone thin and not athletic.

This study shows that low fitness is one of the strongest predictors of mortality within all BMI categories. And this study shows that, relative to fitness level, both BMI and body fat percentage were not a predictor of mortality for men with diabetes at all.

Blood Markers

We often conflate the perfect body with perfect health, but that is a flawed concept.  The truth is that a fit body provides merely the assumption that an individual has good physical health.  What is her fasting insulin? His C-reactive protein? Her triglycerides?  These three markers are perhaps the most important indicators of health, with a wide variety of metabolic indicators, hormones, and micro-nutrient levels all playing important roles. These are the first things we should think of when we want to evaluate physical health—not appearance.

Body composition is not the only influence on blood markers. Crucial influences include nutritional status, gut health, personal history, eating patterns, fitness level, sun exposure, alcohol consumption, sleep status, and stress.

Stress

The final (and perhaps most important) influence on health is stress. Many studies show that stress, like fitness level, is more importantthan body fat percentage in promoting health and longevity. For example, some studies show that implementing Healthy At Every Size practices, which means ignoring weight regulation in favor of intuitive eating and living, significantly decreases mortality in overweight adults, and promotes better lab results, health behaviors, and self-esteem than weight loss treatment.

Stress up-regulates adrenal function—and chronically elevated cortisol levels cause a vast array of health problems, including reduced sleep quality, impaired immune function, infertility and hormone dysregulation, and a higher risk for metabolic derangement and virtually all diseases of civilization.

Finally, neuroticism, defined by emotional sensitivity and negative emotions which include low self-esteem, is one of the greatest health risks and predictors of mortality of all. When we look at centenarians time and time again we find that their shared characteristics are having simple, loving, gently-exercising, stress-free, or passionate, lives. We can argue back and forth all day long about whether high fat or high carbohydrate diets make for longer lives, and whether fat is uniquely protective for the elder (it is), but the one commonality among all long-lived souls is existential peace.

A woman’s body and fat: how development and puberty shape adult fertility and health

It’s fairly well-known that women require more body fat than men. “Female fat” appears primarily around the buttocks, hips, and thighs and is significantly associated with a woman’s well being.  Aside from protecting women against starvation more strongly than men, as well as assuring that a woman will have enough energy and nutrients to carry offspring, this fat is also largely responsible for partitioning DHA (the “good” omega 3) fat to a woman’s offspring. Children born of mothers with more of this DHA-heavy fat tend to be smarter than those without (PDF).

The most fertile woman is not the thinnest or the most buff woman. Instead, the most fertile woman is above 22 percent body fat. Many studies even argue that women between BMIs of 25-29—often considered by our culture as “overweight”—fare better in longevity and long term health (PDF) than lower weight women. Below the healthy range of > 20 percent body fat women often begin experiencing cravings, anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of libido, brittle hair and nails, hypothyrodism and infertility.

Yet what is less well known is the fact that a woman’s weight status in her early years in part shapes the range of body fatness at which she can be fertile in her later years. As a woman develops throughout childhood and puberty, her reproductive system (as well as her metabolic system) becomes accustomed to a certain level of body fat.  This system is primarily driven by the two hormones leptin and estrogen, which are secreted by fat cells.

Being “hooked on” these levels, if estrogen and leptin drop too low, a woman’s reproductive signalling can run off track.  This is true for women who become supremely thin, though it may also be the case for women who are overweight and then slim down.   I am not sure where the dividing lines are for women– nor could I ever be sure, seeing as they vary by each individual– but it remains a fact that some women become unbalanced when they lose whatever their pituitary gland considers to be too much weight.  Some women also find that weight loss becomes supremely difficult at a certain point, and losing more weight at that point would significantly sacrifice their psychological wellness with respect to food.

All women should of course strive for positive, normal-weight, self-loving and nourishing weight loss.  But they should not punish themselves in order to achieve this goal.  There may be a reason the body is not losing weight so quickly.  The female hormonal environment requires nourishment and safeguarding above all things.   And protecting that is what leads to the best health, fitness, and body weight for each woman.

Context is king

Each human being is constructed out of  two things: a genetic blueprint and environmental triggers. Unfortunately for us in today’s world, both of those factors can be easily and powerfully deranged.

The vast majority of children in America today are raised on processed, sugary, toxin-filled foods.  This puts these people at an immediate disadvantage.  No matter what sort of genes they are born with, the ways in which they treat themselves (and so often at no fault of their own) can permanently damage their health.

Consumption of trans fats, for example, has been linked to a long-term reduction in the ability to burn fat.

And seriously restricting calories has been shown to permanently increase the number of fat cells and the rate of fat storage in dieters.

Yikes.

Even worse, however, is the fact that consuming toxins does not only damage our personal metabolisms, but also the genetic blueprints that we hand down to our offspring.  For this reason, the genes with which people are being born today now pose even more difficult genetic obstacles than may have ever existed naturally.

We also don’t know much about the shape of these genetic changes or the impact our histories have on our current health.  Can we really become rail thin after having been obese?  Will this be optimally healthy for us?  Is this only achievable after having starved and restricted ourselves so harshly that our psychological health is in serious peril?

Do women have a harder time moving past hormonal set points than men?  And is that even necessary for optimal health?

The bottom line

None of us can be understood outside of our contexts.  What genes were we born with?  What were we fed when we were children?  How much did we weight when we started our periods?  Was there a lot of BPA in our diets?   How much metabolic damage has been done to us throughout our lives?

Meeting Stacy of this lovely blog has taught me much about the health and power of women and men who might still be considered overweight.  Stacy prioritizes putting good food in her body above all, and she has lost more than a hundred pounds naturally as her hormones re-aligned themselves and settled into a more optimal place.   She is healthy.  She is fertile.  And she is strong.  She’s an inspiration to all of us, to be proud and embodied within the contexts of our own stories.

This journey is about health, and about nourishment. When we’re doing absolutely everything we can to be nourishing, and we feel good, and we are relaxed, and have good blood markers for health, and we are not beating ourselves up for not living up to ideals and norms, then we are living exactly as we should be within the context of our own stories.  This is something that means we are living magnificently, and of which we should be fiercely proud.

Stefani Ruper is the author of the recently released PCOS Unlocked: The Manual, as well as the voice behind the Paleo for Women blog and  the Live. Love. Eat. podcast.  Through these endeavors, Stefani advocates holistic health and wellness.  This manifests in discussions of physiological health issues such as PCOS, fertility, and menopause on the blog, as well as discussions of psychological health issues such as body image, disordered eating, and self-love in as many places as possible.  Stefani holds degrees in biogeochemistry from Dartmouth College and in philosophy from Boston University.

If you are as moved as I am by this post, please use the share-a-holic buttons below to share it with those people in your life that need to hear, prioritizing health is what really matters. I’m honored to have inspired or taught Stefani anything on this topic, since it was she who gave that insight to me. – Stacy

About Stacy

Stacy Toth has written 370 post in this blog.

Stacy is the matriarch of the Paleo Parents family. After beginning a paleo diet and founding PaleoParents.com in 2010, she lost 135 pounds and found health and happiness for the whole family. The following three years have been a progressive journey with a mission to educate people about nourishing their bodies by eating real foods. Stacy can be found on all forms of social media as @PaleoParents as well as the top-rated The Paleo View Podcast and her two cookbooks, Eat Like a Dinosaur and Beyond Bacon.

  • Karen C.

    I would be interested in a followup post about to how best protect and nourish our daughters as they enter puberty, beyond the basics of primal/paleo diet, good sleep, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brooke.newsome.9 Brooke Newsome

    Wonderful post! Thank you Stephani, I love your work. I hope to purchase and read your PCOS book soon!

  • NJ Paleo

    This is a fascinating post. As women, we have so many different issues that men typically don’t have to deal with. Our society definitely idealizes the bodies we see in Hollywood, yet how many in real life look like that? And those Hollywood bodies — at what cost might they be achieved? Even in the paleo community, you see so many before and after photos where the women in the after photos are thin and ripped. Not all look like that, for sure, but enough do that many of us might be thinking, what am I doing wrong that I don’t look like that? Yet many of us are definitely healthy despite the fact that we don’t look like jacked fitness trainers. While as humans we have similarities, every body is different.
    Thank you so much for your post regarding these issues, and for reminding us that health is our primary goal.

  • Kate [Eat, Recycle, Repeat]

    I’m forever grateful to Stefani for teaching us that psychological health is just as important, if not more, as physical health.

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for reminding us how body fat is only a factor in health and that so many other, often conflicting things also come into play.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kniterdone Alexandra J Walters

    I lost 70 lbs on a Paleo diet and have kept it off for two years, but I never tell anyone because I don’t look like a Paleo person. I wear a size 14. I have extra skin around my arms and abdomen that isn’t going anywhere. I don’t feel like I fit in with the super lean and muscular women who openly blog about their diet and exercise. I feel like I would be a negative advertisement for what I feel is a very healthy lifestyle. Maybe I need to change that attitude. I’m certainly healthier than I was, but I still feel like a failure compared to the female Paleo bloggers out there.

  • Angela C.

    It’s refreshing to read something like this and to be reminded of the importance of nourishment and mental health in the whole “health discussion.” I know diet differs from individual to individual and unfortunately the medical system lags behind addressing each person’s specific needs.

  • Mrs. Storm

    I’m 5’8″ and 172 pounds, so I am technically overweight. But I exercise 4-5 days a week, get plenty of sleep, and thanks to my lacto-paleo diet have achieved great recent blood work- glucose of 72, LDL of 67, HDL of 86, and triglycerides of 55. My being “overweight” is nothing but a vanity issue at this point. It’s great to see a post reflecting on the fact that weight and health do not always go hand in hand.

  • giuliana

    gIs it possible to follow a vegan/vegetarian paleo eating plan? I’m one of those who is healthy but about 8kgs “overweight”. It’s embarrassing telling people I’m vegan especially since I don’t eat any processed foods.

    • Magda

      Check your beans/potato intake. Too much fruit, possibly? Paleo works if it’s only meat/fat and vegetables.

    • http://PaleoParents.com Stacy & Matt

      Hard for me to answer. You can eat a grain-free, legume-free diet and see good results from it from a gut health and weight loss perspective, but you’ll be losing a major source of protein that vegans use. You’ll also still be nutrient deficient from the lack of animal foods, particularly lacking in certain amino acids, B12, iron, and Omega 3 without good supplementation.
      Personally, I feel you will always be better off eating meat than not, but it certainly could be done with vigilance.