Body Image and Food Stress: This Dietitian Explains How to Cultivate Body Confidence

Monica Salafia
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As a Registered Dietitian with a private practice in Denver, Colorado, I work with women on their body image, confidence and food stress.

I have two goals in mind for every woman to achieve: one, have the highest body confidence possible, and two, do this while maintaining the lowest food stress possible.

That balance is hard to strike, which is why basic knowledge on nutrition and exercise physiology can help you set realistic goals. Read on to learn what you need to know to cultivate a healthy body image and relationship with food.
 
 

3 Steps to Cultivate a Healthy Body Image:

Once we have an overview of how our bodies work, you’ll discover four ways to reduce food stress to help keep you on track.
 

Step 1: Define What a Healthy Body Image Means to You

Begin by goal-setting and asking yourself what a healthy body image means to you? More often than not women describe two things: a feeling of empowerment in their bodies and seeing more physical changes.

This doesn’t mean we don’t love our bodies how they are, it just means we feel more confident when our bodies are reflective of their activity levels.

Having more muscle equates to strength, having less body fat means being able to see those muscles. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to love the way we look and making positive lifestyle changes to do so.
 

Step 2: Define What Causes Your Food Stress

Next, we define the causes behind our food stress by identifying exactly what we’ve eaten in the past that has caused the most stress. Diets create the biggest amount of food stress and chances are, most go on them with intentions of improving body confidence.
 

Food stress means identifying exactly what we’ve eaten in the past that has caused the most stress.

 
This is why we must prioritize nutrition strategies that give the least amount of anxiety around what, when, and how much to eat, as possible. It includes removing good-food-bad-food labeling and constantly reminding ourselves that food nourishes our bodies.
 

Step 3: Nutrition and Exercise Physiology

Nutrition is studying how nutrients in foods we eat are metabolized and used as fuel, while exercise physiology is the study of the body’s responses to physical activity.
 

 
 
These responses include changes in our metabolisms and in the physiology of different areas of the body like your heart, lungs, and muscles, and cell structural changes.
 
When we exercise, our body burns a fuel mix of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Depending on the intensity of the workout and cardiovascular fitness, a person might burn more fat, carbohydrates, or protein.

An easy way to think of it is this: a marathon runner excels at burning fat for fuels because fat takes a slower time to burn but lasts for a longer amount of time. A weightlifter uses more glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates) for fuel because it burns quickly but doesn’t last very long – just long enough for a heavy set of lifts.

This is why weight loss tips must include both nutrition and fitness guidance. The macronutrients that we eat – fats, carbohydrates and proteins, are exactly what our body will metabolize as fuel.
 

The reality is, most women over-train, under-fuel and never burn stored body fat..

 
However, not everyone will burn fat at the same exercise intensity. Someone training in their fat-burning zone will become better at using that fuel for energy. Someone training in the carbohydrate-burning zone will be better at using that fuel for energy.

Without knowing what exercise intensity burns what fuels, women become frustrated because they’re putting in a lot of effort into achieving body confidence yet not seeing the results they want.

Then the typical next step is to radically change their diets, but that creates high food stress. The reality is, most women over-train, under-fuel and never burn stored body fat.
 
 

4 Ways to Reduce Food Stress:

Now that we’ve covered how to create a healthy body image, we are ready to uncover the four key ways to reduce food stress. Combined, you can cultivate a positive body image and a healthy relationship to food.
 

1. Get Your Unique Metabolism Tested

Every individual has a unique training zone at which they burn a certain fuel source which is why those struggling with food stress should consider metabolism testing.

Find the closest testing site near you, where a trained physiologist can help you target what’s known as your prime heart rate zone, which simply increases oxygen intake for optimal fat-burning performance.
 

2. Do Your Low-Intensity Cardio

When we workout in our “prime” we’re able to burn the most amount of stored energy aka body fat for fuel. Therefore, steady-state cardio should be in your program if burning body fat is your goal.
 

While High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has many benefits, over-doing HIIT stalls body fat loss.

 

It is when we go above that prime heart rate zone, which happens when we do too much high-intensity interval training HIIT, that we stop burning fat and burn carbohydrates – known as glycogen in the body – for fuel.

Going past that zone means we are burning protein for fuel.

Now you’re wondering: Should You Try High Intensity Interval Training?

Not only can this lead to muscle loss, but studies show that overtraining can also weaken our immune system and increase our risk for injury.
 

3. Don’t Skip the HIIT, Just Don’t Do it Every Workout

While High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has many benefits, over-doing HIIT stalls body fat loss.

This is because the muscles aren’t getting enough “practice” at burning fat for fuel. High-Intensity Interval Training workouts will bring the body up to the carbohydrate aka glycogen-burning zone.
 

 
This anaerobic zone is where muscle is built. To build lean body mass, include heavy weight lifting in your weekly workout routine, but don’t make every workout a HIIT workout thinking it will burn a lot of stored body fat.
 

4. Match Your Macros to Your Workouts

Nutritionally speaking, you should eat more foods that are higher in fats and proteins on their “prime cardio” days and on their weight training days, eat more carbohydrates. This is broadly referred to as “nutrient timing.”

This is a more advanced nutrient manipulation technique. Since weight lifting burns up a lot of muscle glycogen, replenishing those stores with about 8-12 grams of carbohydrates/kg a day will prepare the body for the next weight lifting session.

However, there are drawbacks to being fixated on the number of grams of macronutrients each day, so it’s best to start with basic nutrition behaviors like meal planning, food shopping, meal prepping, mindful eating and working on creating a positive body image before making any physical changes.
 
 

Jumpstart a Positive Body Image by Going 100 Percent In

The fact that we each have unique nutrition, physiology, and lifestyle demands is why I disagree with the “80% nutrition / 20% fitness” principle. So – why not go 100% all in?!

All this really means is striving to nourish your body with a diet that meets as close to 100% of its micro- and macronutrient needs. Focus on completing 100% of your workouts – both prime cardio and weight lifting.

You cannot out-exercise a bad diet and you also can’t under-eat to make up for not working out if body composition changes are your goal.

By focusing on maximizing your nutrient intake with whole foods and working out smarter – not harder – more women are able to create the body image and body confidence they desire with low food stress.

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Monica Salafia

Monica is a Registered Dietitian passionate about helping people reach their full nutrition, fitness, and wellness potential. Find her working at a coffee shop reading the latest nutrition research, weightlifting in the gym, or hiking in the Rockies.

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