Good morning, friends! 🙂

I hope your morning is going well so far! It was super rainy and gross here yesterday, but according to the Weather Network we’re in for 19C and sunshine today. Let’s hope they’re right! Today also marks my 1 year anniversary since I started my full time job, and I can’t believe how fast the time has flown!

Last week I received a few questions from Courtney, one of my fantastic readers, and after writing a solid 3 or 4 paragraphs in the comment section as my response, I decided to scrap that plan and answer in the form of a full post. Her question is below:

Hi Angela,

I’ve actually been reading your blog on and off for roughly a year. I’ve read many blogs and still am so confused on getting healthy. I don’t really care what I weigh as long as I feel healthy and am a smaller size. So here’s my question. Should I focus on low calorie/high cardio for fat loss or mix it up with strength training? Or, because I’m strength training should I eat more food so I don’t kill my metabolism? There is so much information out there that contradicts itself. I’m so confused!

Before I begin to answer, I should mention…

I am not a certified registered dietitian or registered holistic nutritionist, and all of the information found in this post and on this blog is based on my personal experience. I highly recommend consulting with your doctor to find the fitness and nutrition plan that works best for you.

I could talk forever about health and fitness, but I’m going to try my hardest not to write you an enormous essay today. There are several topics of discussion in Courtney’s comment, but I’m going to try to cut straight to her questions. She says she’s happy as long as she “feels healthy” and “is a smaller size”. Clearly, these can be two very different things because being a smaller size certainly doesn’t mean you’re healthy! For now, let’s just assume that a “smaller size” means that you’re not overweight, and that you’re within the healthy weight range for your height and body type. (If you’re not sure what this is, you can get a rough estimate using a Body Mass Index calculator.) I was once 70lbs heavier than I am now, and I’m a believer that if you feel your best, there’s a good chance your body is at its best size.

Now for the next part of the question: Should I focus on low calorie/high cardio for fat loss or mix it up with strength training? 

It all depends on what your goals are. Do you want to build a lot of muscle? Do you want to burn fat? Do you have weight to lose that is preventing your gorgeous hard-earned muscle from being revealed for all to see? I’d be willing to bet that you’d lose weight with a high cardio/low calorie combo, but it wouldn’t be without its drawbacks. First of all, eating too few calories isn’t good for your metabolism in the long term (a slow-mo metabolism is not what we want!), nor is it good for mental state. Have you ever worked on something for so long (a project, a workout, etc) and so hard that you begin to lose your concentration? Eating too few calories can have the same effect, and when I was on my journey to lose 70lbs of what was once me, I never dipped below the 1200 mark. Yes, I counted calories, and it worked, but I caution against it because it can get obsessive if you’re not careful. That’s an entire post in itself, so I won’t get into it today.

A little more on the high cardio/low calorie combo: Although my calorie intake never dipped below the recommended minimum each day, my energy expenditure certainly exceeded the amount I was taking in. When the majority of my weight had been lost, I started to get more competitive with my running and the intensity of my training increased. Because I wasn’t very wise at the time, I didn’t think to eat more than normal because I wasn’t feeling that much more hungry. As a result, my weight dropped. My body fat percentage was already pretty low, and since there was no “gas left in the tank”, I lost muscle. Not good either!

So how do you balance energy in and out? Three methods come to mind:

  1. Listen to your body. Really listen. Are you hungry? Eat. Are you full? Stop. When you work out, do you feel strong or weak? If you’re weaker than usual, it could be a sign that you need to eat more to prepare for your workouts, or in the key 30 minute window post-workout when your muscles need energy to recover most.
  2. Try on your clothes. How do they fit? If they’re too tight, maybe your intake is a little bigger than your expenditure. Are they falling off? Chances are you’re not eating as much as is necessary to maintain your body weight.
  3. Do the math. I’m not saying you should count every calorie that passes your lips and track every calorie you burn, but it’s really easy to estimate. If you assume that an average meal (and I mean one that’s fairly balanced, not a fast-food meal) served in the proper portions ranks somewhere between 350-500 calories, and snacks fall somewhere between 100-200 calories, you can roughly track your daily consumption. Then, get a estimate of your daily expenditure using a calculator like this one. Factor in your physical activity each day, and compare energy in and energy out.

In regards to the cardio/strength training split, both offer different health benefits in the short and long term so I think the better approach is to do some of each. Like I said, I lost a lot of lean muscle mass when I was training hard, which was difficult to gain back – especially as a female. What I didn’t realize at the time was that spending a little more time with the weights and less pounding the pavement would actually strengthen the important muscles needed for running (major muscle groups as well as smaller stabilizers), helping me to run stronger and prevent injuries.

And now, the last part: Because I’m strength training should I eat more food so I don’t kill my metabolism?

Like I mentioned above, not eating enough calories will put your metabolism into slow motion in the long run, so it’s important to ensure you eat enough to match your expenditure needs. Pound for pound, muscle requires more calories to sustain itself than fat, so obviously, someone who weighs 130lbs and has a higher percentage of lean body mass will burn more calories at rest than someone with a lower percentage. Speaking from my own experience, I generally eat more food (by upping protein intake) when I’m trying to gain muscle mass to ensure my body is getting the energy it needs.

Proteins are the building blocks of muscle, hence the reason you might see bodybuilders (and guys that just think they’re bodybuilders) in the gym chugging big shaker cups of their powdered potions. I’m not saying that you need to do this to keep your metabolism revved up, but it’s important to pay attention to nutrition in order to make sure you’re fueling yourself in a way that promotes building muscle if that’s your goal.

So, having said all of that, how do you “get healthy”?

Well, if I had that answer, there’d be no need for the multi-billion dollar fitness and self-help book industries! Instead, here’s a very quick summary of how I got healthier than where I was 70lbs ago:

  • Eat your fruits and veggies! I eat more fruits and vegetables than anyone I know, and my roommates and family will attest to this! When I was losing weight, I didn’t restrict produce at all – no calorie counting or anything  – I ate as much as my heart desired. This was a fairly expensive approach, but thankfully my parents were very supportive of my efforts! 🙂 In addition to being delicious, fresh produce is generally low in calories, full of vitamins and minerals, and it makes me feel awesome. Throughout my weight loss process and up until this day, I can honestly say that I never let myself starve. I used to eat a lot of crap. Now, I just eat a lot (and seriously, I mean a lot) of really nutritious food.
  • Avoid processed, refined, and unnatural foods. I’ve talked a bit before about how I don’t eat a lot of crap. You guys already know the usual baddies – high fructose corn syrup, other added sugars, white refined products (ie white bread, white rice, etc). About 80% of my grocery cart is filled with items from around the perimeter, which coincidentally are the same ones that don’t contain many preservatives and chemicals that make them shelf-stable. I will shamelessly flip a box or can over in the grocery store and read the ingredients from start to finish. If there are tons of things that I don’t recognize and can’t pronounce, it goes straight back on the shelf.
  • Get a little creative in the kitchen. Prior to my weight loss days, I was about as creative as a box of Kraft Dinner and a can of tuna. When I started to browse recipes and experiment, I learned that cooking can actually be really easy, and fun too! I wasn’t even aware of the blog world at the time, but it’s full of endless healthy recipe inspiration. With a little searching, you can even find cleaned up versions of traditionally fat-laden favourites.
  • Stick to lean protein. I stopped eating red meat about 8 years ago, and now my protein sources (in order of frequency of consumption) are fish, plant-based protein (edamame, chickpeas and other beans, tofu) and dark leafy greens, chicken, protein powder, and dairy (eggs and yogurt).
  • Get moving. I’m not saying that you have to run a marathon, or a half marathon, or even run at all. The best exercise is the one you’re going to be able to stick at for longest, and the one you enjoy the most. I love running, but I’d be one very burnt out runner without cycling, weight training, and group fitness classes.
  • Once you’re moving, mix it up. Over time, muscles become efficient at whatever exercise you keep making them do, so continually changing up your workout regime and trying something new helps to confuse your body and keep the improvements coming.

Here’s the bottom line (according to me): “Getting healthy” means eating clean and keeping your body moving. When I started doing these things, I began to feel better. I found my ‘happy weight’, which really had nothing to do with a number on the scale or on a tag in the back of my clothes. Once I experienced how great this felt, I couldn’t help but want to keep up my healthy habits.

Now I want to hear from all of you!

  • What is your definition of “healthy”?
  • How do you know when you’re there? 
  • Do you have any more advice to give to Courtney?