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Why I said goodbye to my shredded abs

It has been over 5 years that I took the plunge and entered my first Bikini Bodybuilding show. In actual fact I entered 5 shows in 2013. I placed it all 5. It was an incredible experience. I learnt huge amounts and I have huge respect for the ladies that do it; but I honestly don’t ever see myself doing it again.

Not because I detest how the fitness industry is being sexualised, neither because the thought of standing on stage in a bikini covered in fake tan has no appeal to me in anyway but mainly because of horror of getting that lean again. Now, when I competed I didn’t just get bikini girl lean …. I got shredded. I didn’t feel “ready”, I didn’t feel like I deserved to be on that stage until my skin was paper thin and my veins were sticking out my obliques.

We are an industry where being “lean” is seen as the ultimate goal. If we are lean we must be experts …yes? If we are lean that means we are healthy…right? WRONG in so many ways.

I think it is great for individuals to want to optimise their body composition by dropping body fat and getting “lean”, but there is a huge disparity between achieving a leanness for optimal health and being “shredded”.

The body fat percentage healthy for an active female is around 20%, with athletes typically having between 14-20% of which 8-13% is essential body fat. Essential body fat is basically the minimum amount we need for functioning. The week before I stood on stage I had a DEXA scan coming out as 10.2%. I (regrettably) walked around like that for 9 months.

So by all means, aim to be lean but never de-prioritise health.

Here are 10 reasons why shredded abs just weren’t for me;

1. I started having nightmares about the broccoli monster

There are many ways to diet to get lean. I was under the guidance of an incredible body builder for my first show. I informed him I wanted to get shredded and that is exactly what happened.

This was my diet.

Meal 1: 30g oats, 6 egg whites Meal 2: 100g chicken, 250g broccoli, 20g almonds Meal 3: 100g chicken, 250g broccoli, 20g almonds Pre workout: 30g oats, 25g whey protein Post workout: 30g oats, 2g whey protein Meal 4: 100g white fish, 200g asparagus Pre bed: 25g casein

For 8 weeks that was what I ate every single day. It worked 100%. However, I rarely ate meals out meaning it impacted my social life which in turn impacted my emotional wellness.

Now however I eat intuitively. I listen to my body. It asks for carbs, it gets carbs. I eat to fuel performance. I eat to recover from training. I eat out (probably too much!). Most importantly I enjoy food again.

2. I lost my womanhood (temporarily)

Any female will tell you that periods are a nuisance. However when they stop (other than if you’re expecting a mini person obviously) that’s they body’s way of telling you it is not happy.

My menses stopped about 4 weeks out from my first contest. My body was shutting down non-essential processes as it needed to use energy for the essential processes – things like keeping my heart beating and lungs breathing.

The combination of exercising intensely, eating a lower energy diet than usual and being very lean had decreased my oestrogen levels and stopped my reproductive function. Women grow babies (and so much more obviously), but I wasn’t able to do that. Did that make me less of a woman?

Now I won’t go into any detail about my current menstrual health (for apparent reasons!) but all is now well and hormones are in balance.

Note: Unfortunately amenorrhea is not unusual in athletes, but this does not mean it is acceptable. As a sports dietitian one of my priorities is to ensure females are eating enough to fuel performance and optimise health.

3. I forgot what sex was

Now any competitor, male and female will tell you that at some point during prep your libido disappears. Literally vanishes off the face of the Earth.

You could have offered me a date with the most beautiful man on the planet and I would have preferred an early night. In bed. By myself. Asleep.

As females our body fat is responsible for about 1/3 of our oestrogen hormone, we drop body fat, our oestrogen levels drop and we can wave good bye to our libido too.

Now I was single during prep so it didn’t matter too much, however I suspect extreme low body would affect intimacy within a relationship. Again I won’t go into detail about my current libido but my hormones are in balance.

4. I had my morals and will power questioned

I got shredded. Naturally. No growth hormone. No ephedrine. No T3. No clenbuterol. Just effort, will power and dedication.

Sadly however I was accused of taking numerous substances because it is tough for females to achieve low levels of body fat.

I do understand why some individuals choose to take banned substances, pushing the boundaries of human performance is intriguing. I however will always remain a natural athlete, for moral and professional reasons.

Now I am not anywhere shredded, I don’t get accused. I am proud to be a natural athlete.

5. I could sleep anywhere, anytime

The continual tiredness of being shredded was so hard. I was chronically fatigued. If I wasn’t training or at work (or eating broccoli) I would really need to sleep. I felt like I was dragging myself around from day to day. It wasn’t fun.

Now that I am not in energy deficit, give me 6 hours a night and a cheeky lie in on a lazy Sunday and I am happy!

6. I was a little depressed, a lot of the time

To get shredded I had to restrict intake. Restricted diets themselves do lower happy hormone “serotonin” in the brain, which will cause mood to lower. Very low carbohydrate and higher protein diets can exacerbate this due to a decrease in tryptophan and increase large neutral amino acids in the blood stream. Which also happened to be what I was following.

Now I am not following a restricted, low carbohydrate, high protein diet I am happy!

7. I was freezing cold…all the time

This needs little explanation. Body fat insulates us. It protects us from the cold. I hardly had any so was blue the majority of the time. I was wearing thermals in April (probably another reason for number three)

8. I turned into a hermit

In order for me to get to the shredded state I wanted to be in I had to make sacrifices. One of those was my social life. For my first prep I was a hermit for 10 weeks. I wouldn’t go out for dinner for fear how the meal was cooked and I definitely was too tired to meet friends for drinks.

Now I realise balance is important, I rarely drink alcohol but enjoying food with friends and family is a priority.

9. I couldn’t run away from a bear

Ok, so we don’t have that many bears in the UK, but if there was, there is no way I would have been able escape it. I couldn’t sprint when I was shredded.

If it wasn’t my lack of energy stopping me, it would extreme shin splints. At low levels of body fat oestrogen drops and bone mass density can decrease.

Being shredded didn’t make me feel fit at all. I love training and there were times I literally had to drag my (then non-existent) back side to the gym.

Now, however I can sprint, jump, lift…oh and handstand to an adequate level, and would certainly be able to get away from any bear attacks.

10. I missed curves

Ok so my physique will never challenge J Lo’s; however when I was shredded (despite having a couple of “enhancements”) I didn’t feel feminine at all.

As much as I am not a massive fan of girls posting underwear images on social media posing in a way to suggests they have a mahoosive derrière (Instagram is creating a generation of women with spinal lordosis!); I do love the curve movement. That women everywhere are no longer desiring a thigh gap but are after a voluptuous, athletic physique.

From personal and professional experience this is far healthier physically and psychologically then constantly trying to maintain a low body fat percentage.

To conclude…

You absolutely do not have to get to extreme low levels of body fat to compete in bikini competitions or to look athletic and lean. I actually placed higher when I was a bit fatter!

Being shredded is an extreme, it takes will power and dedication and I am so glad I did it for experience, but it is not optimal for long term health. Being fit, being strong and being happy are far more important.

Shredded might be sexy for some…for me however I would rather have less abs and more fun.