Eating for Health & Eating for Abs. Do you know the difference?


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Recently, fitness fanatic mum, Abby Pell, was criticised after she posted this ‘fitspo’ image on her Instagram page.

If you have read this blog for a while, you’ll know that body image, health, weight and size are areas of interest for me.  Since living in Bali (where the hot weather means peoples bodies are much more on show than in my native UK) it’s all the more obvious when people attribute value to themselves and others based largely on appearance – a phenomenon only exaggerated by the image driven surf industry that has a huge presence here.

However, as much as we like to put things into boxes (e.g. ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ etc etc), when it comes to health, size and physique people seem to have got things a little mixed up.

Take todays example of the picture & caption that caused uproar, particularly amongst mothers. Aside from the issues associated with fat shaming I have spoken about before, there are other problems with images of ‘supposed’ physique ideals. Quite often, people selling themselves in this way are seen as a picture of health and fitness – and this is where I think it gets a little confusing.

While she appears to have acknowledged the criticism and offered a half hearted apology in the newspaper, she assumes a number of things which blur the lines between physique and health:

  1. That people are criticising her because of their own insecurities, and jealousy perhaps
  2. That people that don’t have thin and fit bodies aren’t healthy
  3. That people can only be happy and healthy when they fit into society’s limited view of what healthy looks like

Taking pride in your body and health doesn’t mean aspiring after a certain shape or size.  Not having a six pack or abs doesn’t mean you are unhealthy (as equally as having them doesn’t mean you are) and extremes of anything – even fitness and diet – can be positively unhealthy.

So what’s the difference? Fat shaming aside, isn’t she an image of health because of her diet and exercise regimen?

Erm. No. Actually.

I’m assuming from her Instagram page that as well as being a fitness instructor and ‘nutrition coach’ this lady has also been at some point a figure competitor. There is no doubt that her body is a result of hard workouts in the gym and a strict diet regimen. However, I almost never look at ‘fitspo’ pictures at this end of the physique spectrum and think, wow, they look healthy. And here’s the reason.

Eating for Aesthetics

In reality, to achieve a look like this, you would have to drastically reduce your body fat percentage. Getting a six pack takes a lot of time and dedication to the gym (handier if it’s your job I would like to point out Mrs Pell) and your diet.

Getting your body into this condition also isn’t without risks for many women. Thinking physically, we know that women who have an inadequate energy intake (from restrictive diets) coupled with high exercise demands may send their hormones all out of whack, damaging both their reproductive and bone health.  This phenomenon known as the Female Athlete Triad is something that all professional female athletes are monitored for, but may go unnoticed and untreated in the amateur athlete striving for extremes of physique. For many of us, exercising and pushing our body to the extremes of shape and body fat that these images promote may not be out of reach, but the dietary restrictions and high volumes of exercise we put ourselves through to get there may be extremely unhealthy.

So What does it really involve?

People who strive for this look are very focused on their eating and exercising habits.  They have to plan meals with particular attention to timing and macro nutrient composition, limit carbohydrates or other macronutrients at particular times, limit fluid intake to achieve a lean look before photo shoots and exercise very regularly to a regimen – often twice a day.  Most people would also have to avoid alcohol and cut right back on other interests to fit in their workouts.

Here’s an infographic that spells out ‘the cost of getting lean’ in pictures from Precision Nutrition.

Bottom line?

While this lady might be perfectly healthy at the weight and size she is at and achieved her physique in a healthy way over a long period of time (I can’t tell by looking at her) for many, achieving this ‘look’ will involve adopting a lifestyle that could have a negative impact on their physical and social health.  In the same way that people can restrict their intake to extremes to achieve an exaggerated look such as the ‘lollipop head’ or size zero, people can take it too far with the ‘shredded’ look too.

Im not saying that if done correctly you cant be healthy and live like this, I’m saying that health is not the focus of this type of lifestyle. IMAGE is.

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photo credit 

Eating for Health

Choosing to eat for health is an entirely different practice than eating to sculpt your body.  Health after all isn’t just about what you eat, or what you look like,  it’s about how you feel and your whole lifestyle. Many people would benefit from making changes to their diet and exercise habits.  However, small changes focused on healthy behaviours are the key.

In my view, a healthy diet is one which:

  • Isn’t based around a size or weight target
  • Matches a persons energy demands
  • Nourishes your with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Is enjoyable and satsifying
  • Doesn’t mean you feel guilty about the occasional treat
  • Doesn’t restrict you from attending social occasions
  • Is sustainable in the long term
  • Is free from ‘rules’ and doesn’t exclude specific foods or food groups (unless for medical/ethical or personal reasons)
Some additional thoughts….

I should also add, that while I’m also not a fan of these sorts of images for the impact they have on peoples self esteem and body image.  I understand that they are usually well intentioned.  Most are simply trying to motivate women to get into the gym and get fit. However, its a little disturbing that almost all of these images focus on objectifying bodies and shame to get people to exercise.  What about exercising for fun?  Because you love your body? Because it makes you feel good? Because you know it will benefit your health?

If your interested in other reasons ‘fitspiration’ is deemed an unhealthy practice, see these great posts from Gemma at Dietitian Without Borders, Jen at Mamma Lion Strong and the awesome Kite sisters from Beauty Redefined.

My Advice?

Health and a ‘ripped’ physique are two entirely separate issues and the size at which a body is healthy varies from person to person.  If you see ‘fitspriation’ like this online, clean up your social media. Hit unfollow. Could some people do with a shift in their lifestyle to benefit their health? Sure.  Do you need to look like this to be healthy? Most definitely not.


2014 Female Athlete Triad Coalition Consensus Statement on Treatment and Return to Play of the Female Athlete Triad:


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19 Responses

  1. Jill
    January 20, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Love this post. If Ms Pell’s point was that having children isn’t an excuse for being inactive and overweight that’s fine. But if it runs deeper – that unless you have a body fat percentage of less than 20% you need to do some thing about it – then that’s dangerous and poisonous. We all have abs and six packs, mine are definitely there just lying under a little layer of fat. Which is fine. I can run 10k, do an hour of yoga, eat mostly healthily, enjoy red wine most nights and I have two kids. So what if I can’t see my abs?

    • helen
      January 20, 2015 at 9:37 pm

      I agree Jilly its a complex one. The problem I have with fitspiration posts like this – apart from the confusing messages about physique and health, is that I generally feel the messages are quite negative and a bit rude! If you apply it to any other context you would think she was really overstepping the mark….e.g I have a nice car and a great job and 2 kids – whats your excuse? Your healthy habits are way more important than having a buff body. :)

  2. jennifer
    January 21, 2015 at 3:32 am

    I love these kinds of posts in which women realize that abs aren’t the only measure of health, progress, strength. I wrote a post along those lines last year ( and although today, I am a bit leaner than then, it is the combined effort of diet/exercise, but not STRIVING for it..

    My goal isn’t to have a six pack so I am working my life around that goal; rather I am letting my body do whatever it is going to do based on eating for performance and fueling my workouts!

    Great post!

    • helen
      January 24, 2015 at 8:15 am

      Thanks Jennifer! :)

  3. Jess @hellotofit
    January 21, 2015 at 4:34 am

    Thank you for this awesome post. I don’t think many people (who aren’t training for some event or figure competition) TRULY realize what it takes to reveal a six-pack abdomen. I used to always “want” one, but understanding now what it takes, I think I’ll pass!

  4. Danica Pelzel
    January 21, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Helen, great post! I actually struggled with body image a lot when I was younger; I was trying to fit into this perfect mold, and now that I view health differently, it makes me so sad seeing women (and some men) so focused on fitting into the “ideal body type,” so thanks for sharing! Posts like these are definitely what people need to hear! You might enjoy my post about clean eating ( or other ones I’ve written about body image ( Thanks, Danica

    • helen
      January 24, 2015 at 8:10 am

      Thanks Danica! I’ll check those out! :)

  5. Linda
    January 28, 2015 at 12:42 am

    It did sound as – if you don’t look like me, you are making excuses and not exercising enough.

    • helen
      January 29, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Agreed Linda! :)

  6. Hollie
    February 24, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    This is a great and informative post, thank you for sharing. In my previous job, I worked with college students that were suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating. Teaching them facts like this, was one of the most interesting parts of the job. It’s funny that so many assume that eating healthy means abs and a toned body but in reality it means your body has enough energy and is balanced.

  7. Jess
    August 24, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Another great post Helen! We must be on the same wavelength at the mo as I’m working on a similar post about what it actually means to be healthy from a GPs perspective. It seems we’ve had enough of social media and it’s negative impact at the same time! I’ve started unfollowing people, I’m just sick of seeing abs, and perfectly arranged food and fits quotes.
    Hope you’re well xxxx

  8. Tess @ FitBits
    August 24, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Very well said, and about time someone did too! I would definitely love to have a nice set of visible abs but I also love the odd treat, glass of wine and pub lunch so I’ll stick with my strong abs under my comfy (and totally ok) little layer of fat thank you very much :)

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