Well Being

Starving For A Six-Pack: Enjoying Food Is Greater Than Perfect Abs

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This is part 2 in a series in which Dana McMahan, a former competitive powerlifter, prepares for a fitness photo shoot and shares exactly what it feels like to get the type of body you see in the “inspirational” photos in magazines and plastered across the internet.

I would rather eat than have a six-pack. I love food. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t grasp how important it is to me until I deprived myself for 17 days. I “depleted” myself–a nice technical term for cutting calories drastically and pulling out almost all carbs aside from vegetables–in preparation for a fitness photo shoot. I found myself daydreaming about food, longing for things I would never even normally eat. With my stomach rumbling and my body turning to glycogen for energy, my fuel-starved brain occupied itself thinking of the meals I’ve loved around the world and contemplating how sad existence would be without enjoyable food. And though every morning I woke up eager to see if my abs looked more carved than the day before, I also woke up counting the minutes until I could eat what I wanted again.

dana mcmahan lifting weights

Digging in at my last pre-shoot workout. Hungry or not, my muscles could still give when I asked them to.

Halfway into the two and a half weeks of dieting I wanted to quit. I cried more days than not. I cried at the gym, where barbells loaded with two-thirds of my normal weight left me seeing stars. I cried after a visit to my hairdresser where I heard for two hours that I was too thin. I cried after people on the internet said I wasn’t strong, wasn’t an inspiration, and accused me of having an eating disorder. I’m usually stronger than that, but i turns out a hungry Dana is also a weepy Dana.

That said, when I commit to something, I don’t quit, and I wasn’t going to give up before I could see if I could do it. [It’s important to note that I did not starve myself: My weight was well within a healthy range. My BMI was over 19. I consumed far more vegetables a day than the average American, and I didn’t go any hungrier than any of the millions of people on a diet on any given day. Being that I’m not accustomed to dieting, the hunger just came as a shock–a very miserable one.]

“You are transforming your body through sheer will,” my trainer told me when I cried on his shoulder. “Not everyone has the fortitude to do that.” And while I still far prefer the challenge of getting stronger to that of getting leaner, his words helped me look at this experiment in a new way. I wanted to reveal the muscles I've worked so hard to build, and to do that I tapped my willpower to force my body to burn fat for fuel instead of carbs.

That's not easy. “The body prefers to burn carbs–that's easier for it, and your body will take the path of least resistance,” Mike Jett, an exercise physiology instructor, certified strength and conditioning coach, and the Fitness Evaluation Program Coordinator at the University of Louisville, explained to me. “To put it in scientific terms, your body freaks out when it has to shift to burning fat.” And some of the physical and mental reactions I'd experienced were a result of that freak-out.

“Glycogen is stored with water, so when you start burning glycogen, you lose water,” he told me. “Your cells start to shrivel up without that water. Think about your brain running on shriveled cells.” No wonder I was having trouble focusing and was so tired.

And my misery needs no scientific explanation; it came from not eating what I wanted. Every day I reflected anew; this is not worth it. It is not worth being so hungry and tired.

But…but…when I saw the photos, I could forget for a minute how awful the experience of getting ready was, and thrill in what I'd transformed my body into.

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