"I've been teased for being too skinny, but the insults are the least of my problems when my fertility is at stake"
For most of my life, I've weighed just under 48 kilograms, and this never really bothered me, apart from having to shake off the occasional comments and insults about how skinny I was (and still am).
The one time it didn't sit well with me was in high school when I was told that I couldn't donate blood because I didn't weigh enough. Little did I know that, years later, my body wouldn't want to 'donate' blood to my uterus either.
I've had irregular periods ever since my first one in June 2010. For the first year or two after, I would only have a period once every four to six months; sometimes eight months would pass without one. At this stage of my life, I can't remember the last time I was on my period, and neither can I say when I will see it again.
My period is the undisputed master of ghosting, and I'm convinced that is has something to do with my weight.
Concerned about my uterus and its wellbeing, my mom pleaded with me to take the pill for the sole purpose of regulating my period. I did this for a year, and though it was great seeing my period every month without delay, I didn't want to rely on pills to keep my uterus functioning like a well-oiled machine. On the pill, I gained weight and this was good; however the function of contraception is to stop you from ovulating - this still didn't put me at ease with regards to how functional my baby box is.
I might need to gain a bit of weight and get my body's health to a place where it can do the period thing all on its own.
Your weight matters to your fertility
I spoke to gynaecologist, Dr Joanne Pottow, and she confirms that there is a link between weight and irregular periods or infertility. "It’s been proven that [in] being underweight, as well as overweight, you will not ovulate regularly, or you might not ovulate at all. That is why a lot of women who are severely underweight will stop their periods altogether," she says. "Once you gain weight, once you’re at a normal body weight or a normal body mass index, you will start to ovulate, and then you will start to have your periods again."
Because our bodies are made differently, it's not possible to guess where your weight lies by comparing yourself to other people. A good way to figure out exactly where you stand is to find your body mass index (BMI). This is different from just knowing your weight, because your BMI will determine your body's ideal mass based on your height as well.
You can use this calculator to find your BMI. Based on your BMI, you'll know whether you're underweight (a BMI less than 18.5) or overweight (a BMI between 25 -29.9).
Dietician, Rosanne Lombard explains that this indicator does not take muscle into account. "Muscle weighs more than fat, and therefore someone that may have a lot more muscle, may have a higher BMI score but not necessarily be overweight," she says.
I calculated my BMI, and it is two digits above the underweight mark so I'm technically not underweight. However, I know that my BMI could be at better number.
Dr Joanne clarifies that it's not entirely a matter of gaining weight, as some would try to accomplish by binge-eating fatty and high-carb foods, but a matter of getting your body to its ideal weight through a healthy nutritional intake and a balanced diet.
A healthy diet is 80% of the journey to a healthier body
With regards to fertility, some people will say that a vegetarian diet or a low-carbohydrate specifically will definitely improve your fertility, says Dr Joanne, but there is no evidence of this. "We do know that if you are at your normal body weight, your fertility is much better; your chances of fertility are significantly higher when you are within a normal body mass index," explains Dr Joanne.
Rosanne confirms that a good diet is really important for achieving healthy weight. "Often people tend to think that one can out-exercise a bad diet and this isn’t the case. A healthy diet is 80% of the solution. Exercise can assist with weight loss and it can assist with gaining healthy, lean muscle mass (which we want). It also has the cardiovascular benefits. However, a healthy diet with sufficient protein, healthy carbohydrates, healthy fats and a variety of fruits and vegetables is crucial."
There has never been anything as annoying as someone commenting on my weight by condescendingly telling me to "just eat more", but I guess they were on to something.
The misconception behind that unsolicited advice, though, is that people assume that eating anything and everything in extra-large portions will get the job done, but it's really about eating better and balancing the nutritional intake.
What steps should be taken, then?
Rosanne explains the right ways to go about gaining weight and creating a healthy diet:
First things first: consult with an expert
Depending on your reasons for wanting to gain weight, you'll need to consult with the right person to help you figure out what's wrong, what's missing, and what you can do about it.
No one person's health journey will be the same as another and so it's not enough to read up on health articles and go solo from there. "The information [from the internet and from articles] can be overwhelming and confusing," Rosanne says.
For your diet-related needs, you need to consult with a registered dietitian because "they can help look at your personal medical history and weight history to tailor a meal plan specific to your daily requirements." Keep the same energy for consulting with doctors with regards to your overall physical health.
Balance out your diet and meals
A mistake that people tend to make is 'cherry pick' from various diets, says Rosanne. "They like the sounds of eating lots of fat from one diet, but also like that they can eat certain carbs from another diet and then end up mixing and matching different unhealthy habits, which ultimately may lead to unhealthy weight gain." The trick is to balance your diet and eat from all the food groups accordingly.
"You need healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, healthy fats, as well as a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables on a daily basis," she adds. "Something else to consider is the number of meals per day: I would recommend smaller, more frequent meals so that calorie requirements are distributed throughout the day and not only at three large meals."
Make it a lifestyle and not just a 'phase'
"A lot of people tend to try a 'diet' and become very strict and restrictive with certain food groups," Rosanne says. "The problem is that this way of life and being on a diet isn’t at all sustainable. After a while, the individual becomes tired of being so strict or gets bored and throws in the towel. The aim is to find a meal plan or a way of eating that can be maintained for the rest of your life. The goal is healthy eating habits that are sustainable and this includes all the food groups, within moderation."
If eating right is the most important aspect of weight gain, then the journey to a better (healthier) BMI is one that I look forward to kick-start. I'm hopeful that in creating a proper diet plan for all the nutrients I need, and incorporating exercise to gain muscle mass and keep fit, I'll reach my BMI and health goals and eventually see my period again.
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