To have a healthy relationship to food and sex, we need to embrace pleasure and satisfaction in both things.
I have a question for you.
Which one factor is absolutely fundamental to women having a healthy sex drive?
- Is it having the ‘ideal body’, which we’re convinced will make us the desire of every man?
- Is it owning and wearing the most exquisite lingerie you can buy?
- Is it being a yogi-gymnast so you can act out the entire Kama Sutra without breaking a sweat?
- Is it re-training your brain to think, breathe and live sex by mulling over your sexual fantasies and doing libido-boosting visualisations daily?
- Is it having a sexually adventurous, Samantha Jones-esque personality and not being afraid to search sex shops far and wide for the latest and greatest toys?
- Is it being comfortable with and well practised at masturbation so you’re familiar with what your body likes?
- Is it being assertive and vocal in bed, and being able to confidently ask for what you want?
It’s NONE of these. Whilst some of these are important ingredients to a healthy sex life, there’s a HUGELY fundamental sex drive-promoting necessity that’s glaringly absent from this list.
The most important thing you can do as far as your desire for sex goes?
It’s having enough fat on your body.
Yep, having enough or ample fat, not as little fat as possible.
Weight loss dieting and desire
If, like the majority of women, you’re weight loss dieting… if you’re partly starving and/or over-exercising your body to get down to or maintain the levels of body fat approaching that of fitness and fashion models, then your fertility, your sexual desire, your fitness, your energy levels, and of course your overall health, will actually suffer.
And without these things, even the most dedicated Kama Sutra practitioner, perfect figured gym-bunny, or modern woman with sex communication skills of steel will not be able to get it on… let alone get off.
It’s no secret: eating enough, and well, gives women a healthy, happy sex drive.
Science says it (more on that soon). History says it (famine and war time rations do not a strong sex drive, nor an abundant fertility, make). In most cultures, besides the dominant West, being well fed and having adequate to ample body fat is accepted as an obvious necessity for a healthy female libido and abundant fertility.
Australian women and disordered eating
Despite the importance of healthy body fat, the number of women I see in my practice who eat enough and eat well is FAR outnumbered by the number of women with either disordered eating behaviours (ie they diet), or eating disorders.
This isn’t just because I work in the area of weight concern; it is reflective of our society at large. In statistics cited by numerous researchers on the topic it has been found that out of ten young women attending university, two will be anorexic, and six will be bulimic or have disordered eating; only two will be well .
In Australia, up to one-third of young Australian women experience episodes of binge or overeating, which is frequently backlash behaviour to restrictive dieting. One in ten have a full-blown eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Many more have some form of disordered eating; up to 50% of women are on a diet at any one time .
How dieting ruins a woman’s libido
Coincidentally, the same women who I see with eating issues or weight and body image concern also report immense dissatisfaction with their sex lives – if they have a sex life at all. Vaginal dryness, loss of libido, absent periods, body hatred; nothing kills your chances of enjoying sex faster than believing you’re hideous.
Basically, calorie restriction, restrained eating (even in a healthy-sounding clean eating or paleo disguise), regular or extended juice fasting, and other forms of dieting that (however temporarily) dwindle away crucial female body fat and wreck havoc on hormones are a fast track to not feeling in the mood. What’s more, women may not comfortably be able to get it on even if they do somehow feel up for it (read: vaginal dryness).
A semi-starved life comes with some pretty unpleasant consequences. But in order to understand the true impacts of dieting, we must first understand why body fat is so crucial to female fertility, sexual desire, and overall health.
Fat is sexual
Despite the way it is demonised by both diet culture and the dominant over-culture, fat (which remember, is a simple body substance) is sexual in women.
It is the medium and regulator of female sexual characteristics. Cross-culturally, from birth, girls have 10-15% more body fat than boys. During puberty, male fat-to-muscle ratio decreases as the female ratio increases . This is normal and necessary for sexual maturation and fertility. However most girls today begin dieting by age 8 because they fear becoming too fat . It doesn’t help that our culture sexualises the figures of prepubescent girls.
Between the ages of 21 and 40, average body fat in a healthy woman increases by 10 percent, from around 29% in young adulthood to 38% by middle age . These are normal characteristics of the female of the species and necessary to protect peri-menopausal women from the dangers of decreasing oestrogen levels and decreasing bone density.
Despite this, many middle-aged women I see, both in my personal life and in my practice, bemoan their rounder stomachs and vow they’ll only be happy once they trim down to their 20-year old physiques.
In essence, fat is female. Yet that doesn’t stop the fact that 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, says a finding by a 2008 investigation on the dangers of fat talk .
As far as the media and the multiple industries invested in weight loss are concerned, fat is a bad thing. In the words of Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth, fat is portrayed “as expendable female filth; virtually cancerous matter, an inert or treacherous infiltration into the body of nauseating bulk waste.” Wolf adds that the vilification of fat in women is a product of good old-fashioned misogyny, which makes sense – for above all fat is female.
Fat is fertility
Fat is an essential female characteristic, partly because it is responsible for our fertility. There’s a reason Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic fertility figures discovered in archaeological digs are round with big buttocks, wide hips, large thighs, generous bellies, and ample breasts. These figures appear overweight or obese by modern Western standards.
When female body fat starts to drop below 17-18%, periods may become erratic or stop, coincidentally around the same body fat percentage that abs really start to show, a benchmark now widely coveted thanks to the arrival of the ‘fit is the new skinny’ tagline.
Amenorrhoea (cessation of menstruation) induced by weight loss dieting and/or over exercise is nature’s way of telling you that you don’t have enough body fat to nurture a foetus should you become pregnant. By turning off your menstrual cycle, your body is telling you that you are temporarily infertile.
Fat is health
Before you run off with this fantastically convenient method of birth control, remember this: you need normal hormonal function for more than just menstruation and fertility.
For example, the health of your bones also depends on circulating levels of oestrogen, the principal reproductive hormone in women. You need adequate body fat for healthy skin, eyes, hair and teeth. Hormonal imbalances promote not just ovarian and endometrial cancer, but also osteoporosis. If vanity is a driver for you, think of the dry, bumpy skin, thinning hair, and lacklustre eyes that fat-loss dieting brings.
Keep in mind that models and supermodels generally have 8-10% body fat percentage; fitness models 11-15% body fat. These women, who are positioned in our culture as the epitome of female beauty, are 20 to 23% leaner than the average healthy woman.
The average woman wants to be as lean as a model. Yet from my clinical experience, infertility (no periods) and hormone imbalance (which can occur far before periods disappear entirely) is common among adult women whose body fat percentage starts to fall below 22%.
Not only is your fertility and general health affected by how much or how little body fat you carry, your sex drive is dependent on it, too.
Fat is desire
“To ask women to become unnaturally thin is to ask them to relinquish their sexuality.” [Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth]
Studies consistently show that with dietary deprivation, sexual interests dissipate. Subjects of one experiment stopped masturbating or having sexual fantasies at 1700 calories a day , which is 500 calories more than Michelle Bridges allows in her 12 Week Body Transformation (expect to have little to no sex drive whilst on this program).
There are multiple reasons why you experience a low sex drive while dieting. But basically, it comes down to some pretty important sex hormones that regulate your reproductive cycle, sex drive, mood, and more including (but not limited to) testosterone, oestrogen, and progesterone.
Anytime you’re in a negative energy balance (taking in fewer calories than your body requires), you enter a catabolic state and testosterone levels drop: this applies to both men and women and can result in loss of lean muscle mass as well as reduction in sexual desire and sexual behaviour. Testosterone is also needed in women to make oestrogen.
Additionally, after or alongside some dieting-induced muscle loss, you will start to lose fat. ‘Hurrah!’, some of you may be thinking. But no. When women lose fat stores they also lose a primary store of oestrogen. Low levels of oestrogen can have a significant impact on your sex drive; you may experience vaginal dryness that can lead to painful intercourse and you may have unstable mood and sleep patterns.
Like oestrogen, progesterone is another female hormone that helps control the menstrual cycle and support pregnancy. Changing levels of progesterone are thought to be involved in a woman’s sexual behaviour.
If you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that you would have a low sex drive whilst dieting. In times of famine when food shortages were short, there would be very little sense in bringing a baby into the world when there isn’t enough food to feed that baby.
Body image & dieting
Your body image is how you think and feel about your body. It involves your thoughts, perception, imagination, and emotions. It does not necessarily reflect what you see in the mirror or what other people see.
Poor body image is often linked to dieting, over-exercising, or eating disorders. Melissa Fabello, sexuality scholar and body acceptance activist, found that people with anorexia tend to have very low sex drives. Most women can relate to the impact of poor body image on sexual pleasure. If you’re too busy worrying about what sexual positions best hide your belly rolls, you’re probably not going to be as present and able to receive sexual pleasure as someone without such body concerns.
Frequent dieting can affect your health and can make you depressed, which also lends itself to poor body image.
Stop dieting, feel sexier
If you’re consciously restricting your food (amounts or types) for the purpose of weight control, and you want your sex drive to improve, I suggest you stop weight loss dieting immediately. Simple.
Of course, it’s not always that easy as there are usually various psychological, physiological, social, and emotional hurdles to getting off the diet rollercoaster (and indeed to recovering from an eating disorder). But I’ll stick to the basic facts for now.
If you increase your overall caloric intake to meet your actual needs, enjoy regular, varied, balanced and satisfying meals, and let your body regulate itself at a higher metabolic rate (which it will automatically do if you feed it well), the result will be improved physiological function, improved desire for exercise and threshold for doing it, a better sex life, better fertility, better digestion, better skin hair nails and teeth, improved moods, better sleep, and countless other improvements.
It’s always better to maintain your weight at a high calorie intake than a low calorie intake. Don’t take my word for it. Try it out while assessing mood, energy, sleep quality, sex drive, skin moisture, desire to exercise, and other areas essential to living a vibrant life. You’ll likely see that a well-fuelled life is better than a semi-starved life.
How do you know if you’re eating enough for optimal fertility, sex drive, and health? Enter the satisfaction factor.
The satisfaction factor
If dieting and body hatred are the suppressors and oppressors of female appetite, then discovering satisfaction and seeking pleasure – both in eating and in sex – are the antidotes.
To have a healthy relationship to food and sex, we need to embrace pleasure and satisfaction in both things. We need to fulfil our appetites. Yet as women, this goes against a huge mountain of conditioning.
We are taught from an early age to deny our appetites. It’s eating a rice cake when you really wanted chocolate. It’s faking orgasms and making someone else’s pleasure more important than your own. Both examples show no regard for our personal satisfaction, and keep us trapped in the damaging loop of self-denial that is so destructive to our health and our spirits.
How do we begin to unravel old patterns of self-denial and settling for less than enough? Here are five basic ways we can begin to enjoy both food and sex again by discovering the satisfaction factor:
- Ask yourself what you really want (to eat, or sexually). This may require a period of giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, or in sexual terms, really explore things like masturbation or fetishes if you haven’t gone down that avenue. Figure out what you really want to eat, or what turns you on.
- Discover the sensual qualities of food and sex. To increase satisfaction in your eating and sex life, take time to experiment mindfully. Take your taste buds and senses on a joy ride. Consider taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature, speed, pressure, timing. This is where mindfulness can be really handy.
- Make the experience more enjoyable. Take your time instead of rushing. Provide variety to give you a much broader and more satisfying experience. Release tension: take several deep breaths before you begin to eat or play (whether alone or with partner/s). Sit down to eat instead of standing. Pay attention to each sensation. Eat or explore sex in a pleasant, comfortable environment. Slow down throughout the meal or experience to check in to make sure you’re still enjoying yourself. Notice when you have had enough. Go slowly, sensually, and savour every bite or moment.
- Don’t be afraid to express your pleasure. When you feel it, express, with authenticity, your pleasure in words, moans, gestures. It generates even more enjoyment, especially if we’re talking sex and your partner knows how much you’re loving the experience!
- Don’t settle. You’re not obligated to finish eating a food just because you took a bite of it. You’re not obligated to continue exploring a fetish if you’re not feeling good about it. If you don’t love it, don’t eat or do it. And if you love it, savour it.
There are many forces that stand to profit from the suppression of your healthy female appetites for food, sex and pleasure. But to do so is to push against our wild nature, and it harms us to no end.
If you’re currently in the midst of a long, drawn out dry spell and you’re dieting then you may start to connect the dots. You are worthy of receiving just as much pleasure as you give, and more. Let’s get the currency of female pleasure back into circulation because the world desperately needs it – nearly as much as your stomach and your genitals do.
References Wolf, N (1991). The beauty myth: how images of beauty are used against women. New York. W. Morrow.  Lutter, M (1996). The Bodywise Woman. Human Kinetics.  Pai , S & Schryver, K (2015). Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image: A Common Sense Media Research Brief. Common Sense Media.  Delta Delta Delta. Tri Delta – Fat Talk Free Week 2008. YouTube. 10 October 2008. Web. 29 August 2017.
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