Sunday, July 08, 2012
Little over a year ago, I thought I was forever chained to the calorie counter. I kept one in my purse and diligently counted every single morsel I ate. I counted every calorie I burned.
My reward for all my effort was zero sum.
I received rather confusing and contradictory advice:
"Exercise More": I burned 300 calories 5x per week, plus 800 calories on the weekend. Total of ~2300 calories per week. This was not couch potato syndrome.
"Exercise Less": 30 minutes 5x per week was moderate exercise as recommended by nutritional experts. I was not a chronic cardio fanatic.
"If you're healthy, then extra body fat doesn't matter": It mattered to me. Call it vanity if you wish, but I was not willing to accept 32% bodyfat was the best I could do.
"It's genetics. You have slow metabolism."
The last one really bugged me. It sounded suspiciously like "magic", or resigned to "fate".
"No fate but what we make."
I don't believe in fate or predestiny. If there was such a thing as 'set point', something was controlling it.
I discovered this "something", which turned out to be the hormone insulin. Not magic. Not fate.
I found myself digging into way more biochemistry than I ever thought I'd need. In the process of self study and experimentation, I learned how to interpret and respond to messages my body sent me. I struggled because I didn't know the language.
Very quick and simplified overview of metabolism. Insulin is released by the pancreas. It turns on fat storage and turns off fat burn. But before we start demonizing insulin as the enemy, recognize it is a vital hormone. Type I diabetics have to inject themselves with insulin because they'll die without it. Type II diabetics have to control it because untreated, it will lead to limb amputation, blindness, and eventually death.
So how do we turn "off" insulin fat storage when we have fat to lose? There is a counter hormone called glucagon. Glucagon tells the fat cells to open up and release their energy for use. Insulin and glucagon are both present in the bloodstream at all time. The dominance of one over the other determines fat storage/burn. Insulin and glucagon are counterbalances to keep blood sugar stable. Rising blood glucose causes insulin release; falling blood glucose causes glucagon release.
Carbohydrates and sugar causes release of insulin. How much you eat and how fast it is broken down determines blood glucose levels and subsequent release of insulin in response. This can be measured with the Glycemic Index.
What stimulates glucagon? Protein.
Fat releases neither insulin or glucagon. It is inert without accompanying carb or protein. Carb + fat = stored. Protein + fat = burned.
Once I understood this, it was easy to understand messages from my body. These are the basic signals:
1. EXCESSIVE BODYFAT - Imbalance of too much insulin release inhibiting fat burn.
2. HUNGER - All those times I felt like I was starving, I was literally "starving". With elevated insulin levels, my body needed energy, but was prevented from reaching stored bodyfat. Thus my body was desperate for me to consume food. It wasn't willpower - it's biology. Hunger level on the scale of "Hmm...I should eat something" is normal. "OMG I'M GOING TO KILL SOMEBODY FOR THAT SNICKERS BAR" is not normal.
3. LOW MUSCLE DEVELOPMENT - Too little protein. Protein is the building block for repairing tissue. Eat too little, and the body has no choice but to catabolize muscle. Our bodies will consume the least important muscle first, which is usually the face. This is why anorexics tend to look gaunt. In order to save the vital organs (heart, liver, kidneys), it eats your face. For crying out loud, never, never, never undereat.
4. EXCESSIVE SUGAR CRAVINGS - Once I broke my sugar addiction, I don't binge or overeat sweets anymore. If I get sugar cravings, it's time to rebalance my insulin levels.
In April 2011, I started tracking all kinds of data in an excel spreadsheet. Carbs, fat, protein, calories consumed, calories burned, weight, bodyfat, lean mass, and waist/hip measurements.
May 2011, I learned how to read all of the messages above. Within 3 months, I lost the 10lbs I had been unable to lose years prior. I call it my "4 year plateau". In my spreadsheet, I occasionally wrote notes. On one instance, I wrote, "Hungry after eating an orange. Unusually moody." This was when I started to make the connection that excessive hunger despite adequate calorie consumption meant my biochemical signals were out of balance.
Plateau over. It didn't just happen. I figured out how to make it work from the messages above.
I settled at around 28% bodyfat, which I considered to be a major milestone. I was no longer "overweight" by medical charts. That wasn't where I intended to stop - I wanted to ultimately reach about 20-24% "fitness-athlete" levels.
6 months ago I unwittingly went on a "maintenance" experiment. I was busy with college classes and planning my wedding. I wasn't diligent about collecting data. I didn't get as much exercise as I should have - I dropped to maybe 90 minutes total a week. When I was hungry, I ate. If I felt excessively hungry (on OMG levels), I focused on protein, and cut back the carbohydrates.
According to my spreadsheet data, last November I weighed 126lbs with 28% bodyfat and 90lbs of lean mass. In June when I got back from my honeymoon and resumed my fitness goals, I weighed 128lbs, 28% bodyfat, and 92lbs lean mass.
When I tell certain people this, the response seems to be disbelief. Barely any exercise and no calorie counting? I laugh to myself when the conclusion is I must have 'gifted' genetics. Not so long ago, I was concluded to have "slow metabolism" and I'd just have to accept it.
This past weekend, my husband and I took a slow road trip down the Florida coast. We meandered on beaches in Ft Lauderdale and South Beach. We took a day trip to snorkel in Key Largo. We ate mostly at grocery stores like Whole Foods and Publix, but dined out in the evening. Zero fast food.
These were my meals:
Breakfast: 2 eggs, 2 pieces of ham, handful of berries
Lunch: Salad greens, roast beef, shrimp, and cioppino stew.
Dinner: Seared tuna over salad greens, and blue cheese dressing.
How many calories did I eat? How many grams of carbs/fat/protein?
Don't know, don't care. It was good food, and good for me. It left me feeling well nourished. Not full. Not hungry. Just right.
How many calories did I burn doing this:
Don't know, don't care. It did it because it was fun.
Our genetic needs certainly may dictate what we should eat and how much to move around. How I eat and exercise may be very different than you. However, I'm willing to bet that all of our bodies are sending us messages about it wants. The trick is understanding what is being communicated.
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
We're off on a good ole American road trip down the Florida coast for the 4th weekend! We're stopping tonight at my favorite seafood restaurant in Jacksonville on the way. No fancy tie required - this is just a good fresh local shrimp in a basket! The rest of the weekend is eating at Whole Foods buffets for our breakfast/lunch. It generally costs less than chain restaurants, healthier than fast food (no trans fats!), and we can fill our plates with things we like to eat (protein and veg!). It's funny that I actually prefer buffets these days because I can load it with things I want, and avoid things I don't. We'll save dining out for the evening.
My husband and I aren't the beach lounger types. We'll be plenty busy with activities - beach walking/wading, snorkeling, and maybe even a waverunner! I'll also be keeping up with my strength goals doing wall pushups, planks, squats and calf raises, all while ignoring my husband's funny stares.
Happy 4th of July!
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
About 6 years ago, I was 'fit-fat'. I exercised regularly (about 1hr/5x week), eliminated processed foods, and ate 'healthy'. Yet my bodyfat still hovered around 32%. Still 'overweight' despite my activity level.
My blood pressure was 135/85. This was 'pre-hypertensive', but my doctor didn't worry about it because of my age. Relative to her other patients who were clinically hypertensive, this was very good.
I liked my doctor. I think she was very progressive for her profession, often recommending natural remedies before trying the prescriptions. Yet despite that, modern medicine still doesn't address the prevention aspect.
What if my 'pre-hypertensive' blood pressure was a sign of inflammation? What if I wasn't doomed due to 'genetics'? Modern medicine seems to treat that as an inevitability. Can't stop it, so we'll treat it when it happens.
Perhaps my genetics are more sensitive to the conditions that lead to hypertension. Shouldn't that mean I take action sooner, rather than later?
What if I can control my genetics through food? We are what we eat, as we say. Am I made of unprocessed foods as nature made them, or am I made of manufactured chemicals packaged as something vaguely food-like?
What if my genetics doesn't like artificial foods or lab made chemicals? Possible. I'm allergic to all non-penicillin based antibiotics. Tetracyclines are lab created synthetics. My body rejects it as a foreign invader worse than the bacteria it is supposed to treat.
Eliminating processed foods was only part of the equation. I still had 'pre-hypertension' that medicine wasn't going to address until I had full blown hypertension. Hypertension often goes hand in hand with metabolic syndrome, so that likely wasn't far off.
I took an extra step, on my own. I cut back grains and starches. This dropped my blood pressure to 122/75 in about 3 months. According to the medical community, this puts me in the 'low-risk' health category, cutting my risk of metabolic syndrome in half. All I did was make one change to my diet.
What if my doctor had told me that all I had to do to reduce my risk of metabolic syndrome was to eat less bread and pasta? What if my particular genetics doesn't handle grains well? Is that so hard to believe? I am lactose intolerant, after all.
I was active biking, hiking, and kayaking about 1 hour per day, and 8 hours on the weekend. I have never smoked cigarettes. Yet I had pre-hypertensive blood pressure and excessive fat levels of a chain smoking couch potato.
Maybe it is genetics, but perhaps it isn't an inexorable march. Doctors put people on medication at 140/90. I was at 135/85 before I changed my diet. I narrowly escaped.
Obviously, we are all different. Our environments make our health needs very different. Maybe cutting out grains and starches won't work for you the way it did for me.
I believe that excessive bodyfat is a message from our bodies telling us something is out of balance. For some lucky people, maybe extra exercise is all they need. Maybe it's too much exercise, driving up cortisol and stress on the adrenals. Perhaps too much processed foods and refined sugars are the culprits. Others still, maybe they have wheat or dairy sensitivities.
Maybe if our bodies aren't getting what they need, they'll let us know. Or maybe if they're getting something they don't want, they'll let us know. Tricky, tricky figuring it out.
Maybe it is genetics. Shouldn't we try to work with it, rather than against it?
This becomes more challenging as we age because our bodies change our biochemical balance. As I near 40, I find that my body is more sensitive to abuse than it was at 20. If it doesn't like what I'm feeding it, my body lets me know a lot faster.
In some ways, that makes me better than I was in my 20s. I gunked up my body with crap back then. I probably wouldn't have listened anyway. Well, actually, I didn't. Hah! Drinking 32oz Big Gulps was beyond stupid.
But now? Now I have to listen, and I have to make a choice.
If the toast at breakfast, sandwich loaf at lunch, and plate of pasta at dinner pushes my inflammation markers and body fat up, then I'll skip the toast, loaf, and pasta. Or I can eat Diovan with my breakfast.
I'm choosing to take 2 servings of food and a glass of water with my breakfast.
Monday, July 02, 2012
Last week I shifted my eating/exercise schedule into 'Sarah Connor Pullup Startup' mode!
This morning my calculations say my lean mass is up by 2.88lbs! Not that I would be able to tell by my scale. It says that I'm up 4lbs. My bodyfat % has stayed relatively the same.
Last week (lean mass):
128 x .72 = 92.16
132 x .72 = 95.04
There's probably going to be skepticism on how I put on lean mass (muscle, bone, blood, water) so fast. It could be water weight retention, but that usually results in bulging. My waist, thighs and arms are all down on the tape measure. I also have another visual cue that always tells me when my body is reconfiguring - stretch marks. The nastiest ones are on my thighs and underarms.
So if my bodyfat % is relatively the same, then how can I be losing inches? I believe it's the glycogen. I've upped my resistance based activities last week, so my body shed some adipose subcutaneous fat (the bulky type beneath the skin) and traded it for glycogen (stored muscle glucose for exercise).
Before I learned to track my bodyfat measurements, the weight 'gain' threw me into a tailspin. But even without the calculations, there are other cues like the extra hip room in the capris, and the stretch marks.
Stretch marks. Bleh. I guess it's more accurate to call them 'shrink marks' that are loosened from when they were stretched. This is why I wear surfing shorts and not cute bikini bottoms. Ahh well. They are my war scars that I'm winning the battle!
As many of you know, a year ago I changed my diet. The standard American low-fat diet wasn't working for me, so I researched paleo on the suggestion of some Spark friends. Atkins wasn't for me because I think it is too restrictive. I ended up settling on a "Protein Power" plan from Drs. Mike and Mary Eades.
These days I follow more of a "Primal Blueprint" method from Mark Sisson, better known from MarksDailyApple.com. The focus is on clean eating - protein, veg and fruit, very low grains and starches. The objective is to eat 80% clean, and everything will fall into place.
Since I switched my fitness goal to improve my upper body strength (with a pull up being a long term objective), I went back and reread "Primal Blueprint". The part about the carbohydrate curve stuck out at me.
The carbohydrate curve is the approximate grams that cause insulin levels to spike, or drop. After more than a year of my own n=1 case study, I was surprised that my observations fit almost exactly within the curve he describes.
In summary, the number of carbohydrates per gram and its effect on fat gain/loss:
300g+: The Standard American Diet (SAD) of cereals, breads, sodas, sugary sweets, potatoes, pasta and rice. Extremely rapid weight gain. This is how I became obese 12 years ago.
150-300g: SAD dietary recommendations for a 'healthy diet'. Slow and steady weight gain without exercise. Prevents fat burn, despite moderate exercise. This is why I was 'fit-fat'. I exercised 1 hour 5x per week plus 8 hours on the weekend, and yet had the awesome physique of a couch potato.
100-150g: Optimal level for muscle development and/or weight maintenance. My levels are slightly lower than this. I can maintain pretty well on 100g, but 120g+ is teetering on the weight gain slide for me. I'm not sure if this is because I have minor insulin resistance, or because I am a smaller person than average, and therefore my needs are slightly lower.
50-100g: "Sweet Spot" for weight loss. Insulin levels are lowered, allowing to body to dip into stored body fat. Again, my totals are slightly lower here. 60-80g is my optimal rate for fat loss.
0-50g: Ketosis and Accelerated Fat Burning. Insulin levels are drastically lowered, and the body burns 80-100% ketones (fat) for fuel. This is considered 'Atkins' levels. I drop a day to a week here to stabilize my insulin at lower levels, but I don't stay at these levels for a prolonged period of time. For some people with severe insulin resistance, this may be their only choice.
Here's the link to the carbohydrate curve on his blog:
I maintain about 60-80g protein. The rest of my calories come from fat. I eat full-fat cheeses, milk, animal protein/fat, real butter, coconut oil, and olive oil. The only fat I avoid are hydrogenated vegetable oils, which means no processed foods, fast food, or chain restaurants.
I also don't get hungry. If I'm hungry, I eat. So even though I don't count calories, I find my calorie totals naturally falls into the 1,400-2,200 range, depending on my activity level. My carb totals as described above determines whether I gain, maintain or lose.
Last week I stayed within the 100g zone while increasing my resistance training demands. Yesterday I went to 30g carbs to drop my insulin load, and now I'm going to average about 60g carbs for the rest of the week. Hopefully this will drop my subcutaneous fat 1-2%.
It's going to be challenging because we are going away for the 4th weekend. We plan to eat the majority of our breakfast/lunch at Whole Foods buffets on our way down the Florida coast. It should be pretty easy to prepare protein/veg plates. We'll be plenty active walking on beaches, body boarding, swimming and snorkeling, so I've got exercise covered. I'll continue to do my wall pushups, squats, calf raises, and planking in the rooms.
We'll see if I can manage to trim down while on the road!
Edit (1): Correcting muscle mass versus lean mass estimate.
Edit (2): Added lean mass calculation.
Quick 101 on muscle building: www.marksdailyapple.com/guest-post-b
axzz1zUK5xk1o This was basically what I was doing last week. Compound exercises to stimulate hormones. This week I'm cycling into fat loss.
Sunday, July 01, 2012
I think I miscommunicated why I posted this comparison photo of a fitness model versus me:
I didn't mean to say that she looks 'better' than me, or that I'm trying to look like her. I was trying to convey the point that 'weight' is meaningless. She and I are both relatively the same height and weight, but our body compositions are very different. A lot of people set goals of weighing '140lbs by xx time'. Weight does not necessarily equate to fitness.
The reason why I've chosen a pull up as a fitness goal is because I need something challenging. If I don't have a goal post, then I tend to do nothing at all.
Why not a pull up? I'm learning that it is a very intense full body exercise that is an excellent marker of overall body strength. Many people overwork certain muscles and underwork others. Being unable to do a pushup OR a pullup is an indicator that one or more of these muscle series is weak.
Therefore, people who can do pushups and pullups have very well balanced overall strength.
I think that is good enough reason for me to do it. I reached my goal 6 months back of achieving college weight. Now I'm reaching higher. I want to be BETTER than I was in college. And I am defining what that means. I'm not competing against anyone else but myself. I'm the one that has to live in my own skin.
I'm not jumping straight into the weights because I've got some pretty weak deficiencies, and I'm risking injury if I push too hard too fast. Doing yoga and swimming might seem kinda odd if I'm trying for a pullup, but it's not if you think about it. Pushups/pullups are full body strength exercises. Yoga and swimming use almost every single muscle in your body. Thus, if you have muscle imbalance like I do where some are much stronger than others, than it is an easy way to transition the body to tighten those deficient muscles naturally. These are also activities that are enjoyable to me, so I'm more likely to do them. They will not be enough on their own to get to a pull-up. I'll add free weights once I feel that my overall muscle balance has improved.
For many years, I was 'fit-fat'. I was active hiking and biking, my favorite activities. Pushing around extra weight while making elevation gains of 3,000ft up mountains left me with a very strong lower body. (pressing 2x my body weight on the leg press), and a very neglected upper body.
My objective is to achieve overall wellness, not necessarily get a pullup the fastest that I can.
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