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.