1-99 SparkPoints 16

Understanding the Language of Fat

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.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    This is great information. I have recently discovered this for myself and typed glucagon into SP and your blog was one of the top searches. It seems as if we can keep exercising and tracking food but if it's not working then it's important to understand why. I will be reducing sugar in my diet with the knowledge of why this is important, and not just doing it because someone said so. Thanks so much for this blog. x
    3136 days ago
    "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."

    This, for sure. I need horrifying quantities of fiber or things just don't work for me. I've realized I'm lactose intolerant. I do really well eating a lot of beans. When I compare myself to my husband... he tolerates the lactose just fine. Too much fiber sends him into distress (when I say "too much", I mean the amount I eat). He can eat reasonable quantities of beans, but he's much more sensitive to how they're cooked than I am. I'm pretty convinced that our needs vary from person to person.
    3155 days ago
    Love it.

    That food looked AWESOME and so did the snorkeling.

    Keep trying to spread the word.
    3155 days ago
  • BILL60
    Well done!!
    3155 days ago
    Wonderful! This makes so much sense! Wouldn't it be great if we could all have a great relationship with food? This blog has a lot of good information. Thanks for the insight! emoticon
    3155 days ago
  • BOB240
    Brilliant!. This is pretty much where I ended up in terms of diet - and for me it works.

    The next interesting challenge you might consider is this:

    How much exercise do you really need every week in order to improve? I currently do ten hours a week in the gym but I believe I can get it down to three x 1 hour sessions for similar impact.

    This is an important question because in maintenance often the first point of failure is attending gym.....
    3155 days ago

    Comment edited on: 7/9/2012 2:33:56 AM
    A while back i needed to listen more carefully to my body. there were lots of time i misundersood emotions and cravings for real hunger. I'll admit i started listening to my body better and when i am hungry i try to give it a protein or a fruit/veggie or combination. i have even tried quinoa (high protein grain) to make sure i get enough everyday. i used to track fruit and veggie servings, but i know if i have a green smoothie i get 3.5- 5 servings.
    3155 days ago

    Comment edited on: 7/9/2012 1:08:45 AM
    Great blog. I'm going to have to re-read it several times, so many good insights!
    3156 days ago
  • CATH63
    Vhalkyrie - I love reading your blogs. They are so interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
    3156 days ago
    3156 days ago
    Keep it up! emoticon
    3156 days ago
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