My Macro Journey to Fitness – Part 1

Redefining my relationship with food was one of the hardest challenges I overcame in my recovery from Anorexia. It’s been a decade plus journey with plenty of weak moments and falling off of the wagon. In an effort to hold myself accountable and practice what I preach, to both my clients and loved ones, I’d like to tell you a bit about the role nutrition played in getting me to where I am today.

The Miseducation of Julia Fragias…

The body is a wonderfully efficient machine.

Starve and abuse it, but in a continuous loop of feedback mechanisms, the brain catches wind of what you’re doing and tweaks every cell in the body to maintain your existence. When I started to eat again, my brain clearly didn’t trust me. It adjusted my metabolism to a lower rate in order to make sure the calories I put into my body wouldn’t disappear.

It took a while to earn that trust back.

The image you see above from 2007 is a softer, fuller girl almost 2 years into recovery from Anorexia. I didn’t know how to exercise properly. I didn’t know how to like food, much less understand now-common concepts like macronutrients. I was instructed by my then counselor not to restrict food and was assured my metabolism would normalize. Eventually.

But, of course, I was still afraid to eat.

I categorized foods into “safe” and “off limits.” How did I decide what made them safe? They were low in fat or fat free. Vegetables or fruit were safe, as long as they didn’t bloat me. Liquids were safer than solids. It also helped if they were low in calories per serving. I ate my “safe foods” repetitively and copiously.

My criteria for safe were so far off the mark that they actually contributed to my rapid weight gain. As my body continued to expand, I had to fight the urge to restrict my eating. I wanted someone to give me a magic menu or list of foods that I could eat without anxiety.

I wanted safety, but I needed education.

Through therapy, I was getting served a whole lot of how to eat through mindfulness, which was helpful – chew your food well, eat slowly, savor the flavors, be grateful for the nourishment – but nobody was telling me what to eat.

How could I begin to structure balanced meals that would fuel my body efficiently?

Count your macros…

My self education was to obsessively watch fitness channels on Youtube. This was when I first came across the term macronutrient. The body builders and fitness professionals I was taking notes from all shared the same advice – count your macros. It’s a catchy word, especially when repeated like a mantra, but what exactly are they?

Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats: compounds we derive the most energy from and that make up the bulk of our diets as humans. Our cells need these nutrients to grow and develop properly.

Finally, I had something specific to focus on. I concentrated on the ratios of these compounds that the fitness community recommended were optimal for fitness and good health. I constructed a daily diet that consisted of ready made and home made protein powder based shakes, protein bars, bags of nuts, bananas for my pre-workout, and cans of water packed tuna for dinner.

Finally, I had a new “safe” list!

Problem was, it was even more restricted than my previous one.

My workouts were cardio endurance based only and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes to the point of utter exhaustion. There are a number of reasons why this is not the fitness route you want to go down, but I will get into that in my next post. I dropped about ten pounds, but I was constipated, had started to develop eczema patches all over my body and odd outbreaks of hives, had terrible insomnia and brain fog. As if that weren’t all bad enough, I put on virtually no muscle tone.

At the end of 2007, my annual blood test indicated I was deficient in many vitamins and borderline anemic. Essentially, I was malnourished. My doctor didn’t help matters either by telling me I needed to lose a few pounds. He came to this conclusion based on a chart of height and weight ranges of which I was at the high end of normal. FYI – this chart also said I was a normal weight when I had full blown anorexia. Scary, truly.

Here’s an example of a Height to Weight Chart, like the one my doctor used to determine I needed to lose weight. These things are AWFUL!

I left the doctor’s office terrified.

I abandoned my diet and let my body’s cravings guide my food choices. This was recommended by a therapist who believed the body intuitively knows what it needs. She was also trying to prevent my patterns of restriction and categorizing food. I remember meeting up with an old friend, who had struggled with childhood obesity and was now super fit. I asked him how he learned to eat properly. He laughed at me and said, “Julia. NO ONE eats properly. It’s how you exercise that counts.”

Working with a trainer, he put on lean muscle that raised his metabolism and allowed his body to burn off more calories at rest.

And he noticed something interesting.

The fitter he became, the less he craved the fried pork chops, plantain chips and soda of his youth. Remember what I said about the wonderful efficiency of the body? As his body grew healthier and stronger, so did his food choices.

He strongly urged me to contact his trainer. After I got over myself (my bad experience with personal trainers was documented in my post A Body Is A Terrible Thing To Waste) I set up my first session in August of 2008.

I started on the strength-training program the trainer designed for me. It was around the 6 week mark that I started to feel something I never expected to feel again. Hunger.

I was hungry all the time.

To actually feel my stomach rumbling and experience the weakness of NOT attending to that hunger was frightening to me, but also a huge step forward. Hunger was a sensation I had psychologically dulled for years with my disordered eating habits. So, for the first time since my recovery began, I ate when I was actually hungry.

This. Was. A. Game changer.

I was most ravenous within an hour of my workouts. I found myself craving meat, which was shocking because I had been a vegetarian for 7 years and the thought of animal protein in my mouth used to nauseate me. This hunger and these new cravings were my body’s call to action.

FEED ME, JULIA!!!

But how?

Stay tuned for Part 2…

 

 

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Loving those perfect imperfections

John Legend’s “All Of Me” is a melodious appraisal of all the reasons why he is so head over heels in love with his woman, including her “perfect imperfections”. It’s a beautiful line that has gotten me thinking about the parts of ourselves we fear being rejected over and the traits we see in others as unacceptable or non-negotiable. Let’s explore…

Last night I watched this documentary made by a man who was worried that his penis size would prevent him from finding a partner in life. After a very public humiliation, he set out on a journey that took him to several corners of the world in search of ways to augment his slightly lower than average penis. After trying some pretty shocking methods, he finally threw in the towel realizing that the issue was his own self esteem. The more he projected his inadequacy, the less likely someone would want to date him. So, at films end, he bravely asked a girl he had met during shooting out on a date and she bluntly told him, “There’s more to you than just THAT (i.e. his penis)…”

The man in question putting his “imperfection” out there for all to see!

Even the most secure individual probably has some physical or personality driven feature that could subject them to rejection. This follows what I mentioned earlier about non-negotiable traits. The filmmaker’s girlfriend turned down his proposal because she felt his penis size was a non-negotiable. I wonder how she would have felt if it was the other way around and someone told her the size of chest was the deal breaker. Each of us is entitled to have our mental check list for a partner, but sometimes those supposed imperfections can be perfect if we just embrace them full on.

There was a period in my recovery from an Anorexia where the man I was dating found it important to point out how much weight I was gaining and specifically, what parts of my body were now unattractive to him. Some of this he said to my face with a “you better do something about that or it’s a wrap.” Other commentary was saved for mutual friends and coworkers. When we broke up, he did something any woman would be mortified to learn. He publicly posted that I was a “fat bitch.” Shortly thereafter, another man became interested in me, but my brain was so wrapped up in being too big that I completely rejected him. It must have been exhausting to be around me at the time because the whole thing made me such an insecure pile of flesh. One of my closest male friends had once told me he broke it off with a wonderful, gorgeous girl because she was tremendously insecure about her body. Her constant need for affirmation just drained him. His next girlfriend was much plainer looking than the previous, but her confidence was infectious. He couldn’t get enough of her. (Note to selves, ladies!!!)

To paraphrase Dan Savage’s comments in the film, each one of us has to know what we bring to the table and work that to our advantage. However difficult you may find it, loving all of you first will allow someone else to love all of you right back. Thank you for putting it so well, Mr. Legend!

Massage for a Broken Heart

This too shall pass…

One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.

When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.

Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.

Brain and pain rhyme for a reason, kids.

One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body.  Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.

A Body is a Terrible Thing to Waste

All bones, no strength – Anorexia circa 2003

October 13th was the 8th anniversary of my recovery from Anorexia. Back on that date in 2004, I broke down on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I was staring into the demon bowels of the disease that had dictated my life for 3 years. It sucked the air from my lungs. I couldn’t live another day with its crushing pressure. It took me two weeks to leave the confines of a friend’s home (where I had escaped to cocoon myself from reality) and once I did emerge, I felt like I was in some kind of silent film. The world moved slowly, while I felt frenetic. I quit and distanced myself from everything in my life that I had allowed to enable the disease. I went into therapy. I ate a bowl of black eyed peas and rice, my first meal, with trepidation. My stomach; my intestines; my mind slowly came back to life. With belly distended, I proudly proclaimed on whatever social networks existed at that time that I was recovering. I was still very thin, but by the New Year 2005, my consistent eating led my body to “betray” me.

Performing in 2007, at my heaviest post recovery (Image copyright: Gary Winter)

The life preserving shut down of my metabolism was meant to make sure I wouldn’t starve again. I was afraid to eat, but I did anyway. I submitted my food journals to my therapist who approved and told me to eat more. “Variety” she stressed, but I was fixated on foods I felt safe with. I did gratuitous amounts of cardio at odd hours, so no one would stare at my body at the gym. They had known me when I was at my thinnest and I feared their assumption that I was letting myself go. My fears were realized when in the Spring of that year, a trainer approached me and offered to give me a fitness assessment. The masochist in me accepted and after running his various tests, proclaimed to me that I was borderline obese. Oh, the shame that washed over me. For years, that left me with such an acrid taste for personal trainers. He told me to cut out the “junk food” and come see him for sessions at the gym. I was living on tuna fish and pita breads, fueling my workouts with coffee and bee pollen smoothies. I never went back to that gym. In fact I stopped going to any gym. My weight and health habits fluctuated erratically between 2005 and 2008, until a good friend recommended his trainer. I got over myself and the shame I had felt in my previous experience and contacted him. He assessed me through a short circuit of activities and introduced the concept of strength training. He taught me how muscle mass and strength would benefit me in the long run, making my metabolism more efficient and letting my body reshape itself into it’s own “normal.”

All muscle, all strength!

The seed he planted germinated when I went back to school for massage. I was hit with Anatomy, Physiology, Neuro and Kinesiology. I never soaked up information with such appetite before. I couldn’t get enough. This knowledge enhanced my workouts and sessions with my trainer because I understood how my body was designed to function. Suddenly, Mr. “Borderline Obese” became the joke that I should have never taken seriously. (Side note here: I saw his picture and name on a real estate placard recently, which clearly shows us he did not have a glowing career in exercise physiology after all). I also returned to therapy with a more cognitive approach to help get to the root of my control issues and take them head on…much like throwing knees and elbows during pad drills. I channeled my emotions into my workouts and learned, often times the hard way, what an art BALANCE is. Now, as a massage therapist, it is so important to foster this healthy sense of bodily awareness within my clients, wherever possible and always when solicited.

So when I was contacted recently by a Fitness/Wellness website for a review of their services, I stepped up to the plate and joined. SlimKicker is a point based program kind of in the vein of Weight Watchers, except that it values activities and nutrition at various levels and creates challenges for its users to foster long term health habits. It also provides a calorie counter, fitness tracker and other resources. There is the community aspect too, as users can post inspirational feed on the homepage, join each other in challenges/groups and “friend” each other for support. The About Us section states that the site is all about learning proper nutrition, portion control, and acquiring important habits. In that vein, upon signing up I was asked for my weight and what my goal was – weight loss or strengthening/toning. Although I chose the fitness oriented option, the pop up that followed was more for weight loss, citing how many calories and percentages I needed to consume in order to achieve my goal. The amount it noted was no where near what I would need to fuel my body and my workouts. To drive this point home, I logged only my exercise habits; not my food intake. If I followed what the site suggested, I would essentially send my body into starvation mode.

It is important to note here that there is a disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions that states the site should not be used by anyone with any medical or nutritional conditions and that content is for informational purposes only, not meant to replace professional medical advice. Obviously no one with an eating disorder has any business on a site where everything is meticulously logged and counted, but many people without said issues can still have disordered eating habits and cycles of guilt they feel compelled to share via social network. The site’s inspirational feed is 80% laments at having eaten too much of something labeled “bad” either by the user themselves or the nutritional information offered to them by the website (Remember that disclaimer,guys?). Also, there are statements of pride over extra exercises and completed challenges; however these inspirational statements are edged with complaints about weight gain or lack of loss (again, that disclaimer). This is not the site’s fault. They want you to be positive, stay focused and band together for support. Our society is more to blame for fostering this widespread self loathing and depreciation. The hate and guilt are infectious and breed a vicious cycle that will continue so long as we choose to continue “sharing,” despite any health oriented social networks best efforts.

SlimKicker, if used properly, can function as a motivator for adopting a fitness regimen because it holds you accountable for your activities. Much like a TO DO list, if exercise is factored into a week and logged daily, it makes you all the more aware of the need to check it off your list. After doing so for so many times, it will hopefully become a natural part of your daily lifestyle. I’m still not a fan of food logging due to my past; however if you truly don’t know what you have eaten in a day, keeping a food diary can help you track unhealthy patterns like over eating and of course, under eating. My advice is to pay attention to your body’s individual needs and seek out a registered dietician and/or nutritionist if you find the process to be overwhelming.

Juicing for life?

I remember watching the 2010 documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead”  with a friend and was completely floored at the way in which the film’s narrator and creator, Joe Cross was able to reverse some pretty serious health issues solely through juicing. The juice fast he undertook (in somewhat dramatic fashion, since he did this while traveling the U.S. with a mini juicer and generator) lasted for 60 days and consisted of a mixture of fresh fruits and vegetables. He called his fast a REBOOT because his body could no longer run efficiently, being bogged down by all the toxins accumulated from years of a high fat, red meat laden diet, lack of exercise and large amounts of steroidal medications administered to him for an auto-immune condition he was suffering from. He absolutely consulted doctors and medical professionals before beginning this fast and was monitored throughout the process until its end. What the film demonstrated was how important nutrition is to overall health and well being. It also proposed how committing to such a program can turn into a habit your body will fall into rhythm with and actually crave.

This was not my first encounter with juicing. Back in early 2005, I met a woman who successfully beat breast cancer with the help of homeopathic remedies and juicing. At the time, I was in the early stages of recovery from anorexia and she presented a way in which I could cleanse and nurture my body without that feeling of fullness that so wreaked havoc with my head. I bought myself a generic brand juicing machine that same day and began extracting the contents of anything green and fruity I could get my hands on. The first thing I noticed was how good my skin looked, but once my therapist caught wind I was subsisting on juice alone, she put a stop to it. I could only juice if it was a supplement to a meal. Since I was still afraid of fullness, my mind said that was just way too much to ask of my insides, so I put the juicer away and forgot about it.

Now in a much healthier state of being, there is nothing wrong with supplementing my balanced diet with a little juice. In fact, many registered dieticians agree that if you are otherwise healthy, it is a great way to get your recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. There are, however, people who cannot undergo a juice fast, which is why it is so important to consult with a physician if you are planning a REBOOT style program. Diabetics, people with nutritional deficiencies and those with kidney disease are some of whom could respond adversely to an all juice diet. Also, people undergoing chemotherapy are cautioned against it while in treatment. With respect to weight loss, it is safe to replace one meal a day, let’s say breakfast,with freshly extracted juice, so long as the rest of the diet is balanced. The boost of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is a better source of energy than sugar and caffeine.

One week ago, I decided to say “good morning” to my body with freshly extracted juice. My parents had a juicer they had never touched and I wanted to finally put it to good use. Call it an experiment of sorts, but I wanted to see how my body would react to having this raw liquid be the first thing to hit my stomach. Normally, I drink a lot of water upon waking and have a coffee. On DAY 1, I pulverized celery, Gala apples, carrots and a little sprig of parsley into a 12 oz glass of energy. Immediately, I felt my taste buds coming to life; they literally tingled after ingesting the juice. During my workout a half hour later, I found that I needed very little rest between sets. My trainer joked, “What are you on today?” The power of the juice, my friend. I went through the rest of my day eating as I normally would, but for some reason, I felt that I could taste things a lot more acutely than before. Salt was saltier; sweet was sweeter – it was kind of amazing, actually.

Day 2 was a totally different story. I added beets to the mix. The entire rest of the day I was nauseated and overheated. My face was flushed and I wanted to lay down. Upon waking on Day 3, I realized that I was now constipated. I made beet, ginger and carrot juice that morning. As I proceeded with my day, I felt a tightness in my gut as if there was a gas bubble that was stuck there. Still nauseated and having those odd hot flashes, I decided to eat very lightly thinking that maybe I was coming down with something. Day 4 came and went without any elimination of my gastrointestinal tract and a whole lot of discomfort. I made apple and carrot sans beets and ginger since I had run out of them. Upon waking on Day 5, the tummy troubles were somewhat over. Things were now running smoothly again, but I still had a lingering feeling of tightness in my GI tract that made me uncomfortable. I decided to research juicing recipes to have some variety in my extractions and this was when I came across the reason for all the issues I had been experiencing with my morning juice regimen. Just like prescription medications, certain vegetables and fruit juices in their raw form have…. SIDE EFFECTS.

Before I get into the specifics, let me just note that fatigue, nausea, tummy troubles and constipation are all normal when undergoing a juice fast, partly because it is a shock to the system to ingest juice solely. The lack of fiber from ingesting raw juice can make you constipated, while also causing you gas because of all the minerals and enzymes reacting in the gut. What I did was use juice as a first meal of the day followed by balanced meals containing protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. I did not eat anything with my juice and waited at least 30 minutes to an hour before eating afterwards.

Here are the possible “negative” side effects of some popular juicing produce in their raw form. Keep in mind that they all have vast nutritional benefits, but for some of us, like yours truly, there can be an unpleasant sensitivity. Read on…

BEETS

Turning poop and urine a reddish color is a normal side effect that those who may not know, may get freaked out by. In rare cases, it can tighten the vocal chords, making it hard to speak. Usually this will happen when ingesting plain beet juice. Also, ingesting plain beet juice can facilitate the creation of kidney stones if you already have a pre-disposition towards them. Beet juice is also known to cause fluctuations in body temperature (hot flashes, anyone?), nausea and some degree of gastrointestinal distress 🙂 It naturally drops blood pressure, so if you are already on the low side some fainting spells may befall you.

GINGER

Mild side effects include heartburn, diarrhea and upset stomach. Some women report having heavier periods after ingesting ginger because ginger can interfere with blood clotting. Anyone taking medication to slow blood clotting like Warfarin otherwise known as Coumadin, Plavix or regular over the counter aspirin and ibuprofen could risk serious interactions. Ginger also dramatically decreases blood sugar, so diabetics and hypoglycemic folk need to be careful. Lastly, ginger is also known to interact with medications for blood pressure and heart disease. Powerful stuff, that ginger.

CELERY

Large amounts of this green could make the uterus contract and cause miscarriage in pregnant women; therefore it should be avoided during pregnancy and nursing. It is also known to cause drowsiness, since it sedates the central nervous system. This is not especially good if you are taking sedatives or planning to have surgery that requires anesthesia. It is recommended to avoid ingesting celery 2 weeks prior to a surgery. It can also increase sensitivity to sunlight, making sunburn, blistering and rashes likely if one is exposed to the sun. Finally, since celery is a natural diuretic (i.e. reduces fluid retention) it taxes the kidneys, our natural fluid filters. If your kidneys are compromised or diseased, celery should be avoided.

CUCUMBERS

So long as its not Chinese Cucumber, your standard English, Mediteranean or pickling varieties have only one annoying possible side effect – flatulence. This is due to a compound that can provoke indigestion in some people.

SOURCES:

Natural Medicine’s Comprehensive Professional Database (c) Therapeutic Research Faculty, 2009

http://voices.yahoo.com/identifying-beet-juice-side-effects-juicing-7742716.html