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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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.

What your poop has to say about your health

The practice of Haruspicy is common amongst African tribes. It is the practice of studying the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal to tell the future – wealth, health and many cattle being the optimal reading. Of course, when it comes to Western society, all matters of the intestinal kind are barely discussed unless within the framework of a crude joke or when pressed by one’s gastroenterologist. Forget about looking into the toilet after the deed is done. All we want to do is flush.

Thankfully, in my family, all we ever did was examine and discuss. There is a saying in Greek that a person either dies by way of their head (i.e. mind) or their ass (i.e. intestines). Hence, the daily dose of TMI over breakfast and/or dinner. Based on my experiences and research, here are some of the things you should ask of your bowels followed by a cautionary tale.

Did you go today?

A human being should defecate at least once a day, but if your track record is less than 3 movements per week, you are officially constipated. Since the bulk of water absorption happens in the large intestine, the longer your poop stays in there the more water gets absorbed out of it and the tougher it will be to pass. Dietary issues that may cause constipation can include inadequate water intake; inadequate fiber intake; overuse of coffee, tea, or alcohol; a recent change in your diet; and ignoring the urge to defecate. Reduced levels of exercise may play a role as well. Other factors to consider are psychological issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as medications whose side effects mess with the natural flow of things.

What should it look like?

Reference the amazing Bristol Stool Chart, a medical aid created by a doctor at the University of Bristol, England to classify human poop into 7 types. Types 1 through 3 indicate constipation. Normal poops are classified as Type 4 and 5. Types 6 and 7 indicate diarrhea and its precursor, respectively.

I love this thing!!!

Frequent bouts of constipation and/or diarrhea can be a warning sign/symptom of a number of conditions, such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and Celiac Disease. If diarrhea  lasts for more than a week, it can cause an electrolyte imbalance due to all the potassium and sodium loss. If not treated properly, that imbalance can lead to death. Listen to your poop and see your general practitioner if any of the above is the case.

What color is it?

The stool color spectrum is even more informative than the Bristol Chart. Heaps of information on one’s health habits can be gleaned from the color of their poop. Here are the notable ones.

Brown = Normal
You want your poop to be within the middle of the brown shade spectrum. This normal shade comes from bilirubin, the yellow biproduct of broken down blood cells, that enters the intestine by way of the liver and helps color the poop. It also makes our pee yellow in color. Darker brown poops can be a result of excess salt in one’s diet or from constipation.

Black and Tarry, better safe than sorry!                                                                                       Blood, when digested, looks black and has the consistency of tar. The bleeding could be an indication of a stomach ulcer, a bleed somewhere in the upper GI tract or even cancer. Certain ingredients in medications and vitamins containing heavy doses of iron can also produce such poops. Best to visit your MD as soon as you become aware of this ominous color.

The Anemic Poop

If your movement is very light, almost grey in color and you didn’t just have a colonoscopy, then you may be experiencing some kind of blockage of a bile duct, gall bladder dysfunction and/or even liver disease.

Yellow like a newborn babe

Newborn babies that are breast feeding tend to have frequent poops that are yellow and slick in color because their bowel system is so fast and the content of their meal so fatty. Poop of this color and nature in adults can mean a few things. Assuming you haven’t consumed a whole lot of beta carotene rich foods or candy dyed with artificial yellow coloring, it could mean fat is not being properly absorbed and therefore, is getting excreted through the bowel. The poop will also stink to high heaven and float on the water’s surface like an oil slick. If you have recently traveled to a developing area of the world, it can also signify an infection known as Giardiasis, caused by a parasite that gives you yellow diarrhea. Another condition that causes poop to come out yellow is Gilbert’s Syndrome which is an excess of bilirubin, also making the person look jaundiced.

Going Green

If you are a person who loves their leafy vegetables, your poops will obviously represent that. But if your body is moving food too quickly through your system, as in the case when you have diarrhea, bile does not have sufficient time to breakdown and stays in the poop, dying it green. Also iron supplements can stain poop green (in higher concentrations, black) too. If you are going green consistently, you may want to get your liver/gallbladder checked out.

Now where things get a little serious…A Cautionary Tale of Colon Cancer:

For years my father dealt with bouts of constipation stemming from what he self diagnosed as a “bad stomach.” In his youth, he had very poor nutrition, as his family lived in abject poverty. Upon his 12th birthday, he left to work on the cargo ships where he ate whatever was canned and salted amidst dank conditions and constant stress. In his early twenties, he came to the U.S. and ate one meal a day while working 12 hour shifts at a restaurant. He worked like an animal going from dishwasher, to busboy, to food runner, to line cook and finally, head cook of a high end Greek eatery. Then he bought his own restaurant along with two other friends. The workload should have been divided by three, but my dad ended up working 24 hours shifts. He lived on black coffee and inhaled meals on the go. When he got married to my mom, issues with his partners ended up forcing him to carry the restaurant himself. He had to be everywhere at one time. He was always under slept, stressed and constipated. When he did poop, it would be very hard to pass or would come out in ribbon like pieces. He dropped to 125 lbs. He looked scary. Solution: my parents sold the business and moved to Greece. He ate well. He basked in the sun. He gained weight and pooped like clockwork. Everything was great, except for one detail. Island life in Greece circa 1980 was something my mother could not handle with two babies. There was only one phone in each village, no indoor plumbing and limited access to the things needed to take care of us. She wanted to go back. My father listened. In the years that followed, my father worked from scratch again, since the restaurant was sold before we moved. He learned he had an ulcer in his stomach. He had kidney stones. He was constipated. He put himself on special “diets” to cleanse his bowels and calm his sour stomach. He was angry and stressed all the time. Life was not pleasant. Then he retired from all work when he turned 50. Despite the lack of work related stress, he was still angry and preoccupied. The patterns of constipation continued throughout the rest of the 90’s and in the first decade of 2000’s. This past December, after experiencing some intense pain on his left side and being unable to eat, he went for his first colonoscopy. It indicated adenocarcinoma, the cancer that typically occurs in the colon. Thankfully, it was still in stage 2 and operable. He is now doing chemo, eating super well, and gaining back weight and energy. The doctors feel optimistic that he beat it. My point of outlining his whole story is that had he paid attention to what his colon was telling him all along with the bouts of constipation and digestive issues, he would have changed his lifestyle and eating habits for the better. He is lucky. Had he refused, as many old school European types tend to do, to go for that colonoscopy, he probably would have been well into stage 4 before it was detected. It would have been too late.

Listen to your poop…it could save your life.