My Macro Journey to Fitness – Part 2

Feed me, Julia!

But how?

Prescription Food

In the Fall of 2009, I started my program in Massage Therapy at The Swedish Institute. Along with foundational coursework like Anatomy & Physiology, I was given an education in Eastern medicine. In my introductory class, we discussed the 5 Element theory to diagnosing and treating imbalances in the body. It broke down the acupressure point meridians and the paired organs that represented diagnostic elements. Dysfunction in these paired organs manifested physically and emotionally in the body. Treatments included bodywork, acupuncture, herbs and nutrition. There were foods to avoid and foods to promote the function of these pairs depending on the diagnosis given. Each element itself was associated with certain tastes and manners of eating.

My mind was officially blown!

Food as a healing prescription instead of an anxiety inducing activity resonated with me. I wasn’t at the point yet where I even liked to eat. All I knew was that I had to eat.

Maybe those cravings for lamb burgers were more than just cravings!

I soon learned that eating disorders like my Anorexia stemmed from imbalances in the paired organ relationship of Stomach and Spleen. Makes sense, right? Food goes into the Stomach and then is transformed and assimilated as energy or Qi that gets stored in the Spleen. Depleting my body of nutrients meant I had very little stored energy. People with Stomach and Spleen deficiencies experience a loss of appetite, digestive issues, difficulty putting on muscle, general weakness and lack of tone in their limbs, metabolic imbalances and irregular menstrual cycles. The emotional/spiritual manifestation of their imbalance is anxiety, worry, excessive thinking, pensiveness, obsessiveness, remorse, regret, obsessions, and self-doubt.

Pretty much summed me up.

I bought and borrowed every book I could find on TCM (i.e. Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Eastern theory. One of my class exercises was to create a 3 Day menu for an element of our choice. You know which one I chose. I ended up implementing this menu in my own life. In the first few months of 2010, I started to see muscle definition and an increase in my strength. My program was a mostly strength based workout with my trainer 2x per week and 2 days of some kind of cardio endurance training on my own.

But by March, I found myself overcome with a strange new craving after my cardio workouts and it scared the crap out of me.

SUGAR!

Not your optimal post workout nutrition

Even though it was scary, this powerful urge for sweet made a lot of sense. Metabolically, I was depleting my energy reserves with the duration of my cardio activities. It was my brain telling my body you need the quickest form of energy available or you’ll crash. This energy is glucose. We derive glucose from consuming carbohydrates. The sugars in carbs are broken down to synthesize glucose which goes directly into the blood stream, also known as our “blood sugar.” From these same carbs, we also manufacture glycogen, a more complex sugar which is stored in our muscles and the liver. When blood sugar is depleted, a chemical messenger gets released that signals the glycogen stores to be broken down to glucose, which then gets sent into the blood stream to replenish our levels.

My, then, boyfriend was all too happy to entertain this new craving and together we indulged it. Maybe I felt safer to consume sweets in his presence because it took the edge off of the guilt I felt. Sugar in any form was something I avoided and restricted. It caused me to have anxiety and made me moody. My periods were more painful. And the worst result of all was an increase in my body fat percentage by the year’s end because I wasn’t careful with my portions.

This habit could not continue.

I clearly had to change the way I was working out on my own and what I was consuming afterward. I didn’t want all my hard work to be for nought.

The science of snacking, post workout

I looked into the chapters on nutrition in a few different Exercise Science textbooks. Many of them spoke about consuming a high glycemic index carb within a half hour to an hour of endurance workouts in order to replenish blood sugar levels and prevent the muscles from being targeted for glycogen breakdown. Muscles need that energy to repair themselves, not to keep you from fainting after your workout. Also recommended for muscle repair and recovery was a protein, preferably from the 8 essential aminos family and especially high lucein in nature, along with a source of Omega 3 fatty acid. The above macro-nutrients were recommended to be eaten within 90 mins post workout. If I could create a snack that encompassed all the macros I needed, I would not only be doing my body good, but would also be shutting the sugar cravings down for good.

Box Jumps – an advanced exercise in this High Intensity Interval Training routine

I discovered High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT while watching a documentary on obesity in the UK in 2011. I learned that 20 minutes of intense activity done in short intervals using 90% of my max energy level with even shorter rests in between accomplished more than any of my 90 min cardio benders.

This was a more efficient way of getting my cardio in no matter what my schedule was like. I started with beginner level intervals and within a year, made it to more advanced routines. I already had a good cardio base to work with and I was careful not to do movements where I felt my form was anything short of perfect.

MAJOR NOTE: HIIT is something to work up to. You cannot go from a sedentary lifestyle right into this kind of exercise. You need a strong cardio vascular system and a keen understanding of form before going “balls to the wall” – seek out a trainer that can get you there!

It may have taken almost 7 years, but I had finally found the fitness formula that worked best for me – a combination of strength training and HIIT along with proper nutrition to support my activity levels.

And an amazing thing happened. I started to like eating.

My Macro Go To’s

I make my own post workout snacks on the days where I was not running to work after training. I’m not anal about measuring out the exact proportions of high glycemic carb, protein and fat, but I more or less estimate a portion size that my body responds well to (i.e. no cramping, stitches or bloating after eating)

One of my favorite post workout snacks is a cup of full fat Greek yogurt, with 3 Medjool dates, a tsp of Greek honey and 2 tsps of tahini.

I also created a shake recipe that tastes a lot like lemon cake batter. I blend 1 cup of Kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt that is a great source of probiotic strains for your GI), 1 frozen banana, 10 blueberries, 1 tsp almond butter and 2 tsps ProOmega D-Xtra liquid from Nordic Naturals (a great source of Omega 3 fatty acid).

Lemon flavored source of Vitamin D3 and Omega 3 fatty acid

Lastly, when I’m in need of a snack on the go between clients, I prefer the  Go Macro macro-nutrient bar along with some kind of fruit. My favorite combo to date is the cashew butter macrobar “sweet rejuvenation” (pictured below) with a medium sized ripe apricot.

 

ADDITIONAL SOURCES and READING:

Journal of Applied Physiologyhttp://jap.physiology.org/content/89/5/1845.full

Muscle Glycogen Synthesis Before and After Exercisehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2011684

Haff, Gregory G and Triplett, Travis N. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th Edition” (NSCA, USA)

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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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Metabolic Obesity: Redefining Fat

When many of us think of fat, we picture folds and rolls that jiggle. The fat that the health and beauty industries market toward is that which is under the skin, otherwise known as subcutaneous fat. It’s the same fat that puckers through weak connective tissue grids creating what we call cellulite. While this fat is concerning from both an aesthetic and health oriented perspective, there is a far more insidious kind of fat not always visible on the outside who is responsible for a host of diseases in the long term. This fat is not assessed by volume like those caliper pinching tools used to tell you your overall body fat %, but by location. This is your deeper fat reserve – your visceral fat.

The how to of measuring one kind of fat…caliper in action

Visceral fat (also known as brown fat or metabolic fat) gets its name because of where you find it – nestled deep in the abdominal cavity surrounding organs (i.e. viscera) like the liver, intestines, pancreas and kidneys. It’s there as an energy back up for your vital organs as well as to cushion and protect them. Your body is hardwired to maintain this fat, unless there is a deficit (i.e. starvation or intense exercise). In fact, even when not starving, this fat produces substances that affect insulin levels and communicate with the liver to influence blood fat content ensuring that the vital organs always get fed. In a famine, this fat will be the first to go before your body resorts to breaking down surface fat, muscles and organs for fuel. Now, imagine that you have more than what you need of this highly active fat? It pumps out pro-inflammatory cells into your blood stream, since it has a tight relationship with a major blood vessel to the liver and heart. These cells cause insulin resistance which is the precursor to Type II diabetes as well as promote the development of heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cancer of the bowel. Research even suggests that visceral fat increases production of the stress hormone, cortisol, and reduces levels of feel-good endorphins, leaving you feeling low on so many levels.

Being that it is so metabolically active, plentiful visceral fat is not the easiest to get rid of. This is also why people who have excess are now being termed metabolically obese regardless of whether they look lean or large. The tell tale sign of this excess in most people is the gut. While the gut is more prevalent in men who tend to have more fat stores in their belly region due to their hormones, menopausal women can also display this type of distention. Waist circumference will give you an inkling as to whether visceral fat is high; 35 inches or more in women and 40 inches and above for men. Another factor that affects visceral fat accumulation beyond gender and hormones is heredity/ethnic background. If people in your family tend to be apple shaped, meaning that more of their fat resides in the upper body, chances are your visceral fat is going to be higher. Following patterns amongst ethnic groups, it was found that excess visceral fat pops up in white men, African American women, Asian Indian and Japanese men and women most often. In addition, certain environmental factors play a role such as smoking and the consumption of compounds in food that mimic estrogen. Known as xenoestrogen or “foreign estrogen” they enter the body through the eating of plants and meats that have been exposed to or naturally contain these compounds and wreak havoc on hormonal levels which mess with visceral fat accumulation. However, many people suffer from metabolic obesity, as I noted earlier, without any outward sign of a large tummy. In fact, they might look pretty lean to the naked eye and register BMI’s that are in normal range.  The only way they find out their visceral fat is high is through an MRI or CT like scan, where the fat’s location can be clearly seen, as demonstrated in the below image. Of course, this is a costly test that is not always accessible or covered by insurance.

MRI Scan done in Britain of an outwardly thin person, who clearly has a large amount of visceral fat, as seen in the white regions of his abdomen (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1536556/Get-in-touch-with-your-inner-fat.html)

 

So now that your perception of fat is altered, what can you do to reduce excess visceral fat? A 2007 study indicated that High-Intesity exercise was most effective when done at least 4-5 hours a week. Another added bonus for some of the individuals taking part in this study, when combined with dietary tweaking, was an overall reduction of their subcutaneous fat % thus putting BMI levels in normal range. I can’t think of a better prescription than food and exercise. Of course, the best people to consult with for said script would be a nutritionist or registered dietician and a personal trainer. The former for an overhaul of your diet and eating habits and the latter for the right training regimen. My personal feeling with respect to trainers is to do your research and look for someone who has a strong background (cumulative experience and/or degree) in exercise physiology or kinesiology to construct a program of exercise that best suits your body, fitness level and individual goals. Physical therapists and doctors that specialize in sports medicine can be great sources for referrals of this kind.

 

Cellulite is NOT an itis…

On the left, cellulitis; On the right, cellulite – big difference!

I can’t tell you how many times, when discussing “trouble spots” with a client they refer to their cellulitis. What they mean to say is their cellulite, but the term they choose has nothing to do with the aesthetic appearance of their wobbly bits (see image above). It is understandable that for some women, the look of cellulite can feel like a serious medical condition. With summer unexpectedly here, they become acutely aware of their “imperfections” and panic; rushing to the spa for any firming, toning and detoxifying treatments available in the hopes that they can bare their flesh without fierce judgements. Cellulite doesn’t happen overnight, though. We are all born with a certain amount of fat cells that are distributed throughout our bodies according to our genetics. As we enter puberty, hormonal fluctuations affect our metabolism and shifts the distribution of the fat underneath our skin. The same thing occurs as we age and enter into menopause. In 80 to 90% of women, some level of cellulite will be visible; however the following factors greatly influence its widespread formation. Take notes:

  • Poor circulation and lymphatic drainage

The tissues in your body need to be fed and then flushed of the by products and toxins left behind after the fact. However, if you have a genetic or pathological insufficiency, the “toilet water” sits and festers, causing the breakdown of the matrix that holds the fat cells in their proper place. Since it all has to get flushed up and out, the areas most affected are the extremities. Exactly where you don’t want to see the cellulite.

  • Increased levels of stress hormones in the blood

We all know a high stress lifestyle can take a toll on our health, but it also has an affect on our fat distribution and connective tissue. Cortisol and catecholamines are stress hormones release by the adrenal glands as part of our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous response. The body instinctively slows its metabolism and increases its “padding” of fat as it reacts to survive. The presence of the hormones over long periods of time can start to break down connective tissue, which as mentioned above, creates the matrix that holds the fat cells at bay. Once the matrix is damaged, the fat cells push up against the lower layers of skin, which is the puckered look that we all recognize as cellulite. The slowed metabolism also causes weight gain, which swells the size of the fat cells, making them pucker up even more.

  • Yo-yo dieting

Weight fluctuations occur as a result of physiological and hormonal changes. Step on the scale in the morning and again at night, and you could see your number rise or fall by 5-8 lbs. This is normal. Patterns of weight loss and gain over long periods of time of more than 20 lbs, damages the elasticity of the skin and connective tissue matrix. Out pops the cellulite.

  • Liposuction

Remember how we are all born with a certain number of fat cells? This procedure removes them from specific areas of the body also referred to as “re-contouring.” Once the fat cells are gone, they are gone. However, should the individual gain weight, the fat cells that are left redistribute the bulk in places the individual never had before. This is why the best candidates for liposuction are those who lead an active lifestyle and have a consistently clean diet.

And speaking of active lifestyles and clean diets, let’s segue into how one can address cellulite. Certain treatments and topical applications can produce visible results if the person remains consistent with modifications to their diet and exercise. Here are some of the one’s I can vouch for in my professional and personal practice. Still taking notes, I hope :-).

Dry brushing per day keeps the cellulite at bay…

Dry Brushing – One of my favorites is dry brushing. The practice consists of lightly brushing the surface of the skin in long upward strokes, starting at the lower limbs and moving upwards toward the heart. The brush bristles should be made of natural fibers and the brush itself easy to grip in order to properly handle it. Not only will you exfoliate the top layer of skin, but the increased blood flow to the capillary networks renews and tightens the skin’s surface. The movement towards the heart promotes proper circulation and flushing of the tissues via the lymphatic system. Done daily, it’s a great way to diminish the dimples.

Flushing and tightening

Caffeine, topically applied – As a little girl in Greece, every female relative young and old swore by their CLARINS cellulite cream and slathered in liberally in all corners and crevices of their bodies. What many creams geared toward cellulite contain is caffeine and what they do is act as a diuretic for the tissues, flushing out excess fluid and helping to tighten the surface of the skin. The cellulite puckers less; happy times on the beach. What I have seen work best is an application of caffeinated cream prior to a workout. The combination of an exercise induced sweat and that of the caffeine is like a one-two punch, firming and flushing. Also, since tissue repair happens during sleep, an application at night can be effective as well.

Courtesy of “8 Kilos to 50” Tumblr (You go girl!)

Get your sweat on and build muscle Recall how earlier we talked about people having a predisposed amount of fat cells that are distributed under the deepest level of skin in different ways dependent on genetics, hormones and age. These factors are sort of written in stone; however what you can control is how much a fat cell can swell. Therefore, the amount of lean muscle you build will reduce the size of the fat cells and help spike your metabolism, as muscle requires more calories than fat for maintenance. Reducing your overall body fat % will counter the factors you cannot control. A wonderful little exercise known as the Bulgarian Split Squat can do a whole lot to diminish the look of the dimples that many women have directly under their gluteal fold. At least, that’s what I have found within my own workouts. A tiny addendum to this bit on exercise is to make sure you are hydrating properly to flush your system out while also maintaining a balanced diet that is specific to your activity level and overall bodily needs. Consulting a registered dietician or certified nutritionist for advice is a great way to make sure you are eating right for you, cellulite or not.

It is also important to keep in mind that within that 80-90% of women who have cellulite are the fashion models, actresses and popular girls we gush(ed) over and/or envy. It’s a fact of physiological life that we can address to a certain extent, but inevitably must come to accept. Be good to your body through all its transformations and transitions and hopefully, it will be good to you.