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.

 

Spa Confidential: An Opinion Editorial on the Wellness Underbelly

Back in 2000, chef Anthony Bourdain released his best seller “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly” a part auto-biography, part behind the scenes look at restaurant kitchens. For many, his cautionary tales, anecdotes and commentary changed the way people viewed the restaurant industry.  Inspired by some recent “unrest” amongst spa staff where I work, this post is a peek into the urban day spa. Nestled in the bowels of a cacophonous city, the spa should function as a mecca of relaxation for the guest. Leave your troubles at the door and enter a sanctuary of blissful rest for the next hour and change, depending on what treatment you have booked. However, if you are an observant type (and I so  am THAT person) you may be able to detect an undercurrent of negative, frenetic energy emanating from the staff servicing your decompression.

You may also wonder why, in a feel good business such as the spa industry, would anyone be in a negative way? Part of what makes me look forward to going to work is that 99.9% of my clients leave with a smile on their face and compliments falling out of their mouths. What other “service” profession is that gratifying?  Whatever the state they arrive in, be it imbalance, stress or sometimes pain, they leave in a better place than they arrived.  That makes me feel like my therapeutic duties have been satisfied. After all, I went back to school to become a massage therapist in order to help people. Being able to make a decent living is an added, secondary bonus. It sometimes makes me wonder where a colleague’s priorities are with respect to this profession, when I sense their disdain at having to work. More often that not, it is the feeling that their employers do not have their best interests in mind that overtakes their therapeutic mood, tainting them for their clients and all other people in their path. A recent corporate decision had many staff members airing their fears and complaints via online forum. Some of the things I read made absolute sense, but others were unbelievable laments of the ills dealt to them. Here is the thing – if I was that miserable and downtrodden at work, I wouldn’t stand for it. I would be on a fiendish search for a new home for my skills. Yes, the economy is not the greatest, but it is possible to find a number of part time gigs to supplement what you need to live, financially speaking. You can also grow your private clientelle, especially if you have been at this profession for a number of years. I am almost two years in and I have 4 steady clients I see privately in addition to my spa work. If I can do it, what’s stopping you? Is almighty FEAR rearing its head again? Or is it the stubbornness of the old school mentality of working the same job for 20-30 years, retiring and living off a comfortable pension for the rest of your years; no worries?

I don’t pretend to know everything (although I would love for that to be the case…ALWAYS 🙂 ), I just feel passionate about my profession and wish that more of my colleagues shared that sentiment. It’s so unfair, both to ourselves and to our clients, to allow policy changes and corporate memos to affect how we feel about the work and quality of service. It’s frustrating to have just a few minutes between appointments to not only walk your client back to reality, but clean the room, change the sheets, wash your hands and run to the next appointment without looking or acting harried. It’s frustrating to ask spa attendants for supplies you desperately need for your treatments, only to have them shrug and say they don’t know where anything is even though they have been working there longer than I have been licensed. It’s frustrating to have commissions you have worked hard for get slashed twice in a year, with no incentive on the horizon to reward your hard work. And finally, it’s frustrating that computer glitches and “prioritized” booking causes appointments to be unevenly distributed. How we anticipate these frustrations and how well we support each other as a team will make all the difference. I arrive early, I give the best possible service experience to my clients under the conditions I have to work with, I smile and say “YAY” when I greet them (not always, but when merited like “YAY, this is your first massage ever” or “YAY, you found a babysitter so we can give you the TLC you deserve, etc.), I squirrel away the supplies I need in bulk and give myself internal pep talks about the universe taking care of all. It’s been working for me so far, but as soon as it gets to the point where my clients become aware of my frustrations, I will need to reassess. Maybe the urban day spa may not be the right place for my work in the long run; however no matter what space I work within, I am always myself – a licensed health care professional with your well being in mind.