Better & Bolder, the Blog

Fascinated with Fat

The March 2013 issue of Outside magazine focused on nutrition, and there were a bunch of really interesting articles in the issue. 

In particular, this article by Bill Gifford explains how exercise helps us feel less hungry. Gifford also writes that fat not only is bad for our health, but "Starting in the 1990s, though, scientists began to realize that fat is best understood as a single huge endocrine gland, one that wields powerful influence over the rest of the body. 'For a typical North American, their fat tissue is their biggest organ,' says James Kirkland, M.D., director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic.” That’s a Wow for me. I had thought of fat as something passive. 

The article details how our body fat is not passive; instead, it exerts an active and increasing effect on our entire system. In part this means, "In any sedentary, inactive person—including people who aren’t actually obese—fat invades the muscles, slipping in between muscle fibers,” and it also means "fat infiltrates individual muscle cells in the form of lipid droplets that make the cells sluggish.” Fat makes us hungrier and also makes it more difficult for us to burn off fat. 

The solution to this is more muscle, which has more mitochondria (the article describes mitochondria as cellular power plants). More mitochondria means more fat burning. Adding muscle doesn’t just make us stronger and help us look better. It actually changes our body chemistry. That’s another Wow for me, so I’m going to write it again: muscles change more than our physique. Muscles do more than help us burn more calories. Muscles change our body chemistry. That is so cool.


Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times adds to this with “How Exercise Changes Fat and Muscle Cells.” In this study, exercise can "alter how genes operate.” Genes turn on or off according to signals, and one area of study will be whether these alterations can be passed down to the next generation. In other words, does the exercising parent hand down genes that are more resistant to Type II diabetes? I’ll say it again: Wow.


Read Gifford’s article only in part for the science. It’s also a captivating story of how exercising more and losing fat changed some men’s lives. 


The other article from this issue of Outside was “The Secret Food of Athletes" in which it was declared, “You’re only as good as your last meal.” Much of what the article emphasizes is that we adjust what and how we eat according to what fuel we need. If I’m going out for a long run, I need different fuel that day than a day when I’m working mostly at my computer. 

The other point of the article is that we need to eat whole foods. It’s not about fancy supplements and perfect ratios. Elite athletes in training are reminded to eat more veggies, nuts, and seeds. They may be burning calories like crazy with their workouts, but not all calories will give them what they need to perform well. 

The nutritionists and coaches recognize that athletes are emotional eaters, too, so it’s important not to “demonize” food, according to the article. Rather, the focus is on understanding how a food hurts or helps us. One athlete didn’t stop craving Oreos, she said. She just craved an Olympic medal more. You and I probably aren’t training for the Olympics, yet I can still look at a food and know whether it will make me irritable or bloated or itchy or happy or full or whatever. Then I choose not just on what it’s like to eat the food but how it’s going to make me feel over the next few hours or the next day. 


I want to tie in one final, big piece here. I recently sent out a Better and Bolder email about protein. In the article that I referenced, the amounts listed for protein were too high for me. They might be perfect for you or for someone, but they’re too high for me. I think about that a lot. Running barefoot is good for me. For you?  Maybe, maybe not. Eating this much protein is good for me. For you? Maybe, maybe not. There are a lot of experts out there ready to tell us what to do. We are our own expert. We learn by experimenting, not by implementing what worked for someone else.

Recently, a UNM professor tweeted that obese PhD applicants didn't have "willpower to stop eating carbs" and so wouldn't have the willpower to complete their dissertation. Jerk. Not only was his comment mean and self-centered, and judgmental, and discriminatory, it also was incorrect. There is not a correlation between obesity and career achievements.  David Kessler, author of The End of Overeatinghas written about the science of junk food addiction. He started his research in part because he was fascinated by his own lack of control with junk food when in all other  aspects of his life, he was quite accomplished. (Here’s a nice article about his work.) 

There’s plenty of science to back up the theory that food, particularly processed food, can be addictive, in which case “willpower” is not what it takes to overcome it. That’s one thing. 

The other point is that if we put Professor Jerk on the same diet and nutrition plan as 10 other people, we’d get 10 results. Yes, Professor Evolutionary Psychologist Who Doesn’t Understand Psychology All That Well, it’s not your spectacular willpower that has enabled you to have the body you have. Some of it is your genes.  

My recent blog Beast discussed Runner’s World’s interview with David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene. Epstein explains how genes affect our abilities as athletes. Some are more suited to be distance runners while others do better as sprinters and, yes, some of us should stick to walking. Some people respond more quickly and efficiently than others to training. One of the points of Epstein's article is if we put any two people through exactly through the same training regimen, they won’t get the same results. It’s not just about motivation, intention, and heart. It’s also about genes. We can do only so much with what we’ve got.


Let’s put all these articles together. Put any two people through exactly the same nutrition program, and they won’t get the same results. Some of that may be due to their genes. Some may be due to how much muscle they have, which may be due to their genes (see Epstein’s interview), and how much fat they have (see above: more fat means it’s more difficult to burn fat). 

If someone builds muscle slowly, that person may gain fat more easily; having gained more fat, that person then finds it even more difficult to burn off the fat. 

Of course, some of the difference is due to willpower, strategies, and effective planning. Some is due to how hard someone works. Some of it is due to knowledge. For sure, some people work harder than others and some people don’t work hard at all. Acknowledged. 

Let’s just consider, though, what it’s like for the person who works hard and, due to genes, doesn’t see great results. How much more motivated does that person have to be to continue? When I workout, I gain muscle and I can see that. What a nice reward! When I workout, my happy hormones fly. What a nice reward! When I eat processed foods, I feel so miserable. There’s enough negative reward to reinforce a better nutrition plan for me. For the person who doesn’t get these rewards and doesn’t have this feedback, it takes a lot of information, some hardcore strategies, and incredible heart and determination to continue with that exercise and nutrition plan. 

If you have a lot of fat and not a lot of muscle and it’s always been difficult to build muscle and shockingly easy to add fat, I want you to a) cut yourself some slack and b) don’t give up. 


Here’s a mea culpa or two. I’ve seen obese people and wondered why they didn’t do something to be healthier, i.e. not obese. News flash to me: maybe they’re doing everything they can. Maybe they’re working twice as hard as I am to be fit and to eat well, and this is how their body responds. Maybe they’re obese and healthy; we know being skinny does not equate to being healthy. 

Here’s the counterpart to that. Sometimes I have similar comparative thoughts about myself. If So-And-So is thin, shouldn’t I be able to be thin too? That person must eat better than I do. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe So-And-So’s genes are different than mine, and So-And-So’s life is different, and besides, what’s so great about thin that I’m bothering to compare myself? 

Comparing myself to others will not make me happier. Shoring up my ego by looking down on someone who weighs more than I do is, let’s be honest, pathetic. It keeps me tethered to the same problem: that I think my body’s worth is in its weight and appearance rather than its pleasure and functionality. 

It’s human -- our tendency to compare -- and I can forgive myself while not letting myself off the hook. That behavior, judging others and judging myself, doesn’t serve any of us and, human nature or not, it’s a behavior I can indulge in less. What helps me is information from articles such as these. It’s one thing to know that we’re all different, blah blah blah, and it’s another to look at exactly what are all the factors influencing our physical abilities, weight, and well-being. It’s fascinating! and this fascination is a perfect antidote to being judgmental. It’s exactly the energy I can bring to my own training and eating. 

Fascinating!

Expectations and Ego


Part one: Expectations

In “the Joy of Mindful Cooking” Laura Fraser talks with Edward Espe Brown, a Buddhist monk known for his great cookbooks (Tricycle Fall 2009). Brown says, “Mindfulness is much more about receiving your experience than dictating it. Most people’s habits of mind and activity, when it comes to cooking, are about making it come out the way it’s supposed to rather than receiving and appreciating it the way it is.”

I totally do that with food I prepare. I think it should be a certain way so I enjoy it a wee bit less because it isn’t what I thought it would be. I completely rob myself of the experience. Thief! 


I realized after reading this interview how I’d done the same thing with my summer. I had expectations about how this summer would be. It would be great, like last summer. I’d slim down like last summer and run a lot and feel good about myself. I’m not sure what else made last summer so great. This summer feels less great. 

Summer is my favorite time of year and I don’t have to work and I should be happy happy happy every minute. 


My theme for this year, for 2013, has been Savor. I haven’t quite known what to do with the theme. The theme just came to me (well, okay, I was looking for a theme, a word, something to guide what I wanted out of the year). I rush when I eat. I plan the next great thing when I’m doing something. I want to savor more.

I do savor beauty when I’m out for a walk. That I get every time. Nature is easier for me to savor, though I’m still pretty quick, as in “oh, look, the moon is so beautiful” and three seconds later “okay, I saw it; we can go back inside.” Smell the moment! Done. 


Realizing that this summer has been delightful on its own terms helped a bit. I also run through my accomplishments. I’ve reorganized my office, checked off a bunch of things on my To Do list, and made progress on some of the big stuff, the personal development and growth that I set as tasks for myself. I’m moving right along. 

I get scared whenever I feel depressed. When it’s summer, shouldn’t I be happy all the time? That’s a pretty high expectation. Perhaps I’d panic less at feeling depressed if I didn’t hold the expectation that, sure, I can feel depressed in winter but it’s simply not okay in summer. I know that our environment and circumstances have far less to do with our happiness than other factors. Even knowing that didn’t help much this time around. 

To reframe: summer itself is fine. My expectations around summer diminish my actual experience of summer. 


Part two: Ego

I went to Betty’s Bath today. I got in the women’s tub to soak, though mostly to let the jets push on all my sore spots. My calves are tight. My ankles hurt more. And there’s something up with my hip or my groin and I realize that I don’t really understand my body. I can point to my thighs but not to any particular muscles. I don’t know exactly what I did or why my hip/thigh/groin hurts, and it’s not clear to me how to make it un-hurt, except that it seemed a plenty good idea to soak and not to run today. 

Not running is a lot less fun than it sounds. I love the feeling of running, and -- here it is -- I love the ego boost of “oh, hey, yeah, I went for a run today,” especially when that run is long, 7 or 8 miles or more. 

At Betty’s, blessed be their business, I soaked and then sat in the sun, naked, reading Shambala Sun, which I picked up at the library in their magazine bin where library patrons leave magazines they’ve read and no longer want. Blessed be the libraries and all those who bring their magazines, too. 

This issue of the magazine, which is devoted to Buddhist studies, focused on the body. The cover reads “Your Body: Pleasure, Pain, Performance, Path.” That’s about it for me, yes. 

I’m relieved when I read something in a Buddhist article that reminds me we’re all about avoiding pain. We all seek pleasure. It’s just what we do. 

In “Topping the Charts for Freedom” Pamela Gayle White interviews Ani Choying Drolma, a singing nun (yes!) who survived early years of beatings from her abusive father. Drolma moved to a Buddhist monastery and there felt nurtured and loved. 

She says about the pain of her childhood, “What happened happened; I can’t undo it. I’ve learned that it’s stupid to live in that unpleasant experience forever. The most painful situation took place long ago, but as you relive it, you make yourself suffer over and over again. The main question is how much you want to break free of your patterns and dissatisfaction regarding what you’ve been through. What happened happened, yes, but what’s happened since then has been quite amazing.” 

This is one of the personal/spiritual growth areas I’ve focused this summer. The painful stuff from my childhood is still living with me and still living in my body. I’m certain it fuels some of my eating disorders. I’m certain it’s part of my body’s aches and pains. 

I’m certain, too, that it’s an echo. I’m safe now. Life is very, very good. I’m not guaranteed a future without pain and suffering or even abuse. Today, right now, it’s good. I chose a good man to be my husband. Our home is free of abuse and unkindness. Yea me! Good choices! 

I do not need, on any level, to relive pain and suffering. The echoes persist; the habits persist. I have to  unwind them. I unkink them from my body. I peel back the layers of the onion until all that’s left is a memory, a first feeling, a gut response, and I can let it go. I’m not there yet. I’m further along. 

Drolma says, “My story is that of a simple girl who wanted to avoid suffering, just like everybody else. I looked for an alternative and was lucky to find a path that really allowed me to move forward.  Rinpoche helped me see the situation in a way that wasn’t quite so harsh [her father wasn’t a terrible person who didn’t love her]. ...What is needed is a spiritual environment where there’s a lot of love. Unconditional love makes us feel relaxed and accepted, without being judged. It allowed me to understand things in a simple way without blaming. Everyone else has the right to be happy, too.”

Sigh. Yes. Everyone has the right to be happy. You, me, everybody. 

Several years ago, I set as my task to hold unconditional love for my body. I’m not there yet. I’m further along. I still judge myself and my body, sometimes quite harshly. This is a function of ego. 

This ego is why it’s so important to me to go for a run and say, “See what I can do! I’m strong. I’m fast.” 

My body is telling a different story. My body is manifesting one ache or pain after another. I know this is about growing stronger. The aches in my feet and ankles are transitional. I have to learn how to better care for my calves and thighs so they don’t get so tight. I have to be diligent in my form so that my legs hang and swing as they should and my hips don’t get hitched up. I also have to let go of a goal that me and my ego really want: to run a half-marathon and do it in a fast time (that’s relative; fast means my age group at the local level). 

I’m making good, slow progress on my form and barefoot running. Trouble shows up when I start in on training for that half. When I do speed work, an injury shows up. When I go for a long run, an injury shows up. Basically anything I do to push myself in my training for the half means an ache or pain becomes more pronounced. I still have time before the late October half-marathons. I might make it. I also might be better off enjoying 5 mile runs and letting go of the goal of a half-marathon for now. 

I may not have unconditional love for my body, but I do know that running is first and foremost about pleasure. It’s about really loving how it feels to move. It’s about being outside. I enjoy training, goals, speedwork, improving, all of that. It’s fun and exciting though not necessarily pleasurable. It’s deeply satisfying to my ego. 

We all like an ego boost. Many of us have somewhat fragile egos. We need lots of boosting. Or we have high expectations. If I adjust my expectations down, I can get an ego boost from much less. Hey, I ran 5 miles on Thursday, which is super fabulous. I spent time with my husband, read a book, took care of business, taught a fun Nia class -- win, score, win again. What I do can count for a lot more and what I don’t do can be of far less consequence. 


Savor. Today at Betty’s, nude, in the sun, I finished reading a book in my favorite form of Chick Lit, which is the YA fantasy or sci fi novel. It’s always a female heroine. She’s impossibly tough and smart. Someone or often several guys fall for her deeply and utterly. Everyone grows up a bit and usually they manage to save the world. The end. I love this stuff. 

I finished this book and thought that maybe I’d just start another one and keep reading all week. Instead of working, I’d just read and lay in the sun and eat apples with peanut butter whenever I want. I would do whatever was deeply pleasurable. 

Pleasure is physical. Pleasure sings to our spirit -- or maybe that’s with our spirit. Pleasure is not greedy or selfish. It’s satisfying and whole and without agenda. There is no addiction or compulsion. To experience pleasure, we must savor. 


Beast


I’m a beast.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

I’m a beast as we’re all beasts. We’re animals. We are selfish and brutish (some of the time). We need touch. We are built to move, to crawl and jump and run. We’re also built to be lazy, to conserve energy, to establish routines that allow us to utilize the fewest possible resources.

I’m the particular type of beast who craves movement. I love to dance with my eyes closed. I love pushing, that very visceral act of putting my weight into a movement. I love to run, most especially when I’m on the bosque trails that force me to shift or jump to adjust to the terrain.

I’m also a lazy beast. All summer, I’ve been telling myself I need to do more core work, more upper body strengthening, some specific drills to increase my strength and balance for running. I run my three runs a week and teach Nia four times, and all of that is routinized. It’s a habit and there’s a particular time and place for it all, which is good. Establishing a new routine with these extra exercises takes tremendous energy, and I haven’t been able to make myself do it. (I’ll keep you updated, though. I’m working on a vision board, on choosing a set of exercises that can be done in 15 minutes, and on scheduling this workout into my week. Let’s see if that works.)

***

Runner’s World published an interview with David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene. Epstein explains how our genes affect our athletic ability as well as our motivation to move. Genes aren’t destiny; what we do or don’t do, plus our environment and what we experience, can turn on or off genes’ expression, for one thing. Epstein says, “I think while it's quite clear that some people have a greater innate drive to be physically active, that just means for some other people, maybe they need to work a little harder on their environment.” 

That means finding a workout partner or setting up a firm schedule for going to an exercise class. There can’t be anything left to choice there, as in “Hmmm, should I workout or not?” for the person who is very busy and has low to medium motivation (whether that's genetic or environmental or situational). If we have to devote resources to making a choice, we’re as likely to be lazy as not. 

We do not wake up every morning and say, “Hmmm, should I go to work today?” That choice was made a long time ago, and all we need to do is follow the routine: get up, go to work, arrive on time. Exercise is so vital to our health and well-being that I don’t care if you don’t like it or don’t feel like it. Plan it into your week in such a way that you absolutely will do it, just like going to work.

***

Epstein’s first point, then, is that some of us are more motivated than others genetically. Some of us get a bigger dopamine bang for our buck when we workout. We all get that reward in our brains when we exercise. For some of us, it’s stronger. For some of us, a lack of exercise leads to depression and anxiety; we need daily exercise, and some, like the ultrarunners, need hours of it. 

The other thing I take away from Epstein’s article is that two people can do the same exact things with the same intensity and get very different results. Two people can eat the same things and complete the same workouts, and do it with the same gusto and determination, and that doesn’t mean they’ll both be as fit. Some people build muscle easily, for instance, or adapt quickly to training. Others see fewer results. We have to set our expectations for what we can do, not what others can do. 

That can be disappointing. We’re taught that if we work hard, we can achieve anything. It’s not true, and we’ve always known that deep down. The trick then is to find out what we can achieve when we make the best choices. If I work out 3 times a week, is that enough for me? right now at my age and life circumstances? What happens if I work out twice a day? What happens if I focus on long distances? short ones? Do I need speed work? Do I need more rest?

Epstein explains, “I would say to any distance runner: If you train with a partner and you're not getting the same results out of it as he or she is, the problem is very likely you in the deepest sense of the word. It's probably your genetics, and you should try something different. ...I think most people feel like there's some sort of minimum mileage you have to put in to run a certain distance. But if that's not working for you, try something different. Unfortunately, right now you can't see your genes, so I really think people should go through a period of experimentation with training and not stick to something just because it works for somebody else.” 

Yes! Whether it’s nutrition or exercise, we need to be our own labs. We need to try out different approaches with an open mind and notice how we respond. That doesn’t mean ignoring experts and science. It means tweaking what they’ve told us. 

For instance, I need to understand how protein is important to a body and then experiment with which levels of protein are good for my body, right now, at my age and circumstances. I can’t compare myself to others or to my past. I can look at the recommendations that some expert gives for how much protein to eat and use that as an experiment. I can’t skip the step where I tune into my body and my life and figure out what’s working or not. 

I also can’t feel bad if something that experts say is great is not great for me. The chances that the same thing is great for all of us is pretty rare. There’s a great chance that exercise of some amount is vital for you, and there’s never been a study that says eating a ton of vegetables is anything but wonderful. So, there you go. Figure out when and where and how much is your optimum, and know that every scientist ever agrees that daily exercise and vegetables at every meal are good for us.


Part Two - In Training

As I’ve been running barefoot, I’m reorganizing my body from my feet up -- yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. New aches and strains appear as I learn to become stronger and more balanced -- balanced front and back and side to side. My plantar fasciitis is gone. My achilles is more resilient and less achy, though not entirely above complaining each day. My calves are super tight and sometimes cramp up. My IT band on my left side decided to get in on the action, though my right hip is less upset than before. I still go out for a run and think how lucky I am. It’s so beautiful out, and here I am, again, running. 

I get tight and sore easily. I have to be aware of overtraining, especially since I don’t like and don’t always see a benefit when taking rest days. It’s possible that I haven’t found the right combination of working hard and working easy. It’s also possible I need to be aware of under-training. What parts of my body are losing muscle mass as I age, and I’m not paying attention? Do I do less than I can and less than I want because I think getting older means I must not be able to do as much? Am I a bit lazier than I think I am because I compare myself to others (not everyone works out 7 days a week) rather than comparing myself to myself?

Sunday, I went for a long run. I felt great at first. Then it hurt a lot. The cool thing was that I took off my shoes at mile 7 and the cramping and knee pain dissipated. Score one again for going barefoot. The not-cool thing was that I was fussing over my time -- wah wah I'm too slow (and that matters why?). I was fussing over being in pain. I want to run 9 miles and feel good. Is that so much to ask?

I took three days off and broke my routine by not running on Wednesday. It’s very important for me to be willing to go outside my routine since it’s my routine that helps keep me consistent. It's more important to sense what my body needs each day than to stick with routine for routine's sake; however, it's also important to stick with routine. There it is, discovering when I'm getting just the right amount of training for me. 

Since I didn't run Wednesday, I went for an easy run on Thursday. It was so nice. I didn’t measure the run, though I expect it was under 4 miles, and I didn’t time it. When I came home, I wasn’t dehydrated or sore. I didn’t have to spend the next hour recovering. I was thinking it would be nice to have more runs like these more often. I’ve been afraid that easy runs won’t help me build enough fitness. Maybe if I did more easy runs, I’d discover a whole new level of fitness. I won’t know until I experiment. 

***

Several weeks ago, I decided I was In Training. After I ran a 10K at the Duke City Marathon last October, I started upping my miles to train for a half marathon. Cue the plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis; I took off my shoes and started over, running one mile instead of 8 or 9. Now that I’m regularly able to run 5 - 7 miles three times a week, I’ve started planning again for a half (also at Duke City this October). I want to up my miles. When I do, I get sore. When I do speed work, I strain my muscles. Each time I think, well, maybe I shouldn’t be training. I can run, yes, and maybe I shouldn’t train.

Am I doing something wrong? Do I need to hydrate or fuel differently? Is it my form or my pacing? Have I been training too many hard days and not enough easy days? Am I just not training right?

Epstein’s article came at just the right time for me. I am looking at all these training articles about how to prepare for a half-marathon, and I don’t want to get seduced by their wisdom. I want to experiment and sense and figure out what’s fun for my body and how to push myself for the best results. 

I also want to be a bit more of a beast. I want to crawl with more ease. I’ll never be a jumper and I’m not a swing-from-the-trees kind of gal. Instead, I look forward to the long run. I’m good with an hour of swimming laps. I like my Nia to get sweaty and out of breath. I like to punch like I mean it. I want to growl and groan and shout when I’m pushing hard. 

There’s a trend in fitness today toward natural movement, and this sings to me. Some of this is barefoot, some of this is outside, some of this is swinging from ropes. After 50 years of doing the same things in the same ways, I lose my ability to jump from rock to rock (something that is low on my motivation and skill sets anyway). Yet I haven’t given up on wanting to go for a hike and be able to climb up a rock or jump from stone to stone to cross a stream. On today’s run, there were branches that had fallen in last week’s storm that were blocking the path. There was just enough room for me to crawl over one large branch and step over another. 

I want to train so well that I can run 10 miles, that I can crawl under tree branches, that I can hop up or down a short distance to make my way across something. I want to discover that I can do more now than I could ten years ago, a time when I was busier as a mom than I am today. Before it gets even one day harder for me to be a beast, I want to work out hard enough that I feel my animal self hooting and hollering in delight at the joy of moving, connecting, experiencing.