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Mastering Macros

Macro what?  I was reintroduced to the world of macronutrients last summer when I went to a socially distanced “covid birthday” at the park.  As I was walking to meet my group of friends, there was one person I didn’t recognize.  When I got closer, I realized that it was indeed a friend I knew, but a much leaner, more defined version of her.  I’m not typically the type of person that would comment on body changes, but this was quite drastic, and I needed to know what she was doing.  She told me that she had started working with her friend, a CrossFit athlete and owner of a CrossFit gym in Toronto, who has her Precision Nutrition certification and is an Eat to Perform Coach.  She gave me a glimpse of the program she was on and the highlight for me was that she said she often had a hard time eating the amount of food prescribed on a daily basis.  I needed to know more.  More food plus a leaner and stronger body, sign me up!  I got the contact information for her coach and that was the beginning of my own journey into the world of how I could make my macronutrient intake work for me.

 As a naturopathic doctor, I learned all about macronutrients and spent many years learning about nutrition.  I learned how many calories are in each gram of fat, protein or carbohydrate.  I learned about healthy and unhealthy sources of these macronutrients.  I learned what type of diet to recommend for people who had various allergies, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, the list goes on.  However, aside from learning that there needs to be less calories in than calories out, I was not taught a good recipe for healthy sustainable weight loss.  I had researched and experimented with low carbohydrate diets, the keto diet, paleo, intermittent fasting, pretty much any diet that is out there.  I was always in search of a sustainable recipe for my patients, my family and myself.  I have been an athlete my whole life so weight has not been a major concern; however, I noticed that with each year after my late 20s, I would go up about a pound or two a year.  I wanted to put an end to this.  Hearing my friend seemed to have found a sustainable recipe, I was more than willing to meet with her coach. 

 The first step of my journey was a virtual meeting to discuss my goals.  As mentioned, I seemed to put on an additional 10 pounds for each decade after 20.  It was a slow progression but realizing that I was almost 20 pounds heavier at 40 than I was in my early and mid-20s, I needed to change that trajectory.  Knowing that aging was not doing my metabolism any favours, my goal was to learn how to get back to a body fat percentage that I was happy with, to build more muscle, and to not accept that each decade equals 10 pounds, no matter my age.  Tavia, my coach, convinced me that if I stuck to the targets she gave me, this would be completely achievable. 

 I was given materials to read over before starting and told to download two apps.  One app was myfitnesspal and the other was called Eat to Perform.  Tavia weighed me, measured my lean mass, fat mass and I was ready to go.  Based on my lean body mass, I was given a specific protein target that I had to hit daily.  It was a significantly higher amount of protein than I had been eating.  I was told that hitting the protein target was not negotiable.  For the other macronutrients, depending on the day of the week, I had different targets to hit.  As it was summer when I started this program, and I like to enjoy the occasional beer on a patio, I quickly learned that if I was going to consume any alcohol, this was going to take away from the amount of available carbohydrates and fats I would be able to consume that day.  However, I could still enjoy beers on the patio! 

 There were certainly some bumps in the road at the beginning.  I went to a cottage on a few occasions and completely blew over my targets and when I came home, the scale definitely reflected this.  However, even though I may have blown up a few times, I knew that the occasional slip did not mean it was all for naught.  My coach would remind me that “today is a new day” and I encourage anyone who is trying to start a new habit or quit a bad habit, that if you slip, tomorrow is a new day and to keep persevering.

 Another big thing that was important through this process was non exercise associated activity, also known as walking.  This was another non-negotiable.  It was imperative that I walk at least 10,000 steps every day.  It sounds like a big number, but you would be surprised how doable it actually is.  I know the first thing that comes to mind for most, is where they are going to find the time for all of that walking.  If you break it up into small walks, it is very doable.  A quick walk in the morning or on your lunch break, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking your car further from the entrance of the store, etc.  There are a lot of ways to get the steps in if you make a conscious decision to do it.    

 I am now eight months into this program with no plans to end it.  It is a totally sustainable long-term plan.  I am back to the weight I was at 28, my body fat has dropped four percent and my lean muscle mass has been maintained.  I don’t feel like I miss out on things. Patio beers and birthday cake are still a thing.  When I am in refeeding, more about that later, I often have a hard time having the appetite to eat as much as I am supposed to. Because this is not something I ever studied, I was curious to know why and how this is actually causing the results it has.   

 Here we go, the science. I have to admit, there is very little to draw from.  The best research I could find was to look at high protein diet studies and then combine that information with what is known or hypothesized regarding carbohydrate cycling. 

 In a six-month study of 105 people with metabolic syndrome, two groups were each fed 500 kcal less than their basal metabolic rate (BMR) per day. One group was fed a standard protein diet, which is 0.8 g/kg of body weight, while the other group was fed a high protein diet 1.34 g/kg of body weight.  Weight loss was observed in both groups; however, more weight loss was observed in the high protein diet group. In the 75% of individuals who were deemed to be adherent to the diet, those in the standard protein diet group had a mean weight loss of 5.8% and those in the high protein diet group had a mean weight loss 9.5%. 

 The University of Alberta conducted a randomized controlled crossover study which looked at the effects of a high protein diet on metabolism. In the study, a group of 43 adults aged 18-35 with a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 were fed a diet that consisted of 35% carbohydrates, 40% protein, and 25% fat for 32 hours. Throughout this time their metabolism was being measured. After a wash out period of a few weeks, all participants were then fed a diet which contained the same number of calories as the high protein diet, but in a ratio of 55% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 30% fat. It was found that on average participants burned about 80 calories more a day on the high protein diet and were burning significantly more fat. 

 Protein is more thermogenic than fats or carbohydrates, meaning that it takes more energy or calories for the body to break it down. Protein also makes you feel full and helps to build muscle. These are all factors that contribute to weight loss. Therefore, we can conclude that having a high protein diet can help to support weight loss. Now, if we take a look at the information regarding carbohydrate cycling, this provides further explanation as to how the plan I have been using has helped create the results I am seeing.

 Aside from the high protein aspect of my diet, I also have days where I have a higher and lower carbohydrate intake.  In the nutrition world, this is known as carbohydrate cycling.  There is very little research on this and most of the information I have been able to find are testimonials and theories based on knowledge of biochemistry.

 Typically, when people go on a “diet” they think that they need to eat less calories. This will typically result in weight loss initially, but when you eat less, your BMR also drops, which means you are burning less calories per day. Eventually, your metabolism adapts to the fact that you are eating less calories and slows and then maintenance of weight loss becomes a problem.  In order to maintain weight loss, you have to keep dropping your calories, which is not sustainable.  When your metabolism adapts to less calories, this is called metabolic adaptation. 

 The purpose of carbohydrate cycling is to prevent metabolic adaptation.  With carbohydrate cycling, you have days where you are eating higher amounts of carbohydrates and calories and days where you eat lower amounts of carbohydrates and calories.  There is also cycling between weeks, where overall carbohydrate and calorie intake will be greater for three weeks, a period known as refeeding, and then a period of time where carbohydrates and calories are further reduced for 4 to 6 weeks, a period referred to as cutting. Throughout refeeding or cutting, you will still have high carbohydrate days and low carbohydrate days. This method prevents metabolic adaptation because your body is never able to adapt to the constant deprivation that comes from continuous caloric restriction.

 It is also suggested that carbohydrate cycling can help to regulate hormones, specifically leptin, thyroid hormones, testosterone and estrogen. Leptin is released by fat tissue and helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger. The more body fat, the more leptin. When you reduce calorie intake leptin levels drop and this results in signals to your brain that you need to eat. During carbohydrate cycling, the periods of higher caloric and carbohydrate intake result in higher levels of leptin, so you don’t feel hungry all of the time as most people do when they are on a continuous calorie restricted diet. The cycling makes the low calorie, low carbohydrate days more tolerable because you know that you will have a day with higher calories and carbohydrates in the near future. This adds to the sustainability factor of a diet like this. 

 Carbohydrate cycling can also help build muscle without gaining more fat. This is attributed to insulin.  Whenever we eat any kind of carbohydrate or sugar insulin is released. Insulin is required for muscle growth, and as we know, when we have more muscle our body burns more energy throughout the day, even when we are at rest. 

 I attribute my personal results to both the high protein content of my diet as well as the cycling of carbohydrates. Before this program, I realize, I was eating far too little. I would often only eat a light snack throughout the day, dinner, and that was about it. My metabolism was working at snail speed. I am now eating more in a day than I ever have in my life and I continue to lose fat.  Again, there is not that much science out there that focuses on this type of diet, but from personal experience, as someone who has tried them all, I can tell you I have never experienced a diet where I could eat more in a day than I ever have and still get on the scale the next morning and somehow have the number continue to go down. 

  References

  • Campos Nonato I, Hernandez L, et al. (2017). Effect of a High-Protein Diet versus Standard-Protein Diet on Weight Loss and Biomarkers of Metabolic Syndrome: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Obesity Facts; 10(3): 238-251.
  • Kresta J, Byrd M, et al. (2010). Effects of diet cycling on weight loss, fat loss and resting energy expenditure in women.  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 7(Suppl 1): 21.
  • Oivera C, Boulé N, et al. (2021). A high-protein total diet replacement increases energy expenditure and leads to negative fat balance in healthy, normal-weight adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 113(2): 476-487.

Note: This information is for educational purposes only, it is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. We recommend speaking to your health care provider prior to starting any new diet or exercise regime.

Dr. Jennifer Marion ND

About The Author

Dr. Jennifer Marion, ND is a graduate of CCNM and a member of OAND. She treats patients with a variety of health issues and is passionate about helping her patients both look and feel their best by addressing the causes of health issues rather than simply treating or suppressing symptoms. Dr. Marion has experience working with digestive wellness, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight loss, and detoxification programs, pain management, sports injuries, hormone imbalances, clinical nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle counselling, blood sugar balance, stress, anxiety, depression, skin conditions as well as cosmetic enhancements.

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