As a microbiome expert and former manager of the world’s largest crowdfunded microbiome citizen science project, I am intimately familiar with the failure of diet to bring people to the health status they desire. I often received emails from people asking about diet: what could they do to eat for a healthier microbiome, to lose weight, to be….healthier? I usually referred people to an amazing body of research completed by a research team from the Weizmann Institute in Israel. I love this research because it highlights the need for personalized diets. We are all different, why should the [insert your favorite diet name here] work for everyone? There is no one-size-fits all diet; we are all painfully aware of that. We’ve all read the stories, or have a friend or family member who has struggled, trying fad diet after fad diet to no avail.
My relationship with food has been mildly complex. I’ve always been thin, but also intimately aware that my genetics predispose me to obesity. I grew up watching my mother’s weight see-saw from healthy to overweight, borderline obese even. After spending 8 months in Spain and gaining 21 pounds during an undergraduate study abroad experience, I began to realize that I was no longer able to eat whatever I wanted, in whatever quantity I desired, as I had in high school. Well, that ended quickly. I was only 21! What a buzzkill. I reduced my intake of ice cream and Nerds and focused more on whole grains (no more bleached flour for me!) and bought organic as much as I could (which wasn’t often, given the exorbitant prices of organic food-not friendly for a college student’s budget).
I was always hungry and could often be heard stating, “If I ate as often as I’m hungry, I would weight 300 pounds!” I ate three meals a day plus two snacks (morning and evening)-usually an apple or chips and salsa or yogurt. After entering the half marathon scene and then beginning CrossFit, I began to pick up some nutrition “knowledge” here and there. Some swore by a high-fat, low carb diet, and I began limiting my intake of carbs (or so I thought) and refined sugar, yet liberally consumed cheese and other fatty foods. I also upped my overall calorie intake after one CrossFit workout during which I almost passed out-decidedly due to an insufficient intake of food that day. This approached appeared to backfire, as my middle began to grow. I wasn’t fat, mind you, and my husband would roll his eyes every time I’d grab a piece of my body that was too bloated for my liking-but I could tell that my body was changing, and not for the positive. Pants were getting tight, and dresses no longer fit.
Somehow I had become like so many others I’d read about-wallowing aimlessly in the vast ocean of diets, with no clue what to do to optimize my performance and keep my body healthy.
It had become painfully clear that I knew nothing about nutrition.
At this point, my husband and I had been going to our CrossFit gym for nearly a year. There were regular “nutrition challenges,” where individuals signed up to receive personalized diet guidance from one of the coaches-and those who participated enthusiastically swore by this approach. I had even dabbled in “Macro counting”-counting the total quantity of fats, carbs, and protein, as well as calories, that I ate in a day, which is when I first realized I was low on calories. However, I had no clue regarding the proportion or quantity of each of these macronutrients I needed. I was simply guessing, shooting in the dark, and it wasn’t working, unsurprisingly. My husband and I decided to take the plunge and sign up for our box’s most recent nutrition challenge. He wanted to lose some midline weight, and I wanted to clear up the fog surrounding how to give myself the proper nutrition to perform. I went in a bit skeptical, having seen so many diets fail, but I figured that I had nothing to lose and much to gain.
On the first day of the challenge, we had our front- and side-view photographs taken, and our right bicep, quad, midline, and, in my case-bust, measured. We then ran 800 meters as quickly as possible, rested 3 minutes, and then rowed 1000 meters as quickly as possible. These were our baseline stats. Later that night, I received a text from our coach with our numbers: I was to consume 110 grams of protein, 121 grams of carbs, and 32 grams of fat. My husband’s numbers were wildly different than mine-he could eat more in general, and especially more fat. He was one of those that was clearly on a high-protein, high-fat diet. Unsurprisingly given my recent experiences, I was on a high-protein, fat restricted diet. We also were required to drink at least 75 ounces of water per day for me (110 for my husband), consume 1–2 servings of vegetables for at least 2 meals, and to sleep at least 7 hours each night. If we followed these guidelines, we were promised tangible results. We created an Excel spreadsheet to track our progress, and gave ourselves a point for each category we met successfully: one point for macros, one point for water, one point for sleep, one point for veggies, one point for working out, and one point for getting a PR-the ultimate measure of whether things were “working.” Our coach told us that the first two weeks would likely be difficult and frustrating, but encouraged us to stick with it. If we did, things would get easier, and we would start seeing results.
The first day, we only got two points: for drinking enough water and for sleeping at least seven hours. We failed miserably diet-wise. We didn’t eat enough vegetables, and we couldn’t calculate our macros correctly. To get enough protein, we’d have too much fat. We wiped our hands, treated ourselves with a bit of grace, and looked forward to a new day. We would do better.
We did do better the next day, but as promised, the first two weeks were incredibly difficult. We had to cook different meals because our numbers were so different.
We spent literally hours planning our meals ahead of time for the following day, prescribing everything down to snacks to the exact quantity. Our food scale was used more the first few days than in all of the days we’d used it previously combined.
We struggled with consuming enough vegetables. Once, my husband had met all of his numbers except fat, and had to add two tablespoons of butter to his smoothie to make it work. I had to travel for work for a few days, which presented a new set of challenges. We learned that orange juice, one of our favorite drinks (we could drink a gallon each in a week) had more carbohydrates than we’d imagined, and we cut it from our diet. We definitely experienced growing pains. An oft heard phrase, “You can eat whatever you want, as long as it fits your macros!” took on a whole new meaning. What we realized is that only really works if you eat healthy food. You can’t just eat a bunch of ice cream or pie and expect to make the rest of your numbers. You can choose to sacrifice-eat a smaller lunch or breakfast to make that dessert work-but then you risked being hungry most of the day. We soon began to learn what proper nutrition encompassed, and it wasn’t what we had thought. And yes, it includes a lot of vegetables!
However, after two weeks, we weighed ourselves and sent our weights to our coach. Not only had we both dropped at least 5 pounds (I was shocked, I didn’t think I had 5 pounds to drop), but we had done so well that our coach changed our numbers. I could now consume 133 grams of carbs and 40 grams of fat. During the 45 days, my numbers would change three more times and I would drop 2.5 more pounds. Ultimately I ended with a daily protein consumption of 115 grams, carbs at 173 grams, and fat at 53 grams. I had dropped from just over 117 pounds to just under 109 pounds-nearly a ten pound weight loss. I also achieved two new weightlifing personal records: a 125lb power clean and a 240lb deadlift. Also, signs of a six-pack began emerging for the first time since I rode horses every day as a ten-year-old.
At the end of the 45 days, we took photographs (wearing the same clothes as in the first photograph for accurate comparison), re-measured our arms, legs, and middles, and again ran 800 meters and rowed 1000 meters for time. We improved our 800 meter time by roughly 30 seconds-not insignificant for a run of that length. I improved my row time by almost 5 seconds. These improvements were great, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the improvement was due to the change in lifestyle, or to the fact that I knew this test was coming and I am damn competitive. For me, the true evidence of the success of the plan had actually come a few weeks prior.
Before CrossFit, my husband and I ran up to 10 half marathons a year, traveling around California, Nevada, and Arizona. Upon starting CrossFit, we both neglected our running training-in other words, we weren’t running our long runs anymore. We still signed up for our favorite half marathons, and saw our times drop from just under or just over 2 hours to around 2 hours and 10 minutes. This wasn’t surprising, and we didn’t care. We were enjoying CrossFit and, let’s face it, a half marathon time of 2 hours and 10 minutes with no distance running training is quite respectable. Therefore, when I prepared for my final half marathon of the year-the Holiday Half Marathon on one of my favorite courses in Pomona, California, I told my husband to expect me at the finish sometime between 2:05 and 2:10.
I started running and settled into a comfortable pace. I was breathing easily and my legs felt good. After the first mile, I looked at my watch and realized I was running faster than expected: 9:08/mile. I’d learned by then not to overthink the watch time, and to just listen to my body and run according to how I felt-so that’s what I did. Each mile past 3 and up to mile 10, I clocked a sub-9 minute mile time. Incredulous, I wondered how long I could keep up the pace. It turned out I could keep it up for 13.1 miles. I crossed the line in 1:57:52, my third fastest half marathon time ever (at the time I thought it was my second fastest. I realized my error later when I added all of my previous runs into a race tracker). My husband barely saw my finish.
I was shocked. How could I have run a sub-2 hour half marathon, with my body feeling fresh, light, and good, with absolutely no distance running training?
It had to be the macros, and not just the macros, but the sufficient hydration and rest I was experiencing as part of the challenge. Elated, I asked my husband to take a picture, which I sent to our coach with an excited message.
After the challenge was over, we received from our coach compiled before and after photos. Both of our bodies had undergone significant change. My belly, which looked bloated before, had tightened up, and my waist narrowed. My muscle tone was more pronounced everywhere, especially in my arms and back. I looked strong, fit, and healthy-and I felt it, too!
I also learned some important things about myself during the challenge. First and foremost, it is important to be gracious to yourself, and to be smart. I had to remind myself of this often, as I am aware that I have addictive tendancies. I wanted to make sure that I continued the challenge to improve my health, and didn’t allow the need to meet the numbers and make the points each day cause me undue stress or lead me to do something dangerous. For example, my macros were designed specifically for a lifestyle of CrossFit 5 or 6 days a week, not for days during which I’d be running 13.1 miles. Therefore, my macros went out the window the day before and the day of the race. I ensured that I ate my quantity of protein, but I didn’t worry about eating too many carbs. My body needed those carbs, both to prepare and to recover.
I also learned that much of the time, what I recognize as hunger is actually just a craving. Born out of what, I’m not sure yet, though likely boredom. In the beginning, I felt restricted. I wasn’t, but simply because macaroni and cheese didn’t fit with my macros without sacrifice, I wanted mac and cheese.
I wanted sweet food. I never want sweet food. The day before my half marathon was our CrossFit holiday party. Not planning to follow my macros, I quite literally pigged out-eating tacos, chips with melted processed cheese, macaroni and cheese, pickled veggies, wine, hot chocolate with spiked whipped cream, and chocolate. I was so full that two hours later, in bed, my distended belly hurt. I had been incredibly stupid, putting my run the next day at risk in addition to nearly making myself sick. I had never been so gluttonous in my life, and I vowed never to be again. That was a learning experience!
I also learned that counting macros works-for me. It also worked for my husband, and it’s worked for a lot of people we know. This doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone, though I believe the personalized nature of the diet improves its chances of generalizability. I also learned-as I had always believed but never had personal experience with-that dieting and the reasons behind the success (or failure) of a diet are complex.
Counting macros worked for me for many reasons. First, I stuck to it religiously, due to my addictive, competitive nature. At times I had to remind myself that it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed my macros for a day. ONLY because I was able to ground myself in this sense was the diet a success-I very well could have sabotaged it by causing myself so much stress that any benefits were negligible. Second, I didn’t just fit my numbers. I ate healthy food, more vegetables than usual(and I still need to improve this), and healthy sources of fat and carbs. I also drank MUCH more water than usual, and the biggest effect of this was increased energy and awareness. I was no longer falling asleep on the couch at 8pm, physically unable to keep my eyes open. Finally, macros worked for me because I worked through the wall. I pushed through the frustration of spending an hour a day weighing food, reading labels, and making extravagant plans to make my meals work. I pushed through the frustration of feeling “hungry” and then realizing that my hunger was simply a craving-which was also frustrating. Dieting is hard, and this is the main reason why so many diet attempts fail. To maintain and continue my transformation and to maintain myself in a healthy, well-fed state while I output significant calories and strength during CrossFit, I need to continue counting macros-and adjusting them as necessary.
This-if my goal remains the same-will be a lifelong change; it will become a lifestyle. And it won’t be easy. There will be challenges. Challenges when I travel. Challenges when I’m invited to a restaurant or a friend’s house. Challenges when I’m just so tired I want to order out or not think about calculating macros, or when I’ve had such a bad day at work I want to drink a bottle of wine.
But, in the end, if I’m kind to myself, forgive myself, treat myself graciously, and do the best I can, I will live at a level of fitness, health, and energy I’ve never before experienced. And that, my friends, makes it all worth it.