A true athlete, MrsBigMack discovered during her weight loss journey that she needed to properly fuel in order to reach her goals. If you know her from MFP or her blog “im.seeking.balance” then you know that her decision is paying in full. Yay for us, she's agreed to an interview to share her well-fueled experience with the EM2WL family.
How long have you been on this journey?
I started putting on weight in my childhood but really began packing on significant weight in my teens and my early 20's. In 2000 I began taking kickboxing classes and trained 4-5 hours a week but just had no idea what a healthy diet looked like. In 2001 I topped out at 218 lbs at 5'7″… I was 26 years old.
The only thing I knew about weight loss was Weight Watchers. My dad had been a Lifetime Member; my parents had first signed me up for it when I was 12. In 2002 I walked through the doors again; I lost exactly 52 pounds in 52 weeks to reach my goal weight of 158 lbs. I, too, am now a Lifetime Member.I maintained that loss until summer of 2005 when I got pregnant for the first time. During that pregnancy I had Gestational Diabetes that wasn't caught until week 28; when all was said and done I'd put on 70 lbs. The extra 35 or so stayed with me until I decided to get serious again.
I knew I was ready to get rid of the weight for good in January 2012. My life had calmed down some after a crazy couple of years that included the birth of my 2nd son, the death of my husband, quitting my job of 12 years, remarrying and moving to a new town with my boys. So starting in January 2012 I lost 36 of those leftover pregnancy pounds. I was back to 158 lbs by maybe August some time. I actually don't remember.
When did you first learn that you needed to eat more to reach your goals? What was your original response?
When I was on Weight Watchers in 2002/03, the program was called Winning Points and they gave you a 5 point range for each day and you could also earn extra points from exercise. Well at that point I was training in kickboxing, doing bikram yoga and starting to run regularly and I was hungry. I mean REALLY hungry.
I ate every point they allowed me. I learned to eat the low fat high fiber foods to get more for my points. I ate every activity point I could add. And then sometimes I felt so deprived that I went out and essentially binged or just quit tracking and ate a big cheat meal and felt mentally defeated. I noticed, however, that those times I ate more I'd have a better loss on the scale.
I trained for and ran my first half marathon in 2003 as I was approaching my goal weight. I remember the weekly losses being painfully slow… it was like -.2, -.4, 0, +.2, -.6, -.2, +.2… it went on for months. As my running mileage picked up, the losses were harder to come by. Eventually, I was about 4 lbs above my goal weight and super frustrated. My leader suggested I take a break and eat at “maintenance”, which meant adding 4 points per day (that was maybe 2-300 calories). Well lo and behold I did that and had two 3lb losses in a row, taking me to below my goal weight. Something clicked for me right then and there. Too bad it was after all the hardest of the work was done, but a valuable learning experience nonetheless.
When I decided to begin anew in 2012, I just knew from the start that I needed to eat enough to run well. A friend had challenged me to another half marathon and I figured it was a great time to really make the effort and take these pounds off once and for all. I started with Weight Watchers online, but by April of 2012 I switched to calorie counting on My Fitness Pal; I was still starving on Weight Watchers and hated that I felt like a failure every time I went over my points even though I knew I needed more food.
How did/do others around you act about your decision to discard the usual low cal methods for weight loss?
Nobody really knew what I was doing except for my husband. When I switched from Weight Watchers to My Fitness Pal I went for a DEXA scan to figure out where my goal weight should be – if 158 lbs was still reasonable for me. I originally chose it because, at 5'7″, it's the highest weight I can have and still be in the healthy BMI category, not that I really put much stock in the BMI as an indicator of health.The guy who did my DEXA in Vancouver suggested a caloric intake level for me based on my lean body mass and activity level. At that point he suggested increasing calories to around 1800-2000 calories and 120g protein daily. He also told me I should absolutely not have a daily deficit of more than 400 calories. Honestly, having someone give me some solid information that would make me stronger and leaner and not just lighter was absolutely invaluable.
How did your body react initially to increasing calories?
I wasn't losing particularly quickly on Weight Watchers: I lost 14 lbs from January to March. When I first started My Fitness Pal I set my lifestyle factor to “sedentary” and my weight loss target to lose 1/2 a pound weekly. That gave me a net target of 1660 calories. As I had always done with Weight Watchers, I ate back my exercise calories – since the program added them it just seemed like that's how it was supposed to work.I dropped 8.5 lbs in the first 5 weeks. That's when I first figured out that I was obviously burning more than at the sedentary level; turns out that as a stay-at-home-mom I'm actually burning at My Fitness Pal's “Very Active” level before I even get in my workout… higher in fact.
Has proper fuel affected you in ways other than weight loss? (Good or bad)
Well I just don't think I would have kept going with the level of restriction I'd been trying to meet.
I first noticed it in June 2012. I was preparing to run a 10 mile race from the beach to the top of a mountain, 4300′ up. I figured that would be a decent test of my endurance in advance of the half marathon I was scheduled to run that August. I decided I would eat at my full maintenance calories for two weeks before the event. I had already lost 20 lbs and figured a two week hiatus from dieting couldn't hurt. I wanted to see how well I could perform if I gave my body all the fuel it was trying to burn.
Well after about 4 or 5 days of eating 2500 calories daily I went for a 10 mile (16km) run and it was like magic. With the increased energy I just knew I could actually run the half marathon in 2 hours. I ran the first 10km of that training run at my half marathon race pace and the next 6km at my 10k race pace. It was amazing.From then on I decided I'd eat at maintenance for at least a full week before every race. It would be a waste of a race effort if I didn't. I guess I started feeling like a real athlete instead of someone just exercising to lose weight… an amazing turning point in my motivation; now I eat to fuel my machine.
Can you describe your typical workout schedule?
Yeah. Well, until October 2012 I just ran and did Insanity videos and a local boot camp class for cross training when I could squeeze it in. I run because I love it, though… not what I'd call a cardio junkie, but I didn't really feel the need to lift any weights. I was already pretty big with about 120 lbs of lean body mass at 5'7″. I would run 3-4 days a week and cross-train 2 days a week and take 1 rest day. I was burning an average of about 3500 calories weekly according to my Garmin.
After my 2012 race season ended at the end of September I decided to start lifting weights. The heavy lifters in the My Fitness Pal community got to me and I figured I'd give it a shot. It was tricky though… I didn't want to give up running and the endurance I'd built up, but I knew that endurance running was almost completely contrary to the purpose of lifting.After a little shopping around for a program I decided to do Stronglifts 5×5 and set my schedule, roughly, to RUN, LIFT, REST, RUN, LIFT, REST… so I was lifting less often than the Stronglifts program recommends (every other day) but was able to get that rest in after lifting. At this point all my runs were under an hour… most of them the 3-5 mile (5-8km) range. I also changed my calorie calculation method at this point from My Fitness Pal's NET method to something more like the TDEE method – just the same number of calories each day. At this point I figured my TDEE was somewhere around 2500 calories so after some fiddling for a few weeks with 2000, 2100, 2200, 2300 I finally settled on 2300 daily and remained pretty consistent with that through March of this year.
I got really frustrated in the spring when I really saw no change in my weight or even my measurements really.
Then I finally decided to take a photo in roughly the same pose and with the same shirt as the photo above. What I found was there were changes taking place that I couldn't see.
My training schedule right now includes about 6 hours of combined cardio and strength training over 5 days of the week. I don't believe in spending hours in the gym each day. In the words of Sweet Brown: “Ain't nobody got time fo' dat!”It looks something like this: Lifting 3 times a week (Stronglifts 5×5), running 3 times a week (long run, tempo run, interval/hill run), and 1-2 cross training sessions of maybe 30 minutes. I usually take a rest day every 4-5 days. The truth is, though, my schedule is all over the board. My husband works shift work and we have 5 kids between us, so I just get my workouts in when I can and I have to stay flexible. I work out in my home gym… and on the road and trails.
You run AND lift, have you found that this requires you to eat more/less of calories in general, or specific nutrients/macros?
I've never made a big deal about macros. I do have a protein target since that seemed to be the magic piece of the puzzle for me. I eat between 120 and 160g of protein daily since I weigh just under 160 lbs with about 120 lbs of lean mass; that's where those numbers come from. Once I've hit that protein target in a day, I'm not too picky about where the rest of the calories come from. I let my appetite and my body dictate. The truth is that my dietary needs on a day I run 14 miles is completely different than on a day I do a 30 minute strength training session and I think I just naturally eat accordingly at this point.As long as I hit my protein target and my calorie goal I'm golden.
Did finding your sweet spot take a bit more finagling than you originally thought or was it spot on from your first calculated estimate? If it took longer, was it worth it?
Well I guess that depends on whether or not I'm happy with my results. I didn't really struggle to find that place where I could lose the fat to begin with… well, most of it. I'm still not super lean though. I figure my body fat % to be around 23% now… not bad for a woman pushing 40 I guess, but I still have a little pet dream to get under 20% and I'm finding it increasingly difficult. It's like the leaner you get, the more you train, the smaller the window… the smaller the sweet spot. I think I may have found it now, though. I had intuitively figured my TDEE to be about 2500 calories daily; it was pretty consistent with the calculators out there even though it was hard to classify my workout schedule. But recently I did an experiment with a Body Media Fit (Link) and after 3 weeks it pegged my average TDEE at about 2850 calories daily so I had definitely underestimated it.
I didn't actually believe it at first so I did an experiment for 3 weeks and ate pretty much all those calories – increasing calories to an average of 2650 daily for 3 full weeks and didn't gain an ounce. I was shocked. It was a huge relief to know I could actually eat more food than I even really wanted to and not gain.
Because of that experiment, my new target is 2100 calories PLUS all my exercise calories; that should leave me with about a 200 calorie daily deficit. I'm hoping this will put me right in the sweet spot.
I'll let you know how it goes. Seems like a lot, right?
Any parting words of encouragement to those who are new to eating more, struggling with the decision of whether or not to fuel properly, or ready to give up?
There is so much misinformation out there. There are so many people trying to sell you something and keep you down so you'll keep buying what they're selling. Trust the science. Trust your body. Think long-term.Your body is amazing. Feed it. Treat it like a machine… it is the most intricate machine on the planet. Find your inner athlete.
This isn't about weight loss; your weight doesn't explain what's going on inside. Your scale doesn't know if you're hydrated or dehydrated, carb-loaded or glycogen-depleted, pumped from a good strength workout or sick from a week-long stomach flu. The weight on the scale is no indicator of health and it doesn't define you.
Keep pressing on. Giving up is not an option.