“A little higher than last year but still within a healthy range.”
That’s what the nurse told me when reviewing the results of my annual health risk assessment at work. She was being kind. In one year I’d gained seven pounds, my waist had expanded inch and my body fat increased a full percentage. “Yeah, I’ve had a lot of weddings to go to,” I said, as if one month of excess could account for the gains.
The truth was despite exercising just as much as the year before (I’m on a bike racing team), I had been feeling the extra weight creep on for months. At 5’6” and 140 pounds I was nowhere near overweight, but I was past the point of feeling comfortable in my own skin—my bike shorts were starting to resemble sausage casings. I suspected that overtraining was partly to blame because constant muscular fatigue had caused me to cut back on the amount and intensity of my exercise, but I had taken steps to correct that and the extra weight remained. That meant there could only be one other possible culprit: my diet.
So when Mark Macdonald, creator of Venice Nutrition and author of the New York Times bestseller Body Confidence, offered me a chance to test-drive his program I jumped at the chance. And by “jumped” I mean I figured I would follow his advice for a few weeks, drop some weight and then go back to my regularly scheduled programming. Because really, what could I have been doing wrong? I'm a health writer so I knew to fill my plate with fruits and veggies and whole grains. I thought I was probably just eating too much avocado or peanut butter. Besides, dieting works, but it's not sustainable. I'd read enough weight loss research studies to know that. Still, I needed to do something to get back on track, so I scheduled a call with Mark for after my sister's mid-October wedding.
Mark seemed stoked to work with me. I don’t normally use words like stoked, but how else do you describe a guy who says he’s “fired up to get you dialed in!” and signs all his emails with “Huge Hug.” He was so genuinely sweet and excited that I couldn't help but get excited, too. I started actually looking forward to dieting and began hoping that it really would work.
During our first phone call on October 25th Mark explained the theory behind the Venice Nutrition plan, which is based on blood sugar stabilization. Weight loss, said Mark, has just as much to do with hormones as calories. Here’s why:
Blood sugar is controlled by the pancreas. The two main hormones in the pancreas are insulin and glucagon. If your blood sugar drops below 80 mg/dl, your pancreas over-releases glucagon, which causes your body to breakdown stored glucose and amino acids (muscle) to boost blood sugar. If it gets too high (above 120 mg/dl), your pancreas releases too much insulin, which triggers your body to store all nutrients (often as fat) in an attempt to lower blood sugar.
Blood sugar. It was something I had only associated with diabetics. But when I started thinking about it, I realized that I often had late-afternoon crashes. Crashes so bad I would get dizzy, flushed and nauseous. Crashes that I often ignored because I was too busy to eat. However, as I explained to Mark, if I waited long enough the hunger pangs would pass. Yeah, that's because your body broke down muscle tissue to get the nutrients it needed, he replied. Oh.
So how could I keep my blood sugar balanced and my body primed to release and burn fat? There were three things I needed to do, said Mark.