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Speering Heart Disease and Other Risk Factors With Food and CrossFit


Speering Heart Disease and Other Risk Factors With Food and CrossFit

KIDS and TEENS schedule change. NEW class this Sat, 12/7 Kids at 9am, Teens at 10am. Classes on Sat 12/14 for kids and teens are CANCELLED.

For time:
25 Box jump, 24 inch box
25 Jumping pull-ups
25 Kettlebell swings, 1 pood
Walking Lunge, 25 steps
25 Knees to elbows
25 Push press, 45 pounds
25 Back extensions
25 Wall ball shots, 20 pound ball
25 Burpees
25 Double unders
Rest 5 minutes, repeat.  If your time for the first time through is more than 16:00, repeat second round with 15 reps of each exercise instead of 25.

Jeremy and Nicole have been at Roots for almost one year and their progress as a pair is more than doubly impressive!  Photo credit: Julia Vandeonoever Photography

Jeremy and Nicole have been at Roots for almost one year and their progress as a pair is more than doubly impressive! Photo credit: Julia Vandenoever Photography

Speering Heart Disease and Other Risk Factors With Food and CrossFit

Nicole Speer joined Roots almost one year ago and has been a dedicated athlete to the 5:30am classes since then.  Little did she know that by joining the January 2013 Foundations course she would set in motion a series of events that would not only make her, but her entire family, healthier.  Read below for her personal account of the past twelve months.  Nicole’s dedication to her health and fitness is nothing short of inspiring.  

One of the things I love most about CrossFit is how individualized it is. Everyone starts with the same WODs, but as you spend weeks and months tailoring the movements and weights and repetitions of each WOD to your own sweet spot of intensity you develop a keen awareness of your body and its limitations. In the 10 months since I walked into my first Foundations course, I have become more in tune with my body than at any point in my adult life.

Which is why after 20 years of following a strict vegetarian diet* (including 5 years on a strict vegan diet), I recently turned conventional nutrition wisdom on its head and returned to eating meat.

Since I entered my 30s (almost 7 years ago), I’ve been gaining weight pretty consistently. Not much – a pound or two every year – but enough that it was starting to add up. I blamed it on my inactivity, but even 4 months of CrossFit WODs 5x/week weren’t making a dent in my weight (my weight actually went up 5% due to gaining muscle!). My doctors were telling me to lose weight and my blood work and abdominal fat were showing telltale signs of the beginnings of the metabolic syndrome that plagues my family starting in middle age and beyond.

I didn’t understand: I was working out and eating healthier than anyone I knew. My diet was full of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat protein. I limited fats and sugars. Why was I starting to have risk factors for heart disease and diabetes in my 30s?!

I had heard the talk about the Zone in the shop. Once my husband started CrossFit we decided to try it out to see if it helped us lose weight (he became vegetarian shortly after we married 10 years ago and had gained even more weight than I had in that time). We measured and weighed everything for a couple months (even wine and beer!) and were amazed by how many carbohydrates we were eating as vegetarians. All those beans and grains that served as protein staples were high-density carbs and when we ate them we had to give up vegetables and fruits. We cut way back on our consumption of grains and legumes and focused on eating more soy, eggs, and cheese. My husband lost nearly 20 pounds by Zoning on a vegetarian diet. I lost 3 pounds in the first 3 days following the Zone and then my weight didn’t budge – not even an ounce. 

Just when I was about to give up hope of ever getting my weight into a normal range, I saw Peter Attia’s TEDMED talk. If you haven’t seen it, you should (check it out here).  Everything clicked but being a scientist by training, I needed more information before jumping in. I read a bunch of popular press books and primary source articles and learned about insulin resistance and glycemic load and the role of carbohydrates in overeating, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. I approached the coaches for advice and tips and spent 2 weeks trying my best to eat a super low-carb, vegetarian diet (<20 g carbs/day). I finally lost weight (nearly 10 pounds in 2 weeks!), but it proved an impossible diet to sustain – eating a pound of highly processed soy every day is not how we are meant to live.

Logically I knew meat needed to come back into my diet, but it was a heartbreaking realization. I started slowly by reintroducing fish first, then chicken, then beef. It was gross. I hated the texture and the knowledge that I was eating dead animals. The results, however, were immediate.

In the first 3 days after starting to eat meat I had no less than a dozen people tell me how great my complexion looked – I heard comments like “You look so healthy!” and “Your skin is glowing!” These were unprompted comments from people who saw me on an almost-daily basis but had no idea anything in my life had changed.

Whereas I had been feeling very low energy on a low-carb, high-fat vegetarian diet, I felt amazing on a low-carb, high-fat meat diet because my meals were so much more satiating. I could eat a few ounces of beef with a couple tablespoons of homemade mayonnaise and not be hungry for 5-6 hours. And when I did get hungry I didn’t crash. My observation of being hungry was an afterthought – it didn’t become an all-consuming drive to find food. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to try to control how much I was eating. My body told me to stop when it had enough and I had no cravings for grains or sugars at all. They didn’t even sound appetizing.

I lost a total of 11 lbs – 8 lbs of fat. My lean mass went down by 3 lbs but my recent PRs at the shop suggest that hasn’t mattered. I’m still losing weight, although at a slower pace. I lost 2’’ off my waist and my body fat percentage is almost into normal range for the first time in my entire life.

The most convincing signs of positive change in my body came from annual blood work that I get done at the start of every fall. Based on conventional wisdom, you might think eating 2-3 eggs every day and getting 60-70% of my calories from animal fats and oils would send my cholesterol and risk factors for heart disease through the roof. On the contrary since last fall my “good” cholesterol has gone up almost 25% (into the normal range for the first time in my adult life). My “bad” cholesterol is still well within normal ranges and has only gone up 10% (and theory suggests this rise is due to an increase in the harmless, fluffy “bad” cholesterol rather than the destructive, dense “bad” cholesterol). My triglycerides have dropped 49%.**

I no longer have any risk factors for heart disease.

Coming from a family where everyone has signs of heart disease starting in middle age, these results are incredible. But the most amazing positive result of my diet shift comes from my brain rather than my heart. I have struggled with various flavors of anxiety disorders throughout my entire life. At times they have been completely debilitating. Even medications and psychotherapy have failed to completely alleviate my symptoms. Since switching to a low-carb, high-fat diet, my anxiety symptoms have disappeared. 

Most people would probably be shocked by my current diet: 2-3 eggs cooked in coconut oil and dripping in mayonnaise with 3-4 pieces of bacon for breakfast; beef with just enough salad on the side to soak up 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil for lunch; pork roast with a side of pure coconut milk for dinner. I eat no grains or sweeteners of any kind; almost no fruit, nuts or dairy; and very few vegetables (those I do eat are primarily salads or relatives of the cabbage family that have a low carb content).

Thankfully 20 years of following a vegetarian diet prepared me for eating a highly restricted diet: scouring food labels for “forbidden” ingredients, bringing my own food to parties, finding the one or two restaurants in town where I can eat something off the menu after subtracting half the ingredients, and the “are you crazy?” looks you tend to get when asking for 2 pounds of bacon from the meat counter.

I am so grateful to CrossFit for forcing me to pay attention to my body and giving me the motivation and awareness to keep trying different approaches to eating until finding the diet that helps my body thrive. I had no idea I would end up here when I walked into that first Foundations course 10 months ago, but I am so glad I have arrived.

*Yes, vegetarians, I avoided meat for 20 years for all the same reasons you do: 1) it’s wrong to take the lives of sentient animals when there are other food sources available, 2) the meat industry’s treatment of animals is reprehensible, 3) farm animal production destroys the environment in myriad ways, and 4) eating a plant-based diet is good for your health and longevity. Clearly #4 was shot out of the water (for me), but I still struggle with #1-3. There’s an argument to be made that supporting grassfed and pastured meat production improves farm animal welfare but obviously in choosing to eat meat, I have made a conscious decision to put my and my family’s health and wellbeing above those of other living beings.

**For those who might think these results are due to exercising or being at a lower weight than in previous years – I have blood work from a couple years ago when I was exercising 5x/week and through a very low calorie diet had gotten my weight down to where it is right now. My numbers when exercising, eating a low-calorie vegetarian diet, and hanging out at a lower weight were identical to those when I wasn’t exercising, eating a normal-calorie vegetarian diet and weighed more than I do now. The only difference between my lifestyle now and two years ago is that I am now eating a low-carb, high-fat, meat-centered diet.

12 Responses

  1. Cindy Arangua

    And now you are even that more amazing to me, Nicole!! This to me, is what CrossFit is all about (yes, believe it or not I see competing as only one facet of the bigger picture). Each of us likely has an incredible experience to share about what it has done for us–but only some of us are willing to put ourselves out there and tell it. Huge thank you for sharing your story.

  2. shaynalarsen

    Amazing story! Love that you listened to your body and made decisions that were best for you and your family. Have you read the book – The Vegetarian Myth? You will love it!

  3. Nicole S

    Thanks everyone! It should be noted that I never would have made these amazing strides in my health without all of you: the coaches and athletes who inspire me every day to keep moving forward. You’re the best!!

  4. Bones

    Congrats Nicole. It doesn’t surprise me, though. I did blood work on my own during Roots’ second paleo food challenge (“Paleo 2.0”) back in early 2010 and saw incredible improvement across the board in just 6 weeks, and I dropped almost 20 lbs during that challenge. Due to the dietary changes and exercise since then, my blood values have stayed great and I have kept excess weight off. Except for honey. Which is the nectar of the gods. And humans cannot live without it. Just sayin’, Nicole C.