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Don’t leave.

This is good information, especially if you want to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, avoid type 2 diabetes (maybe even reverse it), boost your energy, and generally enhance your health and vitality.

Seriously, if nothing else, who doesn’t want more energy?

This will be a 2-part blog post. I have too much information to share with you in one shot. Last June I attended the Fitness & Health Blogger’s Conference at the new (and amazing) Anschutz Health & Wellness Center on the University of Colorado’s Medical School campus here in Denver. The conference, put on by the awesome folks at Zephyr Adventures, included everything from world-class speakers and organic food to optional exercise classes in a state-of-the-art fitness center. We were also treated to a tour of the metabolic kitchen and dinner on the urban garden green roof. For someone with a background in exercise science and nutrition, this was my kind of conference. Plus, we got to wear workout clothes the whole time. It makes it much easier to squirm around and sit cross-legged in a lecture hall if you’re barefoot and wearing yoga pants.

Dr. James Hill is the founder and Executive Director of the Health and Wellness Center. He’s also the co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry and America on the Move, a national weight-gain prevention initiative. He kicked off the conference with a presentation on The Importance of Evidence Based Approaches to Health and Wellness. The audience, mostly fitness bloggers, loved him. He’s a leading expert on obesity, food policy, environmental changes, genetic influences on energy balance, the health consequences of inactivity, and on and on and on. The guy is brilliant and has a great sense of humor. Perfect combo!

One of Dr. Hill’s slides was a map of US obesity rates. In 2008 Colorado “weighed” in as the fittest state with an obesity prevalence of 15%-19%. A few days ago, new numbers were announced. In one article, Colorado was called the “skinniest” state with a new rate of 20.7%. I’m proud of Colorado (born and raised here), but calling us the skinniest state with an obesity rate of almost 21% is misleading. Our obesity rate has doubled since 1995. Dr. Hill suggested that Colorado is simply the caboose on a fast moving train going the wrong direction. We’re still the fittest state, but we’re gaining just like everyone else. The highest obesity rates in general are in adults over age 40, ranging from 36% to 42%. That’s a big segment of the population.

What do you think? Which is more important in causing weight gain—diet or inactivity?

Dr. Hill asked the audience that question and the responses were all over the place. It’s a complex issue and he encouraged lively debate. That’s the mark of a good teacher!

Our genes haven’t changed since the 50s and 60s, but our environment has. Our lifestyles are different. We don’t move as much as our parents and grandparents did and we don’t eat the same food they ate. Obesity is the adaptation to this new environment. Our ancestors ate whenever food was available and rested whenever they could. It was a biological necessity. Now, abundant, cheap, and poor-quality food is available at every turn and we don’t even have to get off our bums to prepare it, let alone find or catch it. We can pick up the phone (now conveniently unattached from the wall) and order it to be delivered. If we’re out and about, all we have to do is pull through a drive-up window and have someone toss a bag of food to us.

We have to motivate ourselves to move. Now it’s called exercise. It used to be the way we lived.

How many motivational sayings do you see posted on Facebook or Twitter each day? I’m “guilty” of that. I post upbeat, motivational ramblings on a regular basis. We sit on our bums in front of our computers and tell each other to get out and do something. It’s actually rather silly when you think about it.

As many of you know, I spent the past year co-writing a book with friend, colleague, and endurance athlete Pete Bronski of the blog No Gluten, No Problem. I sat at my computer for long hours, fretted over my writing, stressed about hitting deadlines, and didn’t move as much as I normally do. I’m in that over 40 (way over 40 in my case) category and I gained several pounds. Under 10, but over 6—I’m actually not sure how much weight I gained, but regardless of the amount, “contents did shift” and I don’t like the feeling. It’s easier to gain weight when we’re older because our body composition changes. We typically have less metabolically active muscle tissue because we don’t move as much. I’m on a mission to change that. I started last March. Check metabolism, weight loss, yoga & flexible genes for the back-story.

If you diet alone to lose weight, your metabolic rate will go down. That’s not good. Dr. Hill noted that one of the characteristics of people who were successful in losing weight and keeping it off was 60-90 minutes of exercise per day. And if you’re considerably overweight to begin with, you’ll have to work harder to lose the weight because of the metabolic difference between lean muscle and fat. It’s not easy and my heart goes out to people who have this challenge. Just losing my few pounds has been difficult. I can only imagine how overwhelming it would be to have 50, 60, or 100 pounds to lose. But it can be done. It takes lots of time (years maybe); an overall strategy of simple, small changes; a scale (horrors!); patience; good food; and lots of movement. LOTS of movement.

The point is to increase mitochondrial density, which will increase the ability to efficiently process fat. Although the biochemical process is complicated, the point is pretty straightforward. Increase muscle, decrease fat.

I’ll leave you with a definition of the mitochondria and we’ll launch into part 2 next week—Pursuing Metabolic Health: What we have Learned from Elite Endurance Athletes with Dr. Iñigo San Millán. Dr. San Millán is the director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and did a stellar presentation on the importance of movement, mitochondrial density, and fat loss. If you stick with me for part 2, you’ll see that there is always hope. We can make positive changes at any age and the mitochondria is our Starship Enterprise!

A double-membraned organelle that plays a central role in the production of ATP (energy-carrying molecule); known as the powerhouse of the cell. Mitochondria are small, spherical, rod-shaped, or filamentous structures that appear throughout the cytoplasm (material within a cell, excluding the nucleus). Mitochondria are self-replicative. Yay! They replicate in response to the increased cellular need for energy. Exercise causes an increase in mitochondria, which is a GOOD thing. We need to do that to lose weight and keep it off. FOREVER.

More on that in part 2.

Note: For more information on obesity statistics and recipe rehab, check the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center’s Tools & Resources link. If you’re in the Denver area, check their Programs & Services. And if you’re interested in gluten-free living and thriving, check our new book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life

Peace, love, and mitochondrial density!

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12 Responses to “mitochondria: your own Starship Enterprise”

  1. Tevis says:

    Mom, this is awesome! Super interesting and really informative. You rule!

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks, Tevis! Oh so glad I have some family support. But you grew up with this geeky stuff. =) Hope other people like it. Love you. xo

  2. Concerning this. When I had prostate enlargement, we hit it with PawPaw and silver and protease plus. But the main thing that fixed it was getting more alkaline rather than acidic.
    PawPaw however shuts off receptors in the mitochondria that are cancerous or wrong thus starving the cell. Amazing herb that, but one can only take it a very short time.

    • Melissa says:

      Interesting, Kenneth. Thanks for that info about pawpaw and mitochondrial function. I hadn’t heard that, but had heard that Native Americans used it to fight certain diseases. I appreciate you adding this to the conversation!

  3. Great post. I too have gained the under 10 but over 6 as I write my book. Hmmmm. A pattern here? Can’t wait for more on mitochondria. It’s forefront in our mind as our son has mito dysfunction. For anyone interested here is a post I did on it … or related to our treating it:

    Sounds like a great event!!


    • Melissa says:


      Thanks! Yes, book writing can be hazardous to your health. =) Also, thanks for linking to your post on mitochondrial dysfunction. I appreciate adding your knowledge to the mix. You’ve done a lot of research on this! Thank you for that. xo

  4. betty says:

    I have been diagoned with primary biliary scerosis. In my labs the doc (naturalpath)has been following my mitochondria antibodies. I dont know much about this subject, but if i have antibodies attacking my mitochondria, then im not mitochondria rich. No wonder ive always been overweight by more than 20lbs, no matter how much i worked out. I am on a gluten, all wheat, egg, dairy, soy, corn free diet, its been difficult, i should be loosing but still have not.I cant wait to learn more about this subject.I am willing to do anything to heal. Thank you for your article and your site.

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Betty, Very interesting about your doc and the testing of your mitochondria antibodies. Sounds like you have a good doc! Keep us posted. And yes, a wheat, egg, dairy, soy, corn-free diet is difficult, but SO much healthier for most of us. Soy, corn, wheat are in so many processed foods that if you stick to whole foods, you can avoid them. Not easy though, I know! Hang in there.

  5. Maggie says:

    Awesome info Melissa! I love it. I am studying anatomy and physiology right now so obviously mitochondria has come up 🙂 Your posts ALWAYS complement my studies.
    Here’s a thought – do you think it’s easier for someone to lose 60 pounds, simply because they have many changes to make (cut out sugar, exercise, portion control, etc…)? Easier than it is for you to lose that 6-10 lbs because you’ve already made most of those changes. Am I making any sense? Can’t wait for part 2!

    • Melissa says:

      Such good (and geeky) thinking Maggie. I love anatomy & physiology. If you ever have a chance to do a workshop with Gil Hedley, do it! He’s amazing! As for your question — it depends — and it’s a long story. =) But, yes, you’re making perfect sense. I could lose the weight quickly with a low calorie diet, but that is not my goal. My goal is to permanently lose the weight and reset my metabolism so I keep the weight off. It took several months for me to gain this weight and it will take several months to lose it for REAL. There’s a big difference. Most people (there are always exceptions) can lose weight. That is not the hard part (even though it’s hard). The hard part is keeping the weight off. That takes a different strategy and much more thoughtful weight loss and lifestyle changes. You’re right though. I gained the weight not as much from what I ate, but from what I DIDN’T do. This was the first time in my life that I didn’t move (exercise) at a fairly high level. In combination with my age and some natural shifts in hormones, etc., all that sitting changed my metabolism and mitochondrial density. That, plus my restorative yoga practice, which added to a down-tick in my metabolism caused weight gain. It’s about the movement for me. So, yes, in some ways you’re absolutely right. Wish you were closer. We could share geeky information over a green smoothie!

  6. Shannon says:

    My 5 year old has celiac, global apraxia (including speech), metabolic acidosis, and suspected mitochondrial disease. While our medical professionals call her a mystery, we’ve seen lots of improvements with diet and therapy. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate good habits (moving, resting, eating nutrient dense foods, hydrating) into our lives so that she can manage her life the same way as an adult. I’m on pins and needles for part 2!

    • Melissa says:

      Shannon, Check out Lexie’s Kitchen blog. Alexa, who commented on this post of mine (see “Lexie’s Kitchen comment) is the founder of that blog and she’s amazing. Her son has mitochondrial dysfunction issues and she’s well-versed on food and nutrition, etc.

      Thanks so much for your comment. Alexa and I often say “we are all in this together” and I hope finding support and knowing you are not alone in this journey to find answers is somewhat comforting. Good luck. It sounds like you are an amazingly creative and caring mom! Hang in there.


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