Taking a Protein-First Approach

How you take care of your body in your 20s and 30s sets you up (for better or for worse) in your 40s and beyond. On this episode of Beginnings & Breakthroughs, community member and university student, Mekenna Smith, discusses breaking free from her sugar addiction with JJ and how to develop a healthy eating plan for her active lifestyle.

Mekenna has goals to eat more vegetables, slow down her grab-and-go eating habits, and incorporate more time for meal prep. Listen as JJ shares the benefits of a protein-first diet structure for these goals (and addresses the fear around eating too much protein in one's diet), the importance of tapering sugar intake to appreciate the natural sweetness in foods, and why everyone should get a DEXA scan to assess their bone mineral density and other body composition metrics.

As she mends from injuries and broken bones, Mekenna also seeks advice from JJ about training for a half marathon and climbing a 14,000-foot mountain while healing appropriately.

Being in her 20s, she's in her prime for building muscle—but it's never too late. Listen to learn the types of exercise JJ suggests for runners to avoid low muscle mass typical in marathoners.

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ATHE_Transcript_Ep 495_Mekenna Smith
JJ Virgin: [00:00:00] Welcome to Beginnings and Breakthroughs. This is where I celebrate and coach people just like you who are on a mission to heal their metabolisms, feel better, fast, and live their best lives. We will be walking through what's worked for them and what they've discovered on their journeys. And then I'll coach them on their next best steps.
And if you're interested in being a guest, stay tuned and I'll be sharing how you can join. Me too. All right. I will be right back with our awesome guest.
All right. You may not know this about me, but. Was on a show called Freaky Eaters on the Learning Channel on TLC for a couple of seasons. And that show like lives on, I don't know, YouTube or somewhere, every time I do Instagram or anything else I get, I get fans, , like it's, it's pretty crazy. Anyway, I have a [00:01:00] gal we're gonna be talking to today in beginning's and breakthroughs who found me on freaky eaters.
She's in her twenties. But she found me and she decided to do something about her sugar addiction using the sugar Impact Diet. So we're gonna unpack that what she did that you can use for yourself, and then what we're doing now to help her set her up for a great long, healthy kick in life. So, I will be right back.
Let me, Oh, before I do that, let me just tell you a little bit about Mekenna who is at the University of Arizona and yes, those are my dogs fighting in the background. Yes, they are. They are. Like my new puppy, six months old is literally terrorizing my 15 months old. My 15 year old chihuahua. Anyway, super active gal Mekenna.
She is works at a ranch. She is a university student who is coming, a therapist specializing in trauma and super active gal and really, really [00:02:00] resilient and really focused, and someone I think is going to go far in life. So I will be right back with Mekenna. Stay with me.
So Mekenna, you found me on Freaky Eaters. Where is this even being aired? Is it on YouTube? Like how are people finding this show? It seems like the show lurks everywhere, .
Mekenna Smith: Definitely YouTube and I saw it a long time ago. I have no idea where. But I also saw it a long time ago before my adventures of the becoming a therapist.
Got it. I'm almost done with school.
JJ Virgin: Nice. Awesome. Yeah. Yeah. And I think I saw, So for those of you who are going, what the heck is freaky eaters, JJ? So. I think it was maybe, gosh, was it 10 years ago? No, it was longer than that. It was about 14 years ago. 12. 14 years ago. I was on a series with my buddy Dr.
Mike Dow called Freaky Eaters. And the best way to explain the [00:03:00] show is it is like hoarders meets my strange addiction and it was literally people who had crazy food habits, like they would only eat potatoes or they would only tartar sauce. So they had to have tartar sauce on everything, like just weird food behaviors.
And they sent us in and Mike Dow's a psychotherapist and I was the nutrition person, and he thought everything was like, you know, Based in emotions or, or trauma. And I thought everything was based on like, you know, genetics and exposure. So it was a very fun like, you know, and we would do all this crazy stuff to help people change what had been for all of them lifelong situations.
And so after that, I don't think I'd even written. The Virgin Diet was coming out after, right after that I think. And then after that I wrote the Sugar Impact Diet. So I've always been about like helping people figure out which foods work for them and how to break free of things like sugar addiction.
And we were talking [00:04:00] offline that you initially went on this. Cause I said you're very different than the person that I normally have on the show or is on social. I do have. Cult following of Freaky Eaters fans. But you are in your twenties studying to be almost a therapist now, I think in, in trauma, right?
You're gonna work in trauma. Yes, ma'am. Very cool. I i, on my podcast, for everyone listening, you'll wanna listen to the podcast episode with Amy, Apiggian. And that's just, Phenomenal on trauma. It's such an interesting subject and so needed. So you said you sought me out because you wanted to break free of your sugar addiction.
Let's dive into that. What was going on?
Mekenna Smith: Just I'm a person who just forgets to eat and has, you know, quick things to grab and go. Because I'm constantly the person that doesn't wanna sit still and is constantly working. And so for me it was it was actually an act portion control. and also, you know, making sure I'm actually eating [00:05:00] vegetables and slowing down my eating habits so that, you know, and remembering to eat, that's the biggest thing.
So that I don't have to grab and go and run. So, preparing mm-hmm. Spending time preparing food that's healthy.
JJ Virgin: And you said cuz you could still, like, you know, although most people don't grab and grow, go with salmon and Brussels sprouts, they're gonna grab like some crappy thing. But you also said you come from a long line of.
Sugar eaters in your family, right? Like everyone's eating a lot of sugar. So you know, it's always that question. Is this genetic? , you know, where is this coming from? Or is it a learned behavior? Like, you know, this is how you were raised. Exposure equals preference. So you went on the sugar impact diet.
Was it challenging to get rid of your sugar habit or was it just really, you just hadn't paid attention to it before?
Mekenna Smith: You know, a little bit of both. I hadn't paid attention to it, but also for me it was, I needed to just make, make my gut happy, make my body happy. Because I need the, the [00:06:00] protein to to keep going during my day.
I'm always on my feet and and yes, and I do believe it's genetic. Addiction runs on both sides of my family. So, ah, everybody's addicted to something.
JJ Virgin: Ah, . Yeah. I have a friend who It's a lifelong addict who is convinced everyone's an addict. I'm like, Actually I don't have any of the addiction genes like now.
Like I don't think everyone's an addict. It is interesting with sugar because there's definitely a strong addictive. Place to it. And I love what Dr. Mark Hyman says. It's the number one recreational drug of choice. If you look at sugar and compare it to opiates, they've done studies where, you know, mice given the choice or rats given the choice, pick the sugar and it lights up the same pleasure center in the brain.
So there's a clear, addictive piece to it and different than something like alcohol. It's not like you can just say, I'm not going to the bar. You can't say I'm not going to eat anymore. So, you know, it's sneaking into places everywhere and lighten you up. And there's definitely a genetic beyond just the [00:07:00] addictive part of it.
And we actually did this on freaky eaters. I was using a genetic test that could tell me if someone was a super taster it could tell me if they were a, had a sweet tooth or were a sweet taster. Cause we had one guy who put maple syrup on everything. It absolutely gagged me because, oh my gosh, maple syrup.
I got food poisoning when I was a little. and I was eating like pancakes with maple syrup or something. I can't be around it. Like, it just gags me. So I had to be surrounded by vats of maple syrup. And I'm like, I can't, like, I can't be here , like I'm going to like leave it. But you know, they're definitely the people who, the more sweet they eat, the more sweet they want.
And the other people who just, you know, they just. The sweet, my, my adopted mom's one of those and like I could care less about. Sweet. So it was interesting when I wrote Sugar Impact Diet cuz I was determined to help people break free of their sugar addiction and to do it a couple different ways. One of 'em is doing, dealing with the genetics.
One of it was dealing with the blood sugar instability, the gut [00:08:00] microbiome issues. And one of it was just, you know, teaching them to re to appreciate natural sweetness. And you said something really, I. and it's actually gonna be one of my, probably my, I always say it's gonna be my last book, is about protein first in that, you know, we can live without carbohydrates, you know, it won't be fun, but we can't live without protein and fat.
And when you really structure your diet protein first, you have increased satiety. You have better blood sugar control. So a lot of the sugar craving stuff can go away purely with that intervention that you just talked about starting with protein. So that was a good one. So you went on the program, How quickly were you able to make that shift, and what were the things you noticed?
Mekenna Smith: Within, you know, within a month I was able to, to really cut back and have, you know, a portion control, like for example like extremely sugary coffees like I can do now, just a cup of black coffee with a little bit of creamer. It [00:09:00] doesn't have to be a Starbucks crazy drink.
JJ Virgin: Mm-hmm. . We always want, like my husband and I will walk into Starbucks and watch this situation going on and in nothing truthfully, what really gets me is seeing little kids with Frappuccinos and I'm like, Oh my God.
These kids are like, What are they, What are these parents doing giving this kid this? Like, you know, 60 grams of sugar with caffeine and they're like 8, Don't do this, you know? Oh, no. Bad .
Mekenna Smith: Yeah. And for me too, my taste buds changed. Good. So for me, it's like, I don't, it's not a, a ton of sweetness, even in coffee.
Like a super sweet coffee from Starbucks doesn't work for me. Like I, I'm lucky if I'll finish it. It's too sweet.
JJ Virgin: Yay. That's exactly when I set out to do this, and I had 900 people do this as a test and I picked 900 people that. Sugar addicts, they couldn't give up their sweet, you know? And I was like, Okay,
I didn't pick the easy [00:10:00] ones, but my whole point was if we didn't go cold Turkey, which I think is the toughest thing ever, you know, unless you can put people into some kind of, you know, rehab center, like forget it. They're in the real world. So. . But if you can teach people to taper and start to appreciate natural sweetness and sour and spicy, all of a sudden when they go back, they'll go, Ugh.
That just, that's just gross. So hearing you say that makes me beyond excited that, oh, in fact, what happened ? So what other things did you notice as results when you went through this?
Mekenna Smith: That was a big deal. I had a lot more energy. That's for. I was able to last longer in a workout.
JJ Virgin: Now here's the big thing, like before you were fueling yourself on sugar, which people are like, Oh, I need some energy.
I'll have that. I'm like that, but that's like, that's like false energy. It's short energy. It's like, you know, , it's like spending your immediate cash instead of really building up your bank account and just using the interest. Right,
Mekenna Smith: Right. Yeah. So that was the biggest thing is having more energy during a workout, [00:11:00] like When your muscles start to burn out I was able to last a little bit longer you know, on protein obviously, because I'm burning the proper energy and rebuild.
The other thing too is the recovery period was getting a little bit quicker with muscles too.
JJ Virgin: So a couple things would happen there, and this is important cause I know now you're gonna train for a marathon. You're also healing a broken bone. So you know the reason that that. I wanna make sure people are getting optimal protein. And it's especially important right now for you. You might not think about this and you know, I get a lot of people coming in their forties, fifties, sixties.
But the reality is, what happens in your twenties and thirties is gonna set you up for how awesome your life is going to be. Or not in your forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and you kind of have to reverse engineer your whole life, right? If you wanna be like kicking. in your eighties, then you have to be like really pushing it hard in your [00:12:00] twenties and thirties so that you can maintain that.
Sure. And so in order for you to build muscle, and, and I'll show you how the whole thing works with more energy. In order for you to build muscle, you need two things. Now people think, Oh, I want more muscle, eat more protein. Well, You can't just sit on the couch, eat, eat a steak and build muscle. It does not work that way.
It would be amazing sure if you could, you know, but it doesn't. Nor can you go lift really heavy weights and not give yourself the adequate building blocks that your body needs to recover. And there's two things it needs. It needs the protein amino acids because you've got to use those to build. and you wanna make sure you have an adequate amount because if you don't have an adequate amount, your body's not gonna say, Hey, you know what?
I can either have my heart pump or I can build muscle. It's gonna go, Yeah, I'm gonna pump my heart. Forget the muscle. Right? . So you gotta have adequate supplies. And then once you've got what you need to build the muscle, then the second part is to. Extra fuel storage in the muscle. [00:13:00] Here's the cool thing with muscle, It's like this.
I've heard it referred to as a metabolic sink. I like to call it as your high margin of error. It's like where you can store extra energy rather than storing it as fat. Now, personally, I would much rather store extra energy. That's dog fight over here, . I would much rather store extra energy in my muscles.
As you know, it's how carbohydrates are stored as glycogen than going and storing on my body is fat. And I think probably everyone's in agreement on that. And so you wanna build more muscle, because more muscle means you have a more area to store those carbohydrates for energy. So then you have more energy during your workout than you used to have before.
So that's how that all works. Makes sense.
Mekenna Smith: Is that part of the ATP cycle?
JJ Virgin: So atp. Wow. Are you doing this in yours? In your did you have to take I.
Mekenna Smith: I did in my undergrad.
JJ Virgin: Ah, okay. God, I still remember, you know, having to memorize the Creb cycle. It's like I just went, I know. And I just went, Oh ew, . Well, so, you know, it depends on what you're breaking down.
Remember [00:14:00] you have fat oxidation and you have sugar oxidation and, and sugar oxidation is what we're gonna do when we're doing more intense exercise. It's, it's interesting cause people always think, Oh, I want to burn more fat. Well, the really, the time you're burning fat is when you are. Easy walking. When you're really in there working out hard, you're gonna be burning sugar because it's harder workouts.
And so that's what you gotta look at and what's what is gonna be more efficient for your body do at the time, and which fuel sources. And ideally, you can switch between them and usually you're gonna be burning. fat or sugar, But if you have more protein than you need, you can burn some of that too, so you don't have to worry about, oh my gosh, like we don't need to overload our body with protein.
But I think there's been a lot of fear out there that too much protein, all these bad things can happen. Right? The reality is if you know for kidney disease, Excess protein's a problem, but if you have healthy kidneys, it's not right. And you know, they talk about, well, if you eat too much protein, you'll leach [00:15:00] calcium from your bones.
No. Because you'll actually have more calcium on board anyway. Sure. So it's a net. It's not, it's, it's the net the same. So really no issues there. But it's really like with anything you wanna give your body optimal amounts. If anything, I'd tend to go a little more than, than, than I might need for protein because it's so satiating it's so satiating and more rather have, More than I need, than not quite enough.
So that's where I go there, but you don't need to go crazy on it. So that's the other piece. All right. And you also said that you did it for your mental health. Like walk me through what, what you noticed there.
Mekenna Smith: For that, You know, I actually went to a natural path. When I was in high school and she, she kind of helped me too to cut back on some of the sugar.
Because that sugar, like, it makes you feel crappy. There's not enough protein while I'm in school to, you know, to think clearly. Right. I'm just running on sugar. Right. And so that was a big deal. So you. Not having foggy thinking and [00:16:00] having more energy for my brain to be able to learn a
JJ Virgin: little bit better.
How cool that you went to a naturopath in high school that was helping you with that? Who was the doc? Let's do a shout out.
Mekenna Smith: Dr. Holly Gower.
JJ Virgin: Okay, Dr. Holly Gower. Yay. You. And the other thing that's so important, there are getting good, healthy fats. Of course, when you look at like what's gonna help with your brain and focus, you know, you need all of it.
Your brain's a fat head and especially the three fats, right? And then, and those. Omega-3 fats also help with bone remodeling. So they're important along with the protein as you're healing that bone that you're healing right now. So that is another important thing. So now you have this plan to run a half marathon.
Yes. . Where did that come from? What made you decide to do that? I've
Mekenna Smith: always done. I did some track running in high school. The four by four was my race. That was the only race I did really, really well in. And then after high school I ran a lot of 5Ks and there is, there's a lot of [00:17:00] halfs that would be really fun to do out here in Arizona.
The tricky part is, is when I broke my arm, I was supposed to do climb a fourteener with a friend this year, and I couldn't do
JJ Virgin: it. So I have no idea what climbing a fourteener is. Is that a 14 mile race? What is climbing a fourteener? It is, of course, it a 14, Like what is
Mekenna Smith: it? It's climbing climbing above 14,000 feet on.
On a mountain there all over Colorado. The one we were going to do was in California, and that was going to be the first one I ever did, but, After breaking my arm I'm considered a fall risk Until January, I couldn't really do anything. I'm hiking now. I just have to be careful cuz even the slightest bump on the outside of my elbow wants me to scream bloody murder.
So it's still really painful. It will never be straight, a hundred percent. Oh. Doing pushups will be interesting when that happens, but I, I did 11 weeks of serious physical therapy. [00:18:00] I was lucky I didn't have to wear a cast, so there really wasn't any muscle loss. But it does, you know, it does affect balance when you're, you're hiking and trying not to fall on your face.
Right? .
JJ Virgin: And its always like, don't hit this. And the minute you think you can't hit something, you seem to hit it all the time. So, Yeah. Well, and
Mekenna Smith: there's, you know, 17 screws in there and a plate.
JJ Virgin: Oh boy. You really, you really did that number on
Mekenna Smith: that. Yes. Yeah, it's it runs all
JJ Virgin: the way up. Holy smokes. All right, well, ouch on that hold on, I'm getting one second.
Go ahead. Okay, little little dog issue here. So then your next thing is to run a half marathon and I am not an I, It's funny, I used to work with a lot of athletes back in the day but a lot of pro boxers. I don't know quite how I got into heavyweight, boxers, and martial artists. And not much in the way of marathon running.
I tend to like more of a blend of doing some resistance training and hit training [00:19:00] and marathon running. But I think anything, especially right now, one of the big things that you'll wanna make sure you do in your twenties and thirties, this is your best time to build muscle and really make sure your bones are strong.
And it sounds like whatever you did must have been just a fluke of hitting something the wrong way.
Mekenna Smith: But no, it was something stupid. I
JJ Virgin: did something stupid. Okay. Of course, everyone's like, What'd she do? What's the stupid thing? But one thing I would absolutely make sure of is that you've got good bone mineral density.
Okay. So you can do that. Getting a DEXA scan and everyone listening, listen, whatever age you're at, a dexa scan's an important scan. Cause it tells you not just your bone mineral density, which, you know, for some reason they're like, Have that done at 50. I'm like, 50 is way too late. You should really have that done in your teens
You know, and then your teens and twenties are when the big interventions happen. But we can, we can do things at any time if it's at least just to stop the loss. But hopefully to build and resistance training is a great way, of course, to [00:20:00] put the stress on the bones and build, build bone. But it also gives you your body fat percentage, your fat free mass percentage, and your visceral body fat, like how much of the fat's really around your organs.
And for everybody listening, you know what we really want to. is, we wanna know, you know, everyone's like, I can pinch an inch. It's, it's not the inch pinching that's the problem. It's the other stuff you can't see that you know is in there. That's the problem. And that's the stuff that can make problem problems for everybody.
I also think that for a lot of people, we just don't have enough muscle. And again, you in your twenties and thirties, like you are in the primo muscle building. This is, it works for me. And yeah, you know, I know that like, you know, they talk about, I, I have a friend who does a lot of coaching says, You know, marathon runners have the muscle mass of a couch potato.
Look at a marathon runner versus a sprinter. And so the one thing I would emphasize with you as you start to train for a marathon is this, number one, when you do a lot more of that type of training, you create a lot more oxidated stress. Meaning cuz you're [00:21:00] breathing more, right? And when you're breathing more, you're generating more free radicals.
So one of the things that's known is that you want to make sure you're getting in some really good antioxidants to help lower that because that contributes to a lot of the inflammation that can happen because of it. And it makes sure that you are also doing that resistance training, not just a lot of running, because otherwise you'll raise stress hormones.
Sure, you'll create oxidative stress and you'll lose muscle. And this is not when you want that to. . Sure. You don't ever want it to happen, but not right. . So that's it. And also, I mean, it'll, it'll make you, in some ways, it's funny, when I was helping people with marathons, I was making them do high intensity interval training and resistance training.
I was like, okay, you know, I know that's not typical, but you know, I wanna offset anything. So I look at how can we offset some of the things that could happen from this, Right. So, Right. There you go. Those are the things I'd focus. Perfect. Thank you. Appreciate it. You're welcome. Awesome. Well, I'm super excited about the work you're gonna be doing out in the world.[00:22:00]
Mekenna Smith: Thank you. Me too. I am, I'm so stoked.
JJ Virgin: And if you do ever want to do an internship I would hook you up with my buddy, Dr. Amy Apiggian and she is amazing. Look her up. I, I think she is doing just groundbreaking work around trauma. She's got a summit, she's done twice called the Biology of Trauma Summit.
Wow. And she's training practitioners on how to. Deal with trauma and she's really getting trauma on the map so people understand what an issue it is for our health. Cuz I think it's still because it's, it's not something like, you know, you can't take your blood pressure or you know it's right. It's not something that's easy to test for.
No. , you know, that people don't really understand the impact that it has. So Yeah. And
Mekenna Smith: it impacts need more deal a lot. Oh, . And yeah, it impacts a lot. And the other thing that's interesting is my second internship that I just acquired it it is a program that focuses on addiction and trauma.
So nice. [00:23:00] Which is going to be a huge blessing for me to be able to learn. Yeah, from my new supervisor.
JJ Virgin: Wow. Very, very cool. I love that. All right, well, keep me updated as to what happens with your racing, what happens with your arm, and what happens with your career. Thank
Mekenna Smith: you so much. I, it's been an honor to meet you,
JJ Virgin: Ah, I appreciate that. Thank you.
All righty. So big thing to just think about here. Wherever you are, whatever, wherever you are in life, like whatever year you are, you know, it is never too late. There's a dog again. . I really wish I, I should have a video of this, like, it's, it's like a grand prix raceway with my dog here. Anyway, it's never too late to do this.
To get started building that muscle and focus on the protein that you need to do. So, so make sure that you have got that. You are on my watch list here to make sure that you got good bone density good muscle mass, because as we age, it is [00:24:00] everything. Everything. Everything. Okay. If you've not yet subscribed to the show, subscribetojj.com.
There you go. It is that easy, and I'll see you next time.


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