Ep #98: Optimizing Your Body Composition: Muscles, Protein, and Your Metabolism

Strong as a Working Mom with Carrie Holland | Optimizing Your Body Composition: Muscles, Protein, and Your Metabolism
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It’s time to talk about the connection between muscles, protein, and metabolism. The tides in health and fitness are turning. It used to be that fitness was about becoming thin. Small was the goal and it didn’t matter how you got there or how you felt in your body once you got there. But we’ve learned so much more since those days.

If you’ve been pursuing the goal of being thin, let me give you an alternative that feels better both inside and out. Skinny is no longer the goal, so let’s talk about how to be strong, and how understanding the connection between muscles, protein, and metabolism will help you get there.

Tune in this week to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between your muscles, your protein intake, and your metabolism, and use this to inform how you eat and move to create your optimal body. You’ll learn why more muscles mean a faster metabolism, and I give you practical tips for incorporating the levels of protein in your diet that will support you in creating your ideal body composition.

Are you ready to eat, move, and think in a way that gets you strong both physically and mentally? You deserve to have both no matter how busy you are, and I can help. I’m opening up my one-on-one coaching program for new clients, and I would love to work with you. Click here to learn more about working with me.

What You Will Discover:

  • A new perspective about what it means to be fit and healthy, instead of skinny or thin.
  • Why being strong and healthy means you need to let go of the number on the scale.
  • How to focus on optimizing your body composition, instead of losing weight.
  • Why building muscle can mean eating in a calorie surplus.
  • How restricting calories to lose weight negatively impacts your metabolism.
  • Why muscles are the biggest factor in how your metabolism operates.
  • How protein helps you build muscle while supporting your metabolism.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #98. If your goal has been to get thin, let me offer you an alternative that feels better inside and out. Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high-achieving, busy, working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer, and certified life coach, Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, what’s good here, we are going to talk about the connection between muscles, protein, and metabolism today. We’re going to get into how these three things are related, and most importantly, why this matters. I want you to know why you should care about understanding this connection, so that then you can go out and apply what you take from this episode and use it to create the level of health and fitness and the physique you want.

I’m writing this podcast for good reason. The tides in health and fitness are turning. It used to be that everything was about getting thin. Being small was the goal. And it didn’t matter how you got there, and what you were made of once you did get there. Because as long as you were small, you met the objective. Thankfully, that goal is no longer the ideal. We’ve learned so much more about what constitutes health and optimal body composition and fitness, that the tides are finally turning and it’s not about being skinny anymore. Which is great, because my goal is not to make you skinny, my goal is to help you be strong.

So this change, and the way that we’re looking at health and strength and body composition, is not only welcome, it’s long overdue. it’s really a change for the better in terms of where we turn our attention. Because thin does not equate with health. This is not the ideal. And for some of you, when you hear that, it’s going to mean letting go of the number on the scale. We’ll get to more on that in just a little bit. But the point is, thin is not the goal. And my hope is to help you adopt a different perspective about what it means to be healthy, and what it means to be fit. We’re talking about optimizing your body composition, and applying what we know about muscles, protein and metabolism in order to do that, okay? I’m excited to help you make these connections.

Before I get into all this, I want to share some cool things going on here. So, this is Episode number 98, which means we are almost to Episode 100. I’m pumped to share some changes that are coming with the podcast, which are well underway. I’ll do that in just a few more weeks, when we get to number 100. Be sure to tune into that episode, which I’m really excited to share with you. It’s only just a few weeks away.

The other cool thing going on here, is that when this episode airs, when you hear today’s episode, I will be getting ready to speak at the Women Physicians Wellness conference. It’s a conference for women physicians, designed to help them reflect not only on their careers but also their wellness.

I’ll be speaking there on priorities. I’ll be leading the attendees through a workshop to help them not only identify their priorities, but also implement strategies to live into their priorities. Because, you know it already, it is one thing to be able to clarify what your priorities are, that’s the first step. But it is another thing entirely to live in alignment with your priorities. Especially when work and life and schedule and kids and pets and all of the things get thrown into the mix.

So, I’m going to be sharing tools and concepts to make it easier to live in alignment with your priorities. I’m really excited to help these women at this conference do that. As a side note, I’ll be speaking at another conference that’s open to all professional women, not just physicians, in January of 2025. That is the Women Professionals Wellness conference.

You can check out that website, WomenProfessionalsWellness.com, to learn more about it. I’m super excited about this, and please come hang out with me in the Bahamas, where there will be sessions on leadership, career development, and of course, self-care. I think you’ll like the variety of topics covered, and I’m honored to be part of this conference.

So, good things are happening over here, and I’m extremely grateful for all of it. I had no idea how much I enjoy public speaking; it is super fun. I’ll just put it in a plug: If you have an event or conference, and you’d like to incorporate one or more components of eating, moving or thinking, keep me in mind. I have had the honor of giving workshops and lectures to large and small audiences, both live and in webinar format, and I would love to keep spreading these tools and concepts to as many ears as possible.

So, if you want to talk about this more, please check out my website, CarrieHollandMD.com. Check out my Speaking page and send me a message so we can chat. Alright? Cool. Okay, let’s get into it. Let’s talk about muscles, protein and metabolism today. My goal is to help you understand the connection between them, and then use that information to help you be very intentional about how you eat and move in order to help you create your optimal body, one that is both strong and healthy. Alright? Let’s go.

So, here’s what I want you to consider right off the bat. I want you to consider the idea of optimizing your body composition instead of losing weight. Okay? I’m going to plant that seed here from the outset, and I want you to start marinating on this idea. I know this may go counter to everything you’ve read, or what you see on social media, or what you hear from influencers, but let’s talk about this for a minute. I brought it up briefly here before, on the episode about body composition, but I really want to hammer this home today. Remember that body composition simply means what you’re made of: Fat, muscles, bones, water. And I’m asking you to consider the goal of optimizing what you’re made of, optimizing your body composition over simply losing fat.

This goes back to what I mentioned at the beginning. It means that instead of being hell bent on getting skinny, how about you aim to get strong. Then what happens? That is a big, big difference. There is a big difference between strong and skinny. And, the difference is having muscle.

So, let me give you an example. I often have women who come to me and they want to lose weight. They have had a history of cyclic weight loss or yo-yo dieting. That’s where they’ve gained and lost the same 10 – 20 pounds or more for decades. And, they want to get rid of that weight once and for all.

Then, she’ll tell me that the only way she’s been able to do it in the past is by eating next to nothing. I’m not kidding. I have had clients tell me that the only way they can lose weight is by eating 1,000 calories or less. And, they think that is the way to succeed again. They think they have to eat next to nothing in order to lose weight.

But here’s what I want to point out instead. So, what if instead of being hyper focused on losing weight, what if instead you focused on putting on muscle? Then what would that mean? What would that mean for how you eat and move? It means two things: It means lifting weights, and it means eating to fuel your muscles.

I know that may be oversimplifying, but I want to keep this as simple as possible. Really, my goal is to help you think about this differently. The reframe here is that we’re looking at adding something, muscle, instead of taking something away, fat. There’s a difference. We’re talking about building muscle, okay?

And no, I’m not talking about you getting big and bulky, because we know that it’s just not going to happen. You are not going to get big and bulky from strength training. I promise, you’re not going to get bulky. Okay?

Remember that there is a difference between losing weight and building muscle. They are not one and the same, they’re two separate processes. Losing fat, as far as what we know from current science, means establishing a caloric deficit.

Building muscle, however, is not the same. Building muscle requires an applied stress in the form of lifting weights, first and foremost. This is a good kind of stress. The stress from lifting weights creates micro tears in your muscle fibers, and then your body has to go and repair them. And it’s in that repair process that your muscles come back bigger and stronger. Okay? That’s the first piece to building muscle.

And then, second, think about what you need in order to fuel the muscle repair process. You need calories. You have to feed your muscles. If you want to build muscle you have to eat in a way that supports it. And that’s going to mean eating enough calories to support the muscle-building process. So, if you have a lot of weight to lose, but you don’t have much muscle, it may be that you eat in “maintenance” calories while you lift weights. Or if you don’t have much weight to lose, and you’re a naturally thinner body type, you may even need to eat in a slight caloric surplus in order to put on muscle.

I know this may be directly counter to everything you’ve done in the past, but I’m totally okay with that. I bring this up because I will have clients start to work with me who are new or inconsistent with their strength training, and they may have low muscle mass from the outset. But they want to lose weight and they think the answer is to cut their calories drastically so they can hurry up and lose the weight already. Because that’s what they’ve always done.

But that doesn’t work. If you have a history of cyclic weight loss or yo-yo dieting, that strategy can totally backfire. Remember that the more you gain and lose the weight, the more you will negatively impact your metabolism. Okay? This has been shown over and over again in the literature. When you yo-yo diet, the impact to your metabolism can be such that you end up needing less calories over time, even if you gain and lose those same 20 pounds over and over again.

So, I use this example all the time to illustrate this. Say you start at 200 pounds, then you diet down to 180 pounds, then you gain those 20 pounds back and now you’re back to 200 pounds. You’re right back where you started from a weight standpoint. But your calorie needs will be less now after dieting, even though your weight is the same.

Meaning, you’ll need to eat less calories after gaining and losing those 20 pounds than if you hadn’t dieted at all, just to stay at the same weight of 200 pounds and not gain any more. This is because of the impact of the weight loss and regain on your metabolism; it’s no joke.

Here’s another thing, when you cut your calories, especially if you drastically cut your calories in order to lose weight, you lose both fat and muscle mass. Remember, you don’t get to control the proportion of fat and muscle that you lose when you lose weight. You will lose some muscle when you lose fat. But the goal is to try and keep that to a minimum.

If you cut your calories too drastically you lose even more muscle mass, and you lose that contribution to your metabolism, and then your overall calorie needs will go down even further. So this can be a serious challenge to overcome for some of you, especially if you have been gaining and losing the same weight for decades and it’s what you know.

But the point here is that dieting and trying to force yourself into a calorie deficit, when you don’t have much muscle mass to begin with, that can be an uphill battle. But I get it. If this is what you know, and this is what your dieting history is, it may be that you’re used to cutting calories. And then here I am telling you that you may need to start eating at maintenance calories, or even a slight surplus in calories.

I can totally see why this would cause you to raise an eyebrow at me. But remember, I’m asking you to look at this a little differently. We’re talking about adding muscle to start, not taking away fat. So, what do you do? You turn your focus towards building muscle. You focus on strength training and eating to fuel muscle growth.

Because, this is a key concept here, the more muscle you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be. And for those of you who are starting out with low muscle mass, this is going to be essential. Okay? Let’s go back to the science for just a minute. I’m going to get nerdy here, but I think once you understand this it will make more sense why I’m suggesting that you focus on building muscle instead of losing fat from the outset. It goes back to your metabolism and your TDEE.

When we’re talking about your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or your TDEE, that is made up of a couple of components: Your basal metabolic rate, the thermal effect of food, or the calories that it takes to digest your food, and activity. And when I say activity, that means both exercise activity and non-exercise activity. Or the fancy word, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which is NEAT for short. Of these components, your basal metabolic rate is what makes up the majority of your total daily energy expenditure. So, that makes up anywhere from 60% – 70% of your total. Food digestion takes up about 10%. And the rest is your activity, which is usually anywhere from 10% – 20%, or maybe even 30% if you’re an elite top-level athlete.

So, your activity, in the form of planned exercise and all the other activities that you do… things like walking, standing up, taking groceries in from your car… that is going to be widely variable from person to person. I mention this because I want to point out the planned exercise is really only a very small component of your total energy expenditure.

For some people, exercise can make up as little as 5% of your total energy expenditure. It really does not have the contribution to your metabolism and weight that you might think it does. Okay? This is just another reason to uncouple exercise from weight loss.

If you think that another 10 minutes of cardio on Tuesday is going to appreciably move the needle on your weight loss, no. The science and your physiology just does not support this. Once again, do not use exercise to lose weight, it is not going to deliver.

Instead, let’s look at what you can do. Let’s turn our attention back to your BMR, or your Basal Metabolic Rate, which is anywhere from 60% – 70% of your total energy expenditure. This is where I want to make a big deal out of something. One of the main contributors to your basal metabolic rate is your muscle mass. Other factors are things like your age, gender, genetics, height. But muscle mass is a key factor of your BMR. Okay?

This is a really important thing to take note of. Think about muscle and how it works. It takes energy in the form of calories to build, repair, and sustain your muscle. So, the more muscle mass you have, in general, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be.

If you take two people of the same gender and height, the person with more muscle mass will most likely have a higher basal metabolic rate. Remember, muscle is more metabolically active than fat. And all that means is that muscle needs more calories to sustain itself than fat does. That makes sense. Think about what your muscles do. They contract and relax all day long. They help you move; they hold you up. They are your key to getting through your daily activities.

Movement requires muscle, and that muscle requires energy. So, here’s where this comes together. If we know that the more muscle you have the higher your basal metabolic rate will be, or the faster your metabolism, then I would argue that it is absolutely worth it to focus your energy and your effort on building muscle. This is huge.

You are literally contributing to your metabolism. You are building your metabolism by building muscle, and that requires calories. Think about what it would be like if your focus was less about how to cut out as many calories as possible, and instead focus on building muscle. Even just talking this out, I hope you see that this feels different.

It will feel different when your goal is to lift weights and eat with a goal of adding to your body in the form of muscle, versus trying to cut out foods and reduce your calories and take away from your body, it feels different. So, instead of trying to make you smaller, we’re working on making you more muscular. That feels very different from trying to shrink yourself.

And the best part about this, is that having muscle truly is an investment. The investment to your total basal metabolic rate stays with you for as long as you strength train. It’s like putting coins in a bank. Every time you hit the weights you’re putting more coins into your bank of muscle. And, all of those coins add up. They add up to give you muscle and strength and better health.

But those coins also add up to increase your metabolism, which is exactly what we’re trying to do, because that stays with you. As long as you maintain your muscle mass by strength training and eating adequate protein, you will hang on to that muscle mass and that muscle mass will continue to make its contribution to your overall metabolism.

That is in contrast to the decrease in metabolism that happens when you drastically cut your calories. Because that is what typically happens for so many clients, you restrict calories so low, you try to get by eating so very little, and then your metabolism says ‘no, thank you’ and slows down to match the low level of calories that your body is taking in.

This happens all the time. Your body is very smart and it likes balance. So, if you try to outsmart it by eating next to nothing, you’re going to do yourself a disservice and your metabolism will slow way down to compensate. Your body will do whatever it has to in order to stay in balance. On top of that, if you eat too little you will lose muscle mass, which is going to take away from your metabolism even more; no good.

You can also think of it this way. If you are inactive or if you don’t have a lot of muscle mass to begin with, and then we do the math and calculate your total daily energy expenditure, we may find that in order for you to lose fat you would be eating levels of calories that are just not sustainable. So, we do the math. We look at your body type and see that you don’t have a lot of muscle mass from the outset, so you will have a lower daily energy expenditure from the start. Your metabolism will already be low.

Then, take what we know about fat loss. What do we need to do? We need to get you into a caloric deficit. So, when you have low muscle mass and you also want to lose fat, we’re challenged to create a caloric deficit on top of what is already a pretty low metabolism from not having muscle to begin with. Then it gets stickier, that is going to leave you eating very little food, and that’s just not going to work. The take-home here is that when you don’t have a lot of muscle mass, and then you want to go and lose fat on top of that, often it can be a challenge because we just don’t have a lot to work with from either a metabolic or a caloric standpoint.

So, instead of trying to eat next to nothing to put yourself into a calorie deficit, it may make more sense to focus on building muscle first, which will increase your overall metabolism, and then make adjustments to your diet to get into a caloric deficit. Okay?

On a practical level, you go through a muscle building phase first, and then you go into a fat loss phase, instead of trying to cut your calories drastically from the start when you already have a fairly low metabolism due to lack of muscle.

Okay, I know we just talked through a lot of science, but I want to try to make this as clear as possible. So, here is the key summary so far. Rather than spending so much time and energy trying to lose weight by cutting your calories, consider the impact on both your brain and on your body if you shifted the focus to improving your body composition and improving your metabolism by building muscle. I really do think of it as adding something, muscle, versus subtracting something, fat, and really, calories. Imagine the difference there. The difference is huge. This is just one more reason to start strength training to build muscle.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Or if you’re brand new to strength training. Or if you have no idea what a “deadlift” is, that’s okay, I can teach you and there’s Google. The point is, the time to start strength training is now. Muscle really is your key to longevity, it’s your key to better function, it’s the key to staying healthy and mobile. It has been called the “Fountain of Youth” for a reason. And, you will see a benefit from strength training no matter how old you are.

Here’s something else to know about muscles and metabolism. Having muscle can also improve your insulin sensitivity. This is true if you’ve got diabetes or not. Think about it. Your muscles require glucose to function. And the more muscle you’ve got, the more it needs energy, in the form of glucose, for those muscles to contract and relax and help you move. So, insulin is that conduit.

Insulin is what stimulates your muscles to take in that glucose. So, the more muscle you have, the more sensitive your body is to the impact of insulin. And again, this holds whether you have a diagnosis of diabetes or not. I think of having more muscle as being more efficient in your handling of blood glucose. Your body responds more efficiently to insulin. So, you get both increased glucose uptake, and improved insulin sensitivity, by virtue of having more muscle. This is another big win here. This is huge.

Now, let’s talk about protein. You know it’s my most favorite macronutrient to talk about. We’re talking about muscles and metabolism, and this is just another place where protein is going to be important. So far, we’ve been talking about improving your metabolism by building muscle.

Remember, there are two key pieces to doing that: Strength training and nutrition. You have to create those tears in your muscles through strength training, then you’ve got to feed your muscles properly so they can repair themselves and come back stronger. That means, if you want to build muscle you’ve got to eat to support it.

So remember, we just talked about how getting into a caloric deficit may not be what you want from the outset because it would leave you without enough food, and I don’t want you hungry because that is not going to be sustainable. Instead, I’m going to encourage you to really start paying attention to your protein intake.

Yes, I most definitely want you hitting the weights and strength training to create those tears in your muscle, but I also want you following that up with adequate protein and carbs to drive the muscle repair process. You will do best building muscle when you eat a diet that includes both complex carbs and protein.

Those carbs drive the insulin that will then shuttle the protein into your muscles. I know I’m getting nerdy here, but to keep it simple, you need to eat in order to fuel your muscles. And if you want to build muscle, you’ve got to eat both carbs and protein to fuel that process. Okay?

Most people will get their fat from proteins, so I don’t worry too much about you not getting enough fat, that generally does not happen. That is generally not a problem. I’m sure you remember, because I’ve mentioned it a few times, but there’s all kinds of debate as to how much and how quickly to take in your protein after you strength train. But there is no scientifically proven answer.

For now, we know that it’s the amount of protein that matters, more than when you take it in if your goal is to build muscle. Again, I generally aim for .7 – 1 gm/pound of ideal body weight and protein daily. But if you want to make things easy, start out by aiming for 100gms of protein per day spread out over your meals. You may find that you need more than that, but for many women, even increasing your intake to 100gms of protein, that will be a big shift from where you are currently.

While I’m talking about protein, let me remind you of another one of its benefits as it relates to your metabolism. So, remember before when I was talking about total daily energy expenditure, one of the components of your total energy expenditure is digestion.

Specifically, we’re looking at the energy required to digest your food. It takes calories to digest your calories. So, of the three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, protein requires the most calories to digest. That’s the thermic effect of food; how many calories it takes to digest those calories.

The thermic effect for protein is 20% – 30%. That means that 20% – 30% of the calories from consuming protein goes towards digesting it. I think that’s super cool. For comparison, the thermic effect of carbohydrates is 5% – 10% of its energy content. And the thermic effect of fat is 0% – 3% of its energy content. So, protein takes the most energy to digest.

While you’re contributing to your metabolism by building muscle you’re also adding to your metabolism by prioritizing protein, which requires more energy to digest than either carbs or fat. This is just another win for protein.

Another thing to consider, protein can also impact your metabolism through the effect it has on your satiety. Increasing your overall protein intake can improve your satiety, and then impact the total amount of food that you take in. So, this is more of an indirect impact. The idea behind this is that if you feel full, then you may be less inclined to overeat. Which would ultimately reduce your total daily caloric intake.

Protein does this by regulating hunger hormones. So, eating protein helps to decrease ghrelin, which is a hunger hormone. And at the same time, protein also increases hormone that helps you feel full, it’s peptide YY. So, protein can increase your fullness hormone, and can decrease your hunger hormones. This is another win-win here.

What’s cool here too, is that there are small studies that have shown a decrease in overall caloric intake simply by shifting the proportion of protein that a person eats in a day. So, if you start with a low-protein diet, simply by nature of shifting the proportion of protein that you eat in relation to your carbs and fat, that can help you lose weight. And, this is without any sort of caloric restriction.

It’s likely because of the protein’s fullness effect. I’ve seen it happen with the women I coach. We’ll get started working together, and we’ll find that she’s eating pretty low protein overall. And then, we’ll make just a simple shift to get to a goal of 30 gms of protein per meal. Or if that seems like a stretch for her from the outset, we’ll aim for a range of 20gm, or 25 – 30 grams of protein per meal, with a goal of increasing it once that becomes locked in.

And during subsequent coaching sessions, she’ll note that she’s feeling full. She feels satiated, she’s not as hungry, she’s not snacking as much anymore. And that’s independent of any other changes. All we’ve done is increased her proportion of protein at her meals.

This is just another reason why I harp so much on the protein. It helps you feel full, it helps you feel satisfied, and there’s even some literature that has shown that protein can lead to decreased food cravings and decreased nighttime snacking. Some other studies have shown that it can help with maintaining weight loss.

Again, these are small studies, and we need more science before we can officially call this a slam dunk. But I’m hoping that we see a lot more about this going forward, to support an overall recommendation to increase our dietary protein intake.

To summarize the connections here. Beyond being necessary to build muscle, protein has other important impacts on your metabolism. It requires the most calories to digest. It helps regulate your hunger and fullness signals. It plays a role in your overall caloric intake. It can decrease cravings. It can decrease snacking, and it can help maintain weight loss. And all of these, either directly or indirectly, have an impact on your metabolism. Alright?

So, there it is. We just went over the connection between muscles, protein and metabolism. My goal today is to help you see that there is a different approach to health and fitness beyond simply losing weight. Again, my goal is not to have you shrink; thin is not the answer. Instead, the goal is to take what we know about science and use it to optimize what you’re made of.

That means building muscle through a combination of strength training and proper nutrition, including protein. I really like looking at it this way because it feels different. Women have spent decades trying to shrink and get smaller and take up less and less space.

Thankfully, that time has come and gone. So, now I get to be part of a movement that encourages you to take up space. You take up space physically by eating and moving to build muscle and get strong as hell. Then, you take up space mentally through your mindset. A mindset that recognizes a healthy body is not a real thin body, but instead a strong body. Strong is the goal, in your mind and your body. Alright?

And if you want help with this, let’s go. If you want help shifting your perspective and shifting your focus to getting stronger instead of smaller, let’s talk. This is what we do in coaching. We look at you as an individual and create a plan that will optimize what you’re made of, so you feel strong mentally and physically. Check out my website, send me a message at www.CarrieHollandMD.com/contact, and let’s get you stronger.

Thank you again for hanging out with me, and I’ll catch you again next week. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. I would love to get your feedback and ideas. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make the show better for you. Share this podcast with a friend, text a show link, share a screenshot, or post a link to the show on your social media.

Be sure to tag me @CarrieHollandMD on either Instagram or Facebook so I can follow along and engage with you. This is how we get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong inside and out. If you know someone who wants to feel better or eat and move differently but she is too tired or too busy, it is time to change things up.

You know making that change starts with how you think, and that is what we do here on the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think, so you can live in the body you want, with the mind to match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.

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