As you and millions of other people embark on new dietary journeys, you’re going to hear a ton about calories.
“Calorie counting is everything.”
“If you aren’t counting calories, you won’t lose weight.”
“Just eat less calories than you expend.” For one, it’s “fewer.” Two, that’s not the whole picture.
These statements aren’t wrong exactly, but they offer an overly simplistic picture of the relationship between weight loss and calories. They ignore context. And context is everything, especially when you’re talking about calories and weight loss.
Most people (even many scientists) believe that the body composition challenge is a relatively simple equation: to lose weight you must reduce calories (either eat less or burn more), to gain weight you must add calories (eat more or burn less), and to maintain weight you keep calories constant (eat and burn identical amounts). Calories in over calories out.
Right away, it sounds preposterous. Are people really maintaining perfect caloric balance by dutifully tracking and comparing their intake to their burn? Are they walking six fewer steps lest they lose an extra ounce off their midsection?
Are All Calories the Same?
The truth is, it’s more like a complex equation where you have to factor in many other very important variables:
- Am I getting calories from fat, protein, or carbs?
- Am I getting my calories through whole foods or refined processed foods?
- Are my glycogen stores full or empty?
- When’s the last time I exercised?
- Am I insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant?
- Am I trying to lose “weight” or lose fat?
- How’s my stress level?
- Am I sleeping enough?
The answers to all those questions (and more) affect the fate of the calories we consume. They change the context of calories.
Ideally, all that complexity is handled under the hood. That’s how it works in wild animals. They don’t calorie count. They don’t think about what to eat or how to exercise. They just eat, move, sleep, and somehow it all works. I mean, they die, often violently, but you don’t see obese, metabolically-deranged wildlife—unless the obesity and metabolic derangement is physiological, as in bears preparing to hibernate. Somehow they figure it out. They’ve delegated the complex stuff to their subconscious.
This is generally true in “wild humans,” too. Hunter-gatherer groups by and large did not and do not show any evidence of metabolic derangement, obesity, or the other degenerative trappings of modern humans living in civilization. They are fully human in terms of physiology, so it’s not that they have special genetic adaptations that resist obesity. They’re living lifestyles and eating diets more in line with our evolutionary heritage. They’re moving around all the time, not going through drive throughs. They’re eating whole unprocessed foods that they have to procure, catch or kill.
What they don’t have is the ridiculous concept of calories and macronutrients floating around in their heads, informing their dietary choices. They don’t even think about food in terms of calories, or movement in terms of calories expended. Metabolically speaking, they consume their calories in the proper context.
But you? You might have to think about context. You might have to answer those questions and create the proper context.
Most people do not think about context. They home in on the number of calories the food database claims the food they’re eating contains, plot it against the numbers of calories the exercise database claims the exercise they’re doing expends, and then wonder why nothing’s working. That’s why “dieting doesn’t work”—because, as practiced in accordance with the expert advice from up high, it doesn’t. Almost invariably, the people who see great results from strict calorie counting, weighing and balancing, those types who frequent online weight lifting forums and have the freedom to spend hours perfecting their program, have the other relevant variables under control without realizing it.
They’re younger, with fewer responsibilities—and less stress and fewer disruptions to their sleep.
They’re lifting weights and training religiously, creating huge glycogen sinks and maintaining optimal insulin sensitivity.
They’re eating a lot of protein, the macronutrient that curbs hunger and increases energy expenditure the most.
They’re eating mostly whole foods.
They’ve had less time on this earth to accumulate metabolic damage.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Fat burning, glucose burning, ketone burning, glycogen storage, fat storage, gluconeogenesis, and protein turnover—what we do with the calories we consume—do not occur at constant rates. They ebb and flow, wax and wane in response to your micronutrient intake, macronutrient intake, energy intake, exercise and activity habits, sleep schedule, stress levels, and a dozen other factors. All of these energy-related processes are going on simultaneously in each of us at all times. But the rate at which each of these processes happens is different in each of us and they can increase or decrease depending on the context of our present circumstances and our long term goals. All of these processes utilize the same gene-based principles of energy metabolism—the biochemical machinery that we all share—but because they all involve different starting points and different inputs as well as different goals or possible outcomes, they often require different action plans. We can alter the rate at which each of these metabolic processes happens simply by changing what and when we eat and addressing the non-dietary variables. We can change the context.
But don’t controlled trials demonstrate that a “calorie is a calorie”?
People hear things like “in controlled isocaloric trials, low-carb diets have never been shown to confer a metabolic advantage or result in more weight loss than low-fat diets.” While often true, they miss the point.
People aren’t living in metabolic wards with white lab coats providing and precisely measuring all their food. They’re living in the real world, fixing their own food. Free living is entirely uncontrolled with dozens of variables bleeding in from all angles. In the lab situation, you eat what they give you, and that’s that. The situations are not analogous—real world vs. controlled lab environment.
In real world situations…
Why a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
The macronutrient composition of the calories we eat alters their metabolic effects.
The metabolism of protein famously increases energy expenditure over and above the metabolism of fat or carbohydrate. For a given caloric load, protein will make you burn more energy than other macronutrients.
Protein is also more satiating than other macronutrients. Eat more protein, curb hunger, inadvertently eat less without even trying (or needing a lab coat to limit your intake).
Protein and fat together (AKA “meat”) appear to be even more satiating than either alone, almost as if we’re meant to consume fat and protein in the same meal.
The isocaloric studies tend to focus on “weight loss” and discount “fat loss.” We don’t want to lose weight. We want to lose fat and gain or retain lean muscle mass. A standard low calorie diet might cause the same amount of weight loss as a low-carb, high-fat diet (if you force the subjects to maintain isocaloric parity), but the low-carb approach has been shown to increase fat loss and enhance muscle gain. Most people who lose weight with a standard approach end up losing a significant amount of muscle along with it. Most who lose weight with a low-carb, higher-protein-and-fat approach lose mostly fat and gain or retain most of their muscle.
Take the 2004 study that placed overweight men and women on one of two diets: a very low-carb ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet. The low-carb group ate more calories but lost more weight and more body fat, especially dangerous abdominal fat.
Or the study from 1989 that placed healthy adult men on high-carb or high-fat diets. Even though the high-carb group lost slightly more body weight, the high-fat group lost slightly more body fat and retained more lean mass.
Both describe “weight lost,” but which is healthier?
Whether the calories come in the form of processed or whole food determines their effect.
We even have a study that directly examines this. For two weeks, participants either supplemented their diets with isocaloric amounts of candy (mostly sugar) or roasted peanuts (mostly fat and protein). This was added to their regular diet. After two weeks, researchers found that body weight, waist circumference, LDL, and ApoB (a rough measure of LDL particle number) were highest in the candy group, indicating increased fat mass and worsening metabolic health. In the peanut group, basal metabolic rate shot up and neither body weight nor waist size saw any significant increases.
Your current metabolic state determines the effect of calories.
In one study, a person’s metabolic reaction to high-carb or low-carb diets was determined by their degree of insulin resistance. The more insulin resistant a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-carb. The more insulin sensitive a subject, the better they did and the more weight they lost on low-fat. Calories were the same across the board.
In another study, insulin-sensitive obese patients (a rarity in the general population) were able to lose weight on either low-carb or low-fat, but insulin-resistant obese patients (very common) only lost weight on low-carb.
Whether you exercise determines the effect of calories.
If you’ve just finished a heavy lifting workout followed by a sprint session, your response to a given number of calories will differ from the person who hasn’t trained in a year.
Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be empty, so the carbs you eat will go toward glycogen storage or directly burned, rather than inhibit fat burning. Your insulin sensitivity will be elevated, so you can move protein and carbs around without spiking insulin and inhibiting fat release. You’ll be in hypertrophy mode, so some of the protein you eat will go toward building muscle, not burned for energy.
Not Training: Your muscle glycogen stores will be full, so any carbs you eat will inhibit fat burning and be more likely to promote fat storage. Your insulin sensitivity will be low, so you’ll have to release more insulin to handle the carbs, thereby inhibiting fat burning the process. You won’t have sent any hypertrophy signals to your muscles, so the protein you eat will be wasted or burned for energy.
How you slept last night determines the effects of calories.
A single night of bad sleep is enough to:
- Give you the insulin resistance levels of a diabetic. Try eating carbs in an insulin-resistant state and tell me a “calorie is a calorie.”
- Make the reward system of your brain light up in response to junk food and dampen in response to healthy whole food. The more rewarding you find junk food, the more your brain will compel you to eat more of it.
- Reduce energy expenditure. Your “calories out” drops if you sleep poorly.
And those are just a few important variables that determine the context of calories. There are many more, but this post has gone on long enough…
The Take-Home Message
If calorie-counting works for you, great! You’re one of the lucky ones. Own that and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve clearly got a good handle on the context of calories.
If calorie-counting and weighing and measuring failed you in the past, you’re not alone and there’s a way forward. Address the variables mentioned in this post that need addressing. Do you need better sleep? Do you need to manage stress better? Could you eat more protein or fat, eat more whole food and less processed food, or get more exercise, or lift more weights, or take more walks?
Handle those variables, fix those deficiencies, and I bet that your caloric context will start making more sense. The trick isn’t to increase the number of variables you plug into your calories in/calories out formula. It’s to make sure all your lifestyle and dietary ducks are in a row so that the caloric balance works itself out.
By understanding how these metabolic processes work, and knowing that we can control the rates at which each one happens through our diet (and exercise and other lifestyle factors) we needn’t agonize over the day-to-day calorie counting. As long as we are generally eating a PB-style plan and providing the right context, our bodies will ease into a healthy, fit, long-lived comfort zone rather effortlessly.
So, what’s your caloric context looking like? Thanks for reading today, everyone.
Pontzer H, Wood BM, Raichlen DA. Hunter-gatherers as models in public health. Obes Rev. 2018;19 Suppl 1:24-35.
Claesson AL, Holm G, Ernersson A, Lindström T, Nystrom FH. Two weeks of overfeeding with candy, but not peanuts, increases insulin levels and body weight. Scand J Clin Lab Invest. 2009;69(5):598-605.
Volek J, Sharman M, Gómez A, et al. Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004;1(1):13.
Mccargar LJ, Clandinin MT, Belcastro AN, Walker K. Dietary carbohydrate-to-fat ratio: influence on whole-body nitrogen retention, substrate utilization, and hormone response in healthy male subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1989;49(6):1169-78.
Cornier MA, Donahoo WT, Pereira R, et al. Insulin sensitivity determines the effectiveness of dietary macronutrient composition on weight loss in obese women. Obes Res. 2005;13(4):703-9.
Ebbeling CB, Leidig MM, Feldman HA, Lovesky MM, Ludwig DS. Effects of a low-glycemic load vs low-fat diet in obese young adults: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2007;297(19):2092-102.
Benedict C, Hallschmid M, Lassen A, et al. Acute sleep deprivation reduces energy expenditure in healthy men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(6):1229-36.
***This article was substantially revised from the original version, which you can read here.
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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. First, what are some less expensive sources of marine fat high in omega-3s? Is canned salmon a good, safe, effective option? Second, a reader is training hard, eating low-carb/keto, doing IF, and feels pretty good despite not losing or gaining any weight? What should she do? What could she be doing wrong? And third, should you go keto while nursing?
Marine fat. Good examples? I have tried to eat sardines, I really have. I don’t know why they repulse me so. Where else can I turn? Safe salmon is just so expensive unless you get canned, and even then, can you trust it? If it’s true satiety I’m going for, a supplement (cod liver oil?) is probably not going to give me that.
I hear you on the canned salmon. When I was first looking into this years ago, I worried that canned fish would be damaged by heat and perform worse than supplements. Turns out it’s very useful. In one study, researchers gave women with a high risk of breast cancer omega-3 fats via fish oil caps or canned salmon. Both “supplements” worked at increasing levels of DHA and EPA. Fish oil increased the EPA content of red blood cells and plasma four-fold; canned salmon increased it two-fold. The change in DHA was similar in both groups, as was the overall change in breast tissue fatty acids. Fish oil may be more potent, but it’s unclear if quadrupling your RBC EPA is necessarily more desirable than doubling. You also have to consider the two things the fish eaters got that the fish oil quaffers didn’t: all the micronutrients (selenium, iodine, astaxanthin, etc) and macronutrients (protein) salmon provides.
Canned salmon is a good option, and most of it is BPA-free these days (but verify). If you enjoy it (some do not), look for salmon that includes the bones and skin. Tons of benefits there—calcium, collagen, extra oil. Trader Joe’s used to carry one like that. They still might.
Fresh mackerel is good. Here’s a buying and cooking guide to mackerel I did awhile back. It’s affordable and full of omega-3s.
If you can find them, fresh sardines are a totally different animal. Just make sure the fish smells clean, has clear eyes, is firm, and resists sagging when held parallel to the floor by the tail.
#6 is me right now. I am eating low carb (maybe even Keto), and I’m IF’ing every day (allowing only coffee w/ a splash of cream in the morning). My appetite is finally feeling quite suppressed. The nice thing is that I’m not counting. I am eating intuitively; and at the end of the day, I log what I ate as best as I know how (since I didn’t measure), to just check, and everything seems to be on point with my calories and macros. I train brazilian jiu jitsu several times a week, as well as do HITT style workouts, with strength training on my off days. I usually have a couple days a week that I don’t train.
My question is, I’m not losing and I’m not gaining – so do I keep doing what I’m doing? Or do I change things up? I feel fine – plenty of energy, and I’m not hungry. If I were hungry, I’d eat. My goal is to lose another 15 lbs, and I love the keto/IF style for me because it works well with my lifestyle.
First, make sure you actually need to lose another 15 pounds. 15 pounds of what? Fat, lean? Rather than thinking in terms of bodyweight, it’s often more helpful to have concrete goals. Is there an article of clothing you want to be able to fit into?
You’re training a ton. That’s great, it can be incredibly rewarding—I know the feeling. But that, paired with “my appetite is finally feeling quite suppressed” is a bit of a warning sign. When I trained daily, my appetite was through the roof. I couldn’t get enough food. You’re hitting it really hard. BJJ, extremely demanding, glucose-intensive. HIIT, extremely demanding, glucose-intensive. Weights, extremely demanding. You should be hungrier, not less.
All in all, the message your training and restricted eating may be sending to your body is one of scarcity. It’s good that you’re neither gaining nor losing and have plenty of energy, but that could change quickly. Try giving your body a few more signals of abundance; it may be exactly what you need, and it could help you avoid problems in the future.
Try eating a few more carbs and calories on your training days, timed after your workouts. You’re burning through a lot of glycogen, and if you’re eating keto with IF you’re probably not replenishing it.
Good luck and keep us posted.
Is it safe to do a moderate keto diet while breast feeding?
If you recall from previous posts, oxaloacetate is necessary for finishing the Krebs’ cycle and producing ATP from fat and glucose. Running out of oxaloacetate means we can’t make ATP from fat and glucose and need an alternate energy source: Ketones. Lactating women also use it to produce lactose, the milk sugar that provides much of the nursing baby’s energy needs. That means that lactating women can eat more carbs and protein and still remain in ketosis. It also means that eating a strict ketogenic diet extremely low in carbs and protein is likely to impair milk production.
While many women report remaining ketogenic while nursing without issue, there are a few case studies of breastfeeding women suffering lactation ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition where chronically low insulin prevents the cells from accessing blood glucose and promotes unchecked ketone production that make the body overly acidic. This can be life threatening. Triggers of lactation ketoacidosis have included starvation (don’t starve yourself or even fast while breastfeeding), twin lactation (feeding two increases the amount of lactation substrate you need to consume), and a low-calorie/low-carb/high-fat diet (bad combo).
Had I a set of breasts from which an infant would be suckling, I’d just opt for a regular old low-carb diet, Primal style. I wouldn’t worry about ketone production so much as eating enough calories.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading, take care, and chime in down below with your own input!
The post Dear Mark: Marine Fat Sources, Not Gaining/Losing, Keto Breastfeeding appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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Both fasting and carb-restriction appear to operate along similar physiological pathways. Both lower carbs. Both increase fat-adaptation. Both have the potential to get you into ketosis. Both lower insulin and blood sugar.
But is one better than the other? Are there certain scenarios in which an intermittent fasting protocol works better than a low-carb diet, and vice versa?
Let’s find out if the distinction matters.
And what scenarios are most impacted by any difference.
Ketones, shmetones. Autophagy, shmautophagy. Cognitive decline, shmognitive shmecline. (Shall I keep going?) The number one reason anyone attempts either a carb-restricted diet or intermittent fasting is to lose body fat. We all know it’s true.
Carb restriction works well. That’s been well-documented. Sure, the results get a little fuzzy if you use “low-carb” diets with 35-40% of calories from carbs or enforce calorie-matched control diets, but legitimate ad-libitum low-carb diet studies where people are free to eat what they want find that subjects spontaneously reduce calories and lose body fat faster than with other diets.
Intermittent fasting has also been shown to work. In non-obese patients, alternate day fasting increased fat oxidation and weight loss. In obese patients, alternate day fasting was an effective way to lose weight; dietary adherence remained high throughout. In young overweight women, alternate day fasting was just as effective as caloric restriction at causing weight loss, and adherence to the former was easier than to the latter.
Intermittent fasting and carb-restriction are pathways to easy calorie restriction. Fasting removes the possibility of eating entirely. Carb restriction removes the least satiating macronutrient and increases the most satiating macronutrients. Both diets increase fat burning and, provided you eat adequate protein and lift some heavy things, preserve lean mass.
The trick is sustainability: If fasting makes you unfathomably hungry, it’s probably not going to help you lose weight. Anecdotally, I find that basic carb restriction helps the most people and is the best-tolerated.
Type 2 Diabetes
You just got back from the doctor and you have Type 2 diabetes. Or maybe you have “pre-diabetes.” Perhaps you haven’t been to the doctor yet, but tracking your blood sugar at home reveals some high postprandial numbers. Or maybe you have a strong family history of diabetes, and you’re looking to avoid it manifesting in you. Whatever the reason, you know that you need to make a dietary change.
First and foremost, type 2 diabetes is a type of “carb intolerance.”
Seven subjects with untreated type 2 diabetes either fasted for 3 days or went zero-carb for 3 days. What happened on day 3?
- Overnight fasting glucose went from 196 to 160 (on zero carb) and 127 (fasting).
- 24 hour glucose dropped by 35% (zero carb) and 49% (fasting).
- 24 hour insulin dropped by 48% (zero carb) and 69% (fasting).
Both approaches worked. Fasting worked better, but you can’t just keep fasting indefinitely. At some point, you have to eat something.
A very recent study just came out on the effect of time restricted feeding (a type of IF) on prediabetes. This is also known as a compressed eating window. The compressed eating window in this study was six hours long, and it was an early one—from morning to the mid afternoon. They ate breakfast, skipped dinner. What happened?
The IFers improved insulin sensitivity, lowered fasting insulin, increased pancreatic beta cell function, and reported feeling less hunger at night. They had better blood pressure and lower oxidative stress. What’s most remarkable is they achieved all this despite not losing much weight. In previous IF studies, most of which paid no attention to the time of feeding, the benefits to people with diabetes or prediabetes were almost always dependent on weight loss.
The time of the day the fasting occurs is quite relevant. Skipping breakfast may not have the same effect as skipping dinner. If you’re using IF to treat high blood sugar, prediabetes, or full-blown type 2 diabetes, make sure you track your results and are willing to try fasting during different parts of the day.
As far back as Hippocrates, fasting has been used to treat seizures. Ketogenic diets hit the seizure scene back in the early 1900s. Both approaches produce ketones, which appears to be the important factor. Other methods of increasing ketones, like taking supplementary ketones or eating medium chain triglycerides that convert to ketones, also reduce seizures. So, are both IF and low-carb/keto interchangeable when it comes to seizure reduction? A recent study suggests an answer:
Mice were separated into three diet groups. One group ate a ketogenic diet. Another group ate a regular lab diet. The final group combined the regular lab diet with intermittent fasting. After a couple weeks, researchers induced seizures by dosing the mice with a seizure-inducing agent or subjecting them to seizure-inducing electric shocks. Both the ketogenic diet group and the lab diet/IF group experienced relief from seizures in different ways. The keto group resisted the electric shock seizures but was vulnerable to the seizure agent. The lab/IF group resisted the seizure agent but fell prey to the electric shock.
If these results play out in humans, the best approach to combat seizures would be to do both: carb-restriction with intermittent fasting.
However, many seizure patients are children who still have a lot of growing to do. While ketogenic diets have been tested and shown to be safe and beneficial in these populations, regular fasting could have negative effects on growth and development. Best to stick with what’s known and safe. Adults who’ve got all their physical growing out of the way? Have at it.
Endurance athletes who aim to maximize their aerobic output and improve glycogen retention should do carb restriction and increase carbs for competitive events. This is known as “train low (carb), race high (carb),” and it’s a great way to teach your body to utilize its own stored body fat for energy for as long as possible during events and hold off on burning lots of glycogen until the last portion of the race. Done correctly, this method allows an athlete to have plenty of gas left in the tank when the rest of the pack is running on fumes.
Higher-intensity athletes who need/want to eat more carbs to replenish the glycogen stores they’re always emptying can’t do that on a carb-restricted diet—by definition. They may opt for a more carb-agnostic form of intermittent fasting. While intermittent fasting may not directly improve athleticism, it can certainly co-exist with it. One popular method of intermittent fasting is the Leangains approach:
- Eat low-carb, higher-fat on rest days. You won’t be burning any glycogen, so there’s no need to eat carbs.
- Eat higher-carb, lower-fat on training days. You’ll be burning through your glycogen, so it’s the perfect time to eat carbs because they’ll go directly to your muscles.
- Fast for 16 hours a day with an 8 hour eating window. Try to put your training right around the time you break your fast.
Low-carbers can always modify their diets to include more carbs with training—sort of a cyclical ketogenic approach—but that ceases to be “strict low-carb.”
One little-known effect of not eating is that it can improve our cognitive function thanks to ghrelin. Most people know ghrelin as a hunger hormone. It makes you want to eat. But ghrelin has other cool effects:
It’s neurotrophic, improving learning and memory.
It increases the dopamine response, potentially increasing the reward of goal achievement.
This makes sense when you think about the environment under which our ghrelin system evolved. Today, hunger means plodding over to the fridge for a snack. It means ordering a vat of chicken tikka masala from the comfort of your smartphone to be delivered to your door. Ghrelin doesn’t have to do much but make us hungry. For most of human history, hunger meant you had to creep through the wilderness, spear or bow or atlatl at the ready, taking care not to step on any twigs or make any sudden movements, following the tracks of your prey. You needed to be cunning, alert, on point, and prepared for anything and everything. Of course the hormone that makes us want to eat also makes us better at thinking and acting.
Low-carb doesn’t have the same effect. For one, you’re eating. The biggest ghrelin response will come from not eating. Two, low-carb meals are bigger reducers of ghrelin than high-carb meals. This probably explains by low-carb is such an effective way to reduce hunger. This doesn’t make carb restriction bad for cognitive function. Becoming a better fat-burner, generating ketone bodies, and not having to snack every two hours or else lose cognitive steam are all great ways to improve output and productivity. It just means you won’t see the same acute effects of a spike in ghrelin that you’d see fasting.
So, which is it?
If you want to lose body fat, control dysfunctional blood sugar responses, get more mental energy during the day, be better at burning fat and saving glycogen during workouts, and/or reduce treatment-resistant seizure activity, you’d be hard pressed to find a better pair of options than low-carb/keto and intermittent fasting.
Start with a baseline of carb restriction—whereby you restrict unnecessary carbohydrates, only consuming the ones you’ll use to fuel high-octane physical pursuits like CrossFit, lactation, and fetus construction—and try skipping a meal or two when you feel up to it. Maybe you never feel up to it. That’s fine.
Maybe you even go the opposite way. You can’t hack restricting carbohydrates, but you have no problem skipping meals on a regular basis.
The key thing is that you achieve extended periods of fat-burning and low insulin. Both IF and carb restriction achieve that.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading, take care, and leave your thoughts down below!
The post Fasting versus Carb Restriction: Which Works Better for What Scenarios appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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