What is Metabolism?

Wikipedia states that it “is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of a living organism”. A more common definition would include how our body uses calories to gain, maintain, or lose weight, along with digestion and absorption of nutrients.

It is important to note that metabolism is not a static thing that exists in some specific area of the body. Rather, it is a means for the body to regulate its own existence and ensure its survival.

A common misconception is that our metabolism will stay constant and we can merely decrease calories to lose weight or increase calories to gain weight. Although this may work for a time, ultimately, the body will alter its metabolism to adjust to the changes.

I see this most common with individuals trying to lose weight. They drop calories significantly, for such a long period of time, with no return to healthy intake levels that a “starvation response” ensues. The body panics and slows its metabolism, making the new calorie intake level its maintenance level, thereby preventing further weight loss.

This same process occurs if someone is over-training. Their body adjusts to the stimulus. Their central nervous system becomes overwhelmed from fueling workouts with adrenaline. The body holds onto weight to ensure self-preservation. And it even sacrifices functions of health regulatory systems, such as the immune system.

Hence most exercisers or dieters will lose a few pounds the first few weeks but pretty quickly plateau.

This also happens if an individual is consuming excess calories to gain weight. If they eat more calories, more frequently, metabolism will increase. Also, the body temperature will rise in an attempt to burn the extra calories.

The body is a highly adaptive system and life has one overarching goal – to maintain its existence and proliferation. Drastic changes, whether weight gain or weight loss, cannot always be caused by simply picking a new caloric intake level. They require a dynamic way of structuring activity and nutrition to convince the body to work towards the changes you want.

Another issue that many people overlook when discussing metabolism, is the thermic effect of different foods.

Every macronutrient (fats, carbs, and proteins) requires different levels of energy from the body to be processed internally.

About 30% of the calories from protein are used during digestion alone. About 10% of the calories from carbohydrates are used to process and store them as fuel. And about 5% of the calories from fat are burned during processing.

To simplify this, if you eat 100 calories of chicken, your body is only netting about 70 calories. If you eat 100 calories of rice, you are ingesting 90 calories. Eating 100 calories of olive oil will result in about 95 calories.

This is one reason so many people experience easy weight loss when they focus on consuming enough protein – their body is naturally burning more calories before it even has a chance to put the protein to use. Also, protein will be far more filling, thus eliminating cravings caused by high carbohydrate consumption.

The most effective way to lose fat or gain muscle would be to structure caloric intake in a step-like fashion.

Let’s assume an individual needs 2,000 a day calories to maintain their weight.

Maybe for two weeks they shoot for 1,700 – 1,800 calories a day. The next two weeks they drop to 1,500 – 1,700 calories a day. Then on the fifth work, return to your maintenance level around 2,000 calories a day. Repeat this cycle, recalculating maintenance calories every 5 – 10 lbs, until you reach your goal.

During this process, feel free to step on the scale, at the same time of day and same day of the week, and note changes on a weekly basis. Shoot for half a pound of fat loss a week…although one pound will be manageable for individuals that have more to lose.

To be honest, I’m not actually an enormous fan of the weighing and measuring approach. I find it develops certain neurosis and an obsession with arbitrary numbers. If you performance is improving, your blood work is good, and your clothes fit better, the specific numbers on a scale or calories on a plate are irrelevant.

This way of structuring caloric intake is similar to the theory of periodization in training. Over the course of a few weeks or months, slowly increase the intensity before taking a recovery week, allowing the mind and body to prepare for another period of improvement.

Track your progress, make changes if things stagnate, or stay the course if you are succeeding.

So, if you’ve been consuming 800 calories for months, and wonder why you’re not losing weight, it may be that your metabolic rate has decreased.

Take a few weeks of eating at maintenance to allow your metabolism to reset, and then give this calorie cycling a try!metabolism

Coconut Oil

CoconutDue to the positive feedback on my recent post about gluten, I decided to tackle another food that is very popular right now: coconut oil.

Coconut oil is entering the mainstream at the moment because it has numerous health benefits and is one of the best oils to cook with.

Coconut oil is pressed from the flesh of a coconut. It is a solid, white substance below room temperature and turns into a clear liquid as temperatures rise over 70° F.

The consistency changes because it is over 90% saturated fat. Remember, saturated merely means that it is completely stable chemically. It won’t go rancid when stored or oxidize when cooked. These properties also hold true after consumption – it is the least likely, of all fats, to oxidize in the blood…oxidization being a precipitating factor in cardiovascular disease.

Not only is the fat content of coconut the safe saturated variety, but 66% of it is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

MCTs are interesting because they don’t require digestion to be converted to fuel. Therefore, it is very unlikely they will be stored as fat. They also ramp up the body’s ability to burn calories and fat. For these reasons, MCTs are often used by individuals trying to lose weight.

MCTs aren’t only a useful energy source for those looking to reduce body fat. They also produce ketones which are extremely therapeutic fuel for the brain. Ketones can protect against, and improve symptoms from, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.

All fats are made up of many different acids. One such acid that makes up most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is Lauric Acid (usually only found in breast milk). Lauric acid helps increase HDL in the body, once again protecting against cardiovascular disease. Finally, lauric acid has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties, thereby protecting the body in many other ways too.

Due to the high concentration of chemically-stable fats in coconut oil, it is the most useful oil for high temperature cooking (above 300°F).

Vegetable and nut oils are predominately polyunsaturated fat, prone to oxidization when heated. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which is still not optimal for cooking.

Oils that are not very stable (poly and mono fats) will sacrifice their phytosterols in an attempt to prevent oxidization. Since coconut oil is almost purely saturated fat, its phytosterol content will remain even after cooking.

Life cannot exist without sterols – animals have cholesterol while plants contain phytosterols. It is believed that phytosterols improve cardiovascular health and act as antioxidants.

The oil certainly has a coconut-scent but most people find that the flavor dissipates quickly while cooking and has no effect on the taste of the final meal.

Coconut oil is often used as a moisturizer, lip balm, and in soap or other hygiene products.

Coconuts provide many other amazing foods too!

Coconut flour is an excellent alternative for sugar-laden grain flours. Coconut water is a more balanced, natural form of a sports drink. Coconut milk is a perfect substitute for animal milk. You can even buy coconut butter (pure raw coconut flesh) to spread on other foods…although it’s so rich and tasty that I’ve even eaten it straight out of the jar! And of course, you could just buy a whole coconut and make all these products yourself.

Now that we know the value of such a food, it’s time to throw out the rancid vegetable oils, save olive oil for salads, and start using coconut oil for your cooking endeavors!

Oh No! Steroids!

A few months ago, we looked at how to naturally boost testosterone levels, decreasing body fat and improving health and performance. I ended that post with a cliffhanger, mentioning a final technique to raise testosterone: direct hormone supplementation.

Before I dive into the topic of steroid use, let me first mention that I never recommend steroids and, to my knowledge, never trained an athlete that used them.

That being said, steroids are not the dangerous drug they are made out to be.

I can’t, in one post, dissect the entire history and politics of why the public fears steroids. Instead I’ll list the top myths and then the risks of hormone supplementation.

Myth 1: Steroids are dangerous to the body.

From a toxicological standpoint, anabolic steroids are one of the safest “drugs”. The risk of overdose is almost non-existent, considering the amount necessary to see an effect. Alcohol can cause inflammation and atrophy in almost every cell of the body, whereas steroids improve growth and function of most cells.

There are reports that steroids cause unfavorable blood pressure or cholesterol levels but, as with everything, all factors need to be taken into account. Is the user a major health-nut looking for one more way to boost their performance? Or is it someone that wants to increase size and strength without having to pay as much attention to nutrition and other lifestyle factors?

However, if someone abuses steroids (takes too much, too frequently) they can experience acne growth, liver and kidney damage, and decreased natural testosterone production.

Myth 2: Steroids cause violent outbursts.

If you look at those that are likely to use steroids, they are usually hard-charging athletes with high levels of testosterone and a type A personality. When their personality traits are combined with even more testosterone, and an increase in size and strength, arguments, physical altercations, or other unfortunate events can result.

Myth 3: Steroids cause addiction.

Anabolic steroids are less dependence forming than almost every other substance, including tobacco and alcohol. However, steroids are effective, so when someone stops using them and sees a drop-off in progress, they may become discouraged and return to using them.

Myth 4: Steroids cause suicide.

The number of people taking steroids, that have committed suicide, is miniscule. However, when it does happen, it makes an attention-grabbing headline for news sources.

Many people taking steroids may also take other drugs, including anti-depressants, which affect emotions, thereby increasing risk of suicide.

Most of the fears of steroids are caused by abuse (as opposed to use), the individual taking them, and organizations (the media or government agencies) vilifying or sensationalizing particular issues.

The one last common complaint is that “using steroids is cheating”.

However, it is naïve to think that any top athlete is not enhancing their performance or trying to get a foot up on their competition by any means necessary.

Why does each sport have a hundred top performers and then thousands of good players? Why does the athlete working just as hard not achieve the same results?

Sure, genetics and luck may play a role…but the fact is, when millions of dollars are at stake, in the entertainment industry, individuals will seek out ways to boost their performance and surpass competitors.

If your favorite athlete is doing things that no human has done before, chances are they have found a way to enhance their performance through supplementation.

My solution for this issue is to simply create two leagues – one that is tested and one that is untested. This exists in the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding. There are “raw” or natural competitions that have strict testing procedures and other competitions with no testing requirements.

So, to summarize, the risks of steroid use are:

1.)    Decreased testosterone production. Depending on the dose and length of time, normal levels may not return after discontinuation.

2.)    Over-use, or abuse, can damage multiple organs and result in many dangerous outcomes, both physical and mental.

3.)    If an individual is prone to addiction, they risk becoming dependent upon steroids.

The main benefit of steroid use is an increase lean body mass, decrease in body fat, and improvements in health and performance.

A great quote I heard recently:

“If you have to take steroids in high school to play college football then that’s going to be the end of your career. If you have to take steroids in college to make professional football then you’re going to have a short career. If you don’t have to [take steroids] until you’re at a professional level, then you’re probably going to have a long career.”

Again, I am not recommending steroids, and personally don’t have much interest in them. I am much more interested in finding out what my body can do on its own. But we need to avoid an emotional, knee-jerk response and condemn the whole concept simply because our government has put in place puritanical drug laws.

Even with steroids, there is no substitute for smart training, clean eating, and a healthy lifestyle!

Vitamin Recommendations

Growing up, I took a Centrum multi-vitamin every day. If I was coming down with a cold, I would take supplemental vitamin C. When I first got serious about my health, switching to a vegetarian diet for a couple years, I would take Animal Pak, which had 11 pills per serving.

Currently, the only supplement I take and recommend to everyone is vitamin D.

What changed?

First, I learned that vitamin supplementation doesn’t prevent the “free radical damage” we once thought. It’s actually the phytochemicals, in fruits in vegetables, joined with vitamins that protect against DNA damage.

Second, the free radical damage that these supplemental vitamins do effectively prevent is produced by exercise. But, it turns out that our body needs free radical signaling post workout to improve. By mega-dosing with vitamins post workout, we are blunting our bodies’ ability to adapt to exercise.

Finally, studies show that high supplementation of vitamins B, C, E, and A (beta-carotene) increase mortality, sometimes by as much as 22%.

So why do I recommend vitamin D?

Vitamin D affects almost every function of the human body. Deficiencies can contribute to literally dozens of different diseases and conditions.

What about doctors or studies suggesting that vitamin D doesn’t affect health?

In all studies, subjects were given 400 – 800 IUs of vitamin D a day. A mere 30 minutes of sunlight provides 20,000 IUs. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a 25th of a natural dose wasn’t able to increase blood levels or affect health changes.

Trace amounts of Vitamin D can be found in certain foods. One egg yolk will contain about 20 IUs while 4 ounces of salmon may have up to 400 IUs.

If you want to be certain whether you need to supplement with vitamin D, get a vitamin D blood test, known as a 25 hydroxy.

Make sure your doctors tell you the actual numbers though! Most doctors won’t show any concern if your levels are between 20 and 55 ng/ml. This is usually enough to prevent rickets or bone softening, but optimal blood levels are in the 50 to 80 ng/ml range.

Depending how low your levels are, you may need to supplement with 5,000 to 20,000 IUs of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) a day.

Keep in mind that vitamin D is fat soluble and converted by cholesterol so it needs to be taken with a fatty meal that contains a healthy amount of dietary cholesterol.

In the summer, I take 2,000 to 5,000 IUs a day. In the winter, I take 5,000 to 10,000 IUs a day. I take it with breakfast, usually consisting of 4 to 6 whole eggs.

These specific recommendations assume that you are already eating a healthy diet (full of local and naturally raised meats, vegetables, and fruits) and avoid, or at least limit, grains and processed foods.

The digestion of carbohydrates, particularly grains, uses a massive amount of B vitamins, found most abundantly in meat. If you diet is too high in the former and too low in the latter, you may need a moderate dose of vitamin B supplements. I still would recommend against mega-dosing though.

There are certain other situations that may require additional supplementation but I’ll discuss those in a different post.

As you can tell, our understanding of supplements has changed greatly over the last decade. It used to seem so simple to merely pop a pill and have 100% of your vitamins and minerals for the day…but we now know that there is no substitute for a natural and varied diet.

Hope all this helps – both in terms of health and saving a few dollars on vitamins!

5 Health Quotes

Hello again everybody! Those of you that have spoken with me about health topics know that I am a big fan of using quotes from other professionals to make a point.

I have always had a rather good memory when it comes to quoting shows or songs, and this seems to apply to quotes from trainers, nutritionists, coaches, etc.

So, rather than exploring a single topic in-depth this week, I thought I’d just list a few of the quotes that I find most relevant to almost every health-oriented individual.

“Train to run, don’t run to train.” – Timothy Gould, Doctor of Physical Therapy. Tim was referring to the fact that many individuals think that jumping into an endurance running program will improve their health. The fact is, running long distances can be tough on the body and therefore should be a goal, or a piece, of a balanced program. Tim is the most skilled PT I have worked closely with and I would highly recommend those with rehab needs to contact him at timothygould@deept.com .

“Cardio doesn’t burn fat. Muscle burns fat.” – John Meadows, CSCS, CISSN. This refers, in part, to the concept above. The calories burnt during an aerobic workout are insignificant compared to the increased metabolic rate and improved hormone signaling resulting from sensible strength training.

“You can’t out train a bad diet.” – I’m not sure who first said this but it’s used by every knowledgeable trainer. Sure, you can spend an hour every day on an elliptical and burn a couple hundred calories. But, simply removing wheat from your diet, as an example, will reduce your daily calorie consumption by over 400 calories (to say nothing of other health benefits such as better digestion and less inflammation).

“Eat leaves, not seeds.” – Michael Pollan, author of numerous works exploring nutrition and environmental sustainability. His quote refers to the fact that Western diets are now based around grains (seeds that haven’t sprouted yet) as opposed to whole foods such as vegetables.

“[Eating] fat doesn’t make you fat.” – I’m not actually sure who first said this, but Khush Mark, PhD authored a book in 2008 with a similar name and Mark Hyman, MD uses this phrase frequently. Looking at any newspaper article or magazine over the last year will make it clear that our nation was wrong to vilify fats. We now know that overconsumption of processed foods, and meals that are high in carbs but low in nutrients, are to blame for the current health epidemic.

Please feel free to add your own quotes in the comments or send them directly to me at paul.romasco@hotmail.com . I love collecting these and will probably turn this into an ongoing series, posting 5 or so quotes every few months.

Hope you can find some simple words of wisdom or motivation in these brief lines.

See you next week!

Gluten

At this moment, there appears to be a “gluten-free” craze or fad.

By now, you all know that I recommend a gluten-free lifestyle. But, I advocate learning the reasons behind elimination first.

Imagine if, in 1949, when doctors were recommending cigarettes, that I came out of nowhere and just said “stop doing what your doctor tells you – it’s bad for you!”

Instead of just hoping that people will go against “conventional wisdom” to improve their health, I’d rather provide some facts about gluten.

First, let’s look at the actual plant that has the most gluten – wheat. The plant in the bottom of the picture is wild-grown wheat, while the top plant is commercially grown wheat.
Wheat
This picture is slightly deceiving because the “ancient einkorn wheat” is actually a modern day variation of wheat grown in the wild. Originally, the stem would continue even further and there would be far less seeds. But, even in this picture, you can see that the output (the size and amount of protective “hairs”) of the plant has changed.

While scientists tinkered with the genetics of the plant to increase profits, they also increased the protein content immensely. This was considered an added benefit but, unfortunately, no testing was done on human tolerance.

As acetaminophen (Tylonel) was developed, it had to be researched mechanistically, tested on animals, and finally on humans, before each generation of the product could be sold in stores. This was never done with wheat.

Next, let’s consider the role wheat played historically. For the last 10,000 years, grains helped humans develop villages, cities, and countries, allowing us to leave behind 2.6 million years of hunting and gathering.

Imagine life as a hunter-gatherer – traveling around in groups, moving your “home”, and collecting food.

Would it make sense to spend hours every day picking tiny seeds off a plant, that would then have to be soaked, sprouted, and ground to make one thin cracker? Or would it make sense to throw a spear into a herd of antelope and provide enough food for weeks?

Would you rather search for days to find a few grasses of wheat? Or would time be better spent picking berries and plucking leaves (requiring no preparation) as you travel?

Wheat, and other grains and seeds, would be stored for a time of famine…when a hunt was unsuccessful or in winter when plants were scarce.

Now we know the role wheat played historically and how the plant changed through recent genetic hybridization. But, what about the actual affects gluten has on humans?

It is predicted that 1% of the world population has celiac disease, an overt allergy to gluten, while about 10% report having “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”.

Gluten sensitivity can result in over 250 symptoms, including joint pain, dry skin, or indigestion.

There is no test for “gluten sensitivity”, as there is with celiac disease. The only way to discover sensitivity is to completely remove gluten from the diet and reintroduce after a few months. Finally, one microgram of gluten can change the gut chemistry for up to 6 months – therefore, an accidental exposure, or short-term elimination, may provide invalid results.

I don’t want to bore you by exploring every issue involved with gluten, so I’ll just mention the two most compelling facts:

Gliadin, one of two proteins that make up gluten, breaks down to polypeptides. These are small enough to travel through the gut lining, into the blood, and cross the blood-brain barrier. At this point, they bind to opiate-receptor sites, producing euphoria, similar to a tiny dose of morphine or heroin. Studies show that gluten stimulates appetite so much, through the reward/pleasure centers of the brain, that individuals eating gluten consume an extra 400 calories a day.

Finally, transglutaminase is the enzyme in that breaks down gluten. The more gluten one eats, the more transglutaminase their body must produce. The issue here is that transglutaminase has the ability to affect every cell in the body. This is one reason gluten sensitivity can manifest in hundreds of different symptoms. The literature shows that high levels of transglutaminase are present in individuals with neurological diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia.

I could continue but I don’t want to make this post too dry or sound like I’m trying to make gluten into some boogey-man.

The takeaway points are:

We have genetically-altered the wheat plant to contain far more gluten than it should.

Humans are not meant to consume as much gluten as we have in the last 50 years.

Gluten has the potential to affect nearly every function within the body.

Considering these facts, it is no surprise that there is a “gluten-free” craze at this moment. As more people eliminate gluten from their diets, they discover that it was the cause of many different health issues, ranging from fat-gain to Type II diabetes to anxiety.

And with that, you know the risks of over-consuming gluten, and the benefits of opting for more nutritional foods.

The science is out there – why not give it a try and see if removing gluten from your diet for a few months improves your life in any way? What will you have to lose (besides a few pizza nights or conveniently packaged snack bars)?