A Testament to Health

This week I was not able to put my normal time into researching, writing, and editing a blog post. On Monday, December 8th, I was in a car crash.

I was at an intersection a few blocks from my apartment waiting for the light. When it turned green, I looked both ways (out of habit), saw no cars, and rolled into the intersection. Suddenly, out of the corner of my left eye, I saw a minivan hurdling through their redlight. Next thing I knew, all my windows were covered by airbags, my possessions were strewn around the the car, and there was bent and broken plastic everywhere.

As soon as I caught my breath, I opened the drivers side door (requiring some force) and climbed out.

After surveying the damage to my car, the car that hit me, and the road, it was clear I was very fortunate. My car hood had been ripped clean off and the nose was pushed back to the front wheels.

I was fortunate for a number of reasons:

First, I entered the intersection slowly and cautiously. If I accelerated quicker, the oncoming car would have hit my drivers side door and the outcome would have been much different.

Second, I was driving a 2012 Subaru Impreza. The steering wheel, dashboard, and every door deployed an airbag, protecting me from any impact against metal, plastic, or glass. Also, the front of the car folded in on itself like an accordion, absorbing the impact that otherwise could have crushed the driver and passenger compartments.

Lastly, and most pertinent to this blog, is that I was very healthy at the time.

I am not saying that muscles and low bodyfat makes one invincible…but it can’t hurt.

I don’t feel like I would have hopped up out of my seat without a bruise, after being broadsided at over 40 miles per hour, if I wasn’t generally fit and relatively strong.

A common quote in the powerlifting community, and amongst Navy Seals, is “Stronger people are harder to kill”.

Again, I am not claiming that my fitness level prevented bodily injury. But I think my dedication to a healthy lifestyle allowed me to exit the car unscathed and continue my week as usual.

I am confident that the resilience my body displayed in this situation is a testament to the importance of physical health.

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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!

Ketosis

As I mentioned a few posts ago, some words are met with a great deal of confusion. An example of this, and the topic of today’s post, is the word “ketosis”.

When I use the word ketosis, most people immediately think of “ketoacidosis”.

Ketoacidosis is a condition that occurs in Type 1 diabetics or alcoholics. Simply put, the body becomes dependent upon sugar and loses the ability to use fats or proteins for energy. The energy substrates produced from fat, known as ketones, accumulate in the blood, increasing acidity, and causing a host of health issues, potentially leading to death.

However, ketoacidosis is quite different from ketosis.

Ketosis is the human body’s natural energy state. When an infant is born, it is born in ketosis. When we wake up, we are in ketosis. Whenever we go more than a few hours without sugar, we start producing ketones.

Ketosis is simply the body using fat, instead of sugar, for energy.

Even with regular carbohydrate intake, most of us should be able to go in and out of ketosis frequently. This is because the body’s production of ketones varies based upon activity level and energy sources available.

After a week or two of no sugar, the body will start producing and running exclusively off of ketones (as long as too much protein is not consumed). With regular sugar consumption, the body will have a much more immediate energy source and therefore will not produce as many ketone bodies.

However, the body can still achieve ketosis with a moderate intake of carbs if an individual is eating fewer calories than they need to maintain their weight. In this situation, the body will first use the sugar consumed but, since not enough calories are being consumed, the body will start breaking down its own fat stores for energy.

So, why am I talking about ketosis to begin with?

Well, as I mentioned, it is how the body uses its own fat stores for energy. However, with supermarkets, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants every few blocks, very few of us ever go long enough without sugar to become as “fat-adapted” as humans were meant to be.

To ensure my body is able to use every fuel efficiently, I spend about 2 months of early spring in ketosis. This means I don’t consume any carbs beyond fibrous vegetables. Also, I don’t over consume protein in an attempt to gain muscle mass, as extra protein will be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis.

Not only does this help my body run efficiently regardless of my access to sugar, but it is also a very easy way to lean out. In just the first week of lower carb consumption, most people will lose 5 to 10 pounds from depleting their glycogen stores and not holding as much water weight.

Also, it is the constant fluctuation of insulin levels, and leptin signaling, from a short-term energy source such as carbohydrates, that dictates our hunger levels. So, when we are consuming healthy fats, fibrous veggies, and protein, our bodies don’t experience frequent drops in blood sugar and ravenous hunger or cravings for more sugar.

Finally, I find my time spent in ketosis helps improve my mood and energy levels. Usually my mind is racing and I am prone to seeing the negative side of things. However, when I am not regularly running off sugar, my thoughts are a lot more organized and focused while my energy is far more stable. This is because ketones are the most therapeutic fuel for the brain.

Ketosis, or limiting sugar intake, is becoming more commonly understood as doctors learn it is an effective way to prevent seizures in epileptics, reverse certain forms of cancer, or treat other conditions.

However, I feel the need to remind all my readers that I am not a doctor. I am not recommending a ketogenic diet for everyone. As with anything pertaining to the human body, if done incorrectly, it can be quite dangerous.

But, if you would like to try something a little different, and more natural than crash-diets and weight loss supplements, please contact me directly via e-mail or phone.

Remember – I’m here for you!

High Intensity Interval Training

Hill SprintsIf you read any fitness magazines or websites than you may have seen the phrase “high intensity interval training”, sometimes abbreviated as “HIIT”.

This is a method of aerobic conditioning, alternating short periods of high-intensity work with low-intensity recoveries.

An example would be sprinting up a hill as fast as you, then walking back down and catching your breath, before running up again. You would alternate this for as many intervals as you can.

The science behind HIIT is still in its infancy but, thus far, we know that 15 minutes of HIIT provides more benefits to the body than 2 hours of “steady state cardio”. Also, one high-intensity burst of power during regular cardio is not as effective as alternating high-intensity efforts with periods of recovery for the entire workout. Finally, studies have shown that HIIT increases the release of human growth hormone within the body by about 500% for two hours after the workout!
stairs, spgr
Remember, it’s these benefits to our hormone levels that make it possible to reduce body fat while improving lean muscle mass, strength, and bone density.

My favorite thing about HIIT is the efficiency. I always tell my clients, they can take a Spinning class, for an hour, twice a week, and end up famished, ultimately overeating later in the day, or perform one HIIT session for less than 30 minutes counting a warm up and cool down.

In addition, high intensity interval training can be modified based upon the individual’s capability and equipment available.

For example, in the summer I prefer hill sprints or sprinting on a grass field. In the winter, I move indoors and perform intervals on a rowing machine or stairmaster.

A safe and effective way to start a HIIT routine is to warm up for a few minutes on a rowing machine or stationary bike, and then alternate 30 seconds as fast as you can with 30 second recoveries. Continue this until you feel like you could only complete one or two more intervals. Finally, cool down for another few minutes and do some stretching or foam rolling.

Even though this protocol is referred to as high intensity, it is entirely dependent upon the effort you put forth. For this to be effective, you want to move at a speed that you could not sustain comfortably for much more than 30 seconds…but the key word is “comfortably”. You don’t have to push beyond your comfort zone to experience the amazing results of HIIT. All you have to do is be willing to work very hard for some short intervals once or twice a week.

It’s actually important you don’t push too hard as it can cause adrenal fatigue or burnout. For this reason, I recommend clients limit HIIT sessions to once or twice a week in the beginning and always stop when they feel like they could only complete one or two more intervals at their “high-intensity” pace.

So, give it a try, play with the variables, and reap the amazing benefits of high intensity interval training!

Testosterone

Eventually I want to post one-page “action plans” for things like improving blood cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, or normalizing hormone levels. But, before I can do that, it’s necessary to discuss these topics to learn the terms and find out what healthy numbers or ranges are.

We’ve already talked about cholesterol, so, today let’s talk about the hormone, testosterone.

Whenever I cite “maintaining healthy testosterone levels” as a reason for eating more of one type of food, or less of another, a woman within earshot will always proclaim that, as a female, they don’t care about testosterone levels.

One thing I’m realizing more and more is the power of certain words and the emotional response they elicit.

For example, “gluten” has started to develop a negative reaction from the general public. Alternatively, “low-calorie” is a very popular marketing label that makes people feel like they are making a healthy food choice.

The irony is that people aren’t sure what gluten is or that caloric content is dependent upon the amount of food consumed. “Gluten-free” does not make a food healthy and “low-calorie” foods are only low in calories if you eat a small portion.

How does this apply to testosterone?

My best guess is that when professional athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters started taking drugs to boost their testosterone levels to super-physiological levels, the general public’s perception of testosterone changed. Suddenly, testosterone was not a necessary hormone for life, found in every living creature, but merely a means to achieving unnatural levels of muscle and strength or boosting athletic performance.

So, what is testosterone really?

Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone but, more importantly, it is the most prevalent “anabolic steroid” produced within the body. Again, some words that may scare the general public…

Anabolic is simply the process of smaller units coming together to make larger units.

In the human body, this translates to muscles, bones, and all cells in the body rebuilding or becoming stronger.

Testosterone certainly helps with increasing muscle mass, but it is also necessary for maintaining any lean muscle mass, reducing body fat, and increasing bone density. In fact, low testosterone levels are a leading cause of osteoporosis amongst women and the aging population.

Testosterone production naturally decreases with age, and low testosterone levels become rather cyclical. This is because fat cells in the body convert testosterone into the female sex hormone, estradiol, thereby lowering testosterone levels further and creating a more favorable environment for fat to thrive and lean muscle to break down.

In addition, the interplay between different hormone levels in the body plays an important role in the development and growth of multiple forms of cancer. Simply put, high estrogen levels and low testosterone levels will stimulate the growth of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers.

For these reasons, I find it very odd when women in a gym tell me they are not concerned with their testosterone levels. In my mind, the point of the gym is to provide your body with a stimulus that it will recover from; making it stronger and better in the process. And, without testosterone, the body cannot recover adequately.

I’ll wrap up my post there but be on the lookout in the coming weeks for a short and simple action plan to maintain healthy hormone levels in the body.

For now, try to differentiate the concept of athletes raising their testosterone to unnatural levels through the use of drugs and the importance of naturally-occurring testosterone in your body.

Fats

My last post touched upon the 3 macronutrient groups – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. This post will cover fats, the most misunderstood macronutrient.

The major confusion regarding fat stems from the word itself. There are fats you eat (dietary fat) and there is body fat (adipose tissue). Consumption of dietary fat does not directly increase body fat but, since both phrases contain the word fat, people worry that one affects the other.

Fats are found frequently in nature. They are in animals and fish, nuts and seeds, fruits such as avocados and coconuts, and oils.

One thing worth mentioning is that fat is more calorically dense than carbs or proteins. Fats have 9 calories per gram while the latter only have 4. This is great if you only have time for two or three meals a day and want to keep your energy steady, but, calories in versus calories out will affect body weight.

As mentioned in the last post, fat is essential for life. It is necessary to assimilate vitamins A, D, E, and K. It is one of only two fuels that power the body efficiently. Fats are used for the construction and maintenance of cells within our bodies.

Let’s look at the different forms of fat to understand where the beneficial features lie and where the fearful stigma may come from.

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First, a quick chemistry note: fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms bonded together.

Saturated fats are named because every carbon atom is “saturated” with hydrogen; there are no double bonds. This makes them very stable, meaning they are the safest for cooking and the least likely to oxidize. Another interesting fact is that they make up half of our cell membrane structure.

These are found predominately in animal and fish products but are also in coconut and palm oil.

Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond between two carbon atoms meaning they are fairly stable but still subject to oxidization.  Maybe you’ve noticed when cooking with olive oil, if you turn your back for a moment, it will start to smoke. Similarly, if you leave a cut avocado out, it will start to turn brown. If consumed in a raw form, in a timely fashion, these can improve cholesterol levels within the body.

These fats occur in plant foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds meaning they are unstable and prone to oxidization and rancidity. It’s not a great idea to overheat or overfill our bodies with such an unstable substance. It’s not a particular macronutrient group but rather the process of oxidization that really damages our bodies.

So, eliminate all polyunsaturated fat, right? Again, when it comes nutrition and the human body, things just can’t be that simple.

Remember those essential fats I mentioned last time…Omega-3 in particular? That’s a polyunsaturated fat! The key is to balance your sources of polyunsaturated fat intake.

O-3 is essential for life so incorporate wild-caught seafood into your diet (algae and flax can be used by vegans but keep in mind that the type of O-3 provided by these plants sources, ALA, is only converted at around 6% to EPA and 0.5% to DHA, which are the forms our body needs).

Another polyunsaturated fat, Omega-6, is also essential but it is found abundantly in nuts, grains, soy, and oils (and any animals fed these foods too). O-6 is so prevalent the average American consumes 20 times more O-6 than O-3. This is problematic because, being an easily oxidized poly fat, the body can quickly accumulate too much O-6 leading to inflammation and increasing risks of cardiovascular disease. An optimal ratio for O-6 to O-3 would be 2 to 1.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at two healthy foods – salmon and almonds. One ounce of salmon has 550mg O-3 while the almonds have 3500mg O-6. When I have almonds, I can eat 4 handfuls (one handful is about one ounce) before I even pour them into a bowl and sit down. This means, just in that one day, if I consumed nothing else containing O-6 (nearly impossible), I’d have to eat close to a pound of salmon.

I’m not recommending you count every milligram…just increase intake of certain foods (wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef), consume some in moderation (nuts, oils, avocados), and avoid others altogether (soy, corn, and other modern vegetable oils).

Trans fats are the most dangerous type of fat. These are formed through chemical modification and are unrecognizable to the human body. They will inevitably be stored as abdominal fat or fat around the internal organs (the deadliest form of fat in the body).

These fats are found in processed oils, butter-replacements, and other packaged goods. Basically, if the word “hydrogenated” is anywhere on the package, do not consume it under risk of death!

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I know that was a lot of information but, the point is, dietary fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Certain fats (poly fat O-6 and trans fat) may not be as optimal as others (saturated and mono), but, if it’s naturally occurring in nature, it is not inherently bad for you.

Now, let’s examine goals and activity levels to determine how much fat to consume.

If weight loss is the goal, higher fat and lower carb may be beneficial because fat is very satiating while carbs wreak havoc on blood sugar and leptin signaling (both tell us when we are full). Also, fats would be a wiser choice for those trying to reverse or prevent certain diseases or illnesses (I’ll talk about this more in the post about carbohydrates).

When the heart is working below 75% of its maximum, the body is using fat as its primary fuel. As the heart rate decreases to a resting rate, the body will naturally use 95% fats and 5% carbs as energy. So, if you work a desk job and don’t engage in intense physical activity daily, your body will naturally run leaner with adequate fat and lower carb intake.

To use myself as an example…on the days I lift heavy and want to gain muscle, I eat about 40% carbs, 30% fats, and 30% protein. On my recovery days, when the most I do is slow, steady walking, I eat about 60% fat, 10% carbs, and 30% protein. My carbs on lifting days come from raw goat’s milk, white and sweet potatoes, and fruit. On my recovery days, I’ll have a cup of milk and a banana in the morning and the rest of my meals will consist of fibrous carbs like vegetables. I tend to keep protein high on most days due to my strength focus in the gym…but the story of protein is best saved for the next post…

Hopefully this provides a basic understanding of the importance of fats. In future posts I’ll refer back to certain things I’ve discussed here and offer practical solutions to specific health and performance goals. See you all next week when we cover proteins – the building blocks of the human body!