One Size Fits All

In exercise and fitness training, a “one-size fits all” approach does not work.

This is one of my favorite aspects of being a personal trainer and health coach.

Every single day, I encounter something new. Whether it’s a client’s specific goal, preference, injury, or condition, everyone has different wants and needs. This requires alterations, to say nothing of completely different programming.

My oldest client is 91. My youngest is 13. I have middle-aged clients trying to lose weight. I have young men playing soccer at division 1 colleges. I have new mothers that want to return to their favorite sports. I have seniors reversing rheumatoid arthritis and regaining balance and energy. Some of my clients want to get off a long list of medications. Others just want a fun and challenging workout a few days a week.

These differences between individuals contribute to my hesitation to recommend routines based entirely around weight machines.

Machines allow you to adjust the height of the seat, and sometimes make an adjustment for leg length, but beyond that, you’re pushing or pulling in a pre-determined range of motion. Different people will need to move differently based on their build and body mechanics. And, just as importantly, these types of actions won’t transfer as effectively to real life.

When you pick something up, push a heavy object, or take a very high step up, there is nothing guiding your body through space. Your muscles and joints will be working on their own, free of outside influence.

Machines are useful to isolate a muscle group, and help an individual develop a mind-body connection with that muscle, but they should not be where you spend the majority of your time.

I start most my clients with a series of assessments, performing different movements that are common in everyday life. Their ability to execute these actions, along with the goals they have stated, will specify exactly what we must do together.

These assessments usually consist of a gait analysis, squatting down into a chair and back up, bringing the arms overhead, and holding a plank or pushup position. But, as previously mentioned, I may omit some of these, use alternatives, or do something completely different based on the client.

The same mistake of using a “one-size fits all” approach is apparent in our nations nutritional recommendations. The USDA recommends that everyone consume 45-65% of their calories from carbs, 10 to 30% from protein, and 25 to 35% from fat.

This is akin to recommending that 15% of all calories come from dairy…or that 5% of calories come from peanuts. What if an individual is lactose intolerant or allergic to peanuts?

As evidenced by our current diabetes and obesity rates, most Americans cannot tolerate upwards of 50% of their calories coming from carbs. Through years of trial and error, I’ve learned that if I average more than 40% carbs, more than 4 days a week, I start to gain fat, even in a calorie deficit.

Remember, carbs are fuel for high intensity activity, while dietary fat is truly essential for optimal health. After a lifetime of consuming more carbs than the body can safely store and burn, it loses its “insulin sensitivity”. This means that the sugars last too long in the blood (causing inflammation and cardiovascular disease) and are eventually forced into fat storage.

I work with my clients to find the most sustainable and healthy nutritional path for them. I base my nutritional recommendations not only on their dietary restrictions, activity level, and current conditions, but also their preferences and lifestyle.

I personally cook a few big meals on weekends so I have leftovers available on weekdays. However, I may have to suggest a different approach for clients that don’t have the time to, or interest in, trying this. Some of my clients are vegans or vegetarians that require more vitamin supplementation and creative protein options. If a client has sugar or chocolate cravings, we’ll work to find the healthiest options and optimal timing for indulgences.

Some foods are healthier than others, but I’ve never insisted that a client consume a certain food or avoid another. I merely work within their parameters, to find out what will guarantee them success in the long term.

These examples show the importance of individual personalization. Personal trainers, and health professionals of all kinds, must be able to tailor the theories learned through education, to best serve each client.

No two people are the same, so why should their exercise and diet be the same?

diverse

The Most Nutritious Foods

As many of you know by now, I try to consume the most nutritious foods possible. However, I’ve never listed exactly what foods provide the most nutrients per serving.

Advertisements claim that certain foods are important nutritionally. Markets assign numbered scores to various products. Most of these rating systems, such as NuVal and ANDI, are inaccurate for a number of reasons.

First, they look at nutrients that are not essential for life, and conversely, overlook nutrients that are necessary for life. Second, they draw from disproved nutritional norms, such as dietary cholesterol and saturated fat being “bad”. Thirdly, they are designed by agricultural companies or individuals with a bias.

Scientists, such as Loren Cordain and Mat Lalonde, have done extensive work in the last few decades to redesign nutrient rating systems. They set aside non-essential nutrients in food and focused purely on what the body must consume from outside sources.

The body cannot produce the following:

Fatty Acids: Omega 3 and Omega 6

Amino Acids: isoleucine; leucine; lysine; methionine; phenylalanine; threonine; tryptophan; valine; histidine

Vitamins: A; Bp (choline); B1 (thiamine); B2 (riboflavin); B3 (niacin); B5 (pantothenic acid); B6; B7 (biotin); B9 (folic acid); B12; C; D; E; K

Minerals: calcium; chloride; chromium; cobalt; copper; iodide; iron; magnesium; manganese; molybdenum; nickel; phosphorus; potassium; selenium; sodium; sulfur; zinc

These nutrients were plugged into the following formula to determine nutrient density:

(sum of essential nutrients per serving) ÷ (weight per serving)

I’d like to make a few points before posting Mat’s nutrient density list.

First, the database he drew from did not have complete data for certain nutrients.

The database did not differentiate between preformed vitamins and their final form. Vitamin A, “beta-carotene”, in sweet potatoes and carrots, must be converted to “retinol”, found in egg yolks and liver. Vitamin K1, found in green leafy vegetables, requires conversion to K2, found in grass-fed dairy.

There was no way to account for bioavailability of nutrients. Most grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high levels of phytates which prevent absorption of nutrients and minerals.

Finally, and most importantly, the diet, age, and lifestyle of animals were not specified. Grass-fed beef, raised on open pastures, is much healthier than corn-fed beef, raised in stalls that restrict movement. Also, mature ducks having more nutritional value than baby ducks.

Taking this unavailable data into consideration, we can assume that most animal products would move up a few spots. This is because most plants have limited amino acids and fatty acids, and the vitamins found in vegetables must be converted or activated.

Without further ado, the ranking of nutrient density averages for the food groups:

1.) Organ Meats and Oils
2.) Herbs and Spices
3.) Nuts and Seeds
4.) Cacao
5.) Fish and Seafood
6.) Pork
7.) Beef
8.) Eggs & Dairy
9.) Vegetables (raw & unprepared)
10.) Lamb, Veal, and Wild Game
11.) Poultry
12.) Legumes
13.) Processed Meat
14.) Vegetables (cooked, canned, blanched, pickled)
15.) Plant Fats and Oils
16.) Fruit
17.) Animal Skin and Feet
18.) Grains and Pseudocereals (cooked)
19.) Refined and Processed Fats and Oils
20.) Grains (canned)
21.) Processed Fruit

Many people will be surprised by how low grains appear on the list. The nutrient value of raw grains would place them in the top 5. However, our bodies cannot digest raw grains. Taking nutrient loss during cooking and expansion of grains (1/4 cup raw rice = 1 cup cooked rice) into account, their value decreases dramatically.

I was quite surprised to see herbs, spices, and cacao near the top of the list. I always considered these foods to be enjoyable additions to a healthy diet, but not the most valuable sources of nutrients.

Two final notes regarding this list:

It is not a requirement to eat the most nutritious foods all the time. Certain nutrients, such as activated vitamin A (retinol) and selenium (abundant in Brazil nuts) are actually toxic in high doses.

Second, as previously mentioned, this rating system only looks at essential nutrients. Many vegetables contain antioxidants and fiber that can improve health, even though they are non-essential for life.

I would recommend consuming foods higher on this list and keeping your meals full of vegetables.
For Mat Lalonde’s complete presentation, follow this link to YouTube.

Matheiu Lalonde has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and a postdoctoral degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Harvard. He teaches, lectures, and is the Science Safety Officer at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. I have to give him credit for the motivation behind, and information in, this post.

I hope this sets aside all confusion of what is best to eat.

Keep in mind that human-run studies can be flawed, correlations from epidemiological studies can be weak, and research can be conducted to prove a point, rather than discover the truth, but the actual make-up of foods cannot be disputed!

Protein

Today’s post will be much more straight-forward than the one last week about fats. The science and function of protein within the body is just as complex but protein can easily be summed up as the “building blocks” of life.

Protein is the second most abundant molecule in the body after water. Protein is necessary for the growth and maintenance of every cell in the human body.

As an energy source, protein has 4 calories per gram, the same as carbs but less than half that of fat. However, protein is only used as fuel in the absence of carbs. There are certain parts of the brain that require glucose (a carbohydrate) to function. A diet devoid of carbs for long enough will cause the body to convert protein to carbs via gluconeogenesis (an inefficient process compared to eating a piece of fruit or baking a sweet potato).

Protein is an interesting macronutrient because the body can survive with very little of it.  Of course, a diet too low in protein causes malnutrition and other serious conditions, slowly leading to death. This is seen in many developing nations that lack access to enough wild-game or fish.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Some amino acids are essential, some are non-essential, and some are conditionally essential (meaning they are only needed during illnesses or times of stress). A “complete protein”, such as meat, will have the necessary amount of all essential amino acids for the body to function.

Amino acids are building blocks for all bodily structures, but they also affect hormone levels and neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is necessary for serotonin and dopamine production, affecting mental well-being.

So, protein is necessary for life, but how much should we consume?

Goals and activity levels will dictate what is ideal but I think a great place to start is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. No need to count every gram; merely build a meal around a protein source that you can fit in one hand. For women, this may end up being about 4-6 ounces of meat or 2-4 eggs. For a large man, this may be more like 6-12 ounces of meat or 3-6 eggs.

Protein is very satiating. A lean cut of meat with a side of vegetables, cooked in grass-fed butter or coconut oil, will be far more filling than pizza or rice pilaf. This may be quite useful for those trying to lose weight.

Another thing to consider is your health history. If you have severe kidney issues, you may want to dial back to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. For a 150lb individual, this would be about 100 to 140 grams of protein (assuming 10-30% bodyfat).  Perhaps you’ve heard claims that protein stresses the kidneys. Studies suggesting this were conducted on people that already suffer from renal impairment.

While on the topic of studies that are misinterpreted, or flawed to begin with, maybe you’ve also seen reports that meat consumption is unhealthy. Studies include pepperoni pizza or fast-food burgers (with refined flour buns) as meat products. In terms of meat causing cancer and other diseases – when meat is charred, the blackened portion contains cancer-promoting carcinogens…so avoid overcooking!

Also, studies do not control every aspect of diet or lifestyle. There has never been a study that only included naturally-raised meat, such as pasture-raised cows eating only grass or chickens with the freedom to peck in the dirt for seeds and bugs. No study has required participants to avoid refined carbs or engage in load-bearing activity while increasing meat consumption.

These flaws are the reason I will be using this blog to address studies as they appear in the news.

The best sources of protein are wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, free roaming chickens and pigs that forage for food, eggs from such chickens, and other wild game.

Optimal vegetarian sources of protein include eggs; dairy (local, raw, and grass-fed); tempeh (fermented soy); avocados (predominately fat but still a complete protein); and quinoa (rather heavy in starchy carbs but also a complete protein).

One common vegetarian food that is absent from this list is tofu. Fermented soy, and the miso bean that soy comes from, are fine sources of protein but soy products, such as tofu, are processed and contain elements that are detrimental to the body. Three of these elements would be phytoestrogens (aid in the growth of cancerous tumors), isoflavones (disrupt healthy thyroid function), and phytic acid (prevent absorption of minerals).

Clearly, I am a proponent of healthy intake levels of high-quality protein but, ultimately, you’ll have to experiment and find out what optimizes your health and performance. Try varying your intake every few weeks while keeping everything else the same. Most people notice improved recovery and lower body fat when they find the optimal level of protein consumption for their body.

I personally love eggs and beef, am trying to gain muscle, and have access to humanely-raised meat, so I consume more like 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is by no means necessary but, with my goals, and based on my health markers, consuming a moderately high amount of protein works best for me.

Well, that should do it for now! As I mentioned, whenever news reports come out claiming the dangers of meat, I’ll try to respond to them with a post.

Hope to see you all next week when we discuss carbohydrates, the third and final macronutrient group.

My Paleo Diet

Welcome back all! In today’s post I’ll summarize what I mean when I say I eat a paleo diet. Then, I’ll discuss the issue of strict adherence to any specific diet.

Eating paleo, I focus on food quality. I maximize my intake of “nutrient dense” foods. I minimize my intake of foods with an unfavorable nutrient profile or foods that cause negative reactions in the body.

Nutrient dense foods contain a substantial amount of essential fats, amino acids (proteins), vitamins, and minerals. “Essential” means the body cannot produce them on its own.

Unfavorable foods would be refined flour or pasteurized, homogenized skim milk. These foods are “enriched” or “fortified” because they are nutrient-deficient naturally, or undergo processing that destroys their nutrient content. Companies add vitamins and minerals to bring more value to these products.

A food that causes a negative reaction in the body would be corn oil because it contains a high amount of polyunsaturated fats that can harden the arteries and raise triglycerides causing atherosclerosis. Also, certain foods contain anti-nutrients that bind with other nutrients inhibiting proper absorption. Finally, some foods, such as grains, contain elements that can cause inflammation.

To simplify, here is a list of foods I focus on: meat, vegetables, and eggs from local, reliable farms; wild-caught seafood; fruits; tubers; healthy fats; and dairy. These foods tend to be most nutritious (and flavorful!) when compared to things like grains or processed foods.

The premise of the “Paleolithic Diet” was that humans haven’t evolved since the invention of agriculture (about 10,000 years ago) resulting in modern day health issues and food sensitivities. Although there is legitimate science supporting this claim, I think it’s too rigid to say that every food grown since the advent of farming is problematic for everyone.

For example, many people produce the lactase enzyme throughout their entire life, allowing them to digest dairy. People with autoimmune conditions may suffer from the inflammatory effects of certain nightshades (tubers, peppers, etc) while other people have no issue consuming these foods regularly.

I do, however, always recommend the paleo diet as a starting point. After a month or two of eating the most nutritious foods possible, that contain the least amount of problematic elements, reintroduce foods as desired.

Try consuming dairy for a week then remove it again. Try introducing oatmeal and pull it back out. Track all changes in health and performance. To give a personal example, I tolerate dairy from a digestive standpoint, but my complexion is only completely clear when I am not consuming it.

At the end of the day, the pros and cons of everything have to be weighed. If you consume whole foods, as they grow in nature, you are already prolonging and improving your life. And if not, it’s never too late to start!

The problem with adhering to any strict “diet” is the development of extremism. People become entrenched in beliefs, which are tied to emotions, and lose sight of the fact that science is progressing every moment.

Look at the news – one week eggs are as dangerous as cigarettes and the next, it is recommended you eat 2-4 egg yolks a day!

I love when I learn something new even if it negates a “fact” I knew before. If I discover something I’m eating is doing more harm than good, I’ll eliminate it and, conversely, if I find out a particular food I’m not consuming can improve my life, I’ll start including it in my diet.

I think this issue of strict adherence is most prevalent within the paleo and vegan community. However, I am hopeful. We’ve seen the emergence of pescatarians that consume seafood but avoid animal flesh and ovo-lacto vegetarians that eat dairy and eggs. Even within the last couple years we’ve seen an evolution (ironic based on the founding argument) within the paleo-sphere that now allows more personal choice through the reintroduction method I mentioned earlier.

As a final note, I think it’s important to base your food intake on your goals and activity level.

When the body is at rest, fat is the primary fuel source and, as intensity increases, the body shifts to burning carbohydrates. Thus, on my recovery days, when the most I do is walk, I focus on healthy fats, meats, and veggies. But, on the days I’m lifting heavy and trying to promote muscle-growth, I add a liberal amount of carbs, in the form of potatoes and fruits, to every meal.

Find an approach that works for you.

Maybe start strict to eliminate soda and candy cravings and reach a satisfying level of health and performance, but then tinker. Try reducing carbs and increasing fats or vice versa. Try a bit more or a bit less protein. No two people are the same so there will always be a need for experimentation.

I’m thinking for the next few posts I’ll discuss the 3 macro-nutrient groups – proteins, carbs, and fats. I touched upon these here but would like to explain the importance of each so you can decide what intake ratios make the most sense for you.

I’ll close with a relevant quote by Sosan I just stumbled upon:

“If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything.”