Stay Healthy During the Holidays

With the holidays right around the corner, I thought I’d put together a list of things you can do to stay healthy while still enjoying the holiday season. So, without further ado, here are the top 6 recommendations I would make:

  1. Stick to your normal eating habits. Don’t try skipping meals or eating less as this may lead to over-consuming snack foods and holiday treats.
  2. Build meals around protein and veggies while minimizing starchy or sugary carbs such as fruits, grains, legumes, and potatoes. Always opt for more vegetables and protein to feel full.
  3. Avoid liquid calories such as juices, milk, and mixed drinks. Get your calories from whole foods!
  4. Once you are full from your meal, then indulge in whatever holiday treat you like most. My favorite is chocolate peanut butter balls! It’s a lot easier to enjoy one or two treats, rather than a dozen, after filling up on healthy food during mealtime.
  5. Exercise whenever possible! This will mitigate stress that occurs during the holidays and protect your body from the damage of the indulgences. Exercise can be as simple as sprinting up a flight of stairs, going for a walk after meals, or performing a few sets of body weight pushups and squats.
  6. For those that plan to consume alcoholic beverages: drink on an empty stomach. When alcohol is ingested, all other calories are sent to fat storage so the body can break down the alcohol as fast as possible. Pick drinks lower in sugar such as dry wines, champagnes, and hard liquors. Forgo the prepackaged sugary mixers and try flavoring with a lime or lemon. My approach is to have a NorCal Margarita (2 shots tequila, juice from an entire lime, ice, and club soda) a few hours before dinner. Finally, make the following meal high in protein and healthy fat. This will help blood sugar levels, protein synthesis, and hormones return to normal.

I personally choose to consume a whey protein shake and digestive enzymes before any meal that is high in processed carbs and low in nutrients, such as pasta or pizza.

Finally, don’t stress about indulging! The holidays should be about family, relaxation, and a change in routine. Sure, under-consuming protein and vitamins while over-consuming sugar and anti-nutrients isn’t going to improve health – but allowing stress levels to increase will only exacerbate fat storage and skew hormone levels.

Make the best choices you can as often as possible, but plan to enjoy yourself and have some indulgences. Then jump right back into clean eating and living on in January.

Hope these tips help everyone enjoy their holidays while staying healthy. See you all next year!

christmas-treats

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.

car

5 More Health Tips

This week I think I’ll get back to my “5 Health Tips” series I started many months ago.

These are simple steps that won’t take too much time, or cost much money, but can significantly improve your health.

  • Download f.lux on all your computers. This is a program that adjusts the light on your computer according to time of day. As the sun sets, the screen will emit less white and blue light, transitioning to yellows and oranges. This will allow your body to maintain its natural production of serotonin and melatonin, contributing to healthy sleep
  • If you are seated most of the day, try to take 30 second breaks every 15 minutes to walk, stretch, or simply adjust your sitting style. Sometimes I sit on a desk chair, other times on a stability ball…sometimes I kneel, other times I stand. Prolonged sitting can cause postural issues, tight or weak muscles, and even metabolic problems.
  • Practice deep breathing while driving. This means inhaling slowly and fully, expanding all the way to the bottom of your stomach, before letting the air out in a controlled manner. I have started doing this and have experienced a few benefits: it’s very relaxing; it’s good practice for filling the diaphragm; and it makes me a more patient and calm driver.
  • Make your own condiments, sauces, and toppings at home. Most store bought condiments will contain low-quality ingredients (corn syrup, gluten, soy, etc). These foods can prevent you from losing weight, damage your health, and even affect your emotions and energy levels. Believe it or not, ketchup, salad dressing, pesto, and most sauces take less than 5 minutes to make!
  • Limit your “carb” intake to one meal a day. Unless you are a high-level athlete, exercising vigorously everyday, you aren’t burning enough carbs to justify frequent re-feedings. Excess carbs turn to sugar in the blood, causing fat-gain, inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dozens of other health issues. The best time to consume carbs, such as potatoes or fruits, would be within 30 minutes of your workout. The second best time would be with dinner, during your last meal before bed.

The first 3 recommendations are lifestyle tips that you should be able fit into you’re your daily activities. The last 2 are nutritional suggestions that can greatly affect your health and performance.

All this tips have the potential to save you a considerable amount of money when you consider the medical costs resulting from poor health.

So give them a try and let me know how they work for you!

Epidemiological Studies

I spend hours every day reading studies, articles, and researching health-related matters. When I find a new publication or exploration of a topic, I get excited to dive in. That being said, some studies and articles are more useful than others.

One type of study that is used frequently to make health claims and guide public policy is an “epidemiological study”. Epidemiology is the study of a set population, or group of people, to develop correlations or inferences.

The problem is that these do not prove anything. When we find a strong correlation between factors, we should use that as a starting point to conduct further research. An epidemiological study, by itself, should never be the basis for making health policies.

Let me give some examples.

Epidemiology suggests that soy is a healthy incorporation in a diet. This is due to the fact that Asian countries consume high amounts of soy on a regular basis and don’t experience the same health problems as Western nations.

However, no other factors are taken into account.

The soy that Asians consume has not been genetically modified to the same extent as ours, nor has it been grown in soils depleted of minerals. Also, most Asian dishes use fermented soy or the bean in its natural state.

Asian cultures consume more wild-caught fish (high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s), sea vegetables (loaded with vitamins and minerals), and opt for white rice, with less anti-nutrients and gut-damaging proteins than typical “heart-healthy” whole grains such as wheat and oatmeal.

Historically, Asians don’t consume as much processed food as Americans. They don’t cook in corn or canola oil, they don’t have packaged foods at every meal, and they don’t go out to eat as often.

And finally, they are far more active – walking, biking, and taking the stairs as part of daily life.

Because of these factors, we cannot confidently say that the consumption of soy in Asian countries is the cause of their better health.

When we look at soy mechanistically, we find phytoestrogens that have the potential to skew hormone levels, leading to fat-storage and growth of cancer cells. It is extremely high in inflammatory omega-6s. Take into consideration our growing practices, extensive refinement process, and consumption of soy byproducts, and soy consumption in the US no longer seems as safe.

Another example of epidemiology lacking substance:

In March of this year, there was a headline stating: “Animal protein-rich diets could be as harmful to health as smoking”. These news reports were based upon two studies: one epidemiological study of over 6000 adults and one study of mice in a laboratory.

The results of these studies suggested that a high protein diet (over 20% of calories) was “positively associated with diabetes-related mortality”. When you look at the numbers, one person in the “high-protein” group (consisting of over 1000 individuals) died from diabetes.

The lead researcher running this study owns a plant-derived protein supplement company…explaining the claim that only animal-protein is dangerous.

Some other issues:

There was no way to control for protein quality. There has never been a study showing negative outcomes from consumption of wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, or eggs from pasture-raised chickens.

The mice that experienced growth of cancer tumors were implanted with melanoma cells before the study began. Plus, the study found that high protein consumption was “not associated with all-cause, CVD, or cancer mortality”. Therefore, the protein-cancer correlation was in fact disproved.

Finally, diet was self-reported. The average participant reported consuming 1,800 calories a day…30% lower than the national average. This suggests major under-reporting.

So, even though the study was riddled with flaws, and actually found no increased risk from animal-protein consumption, the results were phrased to dissuade individuals from consuming meat.

To get back to my original point – epidemiology is used too often to prove a pre-existing belief, promote a political agenda, or increase profits.

By itself, epidemiology is no different than trying to claim that the number of birds flying over a particular region somehow determines cancer rates in that area.

Certainly we should use any research tactic available to ask questions and form a hypothesis…but ultimately, we need to examine issues in every way possible.

Once we’ve investigated mechanisms, done cohort studies and some “food-diary” studies with pictures, it’s time to form a hypothesis and conduct a blinded, crossover, metabolic ward trial to draw some real conclusions!
correlation

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!

Weightlifting Belts

I know I’m always talking about controversial topics nutritionally, but today I want to talk about a frequently debated topic in the world of fitness – the use of a weightlifting belt.

Ever since I have started powerlifting, I have worn a weightlifting belt during my primary lift (bench press, squat, deadlift) when I am working over 75% of my maximum. I don’t wear it during warm-up sets, in the 40-50% range, and as soon as I finish my heavy lift for the day, I set it aside.

I think a belt can be a very effective tool but, like many things in the fitness community, it can be easily misused.

The point of a weightlifting belt is to ensure maximum intra-abdominal pressure during maximal lifts.

Injuries in the weight room occur most frequently when an individual is not as “tight” and focused as they should be during a lift…or when they attempt something they can’t properly do.

A thick belt, tightened around the core, can provide a lifter with something to focus on pushing their stomach against, ensuring a full and engaged diaphragm, as well as sufficient tension throughout the rest of the body.

Before I started wearing a belt, I tried incorporating deadlifts into my routine multiple times. Each time, I quickly took them out because I would mess my back up and not be able to stand up properly for multiple days at a time. I have never once had a problem with my back since I started wearing a belt.

However, if a belt is used because an individual simply hasn’t developed proper back or core strength, it can be problematic.  If an individual is using a belt to force a weight to move, that is too heavy for them, this is also problematic.

Very often I will see lifters wearing a belt while doing bicep curls, turning purple in the face, with their eyes bulging. This is a sure way to cause an immediate injury, an overtraining injury, mask weaknesses in the body, or cause cardiac events from blood pressure elevation and lack of oxygen.

I have never told a client that they must wear a belt but, if I am working with a client that is focused primarily on strength, using movements as technical and potentially dangerous as squats or deadlifts, I will certainly discuss the benefits and give them the option of wearing a belt.

In conclusion, I do not believe a weightlifting belt is 100% necessary for powerlifting but, as long as you build a strong core through properly programmed assistance lifts, a belt can aide in one’s lifting long-term.