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

Donate Blood!

I am always offering ways to improve health and performance. Improvement in these areas is an admirable goal for any individual.

My number one recommendation for everyone is to first improve their diet –replacing packaged foods with vegetables, fruits, and local meat and eggs.

However, an ideal diet, high in nutrient density, can have one unfavorable outcome: elevated blood iron levels.

High iron levels become an issue when an individual starts eating adequate protein but doesn’t participate in activities that result in bleeding. Historically, we would risk injury during hunting, defending ourselves from prey, or just living life with fewer comforts than we have now.

This is more problematic for men than women, as women have a natural method for disposing of excess iron through blood on a regular basis.

High iron levels in the blood can pose as an oxidative stress for the body. And, if you recall the concern of fats becoming oxidized, you’ll remember that it’s the process of oxidation that causes most of our health problems.

Many studies that claim red meat causes cancer, actually examine iron levels in the blood. It is well accepted that unnaturally high iron levels can indeed be a precipitating event in the formation of different cancers.

So, if we are shooting for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, and understand that grass-fed beef is the second healthiest protein source after seafood, what can we do to avoid the risks of over consuming iron?

Donate blood regularly!

This is something I have started recently and recommend for most healthy individuals, particularly men.

Not only can you help an individual that may be in dire need of blood, but you will also reduce the oxidative stress in your own body.

The American Red Cross allows you to donate blood once every eight weeks. This is because most donations will take about one pint of blood, which takes the body four to six weeks to fully replace. However, the plasma in your blood will be replaced within 24 hours so symptoms of fatigue should not last longer than this.

Donating blood is a stressor for the body, so you will need to curtail your exercise schedule accordingly. I usually donate blood on the Saturday before a recovery week. This means that I won’t have any scheduled exercise within 2 days of donating blood, and even when I do return to the gym on Monday, my workouts will be at half intensity for the following week.

Even though eating after giving blood can be beneficial, make sure you are still making healthy choices! Some donation sites still offer juices, cookies, or candy. I would recommend coming prepared with a piece of fruit or a protein smoothie.

Anemia, often caused by low iron levels, is common in our country and may be more problematic than “high-normal” levels. For this reason, I recommend getting a ferritin blood test before donating blood on a regularly basis.

On average, 10% of women nationally have anemia, while only about 2% of men have it. Because of this, I believe a regular blood donation schedule is far more beneficial for males.

Take a look at the effort you put into exercise. Consider how much time you spend shopping, cooking, and eating. Add up how much you spend on health insurance. Now ask yourself: is donating blood every few months to improve your health and possibly save a life, worth 30 minutes of slight discomfort?

Not every step we take to improve our health will directly help a fellow human – but this one will!

Blood-Donation

Enjoy Your Exercise!

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of picking exercise that is enjoyable and not boring.

A new study showed that individuals ended up feeling unhappy and over consuming calories after activity that was defined as “exercise”. Study participants that were told they were walking for “pleasure” ended up feeling more positive about their time spent active, and made healthier nutritional choices for the remainder of the day.

For the complete article that discusses this study, please visit this link to The New York Times.

One interesting aspect that the study did not discuss was the role of cortisol, or stress levels, in the body. Sure, telling someone to “go out and exercise” may make their experience less enjoyable than telling them to “listen to music, stroll around, and sight-see”, but ultimately, we need to examine the mechanisms behind the difference.

As one of the last paragraphs of the article states:

“Just how, physiologically, our feelings about physical activity influence our food intake is not yet known, she said, and likely to be bogglingly complex, involving hormones, genetics, and the neurological circuitry of appetite and reward processing. But in the simplest terms, Dr. Werle said, this new data shows that most of us require recompense of some kind for working out. That reward can take the form of subjective enjoyment. If exercise is fun, no additional gratification is needed. If not, there’s chocolate pudding.”

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a compensation that’s required, but rather, more about finding the activity that is right for you.

I have clients that perform bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes a day in their office. I have clients that walk leisurely outdoors then perform a few movements with elastic bands. I have clients that prefer loading up a barbell and pushing their strength limits. I have clients that go through a one-hour session, spending the first 3rd on an aerobic machine, the second 3rd on exercises to improve strength and balance, and the last 3rd on flexibility and recovery work.

All these people experience incremental progress on a daily basis, and major improvements month-to-month. But, more importantly, they leave each session feeling like they accomplished something important that day, and not that they were simply “forced to exercise”.

To go back to my point about cortisol – if an activity is not enjoyable, it’s going to feel like a chore or a stressor. When our stress levels increase, our body does a few things.

First, it will hold onto body fat because the body wants to prepare itself for enduring “hard times” and sustaining life. Second, the body’s hunger-signaling will be altered to allow for additional calories to come in, to once again be stored as fat to ensure our survival through the stressful period.

Cortisol has many other functions but is better saved for a later post.

One last thing I can’t keep myself from drawing attention to, are the studies parameters for healthy and unhealthy food. They list a “chocolate bar and pudding” as unhealthy and a “cereal bar and applesauce” as healthy.

Certainly a cereal bar and applesauce can be healthier than a chocolate bar and pudding, but this is like saying that driving 75 MPH on a small side-road is safer than driving 100 MPH on the same road. Sure, one is marginally safer, but they both have very high likelihoods of a tragic outcome.

These are all refined, processed, and packaged foods that are not found in nature. Also, they are all sources of carbohydrates with next to no essential proteins or fats. All carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and will turn to sugar in the blood. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at applesauce or pudding…we’re still focusing on non-essential, man-made products.

If the two groups had truly healthy options, such as a large salad with salmon and avocado, topped with olive oil and red wine vinegar, it would be almost impossible for either group to overeat. The body needs proteins and fats, and while carbs are useful to boost athletic performance, they result in insulin spikes that interfere with leptin, causing abnormal hunger-signaling.

Ok, sorry, got a little side-tracked there!

The final takeaway from this post is: find an enjoyable and sustainable activity to improve your health!

Improve Your Hormone Levels

As I promised a few weeks ago, I’ll provide some simple steps you can take to improve your hormone levels.

Just to reiterate, your hormone levels dictate a large part of your health, performance, and body composition.

For the actual details about healthy hormone levels and effects, please refer to my post about testosterone.

Without further ado, here are the safest and most effective tactics to manage healthy hormone levels:

• Make sure you are consuming a nutrient rich diet.
Any nutrient deficiency has the potential to negatively impact hormones, but the biggest culprits will be zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and magnesium. I’ll do a post explaining which foods have the most nutrient value later on but, for now, I’ll just recommend oysters, liver (if you can stand the flavor and have a high-quality source), avocados, eggs (particularly the yolk), and plenty of naturally-raised, well-treated meats, full of the fats and proteins your body needs to manufacture testosterone.

• Consume dietary cholesterol on a regular basis.
The best sources are eggs, shrimp, and fattier cuts of beef (grass-fed of course!). Cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone production. Keep in mind, the cholesterol you eat will only raise your HDL a little and have hardly any effect on triglycerides (the “bad” cholesterol in the blood).

• Avoid over-consuming carbohydrates.
Starches and sugars will cause insulin spikes in the blood. Your muscles can only store so many carbs before the insulin forces carbs to be stored in fat cells. This insulin will also disrupt normal hormone signaling.

• Get 8-9 hours of sleep a night.
During the first few hours of sleep, your body will release the largest amount of human growth hormone, allowing your body to recover from the day. I know everyone says they can get by with 6 hours…but your body composition, mental performance, and energy levels will always be better with a proper 8 hours of sleep.

• Lift something heavy a few times a week.
This will stimulate the body to produce testosterone to recover from the stimulus. Again, keep in mind that heavy lifting isn’t what produces bulky muscles…that would be higher repetitions (8-15) for multiple sets (3-4) with very little rest (30-90 seconds).

• Do some high intensity interval training.
Refer to my post from a few weeks ago. This has the potential of benefiting hormones more than any other exercise.

• Avoid alcohol.
Or at least try to moderate your intake. Alcohol will convert testosterone to estrogen within the body.

• Avoid stress.
This might be the most difficult but cortisol, released when you’re stressed, will lower testosterone levels. Some of the easiest things you can do are to limit your caffeine intake and take time during the day to stare off into nature or distract yourself from the stresses of our modern lives.

One final method for increasing testosterone levels is to supplement directly with hormones (a.k.a. steroids). However, this is a much more controversial and potentially unsafe method that I’ll save for another post.

Give all these things a try and see if you notice an improvement in body composition, strength, recovery, or just general mood and energy on a daily basis!

Coffee

Today, let’s look at the potential benefits and drawbacks of one of my favorite things – coffee.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to include espresso (or the “Nectar of the God’s” as I like to think of it) in the same category as coffee.

First, the benefits:

     It tastes amazing!

      It is loaded with antioxidants that may prevent free radicals from damaging cells.

      Two organic acids found in coffee, caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, may have a slightly anti-diabetic effect. It appears that these compounds help increase lipolysis, allowing the body to use fatty acids from body fat stores, as opposed to glucose and sugar, as energy.

     It may improve endothelial function and raise HDL, promoting a healthier cardiovascular system.

     There may be a limited value to acute caffeine consumption for reducing feelings of depression.

     Finally, it gives a boost that can help increase work productivity, either during exercise or mental tasks.

The downsides:

     Some of the organic acids within coffee can raise cortisol levels for up to 12 hours after consumption! This can interfere with sleep and exacerbate anxiety issues.

     Coffee is extremely acidic meaning it can cause acid reflux and leach calcium from bones.

     It is high in polyphenols that inhibit proper absorption of iron, leading to anemia.

     Finally, caffeine is a stimulant, a classification for a drug with a “speedy” affect. The fact that it is a drug, with noticeable affects mentally and physically, means there is addiction and withdrawal potential. Also, it can mask other issues due to the artificial energy and buzz it provides.

Now that we’ve looked at the hard facts behind coffee, how exactly should we treat consumption of a substance with such a balanced list of pros and cons?

I would never dare tell you what to do, particularly when it comes to something as beloved as coffee, but I can offer my approach:

I treat coffee as a tasty indulgence and a performance enhancer. By that, I mean, on days I work out, I have a large cup of very dark coffee. This helps me push a little harder in the gym and also leaves me more alert for the rest of my workday. On the days I don’t work out, I make a couple shots of espresso in my stove-top Moka machine.

Then, on Saturdays and holidays, I’ll indulge and have a few extra shots throughout the day.

I have removed coffee from my diet before and noticed a marked improvement in my stress levels throughout the day. For this reason, whenever I take a recovery week from the gym, I have tea instead of coffee or espresso.

I am a rather high-stress individual…my mind is always going a mile a second and I always have a dozen different things on my mind. This, in part, is why I try to be rather conservative with my coffee intake.

For the general public, I’d suggest finishing your coffee in the morning and avoiding it after 12PM.

One thing I’ve done to curtail my desire for coffee is expand my tea palate. As much as I love coffee, there is also a sense of excitement when opening my kitchen cabinet and deciding which, of about a dozen teas, I am in the mood for.

I have a training session in a few moments and would love nothing more than a shot of espresso…but, I’ll brew a mug of Lemon Ginger Yogi tea and, after the first few sips, I’ll be perfectly content.

Maybe give it a try and see how you feel. Let me know!