The thought of having burned a large amount of calories during your workout is often a very satisfying thing. You take pride in pushing yourself to the limit during your workout. You work until your heart rate is through the roof. Sweat is running off of your heated scalp and into your eyes. Peering through the sting of the sweat, you silence every thought about giving up; and powered through to completion, using the satisfaction of watching the number of calories being burned increase the more you grind. When you finally make it to the end you smile knowing it was all worth it when you see you racked up a total caloric burn in the high hundreds, or even broke into the thousands. You pat yourself on the back for your hard work and then your mind drifts to your post workout meal because you are ready to throw down. And this is where we begin to have problems…
Many fitness enthusiasts use the number on their activity tracker to estimate how many extra calories that they can consume throughout the course of the day. This is a problem on a couple of levels. One being that, more often than not, the number on your activity tracker is grossly over-estimated. Gauging your caloric needs from this figure could be leading you to over estimate your total daily expenditure (TDEE). Doing this on a regular could be a contributing factor to weight-loss plateaus, or even unwanted weight gain.
Here is an interesting study  that supports the thought that the number on your activity tracker could be affecting your eating habits, and not in the way that you would like. Here, a group of 70 male and female participants were made to exercise until they burned an estimated 120kcals but some were informed that they only burned 50kcals while the others were told that they burned 265kcals. They then observed the eating patterns of the participants post exercise when given meal options of tortilla chips, orange juice and chocolate chip cookies. Here is what they found:
” Greater EI, primarily driven by chocolate chip cookie consumption (p = 0.015), was observed in participants receiving 265 kcal EE information. Hunger ratings were significantly lower in the 265 kcal EE information group than in the 50 kcal group following the test meal (p = 0.035), but not immediately after the exercise.”
So what they are saying is that the participants who were informed that they burned 265kcals were the ones prone to indulge in the chocolate chip cookies, while the 50kcal group showed greater restraint. The 265kcal group experienced reduced hunger after the meal but not immediately after the exercise. So the findings suggest that these activity trackers that are over-estimating your caloric expenditure could be counter productive to your attitude towards food post-workout. In the study the term ‘license to eat’ is used and that’s why the over-estimated number can be a problem. You do have a license to eat as you need to fuel your body but your device may be causing you to overindulge.
My advice? Use your activity tracker as motivation to push yourself in your workouts. You can use the numbers listed to help you keep your workout intensity consistent or as a way to push past previous intensities. However, I’d advise against using an activity tracker that claims that you burned 600kcals in a 60-90 minute resistance training workout to gauge your caloric needs as such numbers are wholly unrealistic, and inconsistent , especially when such figures are being displayed for women, without any specific calibration.
Instead, base your TDEE estimations off of the average length and intensity of your workouts over the week [3-5]. If your workouts tend to be of a moderate intensity in general then estimate with that in mind. Any extra caloric expenditure from those days where you put in a little extra work should just be considered a bonus, especially when weight loss in the goal. Since we tend to overestimate our caloric expenditure this is often the safest course of action to avoid unnecessary setbacks.
1. McCaig DC, Hawkins LA, Rogers PJ. Licence to eat: Information on energy expended during exercise affects subsequent energy intake. Appetite. 2016 Dec 1;107:323-329.
2. Zeni AI, Hoffman MD, Clifford PS. Energy expenditure with indoor exercise machines. JAMA. 1996 May 8;275(18):1424-1427.
3. Hall C, Figueroa A, Fernhall B, Kanaley JA. Energy expenditure of walking and running: comparison with prediction equations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Dec;36(12):2128-34.
4. Greiwe JS, Kohrt WM. Energy expenditure during walking and jogging. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2000 Dec;40(4):297-302.
5. Loftin M, Waddell DE, Robinson JH, Owens SG. Comparison of energy expenditure to walk or run a mile in adult normal weight and overweight men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2794-8.
Many years ago, my doctor suggested I consider statins when she saw my lipid panel results…here was my reply to her
Okay, let me start off by saying that I truly believe we need to get on the same page on the cholesterol topic. If you recall, in your written letter to me, you stated that you were very concerned about my cholesterol numbers and even went so far as to state that we should think about statin treatment if the numbers don’t go down in the future. Interestingly enough, I saw my numbers and thought they were fantastic; in fact, from what I’ve seen not many Americans have numbers as good as mine. I find it interesting that we could be so far apart in our test interpretations? Before we get into why I believe your interpretation is inaccurate, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt and obtain more data points to further prove that I’m at no reasonable risk. Without getting into CRP yet, are you also opposed to performing a VAP style cholesterol test so we can take the LDL and build a profile to determine if my LDLs consist of large-buoyant (good LDL-1) or small-dense (bad LDL-6) particles? It would be even more beneficial to find how much oxidized LDL (oxLDL) I have as this is really the only true correlative measure of future cardiac risk as oxidized LDL is what turns to plaque. As I’ve said before, raw LDL numbers are worthless to me so will you approve a VAP style test under the justification that we are worried about my cholesterol numbers?
When I teach people about cholesterol I always use the sporting event analogy. I ask someone to tell me how many blonde haired people are going to the game tonight and then put them in a helicopter to count cars as they pass through the nearest highway to the arena. They give me the number of cars (LDL) and conclude that is how many blonde haired people will be at the game. I, in turn, say that they have no idea how many passengers were in the car (LDL subfraction), or the color of their hair (LDL-1 through LDL-6) so how is only the raw vehicle count (total LDL) useful to me?
Now, you say there is absolutely no reason to check a CRP and I disagree based on your working premise that my cholesterol numbers are high (again, I disagree but am giving you the benefit of the doubt). Let me ask, why does our body create cholesterol? Bypassing the very basic functions related to cell membranes, signaling, and hormone synthesis (vitamin D3, testosterone, cortisol), it is directly related to helping the body deal with chronic and acute inflammation. When high levels of LDL cholesterol are detected, it is always a good idea to see if this is simply genetic (some people just have naturally high levels of LDL) or if it is related to a form inflammation within the body. In fact, you listed many great causes of chronic inflammation in your last response and I agree that each of those could potentially cause high levels of cholesterol within the patient. Obviously, to determine which of these (genetics versus inflammation) is more likely we will need some additional data points and that is where the CRP test (or better yet hs-CRP) serves a purpose. Are you still vehemently opposed to ordering this test for me?
I must step back now and take a moment to say that I have not been able to find a single scientific journal entry or research paper that actually shows that cholesterol is an accurate predictor of cardiac risk. If you have anything to the contrary though, please send it my way as I’m always looking for more data. Now, to the contrary, looking at the ratio of TRI/HDL is a much more accurate predictor of cardiac risk. In fact, I’ve taken the time to research and link below supporting papers that show risk only increased once participant’s TRI/HDL ratios exceeded 3.8:1. My ratio of TRI/HDL is less than 1.0 (0.66) which is not only extraordinarily low but supports the working theory that my LDL is large-buoyant (LDL-1). This is why you simply can’t look at a raw LDL count without looking at other supporting evidence when making the recommendation to put a patient on statins.
Speaking of which, statins…wow! Where do I even begin on why this is something we want to tread lightly on? Let’s start with the actual insert on the Lipitor bottle that says “there were no significant differences between treatment groups for all-cause mortality”. There are zero studies in existence that proves otherwise. Simply stated, it didn’t prevent people from dying and the argument can be made that statins should be classified as toxins due to the nasty side effects it has…(see picture below). I must ask how a drug that interferes with the synthesis of cholesterol (nutrient essential for life as described earlier) could possibly have a positive impact on health?
So essentially we know that cholesterol isn’t actually a cardiac risk marker, and is essential for life, however we are going to artificially lower it with a drug that causes nasty side effects. This is classic “treating the symptom and not the cause” thought process, in my opinion. I mean, if I fall off my bike and get a nasty gash on my leg which scabs is the scab the cause of the wound or is it simply the body trying to heal the wound? Instead of continuing this already long message, I’ll leave you with two additional links that summarize my thoughts exactly.
Please let me know your thoughts as time permits.
I am going to group quads and hamstrings together, simply because I train them together. I’ve designed numerous splits (particularly for female clients) into a “Lower A / Lower B” configuration. But, for the sake of simplicity, I’m keeping these together for this post.
When I’m visualizing my leg training, I am visualizing the lower half being broken down into the following high level categories:
– Inner Quad
– Outer Quad
Before I begin routine design, I will first ask myself if anything is “out of balance”. In other words, if I feel a particular muscle group is lagging behind the others then that group will automatically become prioritized. As many who follow me already know, my primary goal is building a perfectly balanced and aesthetically appealing physique. So, in the last few months, I felt my hamstrings needed some extra attention…they are nicely developed, mind you, but I feel they are just slightly underdeveloped as they compare to my quads and so they get worked first.
I’ve done a lot of experimentation over the years and lately have fallen in love with antagonist style training. Simply stated, this is where I will alternate from hams/quads/hams/quads/etc. This isn’t the only way to approach things, but I’d urge you to give it a shot if you’ve never done it before.
The last bit of info before diving into specifics is understanding the physiology of different muscle groups and forgive me for making this a bit high level. There are quite a few different types of skeletal muscle fibers (Type I, Type II, Type IIA, and type IIX). For the sake of simplicity, we will focus only on the first two for this article.
The hamstrings, are made up of between 45-65% type I fibers and the various heads of the quad range from 30-50%. Because we know that type I fibers display a slower shortening velocity than type II fibers we can theorize that they will respond better to higher rep ranges.
Okay, so with all this out of the way, we now know that:
– Hamstrings respond well to higher rep ranges and “pump training”
– Quads respond well to lower rep ranges and “power movements”
– For overall development, you want/need to exhaust both type I and type II fibers
Here is a sample routine that demonstrates these principles in action…
– Leg Curls (various techniques can be employed here including supersets, dropsets, 21s, one leg, etc)
– Leg Extensions (same as above)
– DB RDLs
– Hack Squats
– GHRs and/or Romanian Hamstring Raises
– Leg Press (always performed one leg at a time)
– Alternate Leg Curls (performed on standing machine)
– Calf Raises
– Seated Calf Raises and/or Donkeys
– Glute Bridges and/or Hip Thrusts
I do not personally subscribe to having a target rep or set scheme in mind; only the high level principles discussed above. I focus on mind and muscle connection above all else and will cut an exercise short if I feel that it isn’t a good day for it or, conversely, will extend more sets if I’m really feeling the contraction well that day.
I’ve been meaning to write a series of articles on the topic of training for quite some time. I’m finally going to get started and work my way around the various muscle groups of the body. Let’s get started with the often overlooked calves.
When designing a training protocol around a specific muscle group, I always try to understand the underlying physiology. Calves are made up of two large groups (known as the gastrocnemius and soleus). Each “head” has a unique composition as it relates to type I and type II muscle fibers. The gastrocnemius is roughly 45-65% type I fibers and the soleus is 80-95%. So, what does this mean as far as it relates to training design? First of all, we must understand that type II muscle fibers display a faster shortening velocity than type I muscle fibers. A higher proportion of type II muscle fibers may therefore be beneficial for strength and power sports. Since the majority of fibers in calve heads is type I, then it stands to reason they are good for endurance.
This is where a lot of folks get off on the wrong foot (no pun intended). They think the key for growing the calves is lots of volume and lots of frequency. My belief is that nothing could be further from the truth. Think of it this way…what do we do each day, every day? We walk…and the calves have to support our body weight day in and day out. So, why would we think that adding more “body weight” volume is the key to growth since they are doing this on a routine basis anyway? Adaptations occur when external stimulus changes. In other words, remember the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
I urge folks to warm the calves up with a good stretching routine using full ROM (calves respond very well to full ROM). Then, hit working sets with very heavy weight (a weight in which it is a struggle to hit 8-10 controlled reps). Do calves no more than twice per week if you choose to use this style. Supplement traditional calve movements with things like jump ropes…and watch the size explode in weeks! This is contrary to what you hear from many folks who like to preach the “you are stuck with what you are born with” mantra. No, genetics come into play with insertion points but you are not size governed to any reasonable degree. Often, the folks who say things like this just don’t understand proper training designs.
In our attempts to rid ourselves of excess body fat, I’m sure we’ve all heard of about a million different dietary designs guaranteed to provide the best dieting experience. And, as we all know by now, it is the energy balance that dictates the end result. In other words, if you consume less than you expend then you will lose mass – this is just the simple laws of physics at work (thermogenesis).
Now, although maintaining a negative energy balance is always going to yield results, there is actually some really interesting research coming out lately demonstrating that a calorie “shifting” approach may actually produce superior fat loss as compared to the more traditional static calorie restriction diets (simple energy in versus energy out style). Here is one I was looking at the other day (1).
In a nutshell, two groups of subjects were compared – a calorie shifting (CSD) and calorie restriction (CR) group.
– Four Weeks Control Period (eating at TDEE)
– Six Weeks Calorie Shifting or Calorie Restriction
– Four Weeks Follow-Up
The CSD Group (repeated in four “cycles”)
11 days 1365kCals/day (85g PRO / 187g CHO / 30g FAT)
3 days 1971kCals/day (98g PRO / 271g CHO / 54g FAT)
The CR Group
14 days 1186kCals/day (74g PRO / 163g CHO / 26g FAT)
Despite the fact the CSD group was consuming more total kCals during those 14 days, at the end of the six weeks gross weight loss was nearly identical. However, the amount of fat mass loss was significantly higher in the CSD group. This means that lean mass was better preserved on CSD in addition to the superior fat loss. Also, RMR was significantly lower in the CR group as compared to when they started the trial however RMR was nearly unchanged in the CSD group.
Adherence to the CSD was also higher so it may be easier to get dieters to follow this regimen in “real world” scenarios. They have also replicated this same dietary strategy alongside caffeine supplementation (2). Caffeine has been shown to have the ability to decrease weight through the increase in thermogenesis and fat oxidation rates (3)(4).
Now, the study design wasn’t perfect…body composition was measured using bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) which has been shown to be less than perfect. Also, the subjects in both trials were obese and sedentary individuals – I am unaware of a similar study done on well trained athletes though.
With that said, I’ve been testing this out on some of my clients over the last year or so and, across the board, the calorie shifting produces a more pleasant dietary experience along with increased lipolysis. It is even more pronounced on females, in my experience…I find that it is always ideal to take what science tells us and see if it can be replicated with real-world results. So far, the results have been very promising.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on fat loss, addressing every topic you can think of, from Lyle McDonald. Please visit http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/ for further information on Lyle’s books as well as hundreds of excellent articles.
Women and Fat Loss: An Overview
As a general observation, while men and women show about the same levels of overweight and obesity, women are more likely to be in the extreme obesity category. Far more women are likely to be dieting at any time than men and 80% of the subjects in the National Weight Control Registry are women. While I won’t spend much time talking about it, women are about three times as likely to suffer from various eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia (any reader with a true eating disorder must get professional counseling).
Some of this is arguably related to intense societal pressure (and note that the number of men showing up with eating disorders has increased in recent times due to changes in the portrayal of the male physical ideal in popular media) although much of it is biologically based. As always it is the interaction between the two.
For example females are biologically more prone to develop an eating disorder for hormonal reasons (generally the increase in estrogen at puberty) but this is tends to occur primarily in certain types of environments (often involving a lack of control in their overall life). Ultimately, it’s the interaction of the biology and the environment.
In a biological sense, at the risk of depressing female readers at the very start of this, for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss in some detail, women are basically screwed when it comes to fat loss, at least compared to men. To be honest, in terms of both fat loss and fat gain, women tend to have it worse than men on average and this shows up in nearly every study that either compares men and women or happens to include both.
For example, in original the overfeeding and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) study, the four worst responders were women. One of them actually had a decrease in her NEAT during the study (that is while the other subjects were moving around at least somewhat more, she moved around less than normal).
After a meal, while a man will burn some amount of fat, women’s bodies prefer to use carbohydrate and store fat in fat cells, preferentially storing them in lower body fat. When men do store fat it’s more likely to be in visceral fat which is more easily mobilized and burned off. This does have the biological advantage of protecting women from heart attacks, at least until after menopause.
By the same token, when exposed to the same calorie reduced diet, women will always lose less total weight than men and there are a few reasons for this. One is that they are smaller and it’s relatively more difficult for them to create the same deficit (refer back to the math I showed you in the chapter on setting deficits) as a male. As well, men tend to carry more visceral fat which is lost more quickly and easily.
Subcutaneous fat is more difficult to burn off and women, who carry more of it (and especially more lower body fat), will lose at a slower rate for this reason. And while this is ultimately sort of a benefit, since women tend to lose more fat and less LBM than men, their rate of weight loss will be slower due to the loss of fat requiring a larger total deficit than LBM (remember from the chapters on energy balance that losing more LBM will always generate a faster weight loss).
But when this is coupled with a generally smaller deficit, this makes the total rate of weight and fat loss that much slower for women. More fat is being lost which requires a larger total deficit but women generally have a smaller deficit to begin with (1).
When exposed to exercise alone, while men will generally lose some amount of weight and fat, women rarely do when their diet is uncontrolled. In addition to burning less calories than men during exercise (for reasons I’ll discuss), women either increase their food intake or adjust other aspects of their daily activity. So while adding exercise to a man’s day will increase his total energy expenditure, women’s appears not to change. Presumably they reduce NEAT and other activities at other times of the day. Basically, in response to exercise, a woman’s body will compensate.
And that last work basically sums up a woman’s physiological response to diet, exercise, and fat loss: compensation. Yes, men’s bodies clearly fight back but women’s fight back far more on basically every level. Their appetite increases to a greater degree, their metabolisms adjust downwards either more, more quickly or frequently both. That’s on top of the often massive water retention (which I discussed in the section on plateaus and will discuss more later in this chapter) that can mask fat loss for weeks on end.
Then there is the menstrual cycle, the variation in hormones which occurs every month which complicates the entire system. Many aspects of female physiology from appetite, whether they burn carbohydrates or fats more preferentially, energy expenditure, even coordination can change at different parts of the cycle and ignoring this when describing diet or exercise programs can cause a lot of problems (2).
Even there there is enormous variability in a woman’s response to their menstrual cycle with some women seeing profound shifts in everything from appetite to mood to exercise performance and others seeing almost none. Far moreso than men, women are often somewhat unique and delicate flowers.
The menstrual cycle is often disrupted as well with dieting and/or exercise (and especially with the combination). When they are exposed to various stresses both physiological and psychological, the normal menstrual cycle will often shut down partially or completely which causes a host of factors to change (and can cause health problems in the long-term).
Logically this make sense, if she is starving to death (and remember that dieting is just controlled starvation), becoming pregnant is the worst thing she can do. Even there there is huge variability with some women having problems with the most minor of stresses and others having none at all.
About the only time that women have an easier time losing fat is when they are pregnant and/or nursing. During that one time period of their lives, every adaptation to storing and/or mobilizing fat actually reverses itself. Lower bodyfat becomes easier to mobilize and this is clearly to provide energy for breastfeeding. Calories are mobilized from the hips and thighs although, oddly, the triceps often gain fat. Nobody is quite sure why, the best explanation I’ve heard is that it provides cushion to coddle the baby. Maybe.
Which leads to the possible reason that women’s bodies are set up to be this way. Or rather the question “Why do women have it so much harder than men when it comes to fat loss?” It’s been theorized that women, far more so than men, were tasked with the survival of the human race (3). Between carrying children and often being responsible for ensuring their survival, it was that much more crucial for women to be able to handle changes in food supply, increased activity, etc. Women are far more likely to survive a famine than men in the first place and more easily store fat for the future when food becomes available.
Ultimately the entire system is clearly set up to ensure that females would have survived the normal trials and tribulations during our evolution both to carry children to term and to survive long enough for them to survive (4). It was basically all part of ensuring the survival of the human race so make sure to thank your mom. Which, while wonderful, doesn’t help in the modern time when these problems are just a hassle that makes fat loss that much more difficult.
And with that bit of depressing introduction out of the way, I want to do a brief recap of some of the information I have discussed earlier in this book as well as looking at some of the other underlying physiological aspects that make women different in terms of dieting and fat loss.
1. Pietrobelli A et. al. Sexual dimorphism in the energy content of weight change. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2002 Oct;26(10):1339-48.
2. Wu BN1, O’Sullivan AJ Sex differences in energy metabolism need to be considered with lifestyle modifications in humans. J Nutr Metab. 2011;2011:391809
3. Hoyenga KB, Hoyenga KT Gender and energy balance: sex differences in adaptations for feast and famine. Physiol Behav. 1982 Mar;28(3):545-63.
4. Power ML1, Schulkin J. Sex differences in fat storage, fat metabolism, and the health risks from obesity: possible evolutionary origins. Br J Nutr. 2008 May;99(5):931-40.
I was first introduced to Yoga when I was 16 years old and my sister was performing a series of warrior poses in the middle of the living room. Back then I was highly active as a football (soccer) player, long distance runner, and ballet dancer. I laughed to myself when my sister invited me to try the postures as I highly doubted that anything so snail-paced could possibly present a challenge to an endurance athlete like myself.
My legs burned and buckled. My arms were on fire and my elbows and wrists screamed in downward facing dog. I actually flopped into a confused heap on the mat…my ego was bruised but my competitive nature wasn’t done with this Yoga thing just yet.
What started off as a journey in having the last laugh lead me down a much more humbling path. I started Yoga because I wanted to be strong, but I continued with Yoga because it made me okay with my weaknesses.
Everyone’s path to Yoga is different. Some people move to the practice to rehabilitate from injuries, some move to it for rehabilitation of the heart, some to improve athletic performance and flexibility, and some for the relaxation…there are so many reasons to venture towards the mat and even more reasons to keep coming back. The wonderful thing about the practice is that it evolves with you and can be tailored to whatever you need it to be at any point in your life. I don’t believe that there is a ‘wrong’ reason to get on the mat just so long as you commit to being open once you are there.
Yoga is physically challenging and that can be one of the more alluring aspects of the practice initially. Many people are less open to the meditation and even less to the idea of chanting. This is why it is important to know that there are many types of Yoga and not all are heavily focused on the spiritual side of the practice and not all require you to contort into the more advanced postures. It is good to challenge yourself to take part in activities that push you out of your comfort zone but at the same time it’s also important to move at your own pace and pick a form of Yoga that resonates with you, your current abilities and what point you are at in your life. If you are not enjoying the practice on some level then it is going to make it very difficult to commit yourself to going regularly. Not all Yoga is chanting and hour long meditation…but all Yoga encourages one common goal: awareness.
Yes, that may actually shock a few readers. Many think that the goal of Yoga is to be more flexible. In fact, many people shy away from the practice because they feel they are not flexible enough to perform even in the most basic poses. Those are the individuals who I feel may benefit the most from the practice. Not because it will make them more flexible (because it can along with providing improvements in joint conditioning, lung capacity and strengthening connective tissues) but the postures put you face to face with your physical strengths and weaknesses from the get go. This is where the real meaning of the practice begins to surface.
I battled with my ego when I first began practicing. Poses like downward facing dog were devastatingly difficult for me. My lower back was sickeningly tight and my arms were very weak. That pose drove me to frustrated tears on many occasions. The anger that would surge within me alongside feelings of complete despair would catch me off guard and leave me feeling utterly spent. I struggled to keep my breathing steady in the face of these things. But each time I came back to the mat I became less and less horrified with my weaknesses and more and more willing to work with what I had and who I was. It was a slow surrender but in time the practice taught me to stop looking at where I wanted to be and learn to just be where I was and breathe. In time this willingness to be in the moment slowly moved off of the mat and into my daily life helping me to deal with my severe anxiety and even overcome the challenges of fighting an eating disorder.
Downward facing dog, once the bane of my life, is now my favorite posture and a place of peace for me. Even though it is still physically challenging on my lower back it takes me straight to a place of understanding and partnership with my body instead of a constant battle.
This was just my path, but it is a lesson in self-love that I wish to share and why I would encourage everyone to venture into a Yoga class or two. Whether you use Yoga for improvements in flexibility and breathing, for decompression from a high-stress work environment, for soul searching or just as a change in scenery in your fitness regime I challenge you to commit to your practice fully. What I mean by that is to not simply step on the mat but to be on the mat. When you perform the postures, whether it is the gravity defying handstand or the grounding forward folds, be in your pose. Look at how your body is responding. Just look. See where your body blossoms in the postures and where it struggles to perform. Look at all of these things as one and the same; your practice. Let your practice lead you to a better understanding of the way your body works, how it moves and what it needs. The building of this awareness can move deeper…to a better understanding of your inner workings and underlying motives. One doesn’t dive head first into a reservoir of consciousness the moment they attempt these things…but with regular knocks on the door it will eventually open and you may find…yourself.
Food Science. Enough said.
Once upon a time, food was necessary for survival. It was a promise of seeing another day. Food was obtained through basic human skills. You didn’t have to tell a hunter that if he was hungry he needed to hunt. He was hungry and he figured out a way to get the job done. Followers of popular diets love to draw upon the examples of early man to pattern their eating habits and, even though I don’t agree with that logic entirely, I do believe that they had something right. Back then the relationship with food was a lot more simple, ‘”I have to eat or I am going to die.”
The reason why I don’t think looking back in time and developing a menu after the diet of, say, cavemen is logical is that they ate what they could get. They ate to survive. I can pretty much guarantee without need of a study that if someone went back in time and laid out a few gluten-infused cookies alongside a chilled glass of cow’s milk there would have been a riot of epic proportions to determine who gets to claim the feast. And he’d probably spend the rest of his days thinking about that meal…not because he is now one of us ‘sugar addicted zombies’ but he can’t for the life of him figure out how he scored such an easy and delicious meal.
My point here is, in the beginning things were much more simple. Portion size meant how big of an animal you killed or how many berries ripened that day. Carb cycling was done seasonally, in regions where fruit was suddenly available. ‘Hungry’ meant your body needed sustenance and not ‘I ate over three hours ago and I’m going catabolic.’ I’m not saying that they had it good, I’m just saying that their relationship with food was pretty basic and required little to no thought outside of obtaining, then preparing (if even), the food itself.
Flash forward to the dawn of agriculture. Things were still relatively simple. Food was still earned through work. No, you didn’t have to perform valiant sprints and learn to throw a spear like Odin but farming, for example, was plenty work. Not to mention that most food was fresh and needed preparation. There was still an appreciation surrounding the commodity of food that was also encouraged by the seasons, and even traditions surrounding food. There was also still no ‘apple a day’ recommendation because apples were not available every day and if you said that you’d just sound plain stupid.
Move forward, once again, to the era of importing and exporting food. Now you can have your pick! Now you don’t have to wait or travel miles to get what you want! Food went from a necessity to an entitlement and due to its abundance could now be wasted, abused, marketed, refined, genetically manipulated and even consumed in gut-busting proportions to earn a prize. Now this didn’t have to be a bad thing but some bad mentalities came along with it. Let’s go with marketing for a moment. If we use the example of early man, I’m pretty sure that no one randomly sprung from bushes ‘pop-up style’ promoting the nutritional value of this berry over the next. They didn’t need a study to tell them about the benefits of the Omega 3s in the fish they caught to justify eating it. They were hungry and that fish kept them alive. There was no marketing team trying to sneak walnuts into your diet but if you came across some you’d be grateful for them. It seems to me that the ‘smarter’ we got about food the dumber we became about eating.
Food is so abundant that we have even taken the time to dissect it in order to ‘understand’ it. We now know the inner workings of the orange;, what makes a tomato red, the fat content of beef and it’s varying Omega 6 to Omega 3 profiles depending on the diet of the animal (we even mess with the ways our cows eat?). We can follow sugar through the human body, explaining the breakdowns and its ultimate forms of storage. Some of us even try and manipulate the storage of said sugar molecules.
Again, pretty cool, but look at what is happening. Food has moved from something that is necessary to something that is now confusing. These studies now show that there are harmful compounds in things that we thought we knew were beneficial (like broccoli). We think that the unsaturated fat in butter messes with your heart so we get all ‘wise’ and try and fix this. We’ve made ourselves ‘unsaturated’ fats that turn out to be even worse and now we are sick all over again. Sounds to me like all of this information is making us smarter for sure…
How did we get ourselves into this mess? Do we blame the food or lack of information about food? Maybe, the sheer amounts of food available lead to a different problem called over- consumption? Maybe we should focus less on the minute details of the food and focus on asking ourselves ‘how much is enough?’
We now have studies showing that the fats in butter were fine in the first place and are, in fact, the bee’s knees. In fact, now you have people drinking it. Yes, they are literally drinking butter…which, is okay I guess…but why are we doing that? Because, again, we want to be ‘smart’ about our eating?
In a world of availability, is tailoring your day to a very limited list of foods sensible? It would be smart if you were starving and all you had was a stick of butter left in your fridge. That’s survival and so I think it qualifies as ‘smart’ eating. Trying to trick your body into ‘fat-burning’ mode by buying over-priced oils, isolated, concentrated and encapsulated compounds, eating within windows (and I don’t mean enjoying the breeze on a window seat) and glorifying one food source over the next isn’t my definition of smart. It’s my definition of a headache.
It seems to me that all of the availability, all of the noise of marketing hype, all of the helpful information proving the benefits of this over that has lead to us losing touch with one very vital source of information: our intuition. How is it that, despite our built-in knowledge on the subject, all of a sudden people are confused about ‘how’ to eat? And I don’t mean proper table etiquette either but rather the ‘right’ way to eat.
For the record, I feel food science is amazing and I follow it myself. I love learning about food…seeing how we as humans challenge ourselves to new levels through knowledge of the human body and the effect food has on it’s processes and appearance. I dig that. I find it fascinating! However it makes me a little scared for humanity when people get confused about the motive for obtaining the information and especially also how it is sometimes used. It helps to be aware that some individuals take it upon themselves to take advantage of your newly found confusion and use it to their benefit.
Sometimes when people cite studies it is to sell a product, or even to sell themselves. They want to confuse you enough into thinking that you’ve been eating the ‘wrong’ way the whole time and now their knowledge will show you the ‘right’ way. Sometimes food becomes black-listed because a single nutrient of the food source was observed in isolation (and in some cases exaggerated doses). It may have shown some negative effects and therefore it must be Satan in food form. All of the information about the good and bad of food has now turned our cues for eating inside out. Instead of saying, ‘I’m hungry. I should eat.’ we say, ‘I’m hungry. What should I eat?’. Instead of saying ‘I like this. I’m going to eat this today.’ we say ‘I like this but I have to eat it after my workout or else I am going to store it as fat or going to get diabetes or lose my gains or lose my hair or my sh*t won’t float or I’ll go over my macros or poke holes in my gut or go out of ketosis or fail at life or….you get the point.
I wish we could go back to the time where we were hungry and ate. Where we were full and stopped eating. Where we noticed we felt better and/or didn’t get as sick when we ate certain things so we ate them more often. Where we cut a huge slice of birthday cake and enjoy it instead of having to tell ourselves that we deserve it. I wish we could go back to the time where a calorie was a calorie and not a unit of life itself. Where food was more than an equation but an experience of taste, texture, smell with life enhancing benefits such as energy and stamina. I wish that we could study food and its effects without losing touch with the reason that we consume food in the first place. Not because it’s there, not simply because of its nutritional properties or promotion of certain processes, but because we need it and we enjoy it.
Now let’s top that off with the fact that we’ve been smart enough to figure out how to produce enough food to feed the entire planet, eating should be simpler than ever. However, eating has moved from just another aspect of our day to the bane of some lives. It’s become a career. It’s become an enigma and is rated on a scale of 1-10. It’s become something that causes shame and self-condemnation as well as arrogance and self-righteousness. Eating has become the problem and the cure. When does it end? When do we move back to ‘I’m hungry – I’ll eat. I’m full – I’ll stop. I’m gaining more weight than I’d like – I’ll eat a little less. I’m a little underweight – I’ll eat a bit more. I feel for this – I’ll have it. I don’t feel good when I eat a lot of this – I’ll eat a bit less of it. When do we realize that we already KNOW how to eat…and all of this information around food is just to enhance and not to rule our lives? When does food become food again?
We see it far too often. New Years approaches, and along with it come New Years diet resolutions. Many times the month of January is filled with quick progress, the fat burning off of the dieter’s body at a rapid pace. Then, something happens. It is almost as if the body says “enough is enough” and the fat loss stalls, seemingly forever to the dieter. Many times, the dieter will get frustrated and consequently dietary compliance begins to suffer. Eventually, most folks return to their pre-New Years state and the cycle repeats itself. Well, why in the world does this seemingly predictable “stall” happen?
As far back as Kennedy (1953) (1) there have been theories circulating in scientific communities that body fat levels may be regulated by what is known as a “set point”. You can think of this as your body’s homeostasis point in terms of body fat percentage. In other words, within reason, this is where your body wants to be. Some folks may have higher set points and others may have lower set points (this is not to be confused with somatotypes which are downright quackery). For many years, the theory was that body fat regulation was regulated via feedback mechanisms in the body however it wasn’t until around 1994, when leptin was discovered (2) that the mechanisms became much more understood.
Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen this time and time again with both myself and folks I’ve worked with. It is almost as if most individuals have a level of leanness that can be reached fairly quickly, often effortlessly, before dietary plateaus are reached. Once this point is hit, fat loss stalls and it can often take extra dietary manipulation or energy expenditure to get past it.
So, can set points be manipulated? There is some evidence that it can through drastic increases in energy deficit simultaneously combined with body fat loss (3)(4)(5). In other words, if a state where leptin does not decrease, ghrelin does not increase, and yet fat loss continues can be held for an indefinite time, then there may be a set point reset. We must be careful thinking this is an easy task to accomplish though. Because, conversely, a lot of data suggests that once dieting or overfeeding ceases subjects tend to regain any lost fat, or lose the accumulated fat, and return to the original body fat levels they were at before making their dietary changes (6)(7).
The biggest take-away here, is that diets are not a linear progression. There will undoubtedly be plateaus however this should not frustrate or deter you. There are many different strategies that can be enacted during times of “non progress” including refeeds and diet breaks. Just don’t focus on the scale for a few days and decide that the diet is a failure because it is never as simple as that. Try not to over-complicate things, and don’t be afraid to take a break from dieting for both mental and physical health. Lastly, don’t hesitate to ask friends for a second set of eyes or even find a trusted resource to help guide you on your weight loss journey.
Now to see if I can figure out how this whole hashtag things works!