Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 30-Day Diet Challenge

If you’ve read a few of my blog posts you’ve probably noticed that I lay a lot of blame on modern industrial foods for causing much of the health problems that Americans (and the industrialized world) suffer from today. I’ve even identified the seven most deadly foods that you should seriously consider avoiding.

But many who have removed the seven deadly foods will still suffer from lingering problems caused by unknown food sensitivities (or allergies). And not all food sensitivity reactions are obvious, such as coughing, hives, or a swollen throat. Some people may have one or more of the following symptoms when problematic foods are eaten:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Constipation
  • Emotional instability
  • Excess body fat
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart burn
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Indigestion
  • Irritability
  • Mental depression
  • Mental fog
  • Migraines
  • Muscle weakness
  • Overweight
  • Stomach Ulcers
  • Underweight
  • Weakened immune system

Often, people suffering from these symptoms will not associate them with food sensitivities. Instead, because they cannot find the true cause of their symptoms, they may just suffer in silence, using supplements or drugs to get some temporary relief. This prompted me to put together this 30-Day Diet Challenge.

The Challenge
The sole purpose of this diet challenge is to help you figure out which foods are hurting your body and causing health problems and which are not. Ultimately, you will be able to create your own personalized food sensitivity list.

It is entirely possible that once all problematic foods are removed, you can find complete relief from some or all of the symptoms listed above. (1) If after the challenge you continue to suffer from some of these symptoms, you will know that the issues are not caused by diet and can look at other possible causes.

This diet challenge is pretty simple (although not necessarily easy). For only 30 days, your diet will be EXTREMELY strict, avoiding all foods that are either evolutionarily new (e.g., wheat, milk) or are common allergens (e.g., soy, tree nuts, shell fish). The diet then targets any weak areas in your nutrient intake and gut health (which is a critical part of your digestive and immune systems).

Because this challenge is resetting your diet, there is absolutely no cheating during the challenge and all rules must be followed exactly (no picking and choosing the rules you don’t want to follow).

After day 30, you will start re-introducing excluded foods one by one to see if you are sensitive. I describe a heart rate technique at the end of this post that you can use to detect even the slightest sensitivity. Once your list of food sensitivities has been compiled, you will have your own customized diet that is perfect just for you.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 3: Nourishing Muscle (and the rest of your body!)

So far in this series I've talked about how some exercise techniques can efficiently increase your muscle mass and strength. In this post, I'll talk about how a high-quality diet allows those techniques to work more effectively (because exercise can only get you half way to a stronger body). Without proper nutrition, you cannot develop the muscle mass and strength you crave.

Actually, let me belabor this last point a bit more. Today, most people turn to supplements when looking to build muscle or enhance athletic performance. While a few supplements can be used to help achieve some of these goals, they can't reproduce what a simple, high-quality diet can accomplish.

But how do you define a high-quality diet? Is it low-fat or low-carb? Does it include animal foods, saturated fat, and cholesterol? Should it also include grains and vegetable oils? What about supplementing with multi-vitamins? This post attempts to answer all of these questions (and more).

Just be forewarned, this post is pretty long because basic nutrition isn’t something you can effectively condense down into a one or two page post. But it shouldn’t take you long to read because I move quickly from one section to the next. I have also provided many, many references and links (more than 210!) if you have questions about something that I mentioned.

If you just want the bottom line of what to eat to maximize your health just skip down to the conclusion.

Your Nutrient Sources
Before I jump into the essential nutrients you need to eat every day, I’ll start by covering the foods that you should eat every day. These foods, if properly prepared, will supply you with all the nutrients your body needs to be fit and resist disease. These nutrients are vitamins, dietary minerals, protein, fat, and water.

So what are we supposed to eat? As omnivores, humans have been adapted to eating plants, animals, and insects for about 2.6 to 1.5 million years. (1) More recently, humans also adapted to getting nutrients from starchy plants, dairy, and grains. (2,3)

By far, the biggest advantage an omnivore has is not only flexibility with acquiring essential nutrients (which enhances survival), as well as making use of non-essential but healthful nutrients (e.g., antioxidants, phytonutrients).

Which Foods to Eat
It would be nice if we could all just eat one superfood that would have all the essential and non-essential nutrients that enable us to be healthy. Unfortunately, no one food source can provide all essential and non-essential nutrients. As such, any healthful diet will make use of a broad range of foods.

Overall, the best food sources are:
  • Animal foods. Animals provide the best source of easily digestible high-quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids required by humans. (4) Animal foods also provide superior forms of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamins A, D3, and K2), (5,6,7) dietary minerals (e.g., iron, zinc, calcium), (8) and are the only dietary source of vitamin B12. (9)
  • Edible plant foods are a rich source of certain water-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamin C), as well as safe starches and sugars, soluble fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. A few plant foods can also provide complete protein (most do not).
  • Some funguses can provide essential vitamins and a source of complete protein. (10)
  • Healthful probiotic bacteria found in fermented plant and animal foods (e.g., yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir) can improve and support gut health. (11) Although probiotics are not technically an essential nutrient, their positive effect on good gut bacteria can help produce a few essential nutrients (e.g., biotin, vitamin K). And poor gut health has been connected to a host of degenerative diseases. (12,13)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Should We See Obesity as a Disease?

Recently, the American Medical Association (AMA) recognized that obesity is a disease. This decision was actually the exact opposite of the recommendations made by the AMA's own investigating committee. What was the AMA's reasoning? To try and stop the growing epidemic of obesity by changing the way doctors and insurance companies view those with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30.

For sure, obesity is starting to get out of hand. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that obesity affects over 500 million adults and 40 million children under the age 5 worldwide. This represents about 10 percent of the population. The WHO also believes that obesity is now the fifth leading cause of death (globally) and is strongly associated with degenerative diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. (1)

The age-adjusted rate of obesity in the US (in 2008).

Like many other bloggers, I'm happy to hear that the medical community is taking obesity more seriously, but am also conflicted about the decision to see obesity as a disease.

Obesity as a Disease
Let me start with the most obvious question: Is obesity a disease? This question can be answered by looking at the definition of disease:
Disease (n): a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment. 
By this definition, the AMA is correct in seeing obesity as a disease, as excessive amounts of body fat can cause health problems elsewhere in the body.

For instance, researchers are finding out that body fat cells don't just store energy, they collectively act as an endocrine organ that produce both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemical messengers (known as cytokines). (2) The pro-inflammatory cytokines include TNF-aIL-1IL-6IL-18, and leptin. If a person has too much body fat, too much of these pro-inflammatory chemical messengers can cause a number of problems throughout the body, including rheumatoid arthritis, (3) asthma, (4) systemic inflammation, (5) diabetes, (6) atherosclerosis, (7) depression, (8) Alzheimer's Disease, (9) Celiac's Disease, (10) and certain cancers (11)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

What Exactly is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo Diet (sometimes called The Caveman Diet) has become very popular lately. Those who practice the diet swear that it improves their health, increases energy, improves insulin sensitivity, and helps shed unwanted pounds. (1) But others believe that the diet's insistence on quality local or organic foods is all just elitist foodie nonsense. (2) Who's right?

In this post, I'll explore the basic Paleo diet idea, what evidence may support its main arguments, and how far the diet itself as has evolved. Ultimately I'll answer the most important question: Is it just a fad?

Paleo Diet 101
The basic idea behind the Paleo(lithic) diet is to simply eat the foods that humans evolved to eat. Because it is believed that human growth, development, and health were calibrated to the various wild plant, animal, and insect foods available during the Paleolithic Era (the time period between 2.6 million to about 10,000 years ago), a person should experience optimal health by primarily consuming these foods. (3)

However, if a person deviates from this diet, chronic degenerative disease (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity) will follow. In fact, creators of the diet blame the recent rise in these once rare degenerative diseases on a fundamental shift in the quality of the modern diet from fresh whole foods to new agricultural foods (e.g., grains, legumes, dairy) within the last 10,000 years. (4)

Consequently, since it is also believed that today's humans are genetically similar to Paleolithic humans, a person should be able to reduce--or eliminate--any chronic diseases they might have by going back to eating a Paleo-like diet that the human body is designed to eat (comprised primarily of fresh and whole plant and animal foods). (5)

Is the Paleo Diet a Fad?
When it comes to understanding whether or not a Paleo-like diet is faddish, I like looking at human evolution using a human calendar. (6) If our evolution spans 365 million years, then:
  • January 1: Amphibian ancestor
  • March 5: Reptile ancestor
  • June 10: Early Mammal
  • July 20: America starts to separate from Europe and Africa
  • October 28: Primate ancestor
  • Christmas Eve: Bipedal Ancestor (hominid)
  • New Years Eve:
    • 19:30:00 - Homo sapiens (modern humans)
    • 21:30:00 - Some of us leave Africa
    • 22:45:00 - Some of us go to New Guinea
    • 23:00:00 - Some of us go to Europe
    • 23:40:00 - And even Scandinavia
    • 23:45:00 - Agriculture starts in Middle East
    • 23:52:00 - Agriculture starts in Scandinavia
    • 23:53:00 - The Ice Man dies in the Alps
    • 23:59:00 - The Black Death (the European pandemic of plague)
    • 23:59:50 - Cardiovascular disease appears
(Note: 1 day -1 million years; 1 hour = 41700 years; 1 minute = 694 years; 1 second = 11.5 years)

As I will discuss in a later section, humans were likely eating a diet comprised of locally-sourced meats, eggs, insects, vegetables, root vegetables, and fruit since sometime just before Christmas Eve (or about 2.6 million years ago). By contrast, certain humans have only been exposed to a grain-based Neolithic diet for about 15 minutes (about 10,000 years).

Americans (and much of Europe) have only enjoyed a more industrialized diet for about 8 seconds (or about 92 years). And the low-fat, low-cholesterol, and/or low-carb diets that are popular now have been utilized for only about 3 seconds (or about 30 years).

So, if we look at what the human diet should be from an evolutionary perspective, it seems that the basic belief that humans should eat fresh animal and plant foods is not faddish at all. However, as I will talk about throughout this post, there are certain faddish aspects to the Paleo Diet that should be better understood or avoided completely (e.g., Low/Zero-Carb, fear of all things Neolithic).

Monday, May 13, 2013

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 2: More Exercise Strategy

Because there was so much interest in the last post of this series (it's now my most popular post!), I decided to add some more of the interesting muscle-building exercise strategies that I've discovered during my recent research. The body weight exercises are especially fun!

Overload Training
In an effort to experience maximum intensity, I use a method of overload called max contraction. (1) The basic idea of max contraction is to hold a weight that is between 110% to 120% of your 1-Rep Max (1RM) for no more than 6 seconds. While you are holding this weight, you are keeping it stationary at the most disadvantageous position (usually with a joint at 90 degrees). If a person can only hold a weight for a maximum of 1-2 seconds, then their target muscle group has experienced the most intensity possible.

There are two reasons that I use overload training:
  • Achieve maximum muscle fiber recruitment to build strength quickly. (2,3)
  • Overcome protection mechanisms in the brain that prevent a person from lifting more weight, preventing a plateau. (4)

Since I concentrate on one muscle group per day, my first exercise is overload. So, if I were doing chest, I would do a few reps of one-arm max contraction dumbbell bench presses (I use dumbbells so that I can spot myself). I take a single 110-pound dumbbell, lie down on the bench, and lower the weight with only one arm (assisted by the other) until my upper arm is parallel with the floor, and my elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. I hold the dumbbell stationary for 6 seconds. I repeat this with the other arm to complete my set.

This is the one-arm dumbbell bench press. When the weight starts to get heavy, you will have to shift your weight to the center of the bench to maintain balance.

I only go up in weight if I can hold the weight for more than 6 seconds. If I can't, then I will use the same weight until I can hold it for 6 seconds.

This style of exercise is very intense, so you can't do too many of them. I limit myself to a maximum of three total reps per daily workout, giving myself 1-2 minutes of rest between each complete max contraction rep. For example, if I were exercising my back I would use the one-arm pull-up as my overload exercise. After I completed three max contraction reps (or 3 sets of 1 rep) I would then move on to a traditional, heavy, full-range back exercise (like weighted pull-ups).

Max contraction is only one part of my approach to building muscle. When I experimented with this style of exercise, I got stronger, but not bigger. So I use max contraction to help drag my traditional, heavy, full-range exercises up in weight. I then use these heavy exercises (as well as my volume training) to maximize hypertrophy (i.e., growing muscle).

Friday, May 10, 2013

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 1: Exercise Strategy

There are probably thousands of different exercise programs that you can use, and some are better than others. In truth, there is no single perfect exercise program; however, not all programs will effectively build muscle or "burn" fat. To help you get more bang for your exercise buck, I have assembled four simple and effective muscle-building lessons that are commonly missed by many exercisers.

Lift Heavy
When it comes to building muscle and strength, nothing beats heavy weight lifting. Not even high-intensity interval training (a.k.a., Tabatas) can produce the same muscle gains as lifting very heavy stuff.

Many people are hesitant to lift heavy because they don't want to become too bulky. But this is really a non-issue: Without drugs, building excess muscle is very difficult, requiring years (decades) of dedicated effort. In fact, choosing the wrong exercises, using poor technique, and hesitation to lift heavy only succeed in preventing individuals from making consistent and life-long gains towards building the body of their dreams.

Use Compound Exercises Instead of Isolation Exercises
When lifting heavy, you should really concentrate on basic compound movements. Compound movements involve more than one joint (e.g., squats, shoulder press, bench press). By contrast, isolation movements only exercise one joint (e.g., bicep curls, calf raises).

Because compound exercises involve more than one muscle group they cause desirable changes in muscle-building hormones testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

Learn Proper Technique
You can't just go heavy right away. You first have to learn the correct technique for each exercise you decide to use. Proper technique ensures that every rep helps to build muscle and/or increase strength. Poor technique, on the other hand, usually results in lack of progress. If you combine poor technique with heavy weights then you will inevitably develop injuries that will prevent you from exercising.

With the existence of YouTube and Bodybuilding.com, getting good advice on proper technique is easy enough to accomplish. There are also TONS of books that can help you learn the proper way to execute an exercise.

Females and Muscle
When it comes to women lifting weights, I constantly hear about fear of building a huge physique. Fortunately for women, they do not have the necessary amount of testosterone to build big bulky muscles. So, if a woman lifts heavy, she won't look like a competitive bodybuilder, she will only produce positive body composition (trading fat for muscle).

Often, many women (and men) will start to exercise and initially not see any weight loss. Don't be alarmed! If you gain as much muscle as you lost in fat, then your body composition has improved, even if the weight scale doesn't show a change. This improved body composition helps drop your body fat percentage and gives the appearance of a slimmer, more attractive physique. Eventually, once your body no longer needs to build muscle in response to your exercise, you will start to lose weight (until you reach a more healthy weight).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to Build Muscle and Strength: Intro

Whether you are 15 or 75, man or woman, you should exercise 5-6 days a week. When you do exercise, you should always strive to build muscle and strength. Of course, building more muscle will make you look and feel great, as well as make life easier for you on a day-to-day basis. But the biggest reason that you should exercise to gain muscle is because your health and fitness are unavoidably connected to the amount of lean mass you have.

Building muscle quickly, consistently, and with the least effort possible is the focus of this four-part series. Since high school, I've always been obsessed with building muscle. However, I don't like spending much time in the gym. This has pushed me towards efficient exercise programs.

This quest for a super efficient program happened by accident. For most of my life, I've been relatively successful slowly building muscle. But, for the last two years, I've been unable to get any heavier. Consequently, because I started to plateau, I had to do some research to find the most effective techniques to get the results I wanted. My goal was then to put together the best techniques into a single efficient program. Although it took me a while, I have finally managed to put together all the tricks that make your body grow muscle like a Spartan!

Building Muscle 101
Growing new muscle (or losing the muscle you already have) is determined by the balance between muscle synthesis and muscle degradation. (1) When exercising, this balance gives a person one of three possibilities:
  • If muscle synthesis is less than muscle degradation, then muscle mass is lost.
  • If muscle synthesis is equal to muscle degradation, then muscle mass is unchanged.
  • If muscle synthesis is greater than muscle degradation, then muscle grows.

The first and second possibilities explain why low-intensity cardio or light weights do not usually grow muscle (or can cause a person to lose muscle). If you don’t need the muscle because your effort is too low, then your brain will get rid of it. If you have just enough strength, then you’ll maintain the muscle you have.

To make the last possibility happen (building more muscle), a person has to create a demand for new muscle (i.e., get stronger). This demand can be simulated with heavy or high intensity exercises.

Creating optimal feedback for new muscle is notoriously difficult to do. More often than not, you’re program will not stimulate enough muscle synthesis or it will generate too much muscle degradation (or both). For example, a person can:
  • Create too much or too little muscle damage
  • Receive too much or too  little recovery time
  • Not receive adequate nutrition
  • Not stimulate enough muscle-building hormones (known as anabolic hormones)
  • Stimulate too much muscle-destroying hormones (known as catabolic hormones)