Saturday, April 28, 2012

Low-Cal, Low-Sugar, Low-Fat = Low Benefit.

For so many, the word "diet" means simply eating less - but the reality is, it is just as important - if not more so - to manage what you are eating.

This is not the way to lose weight.

The words "Never hungry, never full" are words to live by - but they are not the whole story. A diet and healthy lifestyle involves more than just counting calories in & calories out - but rather realizing that it is the kind of calories you are consuming that matter!

The first lady, the lovely Michelle Obama was on David Letterman when she summed it all up in two sentences: "You wouldn't teach kids to water a plant with soda. We just don't think about ourselves that way." And she is right! We fill our bodies with sugar-free, low-cal, 'diet', and low-fat foods that do nothing for our bodies - they don't provide energy, vitamins, and/or minerals - and instead, cause our digestive system to work in over-drive to try and breakdown the various additives and preservatives that it wasn't made to process.

And here is the thing - all of these modified foods are hurting your attempts to lose weight and be healthy. Here is why:

Your body has a number of mechanisms to break down food, absorb it, convert it to energy, and process it as waste. Your body does not, however, have the enzymes and therefore the ability to break down artificial substances effectively. Food that your body cannot break down, convert to energy, or digest is - simply speaking- stored as fat. Feel bloated? Check the ingredients in your latest snack, the reason is probably there! In order to achieve optimal weight-loss, your body's digestive system should be working as effectively as possible - eliminating whatever food is not used for muscle building, cell-rebuilding, and ATP (energy) creation/usage.
Our low-cal, genetically engineered world...

And what's more, the simple "Calories in - Calories out" philosophy doesn't work for the long-run. Maybe you will lose an initial few pounds by counting and cutting your calorie intake, but you will have to continue to eat less and less and less, until you plateau and will stop losing weight, no matter how little you are eating. Additionally, in theory, with the "Calories in- Calories out" philosophy, you could have a 300-400 calorie piece of cheesecake instead of a healthy chicken breast and veggies for lunch. What is the problem here? Well, there are quite a few, but here are the big ones:

1)  The cheesecake will cause your sugar (glucose) levels to spike, giving a short-term artificial sense of energy, and then fall to lower levels later. Result? You start to lose lean body mass (muscle) - not fat - and lower lean body mass in turn means you consistently burn less calories. Sound complicated? More simply: Your body cannot get much of what it needs from the cheesecake, so it starts looking for other sources (your muscles).

2) A piece of cheesecake has approximately 4-6g of protein, while a chicken breast (3.5oz) has approximately 30g! A low-protein diet causes you to lose muscle mass - Result? Read point one again above.

3) Because your blood sugar has spiked and then fallen to a lower (than normal) level after, the next time you eat, you will have very low glucose levels, and your body will begin to produce more insulin. Translation: Overall, more fat is produced/stored. The goal should be to keep your body's sugar-levels stable.

I'm guessing she doesn't eat 100-calorie packs of Oreos
and she didn't eat dessert for dinner.
4) Eating protein helps your body feel full, meaning you will not feel hungry as soon after you eat as you will having eaten cheesecake. Simple carbs (for example, those low-fat cookies, most breads, chips - yes, even the low-fat ones! etc.) are not a source of energy for your body, and have no nutrients, so you do not be surprised when you feel hungry soon after indulging. But complex carbs are great for producing energy and stabilizing blood sugar. (Think: Oatmeal, brown rice, fruits, veggies - that is the stuff your body can work with!).

5) A low-calorie diet will not prevent you from getting diabetes from a high sugar diet, or the other cardiovascular ailments that come from a high fat diet. Likewise, one should also consider there reaction your skin has to a lack of vitamins and minerals, or the effect sugar also has on your teeth. Last time I checked, low-calorie diets do not prevent pimples or cavities, but healthy diets do.                                                  
(300-450 calories)
... but what will your body do with this?

Remember this the next time you think you want to have a small side-salad for dinner and a big bowl (read: carton) of ice cream for dinner - or skip lunch so that you can pig out on pizza later. Consider what a 100 calorie pack of low-fat cookies does for your body vs. a 250 calorie handful of dried fruit and nuts.
 (350-450 calories)
And what will your body do with this?

So where is the silver lining?! When you indulge - because we all do - you are better off eating the cheesecake and avoid fake sugars, artificial flavors, and all the other unnatural stuff that will throw your body out of whack.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

It's The Diet, Stupid.

For the past week and a half I have been brought down by yet another Easter cold - sore throat, congestion, nasty cough, and every other text-book symptom. And with the immune system of an infant, I know that this is not going to be over soon. In childhood, I developed a long list of allergies - most of which I grew out of, with the exception of gluten and an intolerance to diary. (I know, living in Denmark - a dairy nation that has delicious bakery bread as a daily staple - is a bit ironic...and like a constant tease).

Years of intense sports in high school, over-exercising, under-eating, and a consistent lack of sleep in University, and the subsequent years of excessive training and being under-weight - has all left me with not just a propensity for getting sick, but staying sick.

A few years ago, being sick would have taken me out of the game for a couple of days, and then I would be back in the gym - despite not being fully recovered. But over the years I have come to realize that this does nothing but prolong the time it takes me to reach 100% again, while stressing out my already weak immune system.

Being sick means staying away from the gym for three very important reasons: 1) My body is already working overtime to recover, and the stress of working out will do nothing but prolong the process; 2) It is not fair to expose others to my coughing and congestion; 3) Working out like crazy is not going to keep me healthy - but my diet will.

In the long run, it's just not worth it.
Despite being sick, one should not fret about not being able to keep up with their normal active lifestyle. On the contrary, the focus should shift to diet! In fact, 80% of weight loss is diet - and only 20% is physical training. That is, working out accelerates weight loss, but the key is really caloric intake - not just how many calories are being consumed, but what kind of calories are being consumed (a topic for another post).

Diet is also key to recovery - getting lots of vitamins and minerals (fruit!). Additionally, if you are allergic to gluten or lactose intolerant, it is even more important to stay away from these foods, as your body cannot process them or break them down, and will therefore expend a lot of energy trying to do so - this energy is taken away from fighting whatever virus is bringing you down. If you have no such allergies (lucky you!), you should still follow this logic and stay away from foods that require more effort to digest: Ice cream, broccoli, cabbage, legumes, raw onions, chocolate (sorry!), and any foods with additives or preservatives that your body is not built to process.

Relaxing when sick is a hard concept to accept when - like me - one might be accustomed to an extremely active lifestyle, and a regular gym routine is just as much about fitness and being in shape, as it is about sanity. However, if I have learned anything in my years of training, dieting, and being sick far too often, it is this: It's not the economy, it's the diet, Stupid.

Finally, when sick - taking a break from the gym and focus on this:

  • Make sure you are getting enough calories - most of us spend our lives dieting and trying to lose weight. When sick, your body is naturally working harder than it does any other day, and your immune system needs the calories to keep up the fight. 
  • Remember your vitamins! They will give you the boost you need to recover - especially fish oil (omega-3) and vitamin C. I also recommend acai berry and ginseng for maintaining health and keeping energy levels up.
  • Protein, protein, protein! This is key - protein is used in the development of healthy cells development, and thus important especially when sick.  
  • Sleep. Your body recovers when you are sleeping, so do as much of it as you can! The gym will still be there when you wake up :).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Teach yourself to love (insert most hated healthy food here)!

Get healthier and closer to your weightloss goals by teaching yourself to love ANY food (in two weeks or less!)

Back in 2007, I was an exercise fiend and dieting fanatic. While my enthusiasm for this lifestyle was a bit extreme, my motivation was entirely healthy: I loved the challenge. So, at an astounding 8% body fat, I wanted to do better - be stronger, be leaner.

After learning to love oatmeal and egg whites!
For anyone who has endeavored to lose body fat, you know that the first few kilos are easy, it is the last few that are the hardest. Likewise, going from 8% body fat to my goal of 4% was my hardest challenge yet. Thus, after meeting with a colleague who specializes in nutrition for fitness competitors, I was put on a strict diet -- of all sorts of foods I hated. Among other things, on a daily basis I had to start eating plain oatmeal and egg whites - and with this breakfast of champions, I had to start drinking my coffee black - no soy milk, no Splenda.

Oatmeal: Loaded with antioxidants and fiber,
easy and quick to make, and great for weigh-loss.

The first two weeks were difficult - I was forcing down my food and didn't enjoy it at all. Five years later, oatmeal and egg whites are two of my favorite foods! Call me a simple girl, but when i'm hungry in the morning, nothing makes me more happy than a warm cup of oatmeal and some egg whites (with a bit of Mrs. Dash if you've got some!).

So what is my point? Can someone actually teach themselves to like foods that they've always hated?

Yup! To test this theory, last year I decided that I would see if I could teach myself to like mushrooms AND olives - two foods i've disliked (if not hated) since childhood. (And when I say "dislike", I mean that for 27 years, I would not even touch food that had shared a plate with any of these two things. I also avoided olive oil like the plague). I admit, it might have been a bit ambitious to try and learn to love two of my most hated foods, but again, I like a challenge.

The Mission: To learn to like olives and mushrooms.

Why? Olives provide a great source of omega-9 monounsaturated fat, excellent for weight control, energy, maintaining healthy blood pressure and lowering the risk of heart disease. This is not to mention that olives are rich in Vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D, Iron, and in particular, vitamin E - great for moisturizing skin, delaying the aging process, and promoting healthy nails and hair.

Mushrooms are a great source of vitamin D, and lets face it -they are low in calories and in so many delicious restaurant dishes, in salads, on pizzas - and I just got tired of trying to eat around them!

For everyone, certain vegetables we've hated since childhood -
for me, it was olives and mushrooms!
Method: Every day at lunch, eat olives with my meal - assorted types (Greek (kalamata), Spanish green (manzanilla), French black (nicoise), whatever you can get your hands on). Start with just a few, and gradually take one or two more each day.

Every day at dinner, eat raw or sautéed mushrooms with my meal.

Time it took to love them: Approximately two weeks.

Having to change one's habits overnight is not easy - especially when we've grown to love certain foods (a certain way) and eat them on a regular basis. That said, the reality is that we control what foods we like and don't like, and after a short (and at times unpleasant) transition period, we can start eating and loving foods we used to dislike - and forget all about those unhealthy foods we've become accustomed to. If you consume (enter food you hate here) at some point every day, in two weeks or less, you will have naturally developed a taste for it.

So go ahead, trade your roasted potatoes for roasted beetroot. Don't like fish? Eat tuna, tilapia, or salmon (all good gateway fish :)) for at least one meal every day. In no time, you will be loving healthy foods you've always disliked, and getting closer to your health and weight-loss goals!

It's not so hard to eat it, when you actually love it.