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)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 5: Putting It all Together

So here we are at the end of the perfect body series. Over the last few posts we have learned that building the body of your dreams is not impossible, it just requires that you do two things:

That's right, your doctor wasn't lying when he/she said that being healthy is as simple as enjoying an improved diet and moving around a bit every day.

Specifically, eating a more nutrient-dense, toxin-free diet will allow your brain to correctly regulate your body weight and body fat. After you get your diet straightened out, you can then use an efficient and effective daily exercise program that primarily focuses on building muscle that will help you replace fat with muscle. That's it!

For those of you who believe that this transformation will take too long or will make a woman look too masculine, take a look at the woman in the title picture. This person lost 35.9 lbs of fat in six months, which is a healthy 1.5 lbs of fat loss per week. By the end of her transformation, her body weight and body fat dropped to 120.4 lbs and 19.83% (respectively). That's an incredible transformation in only 6 months! (And I don't think that anyone would describe her as too muscular or less feminine.)

To give you a road map to building your perfect body, let's put each of my posts in this series into a single 4-step process:

Step 1: Get Your Waist Measurement Under Control
You can use your waistline as a proxy for your overall health. A growing waistline means that your health is getting worse, while a shrinking (or normal) waistline means that you are getting healthier.

Use the chart below to figure out what your waistline should be (it should be in the green area). Your waist should be proportional to your height.

Click here for larger image.

If your waist is too big for your height, then you need to:
  • Use a clean diet (which lacks the 7 Deadly Foods and other dietary toxins) to allow your body to get rid of your excess abdominal fat automatically. 
  • Because chronic stress can cause abdominal obesity, it is also important that you reduce as many sources of stress as possible (which can be a poor diet, chronic infections, excess exercise, mental anxiety, etc.).

    After making these changes, your waist should automatically shrink to within a healthy range (again, based on your height). Continuing to eat a clean diet while managing chronic stress should help to keep your waist in the healthy range without much effort.

    You can read more about the waist measurement here.

    Friday, May 3, 2013

    Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 4: Body Composition

    In the US, the current approach to losing weight--starvation diets and excessive cardio--has produced a weird phenomenon called skinny fat. Someone who is skinny fat is currently at a healthy weight, but their use of a low-calorie diet and/or chronic cardio has stripped away their lean mass. Consequently, this forces their brain to maintain that healthy weight with excessive body fat, giving them an undesirable body composition (which allows them to look skinny in clothing, but obviously flabby when in a bathing suit).

    What is Body Composition?
    When someone talks about body composition, they are referring to the amount of lean and fat mass that a person has. Lean mass usually refers to skeletal muscle, but it really represents anything that is not fat. Fat mass refers to the amount of energy found stored in subcutaneousvisceral, and intramuscular fat cells. For a given weight, the more fat you have, the less lean mass you will have (and vice versa).

    A healthy person is supposed to have much more lean mass than fat mass. Outside of environmental requirements (e.g., living in a really cold environment), too much body fat (especially visceral fat) is abnormal and is associated with disease.

    Although there are different definitions for when a person is considered to have too much body fat, generally you should be worried if you are a male with a body fat percentage greater than 17% or a woman with more than 24%.

    This is the American Council on Exercise (ACE) chart that shows healthy body fat percentages. Your goal should be to get into the Athletes and Fitness categories, no matter how old you are. 

    Body Composition and Obesity
    While most people associate obesity with body weight, body composition is the true measure. This is because any given body weight can be represented by many ratios of lean and fat mass. For instance, depending on a person's body fat percentage a person (at the same weight) can be either obese, average, or fit.

    Here is an example of why body composition is an important measure of overall health. In each table, a single weight can represent all health categories. The amount of body fat determines how healthy you are.

    In the chart above, I show how the same body weight can range from unhealthy to healthy depending on the amount of lean and fat mass a person has. What you can't see in these tables is how each body fat percentage changes the way you look, even if your weight remains the same. Here's a visual:

    Body composition radically changes how your body looks, even if your weight doesn't change. The percentage number represents body fat.

    Even if your weight is considered healthy, if you have too much body fat, then your health may still be at risk. You will also not look skinny in a bathing suit. As you replace body fat with lean mass, you will improve your health and your body will look lean whether you have clothes on or not.

    Wednesday, May 1, 2013

    Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 3: Body Weight

    With every year that passes in the US, obesity is becoming a bigger problem (pun intended). If you listen to health experts and diet gurus, you might get the impression that this problem is simply a matter of willpower: You have to stop eating all the delicious foods that you see around you and get off your butt more. This is true, but the real problem is much more complicated than that.

    Body Weight is Supported by Calories
    There is one simple truth when it comes to body weight: Your weight will track your calorie intake.(1) In general, the more you eat, the more you will weigh. The less you eat, the less you weigh. This was demonstrated dramatically during the starvation studies conducted in the 1940s. (2,3)

    (Of course, eating too much or eating too little is complicated by the fact that your brain can adjust appetite, hunger, and metabolism based on feedback.)

    To explain what I mean, here's a quick recap from my ideal body weight post. Your brain will establish an ideal body weight set point based on a kind of default setting established by your DNA and feedback from your environment (a.k.a., physical activity). Your brain then uses other feedback systems to figure out your current body weight, which ultimately determines how many calories you need to eat on a given day (i.e., how hungry you will be).

    Here's another way of putting it:
    • If your brain figures that you are underweight, then it will create a calorie surplus by increasing your appetite and hunger, as well as slowing down your metabolism. This allows your body weight to increase
    • However, if your brain estimates that you are overweight, then it will create a calorie deficit by decreasing appetite and hunger, as well as speeding up your metabolism. This allows your body weight to decrease.

    Physical activity also adds to this process:
    • Every calorie that you burn through physical activity--from sitting in a computer chair to running a marathon--is tracked by your brain. So, if you decide to do crazy amounts of cardio in an attempt to "burn" extra stored calories, then you will only succeed in increasing your appetite and hunger as your brain gets back every calorie you expended during your workouts.
    • If your muscles were not strong enough for the exercises you engaged in, then you will build more muscle. Your brain will only keep this muscle so long as you use it. Additional muscle mass can also displace fat mass as your brain tries to keep your body weight at or around your ideal set point. (However, it is possible to elevate your body weight set point with the right amount of heavy/intense exercise, allowing you to maintain a heavier body weight.) 

    This relatively simple process is constantly happening every day without any conscious involvement on your part. This system allows you to effortlessly maintain a healthy body weight without calorie-counting, starvation diets, or tricks to "boost" your metabolism, so long as your feedback systems are operating correctly. If your feedback systems are not operating correctly, then you will always struggle (and fail) to maintain a healthy body weight.

    It's also easy to understand that if your brain thinks that you are starving, your lowered metabolism will not make you want to exercise (since exercise burns precious calories); conversely, if your brain thinks that you are overweight, your increased metabolism will make you feel like exercising all of the time. In other words: People struggling with their weight may not be overweight because they are lazy; they may be lazy because they are overweight. (4)

    Monday, April 29, 2013

    Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 2: Waist Measurements

    In my previous post, I tried to convince you that if you want to have good health and fitness today, as well as in your 80s and 90s, then you should immediately start building your Spartan body. I also argued that if you eat a good diet and exercise, building and maintaining this new body would be pretty easy. But how do you know that all of your changes are working?

    Without blood tests, you can't see many of the indicators of poor health (e.g., blood cholesterol, glucose, and cortisol tests). However, there are visual indicators that represent your body's overall degree of dysfunction. The most reliable (and obvious) is a growing waistline and how that waistline relates to your height and hips.

    Why is Abdominal Obesity so Bad?
    In my Stress and Metabolic Syndrome X post, I talked about how all the risk factors associated with Metabolic Syndrome X (e.g., high blood pressure, incorrect blood lipids, insulin resistance, large abdominal circumference) are associated with chronically excessive blood cortisol levels. One of the many consequences of excess cortisol levels is increased abdominal fat.

    Abdominal fat is primarily composed of visceral fat cells and is used as emergency (or short-term) fat storage and to warm and secure major organs. Because of this, there shouldn't be much energy stored in visceral fat (it comprises about 3% of a person's total body weight). (1) This healthy condition is seen as a flat waistline.

    Subcutaneous fat is used for long-term energy storage. Visceral fat is used for short-term energy storage. When visceral fat is used for long-term storage, then a person's waistline will increase. If a person has a conspicuously large belly (e.g., pot belly, beer belly) then they are likely suffering from chronic excess cortisol levels and high consumption of refined carbohydrates.

    But, when a person experiences chronically elevated cortisol levels, they become insulin resistant (because cortisol counter-regulates insulin). Insulin is a storage hormone that directs sugar and fat in the blood into long-term and short-term energy storage cells (e.g., fat, liver, and muscle cells). When a person becomes insulin resistant, excess blood sugar and fat gets funneled into visceral fat cells, which increases the size of their waist. (2)

    If this dysfunctional situation is not quickly corrected, then your waist will continue to grow with time as more and more blood sugar and fat are forced into visceral fat cells. If this situation is allowed to continue for decades, then your likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes increases.

    Understanding the relationship between an expanding waistline, cortisol, and poor health means that your waist measurement becomes a general barometer for your overall health. In very simplistic terms, if your waistline is expanding, then your overall health is getting worse; if your waistline is shrinking (or is within a healthy range), then your overall health is getting better.

    Friday, April 26, 2013

    Engineering the Perfect Body, Part1: Intro

    If you have been convinced that today is the day that you turn your life around by cleaning up your diet and lifestyle, committed to the idea of building a better body and improving your personal fitness, then why not strive for some ideals. As I've alluded to in other posts, I'm a big fan of ideals because they give goals to shoot for while also providing me with useful feedback on how far I've traveled. And when it comes to body ideals, I tend to look to the Spartans and Greeks.

    "But," you say, "it seems next to impossible to build an idealized body, requiring a legion of personal trainers, dietitians, and nannies to keep me from sitting on my butt and overeating."


    While it does seem very difficult to build an athletic and beautiful body today, nothing could be farther from the truth. If you ignore most of the popular "health" advice currently in circulation and concentrate on good science, then building the body of your dreams is relatively easy. In fact, if you provide it with the right stimulus, your body naturally wants to build this idealized body.

    Everyone Can be a Spartan
    When I first saw the movie 300, I thought it was impossible that actual Spartans looked so ripped and muscular. However, as I do more and more research into ancient diets and societies, as well as human physiology, I'm not so sure that the physiques of the actors and actresses in that movie were so far from reality.

    Hollywood's idea of Spartan men.

    A quick look at the Grecian male body ideals and Spartan society shows that it is entirely possible that a society obsessed with military superiority would have trained in such a way as to develop the bodies picture above. Although some of these actors are a bit too muscled (Butler, who was the main character), I don't find it hard to believe that some of the lighter actors (Fassbender; on the left of the picture above holding the sword) were closer to what most Spartans might have looked like.

    Being a classical agrarian society, the Spartan diet and lifestyle would also have been more traditional. Their diet would have lacked the white flour, highly refined sugars, modern dwarf wheat, high-omega-6 oils, chemical additives, soy, trans fats, and pseudo-foods necessary to produce overweight and obese humans. Their lifestyle also lacked the extreme degree of sedentism that we have today (for instance, there was no such thing as a "desk job").

    This vase depicts young Spartan females.

    And men weren't the only ones enjoying a more idealized body: Female Sparatans were likely athletic in appearance (at least more so than women in other parts of the world at that time) as they enjoyed the most independence and freedom of any group of women in the Classical world. Unlike in Athens, it is reported that Spartan women were fed high quality food during childhood, engaged in daily exercise, and participated in sports, just like the men.

    Australian aboriginal males, ripped and muscular without the use of a gym, calorie counting, or fat-burning supplements.

    Contemporary hunter-gatherers demonstrate what I mean. Without the energy-dense calories, dietary poisons, and reduced physical activity of the Western way of life, most traditional non-industrial hunter-gatherers and agrarians don't normally have a problem becoming healthy, muscular, and/or maintaining a low body fat percentage. The Australian Aborigines pictured above are an awesome example of what the human body was designed to look like. Pictures of other naturally fit non-industrial populations are below.

    Monday, April 22, 2013

    The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #1-Eat more Nutritious Foods

    "Obsessed with the idea of the microbe we often forget the most fundamental of all rules for the physician, that the right kind of food is the most important single factor in the promotion of health and the wrong kind of food the most important single factor in the promotion of disease."
    Sir Robert McCarrison, MD 

    The first principle of optimal health is eating more nutritious foods. While this may seem obvious, the definition of "nutritious" in the US has radically changed over the last century. Initially, minimally-processed whole foods from both plants and animals were advocated. Then, as the Industrial Revolution made its way towards food producers, Americans started eating pseudo-foods like margarineindustrially-produced vegetable oilspasteurized milkhighly-processed meatsunfermented soycanned foodswhite sugar, and bleached flour. These adulterated foods were cheaper than whole foods and, according the the US Government, seemed to be just as healthy. But these pseudo-foods are not more healthy than whole foods and generally cause nothing but disease. (1,2)

    The Destructive Nature of Pseudo-Foods
    Foods don't exist simply to taste good: They provide the essential nutrients humans need to allow their minds and bodies to operate optimally and with very little disease. (3,4,5,6) Humans evolved eating fresh or minimally-processed whole foods. These foods, in many different forms, were eaten by all humans and supported various levels of health and resistance to disease. Then, around the early 1800s, Europe (and then the US) started to apply the knowledge gained from the Industrial Revolution to improve alter how food was grownprocessedshipped, and stored. Soon, highly-refined, shelf-able industrial foods that traveled hundreds or thousands of miles started to replace traditionally-prepared, locally-grown whole foods in Westernized countries. 

    To maximize profits and avoid food waste, businesses started finding ways to cheaply make foods that didn't spoil easily, which required the whole foods used in these processes to be subjected to intense heat, high pressures, and caustic chemicals. Unfortunately, whole foods contain delicate nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, enzymesessential fatty acids) that can become degraded, destroyed, or oxidized when aggressively processed. To make these shelf-able (and damaged) foods edible, manufacturers usually have to taste enhancevitamin/mineral enrichdeodorize, and preserve processed foods with chemicals that humans have never been exposed to. But these chemicals can't replace the nutrients lost during processing and can often provide new hazards themselves.  

    It's hard to imagine that before the 1900s heart diseasediabetescancer, and obesity were very rare. Curiously, about the same time that the West started moving away from traditionally-prepared whole foods, degenerative diseases also started to become much more common. Around this time cheap pseudo-foods like white flour, white sugar, and canned products started to provide a tempting alternative to healthy whole foods. As consumption of industrially-prepared, nutrient devoid, and chemically altered pseudo-foods increased, degenerative diseases started to replace lethal infectious diseases (a major cause of death for most living things) as the leading causes of death in the US.

    Early in the 20th century cardiovascular disease (CVD) replaced infectious disease (shown as the sum of deaths from tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia) as a leading cause of death in the US. The precipitous drop in deaths from lethal infections resulted from improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and food regulations started in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source: Infoplease.com

    Why would these pseudo-foods cause disease? The growing popularity of aggressively and carelessly processed whole foods changed how the human body received and absorbed nutrients, causing deficiency diseases. These new diseases led to the accidental discovery of essential nutrients like vitamins in the early 1900s. Instead of trying to find ways to process foods without damaging these delicate nutrients, manufacturers tried to compensate by adding isolated or synthetic vitamins to these devoid foods (known as enriching). Unfortunately, these added vitamins are a poor substitute for the original nutrients.

    And where are we today? Americans often don’t eat anything real and whole anymore. For breakfast, they typically have highly-processed grains submerged in pasteurized low-fat milk that is chased with either a caffeine-infused beverage or sugar-sweetened fruit "juice." Lunch brings taste-enhanced burgers, soy-filled pseudo-meats, and bubbly sugar water. Dinner usually offers most of the quality nutrients someone eats during the day, but not by much: Some meat and vegetables, but often something pre-made and filled with chemicals that is reheated in a microwave or oven for the convenience of a quick meal. No one can be healthy eating this stuff.

    Friday, April 19, 2013

    Stress and Metabolic Syndrome X

    In my blog, you'll hear a lot about the stress hormone cortisol. If you have ever listened to a stress reduction briefing, or you exercise regularly, then you are likely aware of this hormone. However, what you might not be familiar with is cortisol's connection to the diseases that make up Metabolic Syndrome X. There is good evidence that cortisol is the "X" in Metabolic Syndrome X.

    What is Metabolic Syndrome X?
    Metabolic Syndrome X describes a mysterious connection between heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol. For someone to be diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome, they must have three or more of the following risk factors: (1)
    • Blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85 mmHg
    • Fasting blood sugar (glucose) equal to or higher than 100 mg/dL
    • Large waist circumference (length around the waist):
      • Men - 40 inches or more
      • Women - 35 inches or more
    • Low HDL cholesterol:
      • Men - under 40 mg/dL
      • Women - under 50 mg/dL
    • Triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg/dL

    The most interesting part about these risk factors is that they tend to appear together. For instance, if you are obese, then you are more likely to have (or develop) poor blood sugar control, high blood triglycerides, and high blood pressure. (2) Because these risk factors tend to appear (and disappear) together, they likely have a common cause.

    While searching for this cause, I happened to read The Potbelly Syndrome by Russell Farris. It was here that I discovered that cortisol was likely the central cause of Metabolic Syndrome. I now believe that chronic stress (from any source) can cause chronic elevation of cortisol, which can cause serious dysfunction in the body. This dysfunction manifests itself as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol (as well as muscle wasting, low energy, accelerated aging, osteoporosis, suppressed immune system, and cancer).

    Wednesday, April 17, 2013

    16 Food Additives You Shouldn't Eat

    UPDATE: Because of a convincing argument made by Chris Kresser, I've removed nitrates/nitrites from this list.

    For thousands of years, humans have used spices to preserve and taste-enhance food. These spices were so important that wars were fought over them. Then, a couple hundred years ago, the newly created chemical industry started developing natural and synthetic preservatives, nutrients, and taste enhancers for the processed food industry. By the mid-20th century, thousands of chemicals were being developed for use in foods. These chemical additives improved the taste and appearance of overly-processed food, as well as allowed food to sit in storage and on store shelves for months without spoiling. (1,2)

    While several of these chemical additives have never been shown to be harmful, and a few have recently been officially exonerated of any wrong doing (e.g., saccharin), the truth is that most of these chemicals have never been studied for their long-term safety in humans. Even fewer studies have been conducted on the negative synergistic effects of consuming several seemingly benign chemicals together (which is normal in most industrially-processed foods). This means that if you eat a lot of modern processed foods (e.g., microwavable meals, meal bars, bread), you are participating in a live chemical additive safety experiment (whether you want to or not). (2)

    Of the hundreds of chemicals that are typically added to the foods you eat, I have listed 16 that you should completely avoid consuming. There isn't always absolute proof that some of these non-essential additives are harmful, but there is enough circumstantial or anecdotal evidence to warrant their avoidance.

    1. Artificial Sweeteners
    Synthetic chemicals that are designed to provide sweetness without any added calories. Includes:
    • Acesulfame K. Also known as Ace K, Sunett, Sweet One. May cause cancer in animals; no sufficient evidence that this additive causes cancer in humans. (3)
    • Aspartame. Also known as NutraSweet, Tropicana Slim, Equal. Comprised of highly toxic methanol, which breaks down into formaldehyde in the body. Users have reported headaches, hallucinations, seizures, insomnia, and dizziness (and this is just the short list). (4) Recently, researchers found that for diabetic mice, aspartame caused a rise in blood sugar. (5) And finally, aspartame has been linked to obesity. (6)
    • Neotame. Similar to aspartame. About 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar. There are no long-term studies available (that I'm aware of) that indicate that this new sweetener is safe or harmful to consume. (7)
    • Saccharin. About 300 times sweeter than sugar. Can cause cancer in animals. While saccharin has not been shown to cause cancer in humans, (6) it can cause allergic reactions to those sensitive to sulfonamides. (8)
    • Sucralose. Also known as Splenda. Although more than 100 short-term studies have shown this sweetener to be safe at a daily intake of less than 5 mg per kilogram, there have been no long-term studies showing it to be either safe or harmful in humans. Some studies have found that sacralose negatively affects the gut in mice (damages DNA and harms good bacteria). (9)

      2. Artificial Colorings
      Produced from coal tar and petroleum. (10) May cause hyperactivity and ADD in children. (11) Artificial colorings can also cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, as well as DNA damage. (12,13,14) Completely avoid the following artificial colors:
      • FD&C Blue No. 1 (15)
      • FD&C Blue No. 2 (16)
      • FD&C Green No. 3 (17)
      • FD&C Red No. 3 (18)
      • FD&C Red No. 40 (19)
      • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (20)
      • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (21)
      • Orange B (22)
      • Citrus Red No.2 (23)

        3. Artificial or Natural Flavors
        Both are created by man; natural flavors are removed from natural sources, artificial flavors derive the same chemicals by rearranging molecules. Both natural and artificial flavors are used to make unappetizing, highly-processed foods taste good. (2)

        Monday, April 15, 2013

        The Six Principles of Optimal Health: Intro

        When I designed the Rapid PT Program, I tried to find the root cause of each problem that would make it difficult for someone in the military to pass their physical training (PT) Test. I then focused on the fewest solutions that would produce the greatest change; conversely, I didn't focus much on solutions that would produce very small changes (this is generally known as the 80/20 Principle). This approach allowed me to identify six essential principles that will help anyone easily get 80s and 90s on their PT test.

        As it turns out, my six principals aren't just excellent for improving PT test scores, they are also amazingly useful in addressing a vast array of health issues. My research has painted a picture of what causes heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and many of the other so-called Diseases of Civilization that is very different from what I'd previously been led to believe. What I've discovered is that if you continue to use this program for the rest of your life, being healthy and maintaining a healthy weight will become nearly effortless.

        Identifying the Six Principles of Optimal Health
        With all the noise out there, it seems impossible for anyone to truly find out what a healthy diet is, or what a healthy diet can actually do for your health.

        As I started reading about diet and health, I couldn't help but ask myself several questions: Is it normal to get heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as we age? Should we need doctors to keep our teeth straight and our eyes correctly focused? Is the human body really as frail as we've been led to believe, requiring powerful drugs to keep it alive?

        These questions encouraged me to search far and wide for answers. But, to make sure that I wouldn't draw the wrong conclusions, I had to gain some perspective. As I set out to figure out what a healthy diet actually is, I researched:
        • 12,000 years of human population change data.
        • The diets of past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western diets.
        • The changes in causes of mortality for past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western societies.
        • How well current theories for degenerative diseases jibe with contemporary hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.

        Today, with nearly 70 books and countless internet and journal articles under my belt, I've begun to see a pattern in the noise. I arrived at two conclusions:
        • Given their conspicuous lack of degenerative diseases and being overweight, I found that traditional, non-industrial human populations exemplify the basics of an ideal diet. (1,2
        • Given their impressive ability to control lethal infectious diseases, prevent infant and maternal mortality, grow food at will, and fix the broken human body, Western societies have largely controlled the many dangers inherent in living with nature.  

        Usually, traditional and Western approaches to life are seen as competitors, but I don't see it that way: I find that each system has important contributions to make to human society as a whole that--when taken together--can radically improve a person's quality of life.

        Relearning the Definition of a "Healthy" Diet
        It's hard to talk about traditional, non-industrial human populations without sounding like a snake oil salesman. But it is inescapable that these human populations are exceptionally healthy when compared to Western populations. So long as these populations eat their traditional foods (and don't eat much Western food), they have:
        • No problem with body weight (unless excess weight is intentional, which happens with great difficulty in some populations). (1,2)
        • No heart disease or stroke. (1,2)
        • Little to no rates of cancer. (1)
        • No acne. (1)
        • No diabetes. (1)
        • Little to no dental carries (cavities). (2
        • No dementia or Alzheimer's. (1)

        Sunday, April 14, 2013

        Food Deserts: The Problem isn't just McDonalds

        The USDA believes that food deserts could be causing obesity and diet-related diseases. (1) If you are unfamiliar with the term "food desert," it's any location where access to affordable healthy foods (which is defined by the USDA as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk) is limited. Specifically, there are no traditional supermarkets or grocery stores within 10 miles of a given location. (2)

        If this lack of access to a grocery store wasn't bad enough, the USDA argues, corner stores and fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut encourage poorer individuals to eat less healthy foods just to save a buck. These food deserts, and the fast food joints that infest them, are exacerbating our current epidemic of obesity by preventing poor people from eating healthy foods, or so we are told.

        The fact is that if you don't have a lot of money, you will tend to buy the cheapest food items. Generally, overly-processed foods are cheaper than healthy foods no matter where you get your food. (3)

        As for the fast food restaurants, while these establishments are generally selling excessively processed, nutrient-devoid, taste enhanced, near-meat foods, the health problems associated with food deserts (e.g., obesity, diabetes, heart disease) go well beyond cheap chicken nuggets, Big Macs, bean burritos, pepperoni pizza, and giant cups of soda. If the USDA is going to poo-poo all over fast food restaurants, then they have to also be critical of the supposed oasis of healthy eating: The grocery store. While the outside of a grocery store is filled with the stuff generally recognized as healthy (produce, meat, dairy), the center aisles are completely full of junk (see the illustration below by Chris Masterjohn). These highly-processed convenience foods represent a food dessert too.

        All convenience foods are a symptom of the modern Western diet and lifestyle, where preference is given to cost, speed, and taste instead of more slowly prepared, healthful, nutrient-dense foods.

        Saturated Fat and Cholesterol DO NOT Cause Heart Disease

        On October 5, 2011, The Week reported that Denmark was the first country to create a “fat tax,” which adds a tax to foods that are more than 2.3 percent saturated fat (by weight). Above this point, customers will be charged the equivalent of $1.29 per pound of saturated fat. This tax attempts to increase average life expectancy for Danes by three years over a ten year period by reducing deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD) and cancer. 

        I honestly believe that the Danish government has the best of intentions for its citizens with the passage of this law. Unfortunately, they are using the controversial Diet-Heart Hypothesis to guide their decision. This theory tries to argue that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol cause CHD. While this theory has been treated as fact for several decades, (1) it is not very well supported. (2,3)

        The Lipid and Diet-Heart Hypotheses
        There are actually two different hypotheses that finger cholesterol as causing heart disease: The Lipid Hypothesis and the Diet-Heart Hypothesis. The Lipid Hypothesis posits that high blood cholesterol levels cause heart disease. This theory got its start in 1918, when Nikolai Anitschkow induced human-like arthrosclerosis in rabbits fed massive amounts of cholesterol. (4,5) While Anitschkow linked blood cholesterol levels to heart disease, he didn’t believe that the cholesterol found in a normal human diet would affect blood cholesterol levels enough to produce the same result. (4) He also never linked dietary saturated fats to blood cholesterol levels.