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, 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)