Men’s Health ‘Ask The Trainer’ Fitness Q&A Column

MH OctoberAn English translation for my monthly column in Men’s Health Thailand.

I sit in an office chair all day and it leaves my body aching and feeling tired. Can you suggest some ways to deal with this?

Our bodies were not designed to be sitting down for long periods of time. Unfortunately, today’s modern lifestyle means we are sitting down more than ever and this is causing common cases of what’s often referred to as Office Desk Syndrome. The first remedy I would suggest is to make movement more a part of your routine, every day. Try walking to work or getting off at an earlier station and taking the stairs instead of the lift – always take the more physical option if you can. Try and incorporate swimming, playing sports or walking in the park to wind down after work. This increased movement will loosen your joints and muscles and help to relax you. Secondly, make it a habit to stand up as often as possible, at least every hour, and work your joints through large ranges of motion, such as your hips, shoulder, neck, knees etc. Complete your new movement routine with dynamic and static stretching as often as possible, with perhaps some weekly yoga or massage to relax your mind and body. These steps will all help to relieve the stress, pain and tension in your body.
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You Are What You Read

My approach to nutrition is one of experimentation and understanding your uniqueness.

However, this process is often made much tougher by the one thing that’s supposed to help you: scientific research.

Now I’m not knocking science – if it wasn’t for research then most of us would be dead from a cut leg or childbirth. However, most of the nutritional research that is out there now should be taken with a pinch of pink Himalayan crystal salt.

I’m often asked for advice from people who are beyond confused. Every day they are bombarded with conflicting articles on what we should or shouldn’t do. One day carbs are evil, the next they’re fine if eaten before a certain time; first saturated fats slowly kill you, then they’re a-OK.

Each claim and counter claim is backed up by ‘studies’ and ‘scientific research’ from academic sounding bodies.

End result: your average Joe or Jenny is left clueless and frustrated.

Either the human body is dramatically changing week by week or something is up here.

In this article I’m going to dissect the issue and tell you what to consider and look our for when consuming information or taking dietary advice, starting with:

Journalists and writers
Specifically, journalists and their editors who want a juicy story or writers who are looking to push their point. Sensational headlines designed to attract your attention are often proved utterly misleading when you fully read the article. If you have the time and inclination to delve deeper and check the research or sources – and I believe less than 1% of the population are as sad as me in actually doing this – it will often reveal a very different story to the well-written and persuasive article.

Research can easily be cherry picked to make something sound like 100% fact when in fact there were many studies showing the opposite. Beware of lines such as ‘current research suggests’, or ‘food x has been linked to disease y’. Anything can be linked to anything and nothing evokes emotion and panic like life threatening diseases. My grandma could be linked to al-Qaeda if it would make a good news story, so be aware of this when reading news and blogs. Ask yourself, what’s the other side to this?

"EATING BROCCOLI AFTER 3PM HAS BEEN LINKED TO SUDDEN DEATH SYNDROME"

“EATING BROCCOLI AFTER 3PM HAS BEEN LINKED TO SUDDEN DEATH SYNDROME”

Research with ulterior motive
Who spends millions of dollars on research? I don’t and you certainly don’t, but companies with billions riding on it do. If Coca-Cola sponsors some research on the effects of sugar, or if Kellogg’s funds a study on breakfast eating it doesn’t take someone with a PhD in nutritional science to tell you how the results might turn out. Couple this with some well placed news articles on the results and you can start to seriously shape public opinion to the point where it becomes unquestioned conventional wisdom.

Over the last few decades this has happened time and again and some long held beliefs based on shaky and incomplete research, such as the focus on reducing fat levels rather than sugar from the 70s onwards, have clearly had a huge impact on the West’s health.

Poorly conducted research
Controlled studies involve anything from a small handful of people to thousands. Some have compliance issues with participants, and some use poor methodology. When you couple weak research methods with a misinterpretation of the results, you’d be better off getting your nutritional advice from a monkey with a typewriter.

This study by the Massachusetts Medical Society (sounds important, huh!) has been quoted time and again in articles ‘proving’ that ultimately low-carb diets are no more effective than low-fat in losing weight, yet if you sift through it you’ll see it is flawed and offers little true evidence.

Trust me, I'm wearing a white coat

Trust me, I’m wearing a white coat

Firstly, the 63 participants would be considered a small study and you couldn’t be sure if differences in the two groups were down to chance. Secondly, by the study’s own admission “adherence was poor and attrition was high in both groups”, so it’s no surprise that over time the results evened out, as few probably maintained their eating plans. This also raises questions about how controlled and monitored the process was. Finally, the study states that “the low-carbohydrate diet was associated with a greater improvement in some risk factors for coronary heart disease” and finishes with “longer and larger studies are required to determine the long-term safety and efficacy of low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diets.” Yet, many low-carb opponents (such as vegetarians who oppose low-carb as it often goes hand in hand with meat eating) use this study as ‘proof’. Unsuspecting readers will often take it as such.

All this proves to me is that if you don’t stick to healthy eating habits, you won’t have good health or weight maintenance – not much of a revelation.

In this example there’s nothing wrong with the study, they are honest about the results and their meaning – it’s the writer’s misinterpretation of the results to support their argument that is the issue.

Causal vs correlative
To me, this is the granddaddy of misleading information.

Correlative means that when A happens B also happens.
Causal mean that A causes B to happen.

Understanding the difference between these two is absolutely crucial in your quest for the truth as the lines are often blurred.

A correlative link is easy to show and prove and can often involve studies involving hundreds of thousands of people (so it must be true!), causal links are much harder to prove and involve very controlled tests and environments.

A classic example is breakfast. We’ve been told for decades that skipping breakfast means you’re far more likely to be obese, and that you MUST not skip breakfast as it’s linked to disease and death. However, what’s now becoming clear is that the kind of people that rush out the door without eating breakfast generally eat worse overall, do less exercise, sleep less and smoke and drink more. So is it the missing breakfast that has caused problems, or one of the many other factors? The huge success some people have had with intermittent fasting has led me to believe that breakfast, whilst not bad or wrong, is nowhere near as important as has been made out.

You’ve also probably heard that breakfast is essential to ‘kick start your metabolism’. there is no credible evidence or research to support this (if you know of any please let me know), so I wonder where that came from?

The importance of breakfast is so firmly and resolutely believed that a mere mention that eating breakfast may not be so important after all will often have you labelled as a dangerous extremist.

I’d like to offer another example of causal vs correlative: people with platinum American Express credit cards live longer and have better health than people without bank accounts. So should we improve the lives of the underprivileged by handing out platinum credit cards in slums, ghettoes and council estates around the world? No, we should aim to improve the health care, nutrition and living standards of those people as those are the real factors at play here.

The solution
Apply some healthy skepticism when you open the paper and read a shocking headline or a trending “news” article pops up in your Facebook feed that suggests a radical overhaul of your eating habits.

If you’re considering making a change to your diet do a bit of homework with the above points in mind to help you make a more informed decision. Not all research is flawed or funded by monstrous corporations. Not all articles are written with a hidden agenda, but watch out for emotional language, bias or sensationalism and find some sources that you believe to be reliable and trusted. This requires a bit of work and time but is worth it.

Remember that not all advice and guidance is right for you, however strongly it may be worded. In fact, the more definitive and emotional the advice sounds the more you should be cautious. You may hear that eating carbs after 6pm is bad and causes you to store fat, but if you find that eating no carbs before 6pm has helped you lose fat, feel great and all your health markers have gone up then it’s safe to say that you can ignore that piece of advice. Likewise, if you wake up in the morning and you really don’t feel like eating and you make a healthy, reasonable eating choice mid-morning or lunchtime then go ahead and do it.

Summary
There are some informative nutritional resources out there and some solid research has been done. Weeding out these reliable sources and ultimately doing research and studies on yourself will leave you with the knowledge-base to make sound, informed and progressive choices for your health.

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Check out the BASE Blog for more fitness information.

Nutrition Experiments: The Food Diaries

Regular readers of bangkokfitness.com will know that I’ve experimented a lot with my diet and nutrition in the last year, including meat, grains, dairy, juice fasting, caffeine, alcohol and food timing.

A few months back I realised that I’ve never recorded the amounts I’ve eaten, only the types of food. When I’ve wanted to cut or gain weight I’ve relied on my intuition, which has worked fine for me but doesn’t work for everyone.

I felt as though when eating normally without any weight loss or gain goals I consumed a lot more than the average person. This perhaps doesn’t impact me as much as your average person due to my high activity levels.

The dated and very generic advice from the UK government is 2000 for women, 2500 for men. The UK Health Board are the last people I get my nutritional advice from, but it still interested me to know my caloric intake.

Now there is a lot more to health, fitness, weight loss and looking good than ‘calories in, calories out’ (which we’ll visit in a later post) but calories do exist and they play an important role in weight management. So I decided to find out about my calorie and general food consumption in the only way I know how: a new food experiment!

Food diary

My challenge was to record everything I consumed in 7 weeks. And I mean everything – if I consumed a nut or licked an ice cream it went in the diary.

I’ve done food diaries in the past but have come to realise that they can be useless and misleading, as they often don’t record amounts. For a general idea about the kind of foods being consumed they’re fine, but for many people a ‘general idea’ is not enough for a strong conclusion that they can really work with.

So for this experiment I enlisted the help of myfitnesspal, an app that helps you track food consumption. The advantages of using an app over simple notes are numerous, but the big one is that once you input your food it gives you facts and stats that would take hours to compile manually. Calories, fats, carbs, proteins and nutrients are all worked out and you can view reports on various aspects of your nutrition.

As well as providing solid information, it makes the whole process more fun and enjoyable, especially for a nutrition geek like me. It also provides a sense of community as you can add friends or use the forum, and if you open up your food diary others can see how you’re doing (including your trainer), which makes you accountable to someone beyond yourself. You can also set reminders to prompt you if need be.

If you’re considering recording your food, an app such as this one is the only way.

Normal eating habits

The first thing I’d like to say is that this 7 weeks consisted of ‘normal eating’. By normal, I mean what works well for me, and with compliance to the 80/20 rule in terms of balance (eat perfect 80% of the time, relax more for 20%). I wasn’t doing any other experiments or tests during this time.

Before I go onto my conclusions I’m going to hit you with some cold, hard facts over the 49 days:

Nutrient breakdownCalories
Average calories consumed per day:
3021
Highest calorie day: 4213
Lowest calorie day: 1354

Macros
Fat

Average grams per day: 172g
Average calories per day: 1,548
Percentage of calories from fat: 52%

Carbohydrates
Average grams per day: 213g
Average calories per day: 852
Percentage of calories from carbs: 28%

Protein
Average grams per day: 149g/day
Average calories per day: 596
Percentage of calories from protein: 20%

Daily averages (and % RDA where appropriate):
Fibre: 45g
Sugar: 96g
Cholesterol: 848mg (300mg/day RDA – 282%)
Sodium: 2137mg (2300mg/day RDA – 93%)
Note: I believe the following are relatively inaccurate due to incomplete listings on myfitnesspal (true figures would likely be higher, especially calcium and iron which aren’t on many listings):
Potassium: 2504mg/day (3500mg/day RDA – 72%)
Vitamin A: 151%
Vitamin C: 207%
Calcium: 92%
Iron: 78%

Weight
Starting (day 1): 82.0kg
Finishing (day 50): 80.2kg
Average weight loss per day: 37g
Compared to standardized calorie equations what I should’ve finished as: 83.6kg
My new calorie maintenance amount based on these stats: 3304 kcal/day

For Fun
Total calories consumed: 152,683 kcal
This amount in Big Macs: 277.6 Big Macs
This amount in spinach: 663.8kg
Most outrageous day: Jan 19 – blueberry cheesecake, popcorn, marshmallows, cheeseburgers and Ben and Jerry’s with waffle, amongst other things (hey, I was on holiday, gimme a break 🙂

You can view my food diary in full here

Here are some of the important take home points:

When you eat out, you don’t know what you’re consuming
When you’re trying to input your three course meal into the app you realise how little you know about what you’re eating when you’re not making it yourself: quality of ingredients, amounts, extra ingredients such as MSG, salt and sugar, oils used, condiments… The list goes on. In these cases I just made an educated guess. Summary: the only way to have a complete picture is to measure and prepare your own food.

Overeating is easy
I had days of eating where my calorie consumption far surpassed what I thought I’d had, and if I didn’t keep on top of updating I’d find it hard to recall exactly what I had eaten. This highlighted to me how easy it is to overeat and not realise it, even for someone like myself who is quite in tune with their consumption. Can’t manage your weight but think you ‘eat pretty well’ or ‘don’t eat that much’? Sorry, but you’re wrong.

Written food diaries are largely pointless
As noted above, written food diaries are too generic and often add to the confusion rather than solve it. I’ve had clients do them in the past and we’ve both been puzzled over why they’re not getting the desired results. I now realise that they’ve missed things out or haven’t given enough information. For example, a ‘Thai buffet’ could be anything from 200-2,000 calories. A ‘chicken salad’ could be anything from 200-800 depending on condiments, extras, sauces etc, and it tells us nothing about the quality of the ingredients. If you’re going to do a food diary commit to a week, more if possible, and record everything and do it properly. Otherwise, don’t bother. My clients who’ve been thorough with the process have had the best results by far. Unsurprisingly, incomplete diaries with entries and days missing have yielded little progress.

The very act of recording makes you more conscious
Studies have shown that people who complete food diaries eat less and eat better. I wouldn’t recommend it as a long term strategy but if you have a big event or goal to aim for you may consider extending the time you do it. Even if you only do it for a week though, you will discover things about your eating habits you never knew and you will automatically become more conscious of the foods you’re consuming. The stats compiled by the app will enhance the educational process even further.

Everyone should try it, but don’t let it become an obsession
I’d like to state loud and clear that this exercise should enhance your relationship with food, not make it worse. It is about learning how you fuel your body and educating yourself on your eating habits, with the view to making some positive changes that are sustainable. It is not about becoming obsessed with every little morsel that you’re eating. That’s not a healthy road to go down. For most people, 1-4 weeks is sufficient.

This experiment was actually open ended for me, but I found that at a friends wedding I was offered a drink and my first thought was about putting it in the app. It was taking away from my enjoyment of the event and so I stopped there and then – 7 weeks was enough info for the time being and it was time to relax a bit!

The Ultimate Goal

Ultimately, everyone should be trying to find out what way of eating works best for them.

food diary

A typical diary entry

This includes what kind of foods you enjoy, how your body reacts to different food and the best and most realistic way you can balance and manage your food consumption in a way that’s sustainable and long term. Once you’ve built up a strong knowledge base, you can relax and enjoy optimal health without the need for food diaries and experimentation.

A food diary is an essential tool to hold up a mirror to yourself and take the first step towards taking charge of your nutrition.

Have you ever done a food diary? What did you discover? Please comment below.

Next experiment

I’m in the middle of a month of veganism, which is proving to be my biggest and most challenging food experiment yet. I’m learning a lot and will update you guys soon.

As always, please feel free to leave any comments below.


Nutritional advice in Bangkok.