Men’s Health July 2014 ‘Ask The Trainer’ Q&A Column

mens health julyAn English translation for my monthly column in Men’s Health Thailand.

I want to reduce abdominal fat and have been told I should drop my carbohydrate intake. What’s your view on this?

For years fat was the enemy, but in recent years views have shifted and now it’s commonly thought that carbs should be reduced or avoided to lose weight. This view is largely correct, most people consume far too many carbohydrates for their activity levels and many find it easier to overeat carbs as opposed to foods higher in protein and fat. To put it another way, many people feel more full and satisfied when consuming lower carbohydrate diets. Excessive carb consumption can also promote high levels of a hormone called insulin which often leads to fat gain, especially if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. However, nutrition is a very unique thing – what works for me may not work for you, and you should experiment with your carbohydrate and fat levels to find out what works best for you.

image (2)Diet is crucial in reducing abdominal fat, but rather than focusing too much on the protein, fat and carbohydrate percentages you should first make sure that you’re eating high quality food. This means eating as little processed food as possible, preparing your own meals as opposed to eating in restaurants and consuming whole, natural foods such as organic meat, vegetables, fruits and nuts wherever possible. If you get this right you will often hit your goals, look great and start showing your abdominal and core muscles without the need for tracking calories or macronutrient (carb, protein and fat) amounts.

If you’ve got that right and are still not hitting your goals, you should then try tracking and recording your food intake, make some adjustments, try some new things and monitor the results. If you are unsure how to do this you can seek the help of a personal trainer or nutritionist to guide you.

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Interval training at one of our group classes at BASE is a great way to burn fat. We recommend our signature class for this, BASECAMP.

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4 Weeks of Veganism

No-Meat-SignMy latest food experiment was without a doubt my most challenging. In solidarity with a vegan client and friend of mine, Anthony of ManVsClock, I decided to try veganism for 4 weeks.

My entering into this experiment followed weeks of debate with Anthony on the ethical and health implications of such a diet. I figured the best way to have a valid opinion about it would be to try it out myself.

His love of animals had made it hard for him to justify the consumption of animal products but he was unsure of the impact that a vegan diet would have on his health and body composition.

Like most aspects of nutrition, there is not much conclusive evidence and a lot of contradictory research, articles and propaganda on both sides of the debate.

To make things more complicated and confusing, discussing the consumption of animal products is often as highly charged and emotional as talking about politics or religion. This can often cloud judgement when looking at the nutritional and health aspects of abstaining from meat, fish and dairy.

The 4 week experiment

Some of the off-limit foods for the month

Some of the off-limit foods for the month

A clarification of the 4-week vegan experiment rules: for 28 days I would consume no food that contained meat, dairy, eggs or any of their derivatives. This is in stark contrast to my current diet which I would largely describe as ‘paleo‘ – meat, vegetables, eggs, fruit, nuts, seeds and no grains, processed food, additives or sugar.

To suddenly make such a big dietary change was always going to be tough and a difficult adjustment but I welcomed the challenge and another chance to learn something about myself.

Vegan Vs Paleo

The first thing I’d like to consider are the similarities between paleo and vegan, two approaches that on the surface look at the opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum. Firstly, both sides make up a large part of their diet from fruit and vegetables. Nuts also play a part – a few scoops of almond butter would equally appeal to both camps.

Also, people who champion both approaches are generally more health conscious than your average person. Many search for organic produce where possible and limit processed food.

However, people often associate veganism or vegetarianism with automatically being healthy. This is far from the case – it’s very possible to be obese on these diets and a lot of veggie or vegan packaged foods are no better for you than other kinds of processed junk.

Now onto the big difference – vegetarians consume no meat and vegans abstain from any product, food or otherwise, derived from animals. People following the paleo diet will consume animal products freely and often in abundance.

The average diet in the west is, to be frank, garbage. A reliance on processed and fast ‘food’ and a lack of real, nutrient rich food has left a lot of people big and sick. Compared to this, a healthy vegan diet or strict paleo will often leave you feeling great and improve all your health markers. Therefore, many people champion both approaches as they’ve had good results from them.

However, simply cutting out the junk could be the reason for the improvement that these people experience. What I’m more interested in is what is the healthiest approach long term.

Foods that both the paleo and vegan communities would embrace

Foods that both the paleo and vegan communities would embrace

Onto my month of meat eating abstinence. My biggest take home was that veganism is damn hard! Every time I looked at a food product I found myself mentally breaking it down to try and work out if I could eat it. Most of the time, I couldn’t. Rather than perusing a menu for tasty things to eat, I would just desperately look for something I could eat. Usually, it would be something like a salad, but only if they left out the cheese.

Put another way, it pretty much took all the fun out of eating out. Cooking at home was smoother and more enjoyable as it’s easy to control the process and the ingredients.

Social situations

Socially it can be difficult and awkward. People often give you a look when you tell them you’re vegan and I sometimes found myself explaining to people that it was just an experiment. People often unfairly associate veganism with being a tree hugging Greenpeace activist and I was keen to distance myself from this. I freely admit that it’s pretty pathetic of me to feel I had to do explain myself in this way, but this is how I felt.

Other social situations can be difficult – for example, when grandma bakes me some fresh chocolate chip cookies or a friend makes a meal with meats or eggs. Sadly, as a vegan in these situations you’ll often be met with bemusement, annoyance or even ridicule.

Social situations and convenience aside, how did a vegan diet make me feel physically?

Despite ensuring I ate as healthily as possible, overall I suffered from a lack of energy which was reflected in my poor training sessions and a general feeling of lethargy. It also appeared to affect my mood and I found myself feeling a bit down generally, which isn’t like me. As I always say with these experiments, other factors could have caused these things, but I didn’t feel light and ‘alive and kicking’ like some vegans I spoke to said I would.

However, there were some results that were not anecdotal. In wanting to keep this experiment as scientific as possible, I also recorded my intake of food and my weight at regular intervals. Despite consuming as many calories as normal, I dropped 3.1kg to finish my vegan month at 77.4kg. This is probably my lowest weight since I was about 16 years old. From a weight loss perspective that might sound great, but based on how I looked I am sure that along with losing some fat, a large portion of that 3.1kg drop was muscle. Without sophisticated tools I cannot know for sure.

People commented that I looked ‘thin’ and ‘gaunt’, which is not a look I’m striving for. Coupled with low energy levels, this is concerning and I’m not sure where I would be after, say, 6 months of veganism. I weight train and am active and should not be dropping weight that quickly with my frame and body type.

What caused this? I believe low protein consumption could have played a part. I took some additional vegan protein supplementation occasionally, but I am open to the suggestion that I could have done more to up my protein levels. However, I don’t believe in relying on supplements and feel that a diet which naturally promotes higher protein and fat and lower carbs is right for me.

A vegan diet naturally promotes a macro-nutrient profile of high carb, low fat and low protein that is simply wrong for many people. Add nutrient shortcomings such as omega-3s, zinc, vitamin D, dietary cholesterol and vitamin B12 (the granddaddy of vegan nutrient deficiencies), and you have a way of eating that could be a disaster for some people. These are some of the nutrients that are difficult to find outside of animal products, and supplements often don’t cut it as they often aren’t absorbed by the body as effectively.

It takes a big effort to make up for those fore-mentioned shortcomings, and it’s misguided to think that just cutting out animal products will lead you on a path to great health.

If you’re considering going vegan, check out this post written by a vegan Registered Dietician on ways to help make up for nutritional shortfalls on a vegan diet.

I respect that many people will be vegan for ethical reasons and in that case I’d say make sure you research what nutrients you may be lacking and adjust your diet and supplementation accordingly. Listen to your body and consider how you stand ethically on all parts of a vegan diet – is factory farmed meat the same as pasture raised grass-fed beef? Is a factory farm egg the same as a free range organic egg? Is wild caught fish the same as farmed? If you may be lacking something nutritionally consider a compromise somewhere so your health doesn’t suffer.

Some women who are vegan compromise when they are pregnant so as not to be nutritionally deficient when ‘feeding for two’. Natalie Portman is one such case. I have a huge amount of respect for this approach of compromise when it’s needed. Sadly, some in the vegan community slated Natalie for her decision that she made in the best interests of her unborn child.

Summary

This 4 week vegan experiment was hugely valuable in terms of what I experienced and the research that it has prompted me to do. I read a lot of articles and spoke to a lot of people about the pros and cons of being a vegan. After the 4 weeks, I can confidently say that a vegan diet is not right for me in achieving optimal health and performance and I will resort back to my previous dietary approach.

I have tried to stay away as much as possible from the ethical side of the debate, but the rights and wrongs of meat consumption are highly charged for a lot of people. I personally think that factory farmed meat and many practices in the meat industry are wrong. Also, and importantly, poorly farmed and processed meat has a huge effect on the nutritional profile of the meat. Animals pumped full of hormones and kept in horrendous conditions do not make for healthy, nutritious food. Quite the opposite.

For these health and ethical reasons, I will continue to source the best quality meat I can.

Further reading for a second opinion

I think this article from Authority Nutrition gives a strong analysis of the downside of a vegan diet.

I was offered this article from Zen Habits as strong analysis of the virtues of a vegan diet.

Please let me know of any other well written and researched articles free from excessive emotion and propaganda on the subject and I’ll be happy to link them.

If you’d like to know exactly what I ate in the month, you can view my MyFitnessPal food diary in full here.

What next?

In the last year I’ve experimented with my intake of meat, dairy, alcohol and grains. I’ve also played around with juice fasting, intermittent fasting and meal timing.

If anyone has any ideas for any more experiments or articles please comment below. Also, if you have any comments regarding my ideas and conclusions about veganism or any other topic please let me know about it!


More information on our approach to our nutrition at BASE.

A Bangkok Juice Fast + No Caffeine or Alcohol

After eliminating meat and grains and playing around with my meal frequency I was eager for a new food experiment.

Displaying exquisite timing, Codi from Lifestyle Juice Cleanse (I’ll refer to as LJC) contacted me asking if I’d like to try a 3 day juice fast and blog about it.

3 days consuming nothing but juice didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, which was all the more reason to do it. I signed myself up.

I regularly do 24 hour fasts where I abstain from food and calorie containing beverages from, say, 2pm one day to 2pm the next, so I felt as though I would be well prepared for this experiment.

Why juice fast?

It seems as though the main reasons people juice fast are to lose weight and to detox, presumably after a period of abuse. Juicing can also provide a good way to cram in a load of nutrients in a simple, easy serving.

I didn’t want to lose weight and didn’t feel I was toxic enough to require a detoxification, but I thought it would still be interesting to see how I felt and what the effects on my body would be. Also, if friends or clients asked about it or wanted to try it I would be well placed to give a first-hand opinion.

LJC told me about a movie that demonstrates the power of juice fasting. Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead tells the story of a big bloke named Joe, who does a 60 day juice fast during a road trip across America and pretty much saves his life from disease. Unlike Joe I’m not a morbidly obese truck driver dying of self inflicted illness so I’m not sure how relevant his story is to me, but it is an incredible story nonetheless and it’s clear this approach did wonders for his health and waistline.

Release the evil

I was told that feeling terrible during the fast is not only nothing to worry about, but is actually celebrated. Anything negative felt during the 9 day process is simply ‘toxins leaving the body’, which I’m not sure I completely buy. Broken out into spots? Great, that’s the toxins leaving you. Feeling down and moody? That’ll be the toxins entering the bloodstream. Grown a third nipple? Fantastic, that just shows that it’s working.

I think it’s fair to say that your body may be uncomfortable and struggling with the new health kick, but I don’t think it’s necessarily all about the evil toxins being released. Blaming the toxins is a convenient answer, but I think a lot of the negative feelings during the fast are your body generally being under stress and a weakened immune system during this time.

Other possibilities are that your body is struggling with the calorie restriction or perhaps just withdrawal symptoms from stopping smoking or other addictive substances that you’re refraining from during the fast.

Onto the fast

The 3-day juice fast was actually a 9 day process, broken down into the following essential components:

3 day pre-cleanse: preparing the body for the fast – slowly reduce or eliminate processed/’toxic’ food, caffeine and alcohol

The main event: no solid food – just juice and tea for 3 full days

3 day post-cleanse: 3 days of gradually reintroducing food into your system to complete the process from toxic blob to vibrant health hippy.

Added Bonus: The 3 day pre- and post-cleanse are strictly no caffeine and alcohol, so this also offered a few bonus experiments. 9 days without alcohol is pretty normal for me so no test there, but one of my big vices is my daily 2-3 cups of coffee, usually lattes. I’ve had at least a coffee a day for the last 10 years so I was interested to see whether I had my habit under control or if I was a full-blown caffeine junkie.

Pre-cleanse

I got through the pre-cleanse easily – 3 days of healthy eating and natural food to start to rid my body of all those evil toxins and prepare it for the good stuff. Whole, natural meals were also provided by LJC, but as I was concerned about losing too much weight I topped up the provided food with extra fruit and vegetables, ensuring I kept it all healthy for a smooth transition to the juice.

I was advised to drink the 6 juices in order, but I don’t think it matters. My preferred order was close eyes, stick hand in fridge and bring one out ‘lucky dip’ style

Day 1

The first day was pretty normal – I laughed, I played, I drank juice and just generally went about my day. I had an empty feeling in my stomach but my energy levels were fine. No dramas. The juices tasted great and I looked forward to drinking them. My experience with fasting also helped prepare me and it was all pretty easy and fun.

I drifted off to sleep at the end of day 1… and dreamed of food (seriously).

Day 2

Day 2 wasn’t quite as smooth. I started the day with some fruit infused water, which was a bit of an experiment for me but it worked well. It involved leaving lemon, lime, strawberries and cinnamon in water overnight. I topped it up with a little coconut water the next day and it tasted amazing. This set me up for a pretty steady day again, but later on in the day I started to get hungry when I saw food.

Lemon, lime, cinnamon, a couple of strawberries and a splash of coconut water. Top up with water and leave overnight.

Lemon, lime, cinnamon, a couple of strawberries and a splash of coconut water. Top up with water and leave overnight.

I went to the supermarket to get some limes and all the goodies looked very appealing. The street food and fruit stalls made me pine for solid food consumption. This made me consider whether I was truly hungry or if it was the sight of food that had triggered my cravings. I think often we are set off by visual stimulation, food marketing and even cleverly placed indulgent items in food stores. Often we’re not really hungry but something sets off a trigger and we convince ourselves we’re starving or need to eat. However, I think by this stage I really was just goddamn hungry.

Understanding Real Hunger Vs Food Cravings is crucial to success in your healthy eating journey. I think fasting really helps to distinguish and understand the difference.

By the evening I felt pretty moody and was looking forward to eating again.

Day 3

Me goofing around at the park on the last day - I was feeling lively and upbeat

Me goofing around at the park on the last day – I was feeling lively and upbeat

I woke up feeling pretty good and my moodiness had gone. Perhaps the moody toxins had left my body overnight. I had a pretty normal day and I trained hard in the park. I didn’t feel at all affected by not having eaten for 2 full days and I pulled, pushed, ran and jumped around feeling pretty much at my best. This left me feeling positive and enthused, although I was still looking forward to eating again. The rest of the day carried on as normal and I was happy to go to bed safe in the knowledge that sunrise would bring grub.

Fast over and start of post-cleanse

I woke up early pretty excited about bringing food back into my life. I held back for a few hours and then made a peanut butter, coconut, strawberry and banana smoothie. It tasted absolutely incredible. I savoured every mouthful, each one offering a sensual explosion of taste and pleasure. That might sound a bit over the top, but it really was that good.

The heavenly smoothy that broke the fast

The heavenly smoothy that broke the fast

LJC told me to just eat fruit on the first day, I felt fine so I had a salad with a little chicken for lunch, as well as another tasty juice. I reintroduced food over the next few days without any issues.

No Caffeine

I didn’t suffer any caffeine withdrawal symptoms at all, which didn’t surprise me much. I did miss the process of going into a cafe and sipping a latte while planning my day, but t was good to discover I don’t need it.

Conclusions and summary

So that was how it all panned out over the 9 day process. I must say that it was all a bit of an anti-climax really – I didn’t feel all that much during or after, but others I’ve spoken to have had more of a ‘health epiphany’ during their fast and really valued their experience. I’ve been told that perhaps I’m not your typical juice faster, and those who live an unhealthier lifestyle might benefit more from this approach.

Here is a summary of my main thoughts and feelings on juice fasting:

I’d sooner recommend other dietary approaches and solutions before trying juicing. If someone said they wanted to try it I’d say go for it, but I’d recommend other approaches over this one if someone wants to be healthy and strong long-term.

I think it promotes a culture of unhealthy habits followed by a ‘detox’, which is then repeated ad infinitum. This isn’t a progressive approach. If that’s the only way you can live your life then maybe it has a place, but if you’re doing the right things most of the time you shouldn’t need to do this. We all know people who are always talking about ‘needing a detox’ as if that’s the answer to all their health and life problems.

LJC say a lot of great things on their website about healthy, long-term changes which should be commended, but their slogan sums up who their typical target client is: Work Hard. Play Hard. Cleanse. Repeat. That approach to health and life isn’t going to do you many favours.

The best use for a juice fast is as a kickstart into healthy habits. 9 days of healthy food with a 3 day juice fast could help you understand hunger better, could help wean you off processed junk and could be the start of new habits and a new you.

Intermittent Fasting Vs Juice Fasting: I felt as though I was stretching a 24 hour fast (which I occasionally do) over 84 hours, which to me made it a less enjoyable process than intermittent fasting. I prefer eating fruit and vegetables rather than drinking fruit and vegetable juice, so I would sooner do an occasional 24 hour abstinence from food and calorie-containing drinks and just continue eating normally the rest of the time. I would find this easier to do consistently long term. This is just my experience though, and others find juicing a more enjoyable experience.

Weight loss during the fast was a concern as I’ve dropped a bit recently and didn’t want to lose any more. I lost 1.6kg during the fast which stayed off for a few weeks. Whether the weight was water, fat or muscle is hard to say. I would say water. It was commented that I looked a little gaunt after the fast, so this is something to bear in mind if you are of a normal, healthy weight.

Final Word

Some people have felt great, refreshed and revitalized after completing a juice fast. Others have got incredible weight loss results.

It would be very arrogant for me to say that what they did was wrong – Joe the truck driver used this method to save his life – but I personally believe they would have got the same results from making some positive dietary changes or doing something like a strict raw food diet for a set amount of time.

If can only adhere to a diet plan strict, regimented rules, then give it a go. If you wonder how you’ll feel or would like to use it as a boost to a healthier lifestyle then give it a go… but first up I would suggest trying to just eat more real, whole foods most of the time and seeing if that can get you the results you want.

Has anyone tried a juice fast recently? Did you enjoy it? Would you do it again? Please comment or drop me a message.

I would whole-heartedly recommend Lifestyle Juice Cleanse if you decide to try one out. Good quality, great tasting juices coupled with home or work delivery and solid service. Contact them for more info.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I kindly ask you to ‘like’ our Bangkok Fitness Facebook page, ‘like’ it here and share on social networks if you feel others would benefit. Many thanks!