In the Mind of a Nutritionist

Mmm, water.

Mmm, water.  At Basic, in Jersey City.

I originally wrote this post for the Hospital for Special Surgery blog, which you can find here.  The HSS On the Move blog has a great series of rehab, fitness and nutrition blog posts, please do check it out!

From the HSS On the Move Blog, “In the Mind of a Nutritionist” (me!) –

“I eat chocolate. And I eat salads. I don’t count calories, but I pay attention to my portions (i.e. I know when I’ve eaten too much). I try to eat slower, a constant battle considering my genetics. I drink diet soda a couple times a week, but I drink a lot of water every day. I drink a glass of wine or beer on occasion. I drink a green smoothie most mornings (thanks to meeting my wife). I exercise a fair number of days per week, but I’d always like to do more. And I’ve maintained my 30+ pound weight loss for the past eight years – which got me into this whole fitness and nutrition field to begin with (I used to be an engineer). These are my habits, and they allow me to achieve what I want in my life.

Will things change in the future?  Sure they can. And then I’ll tackle those goals when they come. If I wanted to train for a marathon, I’d have to change some habits. If I wanted six pack abs, I’d have to restrict a lot more. In fact, I went for them back when I was losing my weight in 2005 and when I got to single digit body fat percentage and a good outline of 4-pack abs, I felt like food was becoming my enemy – not a good feeling. I guess that’s why most bodybuilders are miserable right before competition.  So I’m ok not being ripped.  I can still deadlift 300 pounds. And I can run. And I can spend time with my family. And most importantly, I’m happy with all of those results because no one is the judge but me.

This is why the glut of fad diets and misrepresented nutrition research infuriates me. People stop listening to the most important part of the healthy eating and living equation – themselves. Yes, I have the background in nutrition and exercise science that can help someone run faster, jump higher, drop inches or recover from training better. But in the end it’s not about me. It’s about you. I can’t force someone to be motivated and accountable (a.k.a. the dream client, or a fair number of athletes). I can merely explore the hopes and dreams a person has and figure out how eating and exercise can best complement them in that pursuit.

When I meet with clients, I always remember there are two experts in the room: I may be an “expert” in nutrition and exercise. But my client is the expert in their own life, preferences, routine and habits. And to get long-lasting change, we need a partnership. I promote people, not plans.”

TELL ME: What’s your dream?

The Olympic Pursuit of Health and Fitness

Olympics and Health

Image courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I watched some of the world’s best athletes compete last month, I started thinking about all of the time, energy and resolve they devoted over the past four years to earn a brief, but well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Spotlights that may last as little as a few minutes (think skiing, ice skating, or snowboarding). And from there, only three of the top eight or ten competitors from across the world actually win a medal. Considering odds like that, I am amazed that anyone would want to devote that much time for a payoff that seems so distant. But thousands of athletes do. Every four years. And here’s what we can learn from their efforts:

The Power of a Motivation and a Belief

While only one person can win the gold medal every four years for an event, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Olympic hopefuls imagining, and believing, that they have what it takes to be the one to win it. And with the strength of their convictions, they train for years to have the opportunity to bring the dream to fruition.

Similarly, you must ask yourself what motivations you have driving you to improve your physical activity or eating habits. It could be running a 5K, feeling better about yourself, setting a good example for your children or wanting to make sure you’re able to enjoy your golden years just as much as (if not more than) your younger ones. When you find the right motivation for yourself, you will sense that something inside you has changed; an internal switch has been turned on that makes living more healthfully an easier decision. I call this moment “Flipping the switch.” Everyone’s switch is different and it may change over time. The key is to explore in this moment, what is so important to you, that it’s worth living healthier for. Then go get it!

Focus on Your Strengths

(This example is slightly outdated, but works well.) Being six feet, four inches tall with a long torso, a huge wingspan and hypermobile joints, Michael Phelps was designed to have the potential to be a great swimmer, not necessarily a great gymnast or Olympic weightlifter. And so he trained to become arguably the best Olympic swimmer the world has ever known. If he trained every day of his life, could he have become a good gymnast or weightlifter? Probably. But the best ever? Probably not.

So when you’re choosing what changes to make to improve your eating or physical activity habits, consider your strengths:

  • – Do you like to cook? Try preparing a few big-batch, healthy meals to eat throughout the week. Or try looking up and cooking some new, healthy recipes that look tasty. Or make it a point to try cooking with a new fruit or vegetable every week.
  • – Always on the run but don’t mind eating your fruits and veggies? Make it a point to pack or pick-up some healthy snacks to have with you every day that have a fruit or vegetable in them. Or review the menus of restaurants you frequently go to and determine the healthiest options available that you may enjoy eating.
  • – Prefer to focus more on physical activity? Review your weekly habits for opportunities to sit less, walk more, or get one extra workout in. The best changes to make are the ones that are easiest for you to do.

Results Come From Preparation and Practice

Olympians spend the majority of their lives preparing and practicing for the Games. They create training plans. They spend hours practicing daily. Many even meditate and imagine themselves successfully performing in the Olympics (visualization has been shown to have very positive results in high-stress situations such as in competitions, when speaking in public or when dealing with a food craving or temptation). But remember, even the best swimmers, skiers and hockey and basketball players did not know how to swim, ski, skate or shoot a basketball at some point in their life. They had to learn it. And then practice to get good at it.

Eating better or becoming more physically active usually requires learning new skills or improving upon some of current ones (i.e. your strengths). Learning to cook a new vegetable, tracking your energy to determine when you’re tired and can be most benefited by a healthy snack, learning how to perform a few new exercises or assessing your daily routine to find ways to walk more. All of these changes are probably not a part of your current daily routine, therefore it will take time and effort to integrate them (but do choose the easiest one for you).

The first step is creating a simple, but detailed plan on how you’re going to make the change. If you’re going to workout one more day per week, what day will it be? When will you do it? For how long? What exercises will you do? Will you go with a workout buddy? The more details you can determine ahead of time, the more likely you are to actually do it.

Then go for it…and be willing to make mistakes. Even LeBron James misses a shot every now and then. The key is accepting our mistakes, learning from them and always aiming to improve. If you remember one thing, remember this: “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” The more you practice, the easier the change will become, until it becomes a new, permanent habit. And the results will follow.

No Olympian is an Island

Most, if not all, Olympians had help getting to where they are today. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of the greatest athletes have some of the best support systems around them. Athletes have some combination of coaches, doctors, dietitians, physical therapists, friends and family guiding and supporting them. Having a support system provides a source of positive motivation and accountability for when times are good and when times are tough.

Your pursuits for living healthier should not be taken any less seriously than an athlete training for the Olympics. Both of you are pursuing meaningful, personal achievements (what flipped the switch for you?), so both of you should be provided with the greatest opportunity to succeed. And that means creating a support system for yourself in addition to all of the tips listed previously.

Create a list titled “My Support Team” with three columns: Name / Contact Info / Support Role. Make a list of at least three people that can support you in your pursuit of eating better and moving more. Ask a friend to be a workout buddy. Ask a relative or close friend to be someone you can call to vent to when you’re having a stressful day and you feel tempted to make poor eating decisions. Ask a colleague who may be very fit or a great cook to give you a few pointers. Hire a great nutrition or fitness coach to motivate and guide you. Create a team that maximizes your chance for success.

The 2016 Summer Olympics are two years away and will be held in Rio de Janeiro. Where will you be in 2016? How will you feel? How will you look? Who will be around you? How will you be eating? How active will you be? What will your life look like? Now go get it!

How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

You want to work hard enough to get results.  But not so hard that you get injured and laid up for six weeks – and there goes those results.  How hard you should train depends on three factors:

  1. The goal – Are you trying to lose weight or win a powerlifting competition?
  2. Your current level of activity – Consider the feasibility and safety of training 5 days a week if you’re currently doing next to nothing.
  3. How you feel that day – Probably not worth going for personal bests on days you’re stressed out and running on 3 hours sleep.

Based on these factors, I’ve created a graphic that depicts how I approach working my clients (each peak represents a bout of training):

Training - Stay Between the Lines


How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

In fact, you could say this picture works with any pursuit in life – do too little and nothing happens.  Do too much and you burnout.  But to stay on topic (I’m good at going off topic, eh?), using the graphic as a guide, here are some tips to get the most of your exercise:

Are You Reaching Your Minimum Effective Dose?

Too many times I’ve seen people sitting on a recumbent bike, slowly pedaling while reading the paper and sipping a latte.  Or women doing 50 gazillion reps with 2 pound weights, and wonder why they aren’t getting any results.

If it doesn’t feel like work, it’s probably not.  That means you should be sweating and slightly out of breath.  Or you should feel like you could only do a couple extra reps above your target count (which should stay below 20, ideally less than 15).

Balance Your Days

If you worked extra hard one day, it’s probably best not to go balls to the wall the day after (unless you’re an experienced athlete).  Remember, what’s hard for one person is not necessarily the same for another.  This depends on you.

If you feel especially sore or achy the day after a workout, do some moderate cardio (not high intensity intervals) and stretching/foam rolling to promote recovery.  Or if it’s a lifting day, don’t go for maximum lifts.  Notice how harder exercise days in the picture are often followed up with lower intensity days.

Build Gradually

If you’re new, or just getting back into exercising after a long layoff, your minimum effective dose and upper tolerance are probably lower than you think – it doesn’t require 2 hour training marathons, 5 days a week.  The key is to build a sustainable routine that keeps your body, mind and joints feeling good.  As you get better, your minimum effective dose, and upper limit will increase along with getting stronger, looking better, etc.

What Happens Above the Upper Tolerance Line?

Mostly exhaustion, and potentially pain and overtraining syndrome.  As crazy as it sounds, pain is your best friend – it tells you when you’ve f’ed up.  Listen to it.  If it’s during a single training bout, it could be anything from delayed-onset muscle soreness (when you can’t move for a week and your affected muscles feel swollen and tender) to muscle strains that require a week or two to recover.

If you push yourself repeatedly right at that upper limit line, you may go over it on the second, third or fourth consecutive training day.  Your body is telling you it needs to recover – and if you don’t listen it can eventually result in chronic issues like tendonitis, cartilage tears, and arthritis.

This doesn’t mean you need to quit training altogether, just don’t do things that hurt.  If you have a recurring issue, get it checked out by a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional to make sure you’re moving correctly.

TELL ME: What do you think of the graphic?  Does it help put things in perspective for you?  It’s about as artistic as I get 🙂

The Epic Quest for Six Pack Abs

Six Pack Abs and a Band.

Six Pack Abs – and a Band.
Image Courtesy of imagerymajestic and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In Death of the Diet, I stress the importance of determining your Why – the true motivating force driving you to improve your eating and physical activity habits.  While many people “would like” six pack abs, not everyone realizes the amount of effort required to not only attain, but sustain such a low percentage of body fat (likely in the mid-to-high single digits for men, and the low double digits for women).  However, I understand some people still want to give it their all and see what they can accomplish, so this blog post is my contribution for those committed to the epic quest for six pack abs.

 

1. A Disclaimer: Genetics Often Dictate the Effort Required to Attain and Sustain Six Pack Abs

Consider that six pack abs are the “pinnacle” of body composition, much like professional athletes or CEOs achieve the pinnacle of their respective fields.

Genetics play a tremendous role in how easy, or hard, it is for a person to attain the highest levels of performance, or six pack abs (see my “proprietary” drawing below).  While it would be nice to achieve them, do not place your entire self-worth on seeing those six abs.  You are more than just a set of abs – appreciate the healthy eating and physical activity habits you will be performing to achieve those results, and consider which ones you can continue long-term.  Everyone can be healthy, fit and happy, regardless of the number of abs you see.

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

While I sincerely hope you do achieve them, be ok with the fact that the effort you put in to achieve six pack abs may not be sustainable long-term.  Even the leanest of the bunch, bodybuilders, only maintain their shredded physique for a few days of the year for their competitions.  Look at them two weeks after a competition, it’s usually a whole different story.  Just like other accomplishments, give yourself a major pat on the back for achieving something many others will never do (myself included, thus far). I’ll discuss my personal attempt at six pack abs at the end of the post.

2. Make Your Body Inefficient

Research has shown that those who tend to lose weight easily (ectomorphs), have more “inefficient” bodies.  They have more brown fat – a type of fat that burns calories (researchers don’t know how to apply these findings…yet).  They tend to have more non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), a.k.a. they fidget and move around more.  And they are also usually quite active. In other words, their bodies require more fuel (calories) to perform their daily routines.  While you may not be able to channel your inner brown fat, there are methods for eating and physical activity that can increase your personal inefficiency:

Nutrition / Eating

Increase your thermal effect of food (the amount of calories needed to break down and digest the food you eat) by having less processed, whole foods rich in fiber, water and protein such as fruits, veggies, lean meats, oatmeal, nuts, beans and dairy (for those that are lactose tolerant).  Think of it this way: The less processed the food is, the harder it is for your body to break down those plant cell walls and proteins to get the available calories.  For example, recent research has shown that your body actually attains about 20% less calories from raw almonds than listed on the package.

On the flipside, consider that in many cases processing = pre-digestion.  Machines are doing the digestion for you so absorption is faster and easier.  However, the easier it is for your body to suck up the calories, the more likely they will go to fat if you’re not burning them.  For that reason, the pursuit of six pack abs often means bye-bye to most highly processed foods, sugary foods/beverages, baked goods, alcohol, etc.  Each person is unique – you’ll have to learn how often you can indulge while still maintaining progress towards your ultimate goal – six pack abs.  For some it will be monthly, others weekly, others daily (see the genetic component above).

Exercise

From an exercise perspective, staying inefficient means performing exercises that require large amounts of muscle groups to work, whether it be cardiovascular training, kettlebell swings, upper/lower body splits, interval training, density training or circuit training.  But remember, the more you do something, the better and more efficient your body gets at performing it.   So as soon as your body starts to adapt and an activity starts to feel too easy (usually within 3 to 5 weeks), throw in a deload week to recover, and then change up the routine completely to keep the body learning…and the calories burning.

Also, throw in a heavier weight strength day or two each week to ensure your body does all it can to maintain its metabolically active lean body mass during the weight loss.  Well controlled, multi joint lifts such as pushes/presses, rows/pulls, squats, hip hinges and loaded carries (thanks, Dan John!), not only work the hell out of your muscles, but they also burn a ton of calories.  In summary, tell your body to burn fat, not muscle through what you eat and how you move.

3. Maintain Your Metabolism by Periodizing Your Nutrition

Unsurprisingly, your body doesn’t like feeling starved. That’s why your body burns calories, and fat, best by being in a slight calorie deficit – consuming slightly less than you burn.  If you burn more, you can eat more and still get results (see energy flux topic below).  If you burn too much and eat too little, however, your body will quickly recognize the significant imbalance and return the favor by stalling your metabolism and potentially burning precious lean body mass.  That’s why periodizing your nutrition is so vital.  I discuss the finer, scientific points of stalled metabolism in Death of the Diet’s latest e-book, 12 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Weight Permanently, and How to Beat ‘Em, available for free to newsletter members.

You can periodize your nutrition on either a daily, or weekly basis (or both – but don’t drive yourself nuts over it):

  • On a daily basis, you could eat a little more on training days (with the extra fuel focused on your workouts and recovery), and have less on off days while aiming to maintain a slight calorie deficit each day.  Once a week, aim to eat a little more than usual to keep the metabolism churning.
  • Or you can couple a few weeks of higher intensity calorie imbalance (eating less, burning more) with recovery phases (increasing your food intake to achieve calorie balance, or even slightly above), much like you need a deload week every 3 to 5 weeks with consistent, hard training.  In fact, you could pair your deload nutrition week with your deload training week. While you may gain a small amount of weight due to the replenishment of your fluid and glycogen stores during a deload week, the act of eating a little more and training a little less will send a signal to your body that all is well metabolically, and it has no reason to horde calories and fat.  Then you can resume your higher intensity phase the following week. It’s all about resting for a moment before the next ascent.

4. Move and Exercise Consistently to Increase Energy Flux

The “afterburn” effect of most exercise sessions is minimal – only about 10% to 20% of the calories actually burned when performing the exercise.  There are two moderate exceptions to this rule: the time immediately after significant, high intensity training (as great as this sounds, be sure to train safe since an injury will undoubtedly derail your six pack dreams), and people/athletes who have “high energy flux.”

High energy flux is a result of being very active each and every day.  It’s why Michael Phelps and sprinters can eat like a horse (pizza, pasta, etc.) and look ripped.  The amount of physical activity they do each allows them to burn through whatever they want and not gain an ounce.  Not only are those calories going to fuel their workouts, but it’s going to replenish glycogen stores, increase intramuscular triglyceride stores (specialized fuel stores for active people), repair their muscles and maintain their significant lean body mass.  Research has shown that achieving significant weight loss, especially six pack abs, is best served by maintaining a high level activity, not just cutting calories alone.  Like the previous point mentioned, your body does not like to feel starved.

Keep that metabolic fire stoked 24/7 by sitting less, walking more, training often and recovering well.  The biggest threat to not achieving six pack abs is an injury.

5. Putting It All Together: Assess Where You Are and Create a Plan

Achieving six-pack abs can be a considerable undertaking, similar to climbing a mountain.  Research recommends climbing mountains over 10,000 feet high in 1,000 foot stages and then resting before continuing on.  Do the same with your six pack ab pursuit.  Are you just getting off the couch (below base camp), or are you halfway up (physically active, but no six-pack)?  The amount of effort you should be putting in should be just a bit beyond your current position.  Get there, get comfortable, then forge ahead.  Perform the six pack abs ascent in stages.  If you go too far too fast, you may get gassed, or worse yet, injured.  Climbing a mountain is a process.  So is achieving six pack abs.

Using the information and ideas above, the best first step you can take to achieve six-pack abs is to create a personalized action plan to get there.  Choose the one or two ideas that resonate most with you, and then write down exactly how you’re going to do them.  The more details, the better. Why is creating a plan important?

  • It organizes your thoughts.
  • It gives you immediate actions you can take to start getting results.
  • You can track, and manage, the execution of your action plan to see which changes are getting you the best effects and make adjustments as needed.

Epilogue: My Personal Attempt at Six Pack Abs

My personal attempt stopped at around 9.8% during my initial weight loss in 2005.  I looked good, but still only had the initial outline of four abs.  And I realized that I was cutting out many of the foods and cooking experiences I enjoyed, which took a toll on my overall happiness in life.  My personal Why evolved into one more focused on confidence in my body (even if I could only count two abs, not six) along with my long-term health, strength and happiness – which means staying active, but also giving in to my foodie self on occasion.  When asked what I eat, I typically tell my clients and workshop attendees, “I eat chocolate and broccoli.  I just make sure I eat more broccoli than chocolate.”

TELL ME: Have you attempted, or achieved six pack abs?  What did it take?  Share your story and help others learn about the process.

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