LCHF and the athlete: The Plews approach

Sfuels, a ketogenic fuel for endurance athletes recently had Dan Plews host a Facebook live event regarding his LCHF training and daily diet. Now those of you have listened to our Fitter Radio podcast will know Dan from the Plews and Prof segment. He’s an exercise physiologist who last year was the overall age group winner at Kona World Championships in a record time of 8:24. He’s been working in exercise physiology for the last 15 years and has a number of research papers both related to this, and in the ketogenic diet space (for athletes), one of which I posted about last year. Because I love Dan’s work (and this area in general) I wanted to outline for you what he spoke about in the Facebook live for those people, athlete or otherwise, that are interested. This week, due to length, I’ll cover the normal diet, and next week I’ll outline his pre-race and race-day strategy.

As a bit of background, Dan has been doing triathlon forever, however came into LCHF when he was at the Olympics as an exercise physiologist and came across work by Tim Noakes (who has heralded the latest Banting movement in South Africa). From 2012 he made a decision to give it a crack. Even now, though, six years after embarking on LCHF training and nutrition, Dan notes that adaptations are still occurring, and puts his incremental improvements in performance in the Ironman distance finishing times (in hours:minutes) being: 9:22, 9:11, 9:12, 8:54, 8:35 and 8.24 Kona 2018) down to not only the consistency of training , but the consistency of the dietary approach.

What is important in LCHF and endurance training? The end goal for performance is to conserve as much energy as possible – fuel availability is the limiting factor over such a long distance. We can’t store too much carbohydrate – around 2000 Calories compared to 40000 Calories of fat that is stored in even the leanest individuals. The problem, though, is that people can’t access their fat stores to exercise at a high intensity. Or even, for many endurance athletes, at a lower intensity (where we should be able to burn fat). The type of diet we eat influences our fuel preference when we exercise, and the modern diet (where carbohydrate is the predominant available nutrient) makes athletes much more reliant on carbohydrate which – like kindling on a fire – is likely to run out quickly.  We want to be metabolically flexible, that is, to burn more fat as a fuel source and only use carbohydrate when we really need it. Dan has tested his fuel utilisation in a laboratory and can burn fat at 1.3g/minute (the FASTER study reported around 1.6g/minute) – most people are around 0.6g/minute or thereabouts. However research such as that done by Volek and colleagues have shown it is possible to shift that if you go LCHF. From the testing that Dan has done, he knows that at his race intensity on the bike, an average 260 watts, his fuel utilisation is around 66% from fat stores. This allows him to preserve a lot of carbohydrate when working at this race pace intensity.

Ideally, that preservation of carbohydrate stores to use at the back end of a race when energy availability is limited should be the aim of the endurance athlete (and is extremely challenging if they are burning predominantly carbohydrate from the start). In addition, the lower LCHF diet means having lower blood glucose levels on a day-to-day basis,  important for overall health and body composition goals too. Higher sugars equals higher insulin, which is a nutrient delivery hormone – therefore there is more opportunity for fatty acids in the blood stream being stored in our fat tissue. Don’t go thinking we want rock bottom insulin levels all of the time, as insulin itself is critical for life! However ideally our levels would be low outside of the time period around meals, as elevated insulin is linked to a number of metabolic disease processes. In addition, when following a LCHF approach, we have lower stores of carbohydrate, which makes us more sensitive to the signalling for fat adaptation and upregulating of fat oxidation pathways.

So… the details?

Dan’s diet on a day-to-day basis:

  • Coffee with cream, collagen and MCT (medium chain triglyceride, our body can’t store this and is an easily used energy source)
  • SFuel bar (low carb snack)
  • Training – doesn’t eat during training, but if he does it may be a SFuel drink (MCT/branched chain amino acid (BCAA) drink mixed with some other compounds, but it is a higher fat option)
  • Breakfast is eggs, avocado, some vegetables
  • Lunch is tuna salad or similar. During heavier training load, he may add a bit of paleo bread (around 20g carbohydrate, similar to normal bread but this is made of better quality ingredients)
  • Dinner is salad with a steak
  • Snacks may be macadamias, almonds and pickles.
  • Fruit may come into it from time to time, particularly as the training load and intensity ramps up.

While not ketogenic in way that he eats, he will still likely be in ketosis during the day – by virtue of training and his normal diet is low carbohydrate – it’s around 80g – 100g carbs per day, thus naturally depleting his stored carbohydrate (glycogen). Ketogenesis is a is a physiological state, not a diet, thus it’s less important to stick rigidly to foods labelled as ketogenic and to think more globally about it. My athlete plan  is based around these dietary principles, and there are likely some nuances for the female athlete, but this general approach works well for most people I work with. It could be important for a carbohydrate refeed 1-2x per fortnight if following a very low carbohydrate diet, and that’s something I recommend to my athletes on the basis that hormonal responses will be favourable. This isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in the literature, but based more on clinical experience (and may be more important for the leaner athlete).

As I mentioned, I’ll cover off the race day side of things next week. However, if you’re keen to know more about what Dan recommends, then definitely check out his new site – he’s developing an online course that details specifics for coach and athlete alike, and is releasing it soon!

plewsOAP

Kona 2018. (PC: oxygenaddict.com)

Another reason to love coffee…

Love your coffee? Here’s another reason to pour yourself a cup. A recently published study should the consumption of a dark roasted coffee brew (500ml) daily for one month resulted in a 23 percent reduction in DNA damage to white blood cells compared to baseline levels. The protective feature of coffee is thought to be the polyphenols that are found in coffee. These bioactive ingredients (such as caffeic acid, catechol, hydroxyhydroquinone, trigonelline and the alkylpyridinium compounds) have been studied for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They are able to mop up reactive oxidative stress (ROS) molecules that are the byproduct of metabolism. Obviously a small amount of ROS is necessary, however too much can overwhelm our anti-inflammatory and antioxidant system, causing increased inflammation and the reduction in the ability for these pathways to function, causing DNA damage.

DNA damage accelerates ageing and is the underlying cause of the growth of carcinogenic cells in the body. It leads to telomere shortening – telomeres are like small caps on the end of your DNA chromosomes, protecting them from damage, and are used as a biomarker for ageing. The study was a randomised controlled trial; therefore, it is able to establish causation (unlike a lot of nutrition research, which is largely observational in nature).It is consistent with other studies that show a reduction in DNA damage after even short term exposure (such as this study, where healthy volunteers showed a reduction in damage after only 2h of drinking coffee). The current research was conducted in both healthy men and women, and the 500ml of coffee per day equated to around 372mg caffeine daily – equal to around four cups of espresso. That sounds like a lot of coffee (and it is!) however this is consistent with other observational and clinical trial research that has shown a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, cancer incidence and all-cause mortality for people who habitually consume around 4-5 cups of coffee per day. This latest study adds to a body of knowledge regarding the health benefits of coffee. The polyphenols mentioned above help protect us from type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, with improvements being seen in glucose and insulin metabolism (important for blood sugar control), blood pressure and markers of inflammation in the body.

I’ve talked before on the health benefits we see in coffee, and though this is great news for coffee drinkers, let’s not forget there is a fairly substantial proportion of people who are sensitive to the caffeine in the coffee and can’t tolerate its stimulant effects. Caffeine is metabolised in the liver, with the CYP1A2 enzyme responsible for detoxifying most of the caffeine. Our ability to produce this enzyme is coded by our genes, and there is variation as to how active this is for each individual. Those that have an active gene are able to metabolise caffeine efficiently, therefore the stimulating effects of caffeine are mild and short-acting. This may affect their enjoyment of caffeine and clearly their ability to tolerate it. The opposite is also true – someone with reduced activity of the gene will metabolise caffeine more slowly and its effects will be longer lasting and more noticeable. You can find out your genetic ability to tolerate caffeine through a Fitgenes DNA test(PM me for more information).  In addition to the genetic differences, environmental elements also influence our ability to tolerate caffeine. Even if you are a fast metaboliser, stress and lack of sleep can impact on caffeine’s effects – ramping up cortisol levels and with it anxiety and blood sugar dysregulation. Three coffees a day when on holiday and in a relaxed state may not be a problem, however when a work deadline is looming and you’ve been running on little more than petrol fumes rather than sleep, it is a different story.

With the present research, as the health benefits are from polyphenols present in the coffee, rather than the caffeine, the reduction in DNA damage may well be seen in decaffeinated coffee too, with previous research finding benefits with regards to type 2 diabetes and liver damage when consuming both decaffeinated and caffeinated coffee. has found health benefits from drinking this. However, without clinical trials to confirm this, at this stage it is unknown.

Coffee cup with saucer and beans on wooden table.

Obligatory cup of coffee (PC:stockphotos)

Should you take probiotics after a round of antibiotics? The answer may surprise you!

Two recent studies have recently been published that cast doubt on taking probiotics to help recover from a course of antibiotics. Crazy right? Ask anyone and they would tell you the opposite (as I would have). However sometimes research comes out that contradicts what we would previously have thought, and we have to be open to the idea that what we believed was in fact incorrect. The saturated-fat-heart-disease hypothesis is a clear example of dietary dogma that has been turned on its head* (and the difficulty that people have getting their heads around).

Gut health 101: The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is like a hollow tube, and the cells of the GI tract are covered by a thick protective gel, and that is the mucus layer (the inside cells of the gut are called the lumen). Each of these areas have a distinct microbial community, however these are rarely studied as they are difficult to get to (unless you have an invasive colonoscopy). The stool microbiome is also part of this gut picture and is the most often studied proxy marker as the gut microbiome and these are often used interchangeably (i.e. the bacteria you see in the stool is what we would expect to find in the gut). Interestingly, one study found that the stool microbiome is not representative of the gut mucosal or lumen microbiome, which really presents a challenge to any practitioner or patient who wants a better understanding of their gut health. It also doesn’t tell us about the gut endothelial microbiome which may be the closest to explaining our gut health as it is the closest bacteria to the gut tissue. They found that there was only a 20% correlation between the stool and the gut microbiome. While stool testing can be helpful for identifying pathogens or parasites, it’s not so useful for us to understanding the presence of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria. Stool testing is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s better alongside other tests (such as a SIBO test).

When you take probiotics, the presence of these in your gut is transient, and this is something that people are unaware of. Hundreds of trials have showed the safety and efficacy of probiotics in benefiting people, but it’s not typically through the colonisation of our gut. Like many things, we are different in the level of colonisation that occurs when bacteria is introduced into the gut – some people are more permissive than others, and some are really resistant to it. The researchers were not able to determine exactly what makes someone a ‘permissive’ coloniser and a ‘resistant’ coloniser, however suggested that the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may play a role in this. However, they are still beneficial despite this – with significant changes in the gene expression of people who took the probiotics (19 downregulated and 198 upregulated genes), confirming the idea that probiotics work at a cellular level and can enhance the activity of genes in the gut, aid in digestion, stimulate the immune system etc.

A surprising finding from a second study was that probiotics slowed the recovery of the gut microbiome after a round of fairly potent antibiotics. In fact, this is what I (and other practitioners) always recommend their clients do. Flooding the system with good bacteria has been thought to prevent the adverse effects of the antibiotics. The study wanted to see how the probiotics affect the long-term gut ecosystem after a single dose of the broad-spectrum antibiotic ciprofloxacin and metronidazole (to ensure all gut microbiome was wiped out). This particular study (conducted in both mice and humans) split the participants into three groups: one took no probiotic and were left to spontaneously recover; one group took an 11 strain bacteria probiotic for four weeks immediately upon finishing the antibiotics and the final group actually had what is called an autolagus fecal microbiome transplant (aFMT) – this is when a person takes capsules of their own fecal matter that had previously been collected when their gut is in a good space. Remember, the gut doesn’t like change, so what better than to replace the bacteria with some of your own? The results found that treating the gut with a course of probiotics delayed the return of the normal gut microbiota by as long as five months after stopping the probiotic treatment, and microbiota diversity stayed low too – well lower than the group who took nothing. In fact, the researchers found the group left to their own spontaneous recovery had no major differences in their stool microbiota within 21 days post-antibiotics. This is so different to what we understood about the ability of the gut to recover post-antibiotics. Again, there will be differences in what practitioners recommend, but to the best of our knowledge we thought that it took a good 18-24 months for the gut to fully recover from a round of potent antibiotics. This is actually incorrect too: previous research (when you delve further) shows that this may be the case for one or two strains of bacteria, but the majority actually recover fairly quickly and the composition of the gut microbiota resembles pre-treatment composition.

The gut microbiome is resilient, perhaps more so than what I (and others) had believed. This is only good news!

The researchers found the lactobacillus in the probiotic was what prevented the colonisation of the native bacteria in those that took the probiotic. This is the most commonly used bacteria in most probiotic strains. Again, this doesn’t mean that probiotics are NOT helpful in general (from the immune regulating benefits and what I’ve mentioned above) and we also don’t know how other probiotics which don’t contain the lactobacillus bacteria affect the gut (such as the yeast saccharomyces boulardis). There are so many different combinations of antibiotics and probiotics out there – and this is specific to this particular strain of probiotics and the type of antibiotic used. So it’s by no means the nail in the coffin for probiotics post-antibiotics, however it does call into question the broad recommendation and is something worth talking to your health practitioner about.

*I’ve linked to one academic’s thoughts, and could have also linked to many many more (and studies) such as this one or this one. But this isn’t a post about saturated fat so I didn’t.

probiotics

LIttle microbiota in your body are more resilient than you think… so we may need to leave them to do their thing. PC: oregonsportsnews.com

What’s the best exercise for longevity?

Well, that’s a bit of a loaded question, really. As any is better than none, and there will be different points of views by different experts (of which I am not one of them). However, the older I get, the more I am interested in the effects of ageing on our overall health span. Ageing is unavoidable; it happens to the best of us. Listed below are some of the physiological and biological changes that can occur the older we become:

  1. Insulin resistance – this is in healthy weight older adults also, with research showingthere is more peripheral insulin resistance compared to a younger population (an inability to dispose of glucose into the tissue).
  2. Decreased availability of anabolic hormones, and increased frailty with lower levels of hormones
  3. Increased anabolic resistance, so not only is there a decrease in the hormones that signal tissue growth, the muscle tissue is less responsive to the stimulus of amino acids (protein) and exercise, and there is less muscle protein synthesis in comparison to breakdown.
  4. Greater protein requirementsfor the same relative gains in muscle, strength and function compared to a younger population
  5. Decreased motor neuron function, therefore less neural signalling to muscle tissues and reduced motor function.
  6. Increased intracellular oxidative stress, causing inflammation and reduced cell functioning
  7. Reduction in satellite (stem) cellsnumbers and regenerative capacity – these cells are essential for the maintenance and repair tissues in normal physiological processes or in response to muscle damage/trauma.
  8. Elevated myostatin signalling, a protein that blocks our ability to build muscle
  9. Increased chronic inflammation (also known as inflamm-aging)
  10. Changes in autophagy, where ageing reduces our ability to clear out damaged DNA
  11. Mitochondrial functioning abnormalities, where we can’t utilise energy metabolites as effectively to fuel mitochondria
  12. Reduced ability to be physically active (due to many of the reasons listed above)

This is a long, daunting and rather depressing list of what can occur as we age – and we are an ageing population. There is no doubt that if we don’t look after the body we have got, then we really are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. The list above describes many of the mechanisms to explain the loss of muscle mass and function. It’s not about being ripped or having gainz, it’s about having proper functioning of the muscle so it can work effectively in our older years. This is what is shown to have the most positive impact on our cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal systems.

Inactivity is the broader environmental issue that we need to address any (and all) of the physiological issues I have mentioned above. We need to be active – in everyday life, and with some structured activity too. Hanging out washing and housework isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid. I see a lot of people who have this idea that you don’t need to exercise in order to lose weight, and you can do it solely on diet alone. This is true, of course, but when you embark on any weight loss plan that restricts calories (i.e. any weight loss plan that is out there), then you will lose both fat weight and muscle mass – lowering your overall metabolic rate along with it. This is one of the reasons why weight regain is so prevalent, however the powerful combination of diet plus exercise helps sustainable weight loss. As I alluded to above, exercise isn’t just moving around the house, doing chores – this should just be part of everyday living. Data looking at the effects of exercise show that resistance training confers benefits over and above what we would see if we were just doing 30 minutes exercise per day.

The right type and duration of exercise:

The challenge is to get people exercising. And this is especially so for those who read what I have said above, and think that – on top of 30 minutes of aerobic training they don’t have time to do, they then need to put some resistance (or weight) training in.

I’m not writing this to encourage you to find an additional 3 hours in your week, though.

In fact, a study that is yet to be published (I heard about it on STEM talk) suggests that just 72 minutes a week in total is enough to help many of the conditions associated with ageing and poor health that I’ve mentioned above. Egan and colleagues found a combination of both resistance and cardiovascular exercise in a circuit-type setting for adults over 65 years just three times a week for 24 minutes increased walking speed, leg strength and reduced trunk fat. These measures speak to better muscular function, obviously increased strength, and will help reduce metabolic health risk. The improvements were more potent in this combined group than either resistance training or aerobic training for the same duration.

So this was a very long preamble to the main message: if you are currently NOT exercising, then please start. While there are modalities that are better than others, seriously, anything will be better than nothing. The study I talked about is in older adults, you likely don’t need me to tell you that any age you start is obviously better than not starting at all. AND the earlier you start, the better the overall health outcomes.

Exercise-1

Seriously. Those pink dumbbells. Because obviously an older female couldn’t possibly lift anything heavier, right?! (PC:www.fabafterfifty.co.uk).

 

Exercise for longevity – is there a best approach?

The older I get, the more I am interested in the effects of ageing on our overall health span. Ageing is unavoidable, it happens to the best of us. Listed below are some of the physiological and biological changes that can occur the older we become:

  1. Insulin resistance – this is in healthy weight older adults also, with research showing there is more peripheral insulin resistance compared to a younger population (an inability to dispose of glucose into the tissue).
  2. Decreased availability of anabolic hormones, and increased frailty with lower levels of hormones
  3. Increased anabolic resistance, so not only is there a decrease in the hormones that signal tissue growth, the muscle tissue is less responsive to the stimulus of amino acids (protein) and exercise, and there is less muscle protein synthesis in comparison to breakdown.
  4. Greater protein requirements for the same relative gains in muscle, strength and function compared to a younger population
  5. Decreased motor neuron function, therefore less neural signalling to muscle tissues and reduced motor function.
  6. Increased intracellular oxidative stress, causing inflammation and reduced cell functioning
  7. Reduction in satellite (stem) cells numbers and regenerative capacity – these cells are essential for the maintenance and repair tissues in normal physiological processes or in response to muscle damage/trauma.
  8. Elevated myostatin signalling, a protein that blocks our ability to build muscle
  9. Increased chronic inflammation (also known as inflamm-aging)
  10. Changes in autophagy, where ageing reduces our ability to clear out damaged DNA
  11. Mitochondrial functioning abnormalities, where we can’t utilise energy metabolites as effectively to fuel mitochondria
  12. Reduced ability to be physically active (due to many of the reasons listed above)

Clearly, these are not all inevitable. However, it is a long, daunting, and rather depressing list of what can occur as we age – and we are an ageing population. There is no doubt that if we don’t look after this body we have got, then we really are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

The list above describes many of the mechanisms to explain the loss of muscle mass and function. It’s not about being ripped or having gainz, it’s about having proper functioning of the muscle so it can work effectively in our older years – this is what is shown to have the most positive impact on our cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal systems.

Inactivity is the broader environmental issue that contributes substantially to the physiological issues I have mentioned above. We need to be active – in everyday life, and with some structured activity too. Hanging out washing and housework isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid. I see a lot of people who have this idea that you don’t need to exercise in order to lose weight, and you can do it solely on diet alone. This is true, of course, but when you embark on any weight loss plan that restricts calories (i.e. any weight loss plan that is out there), then you will lose both fat weight and muscle mass – lowering your overall metabolic rate along with it. This is one of the reasons why weight regain is so prevalent. However the powerful combination of diet plus exercise helps sustainable weight loss. And exercise isn’t just moving around the house, doing chores – this should just be part of everyday living. Data looking at the effects of exercise show that resistance training confers benefits over and above what we would see if we were just doing 30 minutes of cardio-based exercise per day, something that many of us maintain, but it doesn’t offer the same benefits.

The right type and duration of exercise:

The challenge is to get people exercising. And this is especially so for those who read what I have said above, and think that – on top of 30 minutes of aerobic training they don’t have time to do, they need to then put some resistance (or weight) training in.

This is not a call to encourage you to find an additional 3 hours in your week, though. In fact, a study that is about to be published (I heard about it on STEM talk) suggests that just 72 minutes a week in total is enough to help many of the conditions associated with ageing and poor health that I’ve mentioned above. Egan and colleagues found a combination of both resistance and cardiovascular exercise in a circuit-type setting for adults over 65 years just three times a week for 24 minutes increased walking speed, leg strength and reduced trunk fat. These measures speak to better muscular function, obviously increased strength, and will help reduce metabolic health risk. The improvements were more potent in this combined group than either resistance training or aerobic training for the same duration. It wasn’t olymic lifting from the sounds of it,  but it also wasn’t lifting pink dumbbells, either.

So this was a very long preamble to the main message: if you are currently NOT exercising, then please start. While there are modalities that are better than others, seriously, anything will be better than nothing. The study I talked about is in older adults, you likely don’t need me to tell you that any age you start is obviously better than not starting at all. AND the earlier you start, the better the overall health outcomes.

There is often an argument as to which is best; exercise or diet for improving health. That’s a weird argument to my mind. Both are important and should be prioritised if you want more life in the years you’ve got left.

stronger-effect-of-resistance-training-when-combined-with-protein-supplementation

One of the only pics I could find that didn’t involve pink dumbbells. (PC: https://www.frieslandcampinainstitute.com/)

Holiday weight gain?

Who doesn’t love a holiday? A break away from early alarm clocks, work and household chores. When out of your own space you’re forced to leave behind the normal routines that are well established in everyday life, which is obviously why we come back feeling refreshed and ready to get back into it. The problem, though, is that many people panic about getting out of routine with their food and exercise – what if that 10 days in Fiji goes and undoes the last three months of hard work and they end up gaining weight?

Well, it might not. Why?

1. You are a LOT more active on holiday compared to real life: driving to work and sitting in an office does not afford the same opportunity to be as active as sight-seeing does. I clocked up almost double the number of steps as I normally would when I was away. Even on days we didn’t run, relying on both public transport and my feet to see a city racked up enough steps so I was regularly doing 23,000 or more each day. However, if you’re a lounge-around-the-pool kind of vacationer, if you had a hit out in the hotel gym, you can avoid weight gain for a short term holiday in the face of a calorie excess.

2. You sleep more: lack of sleep will drive up insulin and cortisol levels and create a hormonal environment that is unfavourable for fat loss. Even if you have the perfect diet (if there is such a thing), no amount of calorie counting, carb watching, or protein eating will make up for the string of 5-6 hours a night you manage during the week when work, exercise and home duties take up so much time, you stay up later than you know you should just to enjoy a little time out.

3. You’re generally more relaxed. The everyday stress created by school pick-ups, work deadlines and weekend sport might be ‘normal’ life, but don’t underestimate the effect this can have on your ability to lose weight. While we may not know the underlying mechanisms, like the effects of sleep deprivation, a chronic overload of stress will increase hormones responsible for fat gain regardless of what you eat or how much exercise you do. In fact, for some, their normal stress relief of going for a run or doing an F45 class will only add to the stress bucket, further exacerbating a weight loss stall. And, when stressed, we often reach for food that is high in calories, low in nutrients.

What if it does?

If you were maintaining or losing weight prior to going away on holiday, then that tells me you’ve got the tools necessary to help you refocus on an eating style and exercise routine that will easily shed any fat gain that is the result of too many cocktails by the pool.

Actual fat gain will be quite minimal, and pretty easy to shift – potentially easier than what you were finding before your holiday. The additional calories eaten on holiday aren’t all stored as fat (at all!) We restock depleted glycogen, and for some, short term overfeeding  increases resting metabolic rate in response to increased food (as many of the overfeeding studies conducted under laboratory conditions have found). Even if you have a predisposition for weight gain, the amount of weight you can is usually far less than the excess calories eaten would predict.

However, for those panicking about the additional fat gain (if any):

1. Up the protein intake. This will help reduce any carb-related cravings from too many pancakes/baked goods/fat chips. Aim for foods that will provide 30g of protein per meal (as an example, a 150g beef steak has about 37g of protein, 3 large eggs around 24g of protein). This will help fill you up and regulate blood sugar, preventing any dip in energy that might be exacerbated by lack of sleep or jetlag. Combined with strategies listed below, it’s a recipe for fat loss.

2. Lay off the alcohol. We definitely had more wine and beer on holiday, and in the space of 15 days I had 2 days where I didn’t consume any during the holiday. Despite that I’m not drinking any more than 1-2 glasses (3 on a couple of occasions), it is more than what I’d normally drink. Post-holiday I went for a week without any – not a long time, but enough to help me get over my post-holiday tiredness and to ‘break the habit’ as it were. And I have to say, feel quite virtuous.

3. Drop back the fat intake – if you’ve gained excess body fat, then we want your body to tap into this (potentially) accessible fuel source – this obviously requires a calorie deficit. There is no need to seek out ‘low fat’ foods or avoid foods that naturally contain fat (i.e. egg yolks), however reducing down the amount of added fat to meals (via sauces, dressings, cooking oils, nut butters etc) will help reduce the calorie content of your diet with minimal effort.

4. Drop back the carbohydrate intake – some people benefit from doing a 21 day low (er than normal) carbohydrate diet. I know what you’re thinking – if I drop the fat AND the carbs, what do I eat? I’m talking short-term here – you base your meals around protein and titrate fat and carbohydrate according to that. If you know you feel better with a bit of carbohydrate in your diet, that’s no issue – just make it good quality (i.e. kumara) and make it a moderate serving. However, ample amounts of even low sugar carbohydrate (like rice, pasta, bread etc) will make it more difficult to shift.

5. Include plenty of vegetables – base your meals around these. The prebiotic fibre can help improve the gut environment after a week or more of too much fried foods (though that cheese hoagie was delicious) and too much alcohol. Splashing raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) on steamed vegetables ups the taste factor and helps reduce post-prandial (post-meal) blood sugar, making you less likely to search for something sweet. In addition, you can go for gold on most non-starchy vegetables, so fill your plate to help fill you up.

6. Lift weights. Heavy ones. If you don’t have access to a gym then even body weight exercises (such as press-ups, squats, lunges) if not doing them, will create stress to help you build muscle. I’m not suggesting you avoid lacing up for your long run – I’m a long-distance runner after all! –  resistance training, though, is metabolically demanding in the short term, and in the long term will preserve your resting metabolic rate to allow you to burn fat in everyday life. Plus, you’ll improve strength. Bonus.

7. Consider fasting. Be it the 5:2 protocol that I utilise in my fat-loss plans, a 16:8 protocol that is popular (i.e. fast from 8pm to 12pm the next day, or Super-fasting as per the Schofield/Zinn protocol outlined in What the Fast, it’s consistently found to improve metabolic health markers and can reduce calorie intake to elicit a fat-loss response.

8. Get plenty of sleep – try to get back into a 7-8h per night habit with this one and be disciplined about it, for reasons I outlined above.

And, finally (and most importantly), does it matter? I mean, does it truly matter that you come back from an awesome time away with a couple of additional kilograms? Part of the beauty of a holiday is leaving behind all of the routines of your day-to-day life, including exercise and your normal foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many of us need a mental break almost as much as a physical one, and this includes a break from your usual diet and exercise regime. You will come back feeling refreshed and ready to embrace these with renewed energy (or being in a mindset of change for the better, if that is more appropriate).

escape

Get away from the routine of being in routine… (PC locokerala.com)

Food rules.

I’m all for flexibility when it comes to what people eat. Labels like ‘vegan’, ‘paleo’, ‘keto’ for a lot of people aren’t particularly useful (even when self-imposed) if that means the structure of their food intake is tied up into the ‘rules’ of that particular diet. People panic when they are out of their own food environment and unable to eat according to the rules of their dietary ethos. While there are those who intuitively know they don’t need to rigidly eat the same foods or meals to be able to progress towards their health goals, this isn’t a widely appreciated concept. For some, diet ‘rules’ can create a certain degree of neuroticism around food; people argue it is a form of orthorexia at its worse – I’m not sure I agree with that, given the complexities associated with diagnosed eating disorders. Regardless, if the anxiety around food exists, it can lead the person to turn down invitations where their dietary rules will not be able to be adhered to, thus becoming socially isolated from their normal circle of friends. Or they may still attend with the intention not to eat, only to ‘cave in’; one small snack becomes a bit of a binge-fest because they have ‘blown it all.’ Both of these situations can make a person feel pretty terrible, and do nothing for their self-esteem.  You can see why, then, there are people who are adamantly against ‘rules’ around food.

However, I don’t agree that there shouldn’t be any structure around what, how, and when a person eats.  I think you’ll know I’m not suggesting this structure should equate specifically to a dogmatic dietary regime, such as only eating ‘paleo’ or ‘raw vegan’. I’m talking about rules that take the decision making out of some pretty common every day food experiences. Let’s face it, most people have a lot going on in their lives – we make 35,000 decisions per day (apparently!), 200 of them are food-related, though we are conscious of about 12-15 of them. Many people don’t have the bandwidth to be directly  making decisions about what to eat day-in, day-out (hence food plans like mine are awesome, btw). That’s what makes it so easy to ‘succumb’ to takeaways at the end of the day (I say ‘succumb’ as I know many people think it’s lack of willpower. Well, no, it’s more decision fatigue than anything else). Dogma around diet is, after all, the appeal of following it – someone else has deemed what you can eat and what you can’t. This takes the thinking out of it and works perfectly fine… until it doesn’t. And it doesn’t take long for it to start causing more headaches than not. The type of rules, then, that I’m thinking about are those which are akin to brushing your teeth. You just do them, they are non-negotiable. Once you get into the habit of them, you don’t even have the think about it.

The types of rules I’m thinking about include:

  1. Never eat standing up (therefore omitting mindless snacking).
  2. Brush your teeth after dinner (to avoid snacking later in the evening).
  3. Have at least one serve of vegetables at breakfast, and 2-3 at lunch and dinner.*
  4. Put all junk food in the house in an opaque container and keep high up in the pantry, so they aren’t having to see it every time they open the cupboard to prepare meals (out of sight, out of mind).
  5. Choose a protein choice (meat, eggs, fish) and vegetables first when eating a meal out, and then (if still hungry), choose something else. This will fill you up, so there is less room for other foods that are easy to overeat.
  6. Order dressings and sauces on the side (so you can control how much you use).

Instead of feeling anxious about having to decide what to eat, then constantly second-guessing what to do, simple guidelines like these can help you make better decisions in any context. They take the thinking out of it, therefore less energy is wasted and they aren’t constantly ruminating about what to eat. This creates less anxiety and neuroticism, and people can feel empowered and confident in their food decisions.  It’s less about the availability of specific food choices and more about way food is eaten, the environment it is eaten in, and the type of food. You don’t need to be perfect to be awesome, you just need to be consistent, and consistently approaching food in the same way (not deciding that you’ve ‘blown it all, so you’ll binge’ whenever you make a choice not deemed ‘suitable’ as part of your dietary regime).

From clinical experience, I find most people respond well to strategies such as those mentioned above.

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If only it were this simple. (PC: theironyou.com)

Coffee: your friend or foe?

Coffee. It’s like the world’s favourite elixir. Mine included. For an athlete, there are many studies supporting its use as an ergogenic aid for athletes – helping reduce rates of perceived pain and effort, improving muscle fibre recruitment and enhancing glycogen repletion post-workout. These benefits are individual, however, and while research suggests that genetic differences in our ability to detoxify caffeine could account for this, it is not a universal finding. This is something true for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Other features of coffee are also salient for all individuals. Caffeine is ketogenic; not only can it help mobilise fatty acids to be used for energy, it increases the presence of ketones in the bloodstream – hence it is a good pre-workout fuel to help elicit fatty acid oxidation pathways and provide fuel for the workout in the absence of glucose. This doesn’t necessarily translate in additional body fat loss (more important lifestyle strategies are required for that, such as a caloric deficit, resistance training, reduction in stress etc), but can encourage these energy pathways to be upregulated, helping in the process of becoming adapted to a lower carb dietary approach.

Coffee improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (potentially related to the polyphenols present, though the mechanism is currently unclear), therefore enhancing the effects of both a lower carb approach, or a plan that includes fasting (either intermittent fasting, super-fasting, or a 5:2 approach such as the one in my fat-loss plans). Further, anyone doing my accelerated fat loss plans who have that 16h intermittent fast on the ‘fasting mimicking’ days could experience a more potent effect from the fast by including black coffee alongside water as their beverages of choice.

Autophagy, where our body starts to clear out damaged cells from the liver, heart and muscle tissue, is one of the benefits of fasting as you know. In mice models it might take just 16 hours for this to occur, in humans it is likely to take a lot longer given the differences in our metabolic rate (a mouse has a faster metabolism). Consuming caffeine on an empty stomach (or as part of a fast) promotes autophagy, which theoretically would shorten the time that is required to fast to stimulate this process. It also triggers AMPK, an enzyme that inhibits fat storage, promotes fat burning and activates antioxidant networks. These properties are thought to underpin much of the purported health benefits of drinking coffee.

It IS a balance though – if you’re following a fasting protocol, working out, and reading this at 3.30am in the morning, it’s a good sign that your brain is wired – raising cortisol to the extent that it’s (quite obviously) disrupting sleep. When we fast, like exercise, it places a stress on the body – this is where many benefits come from, as your body responds and adapts, becoming more resilient. However, too much of anything is too much! If coffee on top of your fasting regime or exercise program (or, life in general) is causing this stress response, then it is worth dialling it back a bit (or go 1/2 and 1/2 with decaf) to see if this changes your stress response.

Caffeine (or coffee), though, may not be good for anyone with gut issues. As it can stimulate the stomach cells to release more gastric juices, aiding in digestion, we often hear that too much coffee promotes a highly acidic environment and as such, could increase the risk of damage to the cells and subsequent gut issues. The literature, though, reports that caffeine does not negatively impact gastric or duodenal ulcers, and in fact when administered in vitro, could help repair cells damaged by inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis, and is also protective for the mucosal layer of the gut. Research suggests this is because caffeine increases blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract. Conversely, caffeine can lower the tone of the oesophageal sphincter – the valve that controls the release of stomach acid into the oesophagus, thus may promote heartburn and reflux.

With all research studies, it’s important to remember you are your own best investigator when it comes to how coffee affects you. I’ve said this before, but a good point to reiterate. The best advice, then, is to pay attention to how you feel when you drink coffee. Does drinking coffee make you more wired, especially when you fast, indicating it stimulates your stress (or cortisol) response? Does it give you reflux or heartburn? Does it upset your digestive tract more than settle it? Everyone has a different tolerance level to coffee, and further, our ability to detoxify it may also be different. If you feel great when you have coffee, and you don’t have any gut-related issues, then it is likely absolutely fine for you. If you notice an irritated gut, or you feel a bit wired, then it isn’t worth persevering with coffee for the purported health benefits – in your case, it might be making things worse.

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Ahhh… coffee 🙂

Does HIIT take a hit on a ketogenic diet?

Much of the research points to the utility of a keto diet for increasing fat oxidation for longer, slower training. After a period of adaptation, athletes are then able to tap into an alternative fuel source which affords them an extensive supply of fuel at a steady rate, unlike carbohydrate (glycogen) stores which are limited and easily depleted in a moderate-long training session. Thus, it stands to reason athletes are able to go for longer than if they are straight carb-burning athletes in an endurance event – something that Maunder and colleagues discuss in this most recent paper outlining the practical application of a low carbohydrate diet for athletes of varying abilities. However many of the recent randomized trials (such as this one here) have found that performance, particularly at the top-end of the spectrum, is compromised when athletes switch to a lower carbohydrate approach. Further, the relative effort at a given heart rate is increased. You go slower, but it feels harder. Ouch. This understandably makes an athlete’s coache a little nervous to recommend their athletes go on a lower carbohydrate diet.

Interesting though, this is not the experience of many people I work with who transition to a lower carb diet. If anything, performance improves for the athlete (something I’ve written a lot about over the last few years, including this blog here). Given enough time, any reduction in power that occurs early in the transition phase appears to be reversed and the athlete comes out leaner, stronger and fitter in their endurance training. Reducing reliance on carbohydrate as a training fuel reduces the oxidative damage that occurs during training, thus inflammation is reduced. They aren’t placing their body under as much oxidative stress and therefore the athlete can train more consistently during the season with less risk of stress-related injury and illness. This may also be due to a higher presence of beta hydroxybutyrate in the bloodstream, which act as signalling molecules and increase the transcription of enzymes that encode antioxidant genes superoxide dismutase, catalase 2 and glutathione peroxidase. This helps scavenge free radicals created through training and protects the athlete from tissue damage. This may be one of the reasons why they are seeing better results with their key races.

Two of my mates felt similarly, and experienced similar benefits of adhering to a low carbohydrate diet, experiencing no detriment to high intensity training, despite what the research deemed. So they decided to test the hypothesis.

They took 18 male endurance athletes who were habitually eating a standard western diet, and randomised them to consume either their normal diet (control group), or a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet, consisting of no more than 50g carbs per day for four weeks, and performed graded exercise tests before and after the experiment, and a HIIT session (5x3min, work/rest 2:1, passive recovery, total time 34min) before, and after 2 and 4 weeks.

The researchers found that (as expected) fat oxidation levels increased in the experimental group throughout the tests, and total time to exhaustion, performance in the HIIT session and rate of perceived exertion was no different between the groups. Ergo, the ketogenic diet did not impact the athlete’s ability to undergo high intensity training (nor make it seem harder for them). Interestingly, the level of protein in the diet was around 29%, higher than the 17% used in other studies – this could account for the level of ketones present in the blood stream that were lower at the end of the study (0.4 mmol/L), just out of the ‘nutritional ketosis’ range. The difference this may have made to the athletes’ performance, however, we don’t really know.

Many of the studies conducted that have found performance is reduced are likely too short to allow the athletes to adapt to a ketogenic diet, which is thought to take several weeks to months. Hopefully this new research makes you think twice about taking the results of a study like such as the one here, as a reason to dismiss the low carbohydrate diet for athletes.

To recap, then, of what we know is possible for athletes following a lower carbohydrate approach:

As a side note, lots of peeps look at the elite athlete who chows down on carbohydrate in racing and during everyday life and thinks to themselves that, if they can perform to that standard eating a higher carb approach, then why can’t I? A couple of points to note:

  • The elite athlete may train from 20-30 hours per week – by default they spend a lot of time in a depleted state, meaning they are likely training low glycogen as it is impossible to replenish carbohydrate at the rate they are burning it. This is going to afford them the same capacity to train in the lower carb state that provides enhanced training adaptations. The average age grouper may have time to train 12-18h a week maximum, and don’t have the volume available to get into the low glycogen state.
  • They are elite for a reason. They are able to go harder and faster than most people –psychologically they are able to hurt more and potentially go longer before they bonk – we age-groupers have more of a preservation mindset. They may also be able to train harder when in an inflamed state for this reason. I’m not saying this is ideal (far from it). I’m just putting it out there as a reason why there are professionals who are able to see results where others don’t.
  • Even at the top of the field the elite athlete can suffer, and far more than an age-grouper. Years of a nutrient-poor, carbohydrate rich diet and overreaching to the point of overtraining will leave an athlete burnt out and unable to continue on at the level they previously enjoyed. It might appear that elite athletes are bullet proof but I’m sure as you’re reading this you’re thinking of someone who falls into this category. Things aren’t always as they appear, and the golden glow of success can be pretty fleeting.
  • Of course, there are others who are just awesome and continue to turn up and take it out year after year, regardless of diet, training methods, lifestyle etc. Like the people who drink every day, smoke like a chimney and don’t eat vegetables, yet live to 102 years.
  • Re: racing high carbohydrate – that Maunder paper again – worth a read.

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Hungry?

One of the things that clients fear most is being hungry. When I talk to some of them about removing snacks and eating just three times a day (or 1-2 times, depending on their individual plan), there is a look of fear that comes into their eyes. For others, though, they almost relish the opportunity to feel hungry because it has been forever since they’ve felt the grumbling in their stomach that tells them they are ready for food. This doesn’t, however, mean that they never eat! But it does affect their enjoyment of food – and, let’s face it, food is not only fuel, but it is one of life’s pleasures. One that, for many, they’ve denied themselves the opportunity to experience.

Which camp do you fall into, why do you feel that way, and how do you change your mindset around hunger (if you need to?)

Why do you fear being hungry?

In my clinical experience there are two main reasons why people are scared to be hungry. Firstly, hunger is not actually just felt in your stomach, your entire being experiences it. If your hunger comes on suddenly and without warning (you go from feeling fine to being ravenous), if it changes your physical state (ie you start feeling light headed, lacking in energy, maybe even start sweating) and your emotional state (you feel irrationally angry, sad or conversely, on something of a high before a big energy crash), then our emotion around being hungry can be one of fear. No-one likes being shunted from one emotional state to another, particularly if it comes completely without warning, which is often the case in this type of scenario. The fear of over-eating in response to this physiological and emotional state is the second reason for being scared to be hungry. When they do finally get to eat, they don’t trust they will make good decisions around food, and thus starts a (sometimes perpetual) cycle of fear, eating, self-punishment, eating….

What gives? This kind of hunger isn’t hunger at all – it’s blood sugar. Whenever we eat too little, or too little of nutrients that regulate our appetite hormones (nutrients such as protein, fibre and fat) at a meal, it is going to cause our blood sugar to drop and – in some instances – drop too rapidly. This response from our blood sugar sends an alarm signal to our brain that we are in danger (or potential danger) of having no fuel on board. In evolutionary times, this could have meant almost certain death: we wouldn’t have fuel to either fight for our life or run for our life. There may be no sabre-tooth tigers lurking around in everyday life now, but our body’s genetic blueprint hasn’t changed in that regard. Those ringing alarm bells drive us to search for food and do it fast – hence the rapid change in our physical and emotional state. The type of food our brain tells us to seek out is that which is going to deliver quick energy – sweet or starchy food. That is what will bring our blood sugar back to within normal range and get us out of the state of emergency our brain was experiencing. The problem is, though, is that the type of food we go for is the same as what got us into the blood sugar position in the first place.

No wonder you are scared to be hungry, and you feel you can’t trust yourself around food. While one option is to eat frequently (thus, almost to prevent being hungry), this isn’t the best approach. Every time you eat, you send signals to your body that you’ve taken on board fuel, therefore causing changes in your blood sugar levels and creating a hormonal environment that is more favourable to fat gain. In addition, it’s likely the types of food you are snacking on are those which created this blood sugar problem in the first instance (this is not your fault! We’ll blame the 80s-early 2000s for that, and the message to eat ‘six small meals a day’*). They may not be high in free sugar (ie ‘junk’ foods), but they could well be low in fat, fibre or protein, all potent regulators of our blood sugar. Cue the creation of the same problem as if you had just eaten a high sugar snack. Your body doesn’t know the difference without a good amount of the aforementioned nutrients to go alongside it.

If not ‘eat more often’, then what? Eat more but eat less often. The main driver of this is fluctuating blood sugar levels, therefore to combat this we need to fill up more at our meal times (be it 1, 2 or 3 times per day) to avoid a dramatic drop in them. The approach to eating I advise takes care of that for you. As I said, this physiological response is because you’ve eaten too little (or too little of the right** foods) in the first place. Your blood sugars won’t rise to the same extent, will be buffered by the additional protein, fibre and fat, so will decrease at a far slower rate, thus there will be no alarm bells ringing, and no stress response. Hunger will come on gradually (perhaps 4 hours after a meal) and, if you were called into a meeting, you would be able to concentrate on the situation at hand, rather than be distracted, irritated or hangry.

And what if you fall into the other camp, when you are never hungry? The main reason for this is often due to the first scenario – you are pre-emptively eating, thus never allowing yourself the opportunity to digest food and wait for your body to send signals to your brain that you are hungry. More often than not, this is because you are scared to be hungry (so, back to the first reason then). However, there is also another factor I see that impacts on appetite – and it is stress. If you are in an elevated state of ‘doing’, and are constantly on the move, stress hormones can suppress your appetite – therefore eating is somewhat of a chore, something that you feel you should do and therefore you don’t enjoy it. Conversely, you don’t eat which leads you to overeating later in the day when you are finally able to relax. Interestingly, a lot of clients report that, in both scenarios I have described, they continue to eat after having a normal (or larger) size meal because they are not satisfied.  This is usually despite the fact that physically they feel full, but emotionally they are somewhat empty. If you don’t take the time to enjoy your food (and it’s something you derive pleasure from) then no amount of additional food at this time is going to make you feel better. In fact, most people report feeling worse. Taking the time to sit down and enjoy your food helps you to listen to your body and eat when you are truly hungry.

*like anyone knew what six small meals a day were – most examples were enough to feed a 110 kg body builder, not a person trying to maintain a size they felt comfortable at.

**foods higher in protein, fibre, with added fat for satiety.

 

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This caterpillar was, in fact, very hungry. (PC: scholastic.com)