Ask Amanda: Nice to Meat You

I could dedicate my entire blog to the genesis for this post, which is a response to the pro-vegan, anti-animal-protein messages sent in the recently popular documentary “What The Health?”

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Don’t tell me to read The China Study; I already have.

But I won’t.  Why?  Because other people have already addressed it, and far better and more in-depth than I would have, and I’m sick of just straight ranting here every week. 😉

What I do want to address is this – the common question I get from vegetarians and those thinking about eliminating animal products from their daily diets – can’t I get all the protein I need from plant-based sources?  Do I really need to eat meat?

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Liiiiisaaaaaa….I thought you lovedddd meeeee

My simple and honest answers?  Not ideally, and sort of.

If I hear one more vegetarian tell me “but rice and beans are a complete source of protein!” I’m going to blow my top.  YES, there is some protein in beans (21.5g per 1/2 cup, along with 300 calories and 55g grams of carbs, hoo boy), and even less in rice (2.5g per 1/2 cup, along with 110 calories and 22 grams of carbs), but even when added together, don’t even come near the protein power of a 4-ounce chicken breast (35g protein, 187 calories and absolutely zero carbs).

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Calories still count, even in the pursuit of protein.

In short, it is a challenge for the average active, healthy person to get enough protein without overdosing on a big chunk of carbs (or worse, processed junky vegetarian snacks) if they’re not integrating some animal product (egg whites count; and I’m not neglecting tofu here, but there are a lot of other reasons to limit soy intake outside of its protein content).

Before this gets too inflammatory, let me address some common responses to this remark:

  • Protein is not the only macronutrient that makes a healthy diet (the others being fat and carbohydrates), and of course there is a danger to getting too much protein as well.  However, among my clients (especially women) that are trying to lose weight, protein is usually the make-or-break macronutrient – if they don’t get enough or try to get it all from non-animal sources, they tend to go over their recommended caloric intake, eat more, feel hungrier, have less energy, and have more of a problem maintaining muscle mass and losing fat.
  • Sure, there are high-profile vegan athletes like ultramarathoner Scott Jurek (whose sport demands lower muscle density and tons of quickly digestible carb calories) or even bodybuilder Alex Dargatz (who very likely keeps the protein powder industry in business from his massive daily consumption of the stuff).  But these athletes are not “normal people” (especially weight loss clients) looking to maintain a generally healthy diet – they are high-performing professionals with specific and often extreme macronutrient requirements.  For most people, eating too many carbs and not enough protein is a major reason for carrying around extra body fat.
  • Some animal products are (way, way) better choices than others.  I’d never advocate eating processed sausage over a nice vegan quinoa pilaf just to get more protein, or chowing down on a hunk of cheddar cheese over a fresh orange just to nosh more daily calcium.  Choosing organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, and free range meat, fish and poultry (and perhaps avoiding beef and lamb altogether) is a great way to make your animal protein intake more environmentally friendly (and if the cost of those things makes your pocketbook shudder, consider cheaper and also eco-sensitive protein sources like free range eggs, canned tuna, or Greek yogurt).

Let me digress for a moment to say that all of the above information and opinions are from a purely nutritional perspective, without considering the many (valid) moral and political reasons one may choose to eliminate his or her use of animal products (if you’re interested in my sole personal opinion on this issue, this article sums it up nicely).

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Deep thoughts.

I have absolutely no problem with anyone that chooses not to eat meat for any reason, but I will reiterate that not eating at least some animal products makes muscle gain, fat loss, and the general eating experience (everything from choosing healthy options at a restaurant to finding low-carb high-protein snack choices to tossing together a quick healthy meal at home) a heck of a lot tougher – and for many animal-free clients, that “toughness” becomes too great a barrier to eating clean (why toil over making a tempeh-cake -and-nutritional-yeast parmigiana when you ca just grab a nice, tasty vegan cupcake to go?).

If I can leave you with one nugget of takeaway from this entire thing, it’s this: the healthiest diet for humans is one that is based on ingredients grown and raised in the best possible conditions for the most possible nutritional value having gone through the least possible amount of processing.  That’s it.  So in my (professional) opinion – pick an apple.  Catch a fish.  Grow some herbs.  Your body will thank you.

Are you pro-meat or choose to abstain from it?  Are you a flexitarian, pescatarian, or have some other way of limiting your animal intake?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Ask Amanda: Gimme a Gimmick

I ranted on the frustration of misinformation in the fitness industry a few weeks ago, and I suppose, in a way, this post is just the continuation of that.  Every day I get questions about products, workouts, foods, and supplements that purport to be “healthy” or “quick fixes” to weight loss or “the last diet you’ll ever need.”

Trust me, if any of that stuff was true and valid (for everyone/anyone/at a reasonable price point), there would be a helluva lot more healthy, fit people walking around these days.

That is NOT to say that there are not certain things that are better than others when it comes to how you spend your health and fitness dollars, and I want to highlight a few of the most common ones I get asked about along with my convenient rating system.

Here’s the deal, folks – for each product/service, I am going to rate both the level of GIMMICK and the level of actual UTILITY.  The reason I want to separate these two things is because sometimes, the two can come together in glorious harmony, as in my beloved Orangetheory Fitness, while in other cases, they are completely in opposition, such as the over-hyped (and IMO, unsafe) SoulCycle.

Let’s get started, shall we?

GREEN (AND OTHER MAGIC) POWDERSGIMMICK SCORE: 8/10; UTILITY SCORE 8/10

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I wrote an entire entry on the “magic dusts” that are the lifeblood of L.A.’s Moon Juice Cafe; recently a reader asked me a similar question about green powders (like the one above).  The basic concept is this – you take all the good things out of vegetables, you put them into a powder, you drink the powder and BOOM – it’s like you ate the vegetables.

Sort of.

Higher-quality green powders do in fact provide some nutrient value –  much like high-quality protein powders do in fact provide dietary protein.  The key thing to remember here is that green powders are better at providing micronutrients – think things like certain vitamins (be careful not to get TOO much of certain ones, like vitamin A), and some minerals – rather than all the great things a rainbow of fruits and veggies provide, such as water content, fiber, and non-green benefits (like beta-carotene).

I will always – always! – reiterate the mantra of REAL FOOD FIRST, meaning you absolutely do not need pills, powders, or anything that didn’t grow out of the ground to stay perfectly healthy and fit.

WAIST TRAINERSGIMMICK SCORE: 10/10; UTILITY SCORE 3/10

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Or should I say “waste (of time)” trainers?  Eh?  Eh?  

Ok, seriously though.  Let’s take an honest gander at the image above and what do you see?  A medieval-era throwback to a corset, except these bad boys are rubberized (to maximise sweat-related water loss, and no I’m not kidding) and close shut with metal.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t just skip over the whole explanation and give this one a utility score of 0, get ready to be aghast – I actually used one to shrink my own waist once, and it actually sort of worked (!).

In terms of short-term squeezing and sweating your skin into a particular shape for a particular dress, it works.  In terms of trying to permanently reduce the size or change the shape of your midsection for anything longer than a couple weeks, it doesn’t.  And there’s a ton of evidence that these things are dangerous, pointless, and ineffective.

SHAPE-UPS & “FITNESS” SHOESGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 1/10

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Look at that shoe.  Just LOOK at it.  I don’t care if the godawful thing gave you Blake Lively legs; I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this monstrosity of a wedge with any public audience.

The concept here, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is that you walk in these “Shape Up” shoes all day and they rock your foot back and forth as you do, forcing your body to “use more energy” (the industry jargon for BURN CALORIES! LOSE WEIGHT! GET SKINNY!) and thus become fit.

If only.

Not only is there less-than-zero evidence for the “toning” effects of these rockin’ shoes, the unstable nature of the soles mean they’re not even fit for actual running or any sort of vigorous exercise, simply as a safety concern.  If a client of mine walked into my gym with these on their feet, I’d rather they work out barefoot.

AB-TONING BELTSGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 2/10

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My dear brother sent over an inquiry about this one after having watched a (very convincing, I must say) infomercial on the product.  Do ZERO exercise?  ZERO crunches?And STILL get abs?  LET’S ALL GET ONE!

Oh wait, no.  Because the caveat still remains: you can contract your abs a thousand times a day and STILL not have tight, visible muscles there.  Great abs don’t come from contracting the muscle (although of course, you have to do some of that, too).  They come from decreasing overall body fat to a point where it is low enough that the central muscles are visible – and this takes a very clean, lean diet and lots of (general) exercise.

The reason I gave this one a slightly lower gimmick score than the waist trainer is simply because it AT LEAST has some science behind it – there is ONE credible study of these machines that shows some moderate self-reported results.  But the fact remains: a belt like this does not deliver what it promises, and it sure won’t outweigh a bad diet.

MORINGA PILLSGIMMICK SCORE 5/10; UTILITY SCORE 7/10

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Finally, a quick note on supplements in general: I distrust them.  Even though I use a few myself (protein powder to hit my macros; BCAAs for better recovery; fish oil for Omega-3 support), I don’t recommend them to clients unless they are absolutely necessary (for example, a vegetarian anemic that might truly need an iron pill).

I want to separate “moringa” as a general supplement (which is what I assess here) from the brand-named Zija Moringa, which is a weight loss diet built on small doses of the actual supplement alongside larger doses of things like protein powder, caffeine, and a whole host of other fillers and crap to make it seem like it’s a legit thing (it’s not).

Moringa itself has some compelling scientific research backing marketers’ claims about its use as a “superfood” and “miracle cure.”  It has some proven antioxidant value and is more nutritious than kale when eaten raw (but um….maybe isn’t QUITE as tasty, to say the least).  More interestingly, there is some preliminary research suggesting it can slow or reverse the onset of Type 2 Diabetes and certain cancers (such as liver and kidney), meaning this so-called “gimmick” could actually become a valid medicine with a few more decades of well-funded study and double-blind research – I’ll sure be staying tuned.

Do you use/swear by something for your health that others consider a “gimmick” – and if so, why?  Have you ever been “underwhelmed” by a health & fitness product you tried?

TAF: The Tough(est) Club in Singapore

I interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a shocking expat revelation I just found out about yesterday: the TAF Club.

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The unofficial mascot of the most offensive club ever

To Singaporeans, this term is no big deal – commonplace, even – if you went to local school.  To expats (at least Americans, where this sort of thing would be so inflammatory that it would incite several lawsuits, no doubt), it’s appalling – and I almost can’t believe it still exists (to some degree, which I’ll explain below).

TAF stands for “Trim and Fit,” which is the name of a Singaporean government-mandated weight management program that existed from 1992-2007.  It was targeted at school-age children – and by “targeted at,” I mean “required of those students with a BMI of 23 or higher.”  

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Asian BMI – yep, it’s a thing,

Yep, you read that right.  23.  Not even considered “overweight” by American standards.

TAF Club students would be required to complete intensive (often just outdoor running-based) extra exercise hours at school, typically arriving up to an hour before an already-early 7:20am morning start – and that’s not all.

TAF students were also required to do exercise instead of eating lunch (exercising, by the way, in full view of their peers and classmates happily eating their lunches), or would be forced to eat lunch at segregated tables where they could buy certain controlled food with “calorie cash,” a special currency that allowed only meals with a predetermined number of calories to be purchased.

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Can I buy half an apple with that 50-cal cash?

Shocked yet?  Yeah, there’s more.

The TAF Club students – and by the way, the irony of TAF being the word FAT spelled backward is not lost on me – would have their individual names called over the loudspeaker during school, meaning each and every student forced to join the club could not even quietly attend their exercise hours; they’d instead be announced to the entire school.

Add to this the fact that the exercise sessions were (often) led by less-than-sympathetic physical educators – people who should be modelling good health, not calling out students’ abilities (and in some cases, their “unfit” body parts) in a negative way.

A simple Google search for “TAF Club stories” yielded paragraph after paragraph of the obviously damaging effects of this type of weight-based differentiation on young kids. Showing up to class sweaty and stinky from a bout of morning exercise in 90-degree weather, being stuck in (and I would argue, condemned to) the TAF Club year after year if you weren’t demonstrably losing enough weight, and even developing lifelong eating disorders were just a a few of the known effects of this type of program.

Let it be known that childhood obesity rates in Singapore did decrease from 14.9% to 9.8% during the first decade of the program – by some measures, a definite success.  But a study done just after that same decade – surveying 4,400 Singaporean schoolgirls in 2002 – found a six-fold increase in anorexia and bulimia among the school-aged population during the very same window of time – coincidental, eh?

Since 2007, the program has been revamped to “shift the focus” away from weight and toward a more comprehensive picture of health and wellness.  The new Holistic Health Framework (HHF) has as its core values “total well-being, inclusion, and quality delivery,” which sounds like a great start to a better-organized program.

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Concepts in holistic health

But if you scroll down the page, you’ll see the carelessly worded admonition that “schools are encouraged to change the name of their weight management programmes from TAF to something more interesting” – meaning that not only do the schools not have to change anything about existing TAF programs, but they can also simply modify the name of the program to fit the new “holistic” guidelines.

Hmph.

I’m not saying I have all the answers when it comes to childhood obesity, a topic that in my opinion is much more complicated, sensitive, and multilayered than adult obesity. What I do know is that peer shaming, public ridicule, segregation, and punishment-based systems do not belong anywhere in public education – especially here in Singapore, where citizen harmony is considered a top priority by the government.

I also argue that putting all of the blame, shame, and responsibility for weight management onto the back of a child – rather than involving and educating the parents – is an absolutely abhorrent way of encouraging behavioural change.

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THIS is what we should be teaching kids about health and their bodies.

I have yet to meet someone who can give me a personal perspective on their experience in TAF – and believe me, I’d be open to hearing from a variety of men and women that have been through it – but I cannot imagine that the experience was anything less than degrading, emotionally damaging, and in the end, ineffective in developing long term weight management skills.

What do you think about forced weight management sessions for overweight school-age kids – and should the government be at their helm?