Ask Amanda: How to Be a Lean Machine

These days, a lot more clients are interested in their lean gains rather than just their weight loss – and I love it.  The number on the scale means nothing (and is, in fact, useless for my profession) since it cannot speak to the distribution of fat and muscle that actually determines optimal health.

So what does matter, then?

Body fat.  Muscle mass.  And the ratio between the two.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “skinny-fat” phenomenon – whereby someone’s body weight puts them in the optimal Body Mass Index (BMI) category (since BMI is ONLY a measure of height to weight), but their body fat percentage puts them in the obese category (charts for each of these categories for men and women can be found here).

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No, I didn’t just choose her because of her outstanding name.  This particular woman did NOT lose weight – she simply transitioned from 32% body fat (LEFT) to 25% body fat (RIGHT) at the SAME weight, meaning she became “less fat” though not necessarily “skinnier.”

On the fat opposite side of the spectrum from skinny-fat is of course the bodybuilder physique, whereby the sheer density (weight) of one’s body would put them in the “obese” range for BMI, but their body fat levels are extraordinarily low (single-digits for men).

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This woman is VERY petite and VERY muscular.  Her body weight puts her at the edge of the “obese” BMI.  Her physique, clearly, is not that.

Sure, there are plenty of philosophical and political problems with the “strong is the new skinny” movement, many of which have to do with the fact that comparing ANYTHING against “skinny” means that it still maintains some sort of elusive elite status (which it surely should not).

But I will maintain that for the majority of my clients, gaining lean mass, dropping excess body fat, and building strength through powerful movement (for example, learning how to do a clean and press correctly) is the best way to develop lasting fitness (and yes, lose weight, if that’s something you need to do for better health).

So how do we actually do those things?

The key to changing body composition (as with so many things related to our body and how it looks and feels) is DIET.  There are certain foods that are FANTASTIC for building and maintaining lean mass, and others that are great for dropping fat and accelerating a fat-burning metabolism – so here’s a rundown of my favourites (besides chicken breast and broccoli, which I feel like are the basic-basics everyone knows):

  • Eggs.  The incredible edible.  Perfect protein; healthy fat.  Low cal.  And versatile AF!
  • Greek yogurt.  If you can do dairy – this is the one.  Protein packed.  Creamy.  Filling.  Substitutes for sour cream, cream cheese, all sorts of things.  Win!
  • Tuna.  Cheapest quality protein source in town (watch the mercury!).  Portable with no refrigeration.  Mixes with a lot of stuff (try spicy mustard or hummus).
  • Shrimp.  Super low-calorie protein that plays well with a lot of different dishes (soups, curries, even sandwiches when you chop it up and make a little salad)
  • Avocado.  Super high in fat, sure – but it’s the good kind, the kind that keeps you full and encourages your fat-burning metabolism
  • Salmon.  Omega-3 rich; tasty AF; high in protein; versatile in recipes; even better raw.  Quadruple win.
  • Nut butters.  Make sure you choose the ones with JUST nuts as the sole ingredient, and watch the portion (up to 2TB daily for women; 3TB for men; 4TB for active gainers).
  • Protein powder.  A great option for vegetarians, picky eaters, or those always eating on the go, find a high-quality product with AT LEAST 40g protein for 200 or fewer calories and 0-3 grams of carbs.  This is the one I recommend most.

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On a related note, here’s some “I thought that was healthy!” stuff that you can definitely DROP from the diet when trying to gain lean mass and lose fat:

  • Fruit/juice.  Think of it as a slightly healthier soda.  Pure sugar.
  • Hummus.  Nothing wrong with hummus in moderation, but let’s be real: hummus is a blend of carbs and fat, and it’s often eaten with more carbs (crackers, carrots) and in more of a portion size than I’d recommend to most of my fat-loss clients.
  • “Whole grain” processed food.  Again, slightly healthier flour/sugar bombs.
  • ANY OTHER yogurt besides the above.  Sugar bomb without the protein to back it up.  Catch a theme here?
  • Oatmeal/granola.  Mostly those little pre-sweetened packets of the former (plain oats do have some great health benefits, though the portion size is so small for the calorie/carb dent), and almost every variety of the latter.
  • Bars/balls/squares/whatever-the-hell-shape of calorie & sugar-dense junk.  Outside of QUEST or Rx Bars (which I still only recommend as a backup plan to actual food and meals), most of these things are shockingly high in calories, carbs, sugars, and saturated fats.  If there’s no label, that doesn’t make ’em healthier – and can often hide the high calorie density of things like dates, coconut oil, and nuts.
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Beware these little buggers.  The ones featured here have over 200 kCal apiece!

  • Nut butters.  But wait – weren’t these just on the LOSE fat list?  Yes, my friends – but for some dieters, the allure of the PB is too much to bear – and the 2TB portion (which is still calorie-dense as a single serving) slips into 4-5TB without even realising it – and suddenly you’ve eaten the equivalent of a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s (!).

Again, folks – calorie math is still at the baseline of the equation of weight loss: if you eat more calories than you burn, you will not lose weight.  But the composition of those calories – the ratio of macronutrients (protein/carbs/fat) and quality of the foods from which you get those nutrients – is crucial to how you look, feel, and perform.

For optimal fat loss and muscle gain, I recommend a steady diet of lean proteins alongside ample servings of vegetables and healthy fats, with beans/grains/fruit in moderation for fibre and fullness.  Exercise-wise, add mostly resistance training (ideally with weights, ideally under the coaching of a professional) alongside moderate cardio (ideally walking, ideally at least 12K steps daily)  for heart health – and you’ve got my best advice.

What do you eat to feel healthy?  What foods make you feel vibrant and alive?

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Ask Amanda: The Myth of Discipline

Settle in, folks.  Maybe grab a green tea.  This here’s a long one.

When I started my Precision Nutrition coaching course, I never expected it to teach me so many life lessons in addition to the nitty-gritty nutritional information.

Furthermore, the folks at PN have a really clever way of putting into useful mantras/slogans the habits that I find myself coaching clients about on the regs – helpful tidbits like “eat to 80% full,” “aim for a little more, a little better,” and my personal fave, “don’t bother mowing the lawn if the house is on fire” (referring to, for example, those folks that INSIST on getting a Diet Coke alongside their 1000-calorie fast food McDonald’s meal).

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Spoiler alert: it’s not a huge deal.

Today’s lesson made the shocking assertion that discipline is a myth – and furthermore, that health-industry keywords like willpower, motivation, and inspiration are all pretty much myths, too.  The basic idea is this: it’s not some holy-grail epic opening of the heavens that drives us to make healthy changes in our lives, it’s simply the repetitive act of small habits and better choices that add up to great things.

It reminded me of an article I’ve brought up time and again since first being exposed to it in graduate school in 2007 called The Mundanity of Excellence.  To summarise Dr. Daniel Chambliss:

“Excellence is mundane.  Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.  The action, in itself, is nothing special; the care and consistency with which it is made is.”

Wow.  Just wow.  Go ahead, read it again.  I’ll be here.

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I admit that I am a “doer” almost to a fault; I am a big fan of favouring the “done” rather than the “perfect,” which sometimes results in less-than-ideal outcomes – but more often results in people getting what they need at the time in which they need it, which is a cornerstone of success in my business.

That said, taking action is the most important first step to the idea we formerly knew as “motivation,” and taking that action consistently becomes the pattern we used to talk about as “discipline.” 

The early-morning slog to the gym in your dirty old sneakers; the game-time decision to order the salad instead of the sandwich at the local deli; the choice to shut off the Netflix at 10pm so you can get a full night’s sleep – these are the actions, these are the patterns, these are the little things that make big changes to your life.

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Cheat sheet – print it out and rock on!

And so I turn it back to Precision for some little nuggets that can help you move from the ideal world of myths and grandeur to the real-life world of actions and habits (all their words, not mine, by the way):

  • There is no such thing as discipline.  Rather, ask yourself: What do you really love? Because you are the result of what you love most.  You either love and cherish six-pack abs more than potato chips, or you love potato chips more than washboard abs.  It’s as simple as that. Don’t beat yourself up – you’re allowed to love what you love.
  • Make truly self-loving choices that lead to increased strength of body and mind. When people comment on your results and say things like, “Wow you have a lot of discipline”, answer, “No, I just make the best choices for myself.”
  • The best defence is a good offence.  Nutrition is something within your control and you should take responsibility for this.  Every day you wake up and decide what it’s going to be: a day of struggling or a day of rising to the occasion.
  • Be motivated by the knowledge that you will never regret doing the right thing, even if it hurts to do it. But you will regret doing nothing. Keep a “daily wins” log. Over time, you have “real evidence” that you are progressing… and more importantly, have the capacity to progress further.
  • Understand that sh*t will happen. There will be “down” days. On those days, become a minimalist. Find the smallest thing you can do and do it. If all you ended up doing was your “smallest” thing, then you still can take solace that you did something. If you did more, bonus.
  • Change your focus, change your environment, change your attitude. If you’ve been physique focused, find a performance or health goal. Find something that inspires you and put your attention to that. Introduce something new and fun to your “plan”. Decide what you really want and decide if you’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
  • Motivation is crap. Exercise and eating well is ambivalent. Some days you feel like doing it, so you do; other days you don’t feel like doing it, so you don’t.  Eventually you must learn to dissociate feelings from actions. You must go to the gym, or eat your vegetables, even if you’re downright screaming “AW HELL NO!!”  Regardless of how you initially feel about it, starting the right action makes it easy to finish it. And once you overrule your “hell no”, it gets easier to do it the next time.

This year, I’m not really setting resolutions; I don’t really have different goals from this time last year.  But I am determined to stay committed, act with dedication and consistency, and stay focused on my long-term plans for my life – and I hope you will, too.

Do you have big goals for 2018?  What are your plans to take it to the next level?

Ask Amanda: Back It Up & Drop It

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those lame fangirls women that follows all sorts of stupid celebrities on Instagram (Kylie Jenner, Lilly Ghalichi, and Gwen Stefani, to name a few) – but even more shameful are the NON-celebrity, “Instagram famous” peeps I pay attention to.

For example, ever heard of competitive bodybuilder @keriganpikefit (nearly 50K followers)?  Or ninja supermom @charity.grace (313K followers)?  Or perhaps the esteemed Aussie fitness legend @kayla_itsines, who has a staggering EIGHT MILLION followers?!??!

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I am actually in love with Charity, though.  No lies.

Believe it or not, even though these “fitness celebrities” have a lot of different pathways toward getting in shape, one thing they all share is a commitment to reverse dieting: the idea that after cutting calories to get down to a certain physique/body composition/weight number, they slowly ramp the calories back up (gradually; intentionally) to a level that is sustainable but doesn’t ruin their metabolisms.

This is an urgent concern for many of my formerly overweight training and nutrition clients that reach their goal weight and wonder – am I going to have to cut calories forever to keep this hot bod?  And the answer is: HECK no (but you can’t go crazy the other way, either).  Let me explain:

dessert

It’s no fun, I get it.

When you go on a deep-dive into a calorie-and-carb restricted diet, your body responds in a few ways.  At first, it senses the deprivation in calories and draws on fat stores to close the “energy gap,” which is the intended effect – so you lose weight.

But the body is smart, and once you get it down to a healthy “set point” (a point about which I could write an entire other article, but for now, here’s a brief synopsis), it does everything in its power to slow down the weight loss bullet train, including:

  • Making your organs consume less energy.
  • Slowing down your heart rate
  • Adversely releasing hormones that influence metabolism and appetite (thyroid, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin)
  • Burning less energy during nonexercise activities (which for most of us make up most of our day)
  • Using fewer calories to absorb and digest food (mostly because you’re eating less)
  • Helping muscle tissue become more efficient, requiring less food-fuel for a given amount of exercise

Crap.  Is your body, then, your own worst enemy?  No,  my friends, it’s simply a beautiful adaptation.  And again, your gorgeous body is so damn smart, it adapts not only to the food restriction, but to increased levels of physical activity as well – meaning all that “bonus” cardio you’re doing to maintain your weight loss might be working against you on a calorie-restricted diet- and breaking down muscle to boot.

cardio

Sigh.  I know, so far I’m not making a huge case for strategic weight loss, am I?

Well friends – here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: the concept of reverse dieting actually means you eat more food, do less cardio, and kickstart your maintenance (or in some cases, even more fat loss) diet in a way that makes you feel satisfied and energetic, rather than deprived and listless.

Here’s a breakdown of how to do it – and how to do it right:

  • first, figure out how many calories you’re eating on an average day (my clients know this since their nutrition programs are completely calorie-counted for them; you can figure it out by tracking your intake for a few days on MyFitnessPal)
  • second, figure out your protein intake by measuring 1 gram per pound of body weight, then multiply that by 4 to get the calorie intake of your protein needs
  • third, subtract your protein calories from your total calories, then divide the remaining calories 60/40 (either fat:carbs if you do more weight lifting, carbs:fat if you do more cardio or are training for an endurance event) and divide those numbers by 9 (for total grams of fat) or 4 (for total grams of carbs) to get your daily macros (I know, this probably where I lost you, but I’ll share an example below)
  • fourth, decide if you want to go progressive (2-5% increase in fat: carbs per week) or aggressive (6-10% per week), and multiply your macros to figure out how much you need to add to each week’s diet, then continue tracking your food to make sure you’re hitting those numbers
  • finally, weigh yourself once per week to check in and make sure you’re not going too fast/aggressive (gaining weight) or too slow/ineffective (losing more weight / going underweight) on your “reverse” diet plan

As promised, here’s a real-world example (me): I take in about 1700 calories per day and weigh 133 pounds.  That means I need to take in 133 grams of protein daily, or 532 calories’ worth of protein.  That leaves 1168 calories for carbs and fat, which I eat in a 60/40 split because I am currently training for a marathon.  1168 x .6 = 700 calories of carbs and 467 calories of fat, which are 175 grams and 52 grams, respectively*.

If I wanted to slowly reverse diet after the race, I would add about 3% to my carb and fat grams (5g carb and 2g fat) each week until I felt super satisfied with my intake and happy with my body fat-to-muscle ratio.  I’d keep all that great protein and see how my weight responded to the increase in calories, charging up my metabolism along the way.

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This is not me.  But she IS killing it on her reverse diet plan.

Again, this is a program intended for someone who has recently lost a lot of weight and wants to maintain the loss and the body fat reduction without becoming a total slave to calorie restricted eating (sound familiar, yo-yo dieters?).  It is also for someone who is willing to cut cardio (yep, reverse dieting depends on little to no steady-state cardio) and focus on heavy weight training at least 3-6 days per week to maintain every bit of their lean muscle metabolism (critical in this process).

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Even if you continue your cardio, prioritise your strength.

And as always – stay safe and happy, people.  Never drop calories into the three-digit zone just to see a certain weight number, or avoid weight training just because muscle looks heavy on the scale.  Making healthy choices includes making choices that are good for your mental health, so if you’re so hungry you can’t sleep at night, or avoid going out with friends so you don’t “eat bad,” it may be time for a different approach.

Whaddya think, weight-loss readers?  Would YOU give reverse dieting a try?

*fun fact: I checked today’s ACTUAL macros after I wrote this, just to see how my “real self” stacked up to my “ideal” self in this entry.  Turns out I went under on carbs (only 78g today – wtf?) and over on fat (67g) when left to my own devices.  Time to carb up (and cut the fatty fat fat) for this weekend’s long effort!

 

Ask Amanda: Holiday Survival

You’d be amazed at the amount of otherwise disciplined, well-intentioned clients I have that completely lose it around this time of year.

I don’t know if it’s the change of weather (probably not, since I live in a place with zero seasons), the festive decorations hung all over town, or the general increase in parties and celebratory events, but somehow everyone feels like the holiday season is a free pass to skip workouts, eat until you’re pleasantly plump, and drink to unreasonable excess.

I’m not trying to sound like a Scrooge here – quite the opposite, actually, in that I am writing this entry to the tune of Christmas carols and with a Christmas tree within sight – but let it be said:

Christmas is one day.  Thanksgiving is one day.  There are literally thirty other days in between that don’t warrant a complete and utter farewell to fitness.

Buff Turkey

Is it possible to be stuffed AND swole?

The folks at Precision Nutrition hit the nail on the head by calling these days “eat what you want (EWYW) days.”  I’ve never like the term “cheat days” (sure, you can love your food, but jeez, you’re not married to it – you can have an order of fries and still be a good “partner” to your diet), and nor do they.  The EWYW days simply mean that you don’t have to meal prep, count a calorie, log a gram of protein, or stress over a sip or two.

You just eat like a normal human being, then go on living.

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Yeah, that’s for Black Friday.  Lean, mean shopping machine!

With my clients, I offer up three no-guilt EWYW days, and they are as follows: Christmas (or your other major annual cultural holiday, such as Chinese New Year or Rosh Hashanah or Deepavali, depending), Thanksgiving (again, should you be American or Canadian), and your own birthday.  Boom.  Three.  Enjoy yourself.

The point here is, any EWYW day is one day.  For some of us, it could even just be one meal (like the very ample Thanksgiving dinner I am looking forward to tonight).  It’s not an entire weekend, it’s not a whole season, and God forbid it turns into a year or two (no one needs to wake up in 2019 with an extra 10 pounds around the middle….but trust me, I’ve seen it happen).

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Not a bad guide – but I’d still eat my green bean casserole! 😉

Here are some easy dos and donts for your EWYW day:

  • DO enjoy an adequate serving (or two!) of the foods you truly enjoy
  • DON’T load up on crappy, low-quality foods that will only make you feel overstuffed (do you really love those marshmallow-topped yams and canned cranberry sauce, or are they just traditional filler on the plate?)
  • DO eat slowly – the food will still be there, so take a few breaths between forkfuls to actually savour the EWYW foods you love so much
  • DON’T count, log, track, or otherwise think about your food as any more than it is – a delicious way to celebrate with family, fill your tummy, and make you happy
  • DO have a tipple if you choose to celebrate with alcohol, but DON’T swallow a bunch of booze on top of a bunch of food unless you’re really looking for a double-whammy hangover-and-food-coma the next day
  • DON’T leave any room for guilt – on a true EWYW day, it’s a non-issue!
  • DO make time for exercise on EWYW day (Turkey Trot, anyone?) or the day after to do a bit of damage control and help the extra food pass on through

Again, guys – the holidays are indeed a time for lots of celebration and togetherness – but it doesn’t have to be only about coming together over food.  Get out for a holiday charity run, volunteer your time at a place or for a cause that needs extra help this time of year, or spend time writing cards or letters to friends and family far away.

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That kind of holiday cheer is always served up low-carb and with extra helpings. 😉

Ask Amanda: Fake Food

My lovely cousin (who is undergoing his very own wellness transformation as we speak) asked me about nootropics, a nutrition term that I’d heard but admittedly had to look up to completely understand.

Nootropics (also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function in otherwise healthy individuals.  These can range from the completely innocent (caffeine) to the very controversial and in some cases illegal (amphetamines, like the commonly-prescribed Adderall which is outlawed here in Singapore even for those prescribed it in other countries).

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Insane in the brain

Some common nootropics on the market include gingko biloba, fish oil, vitamin B12 shots, none of which have any truly convincing medical evidence for their efficacy.  But what I think my cousin, and most of you fine and fit readers out there were really asking about was this:

What supplements, if any, are actually safe and useful for losing weight / gettin’ swole / enhancing sports performance?

Ah, now here’s something I get asked about all the time.  I have some clients that take so many pills and powders their grocery list looks like a homeopath’s prescription pad, while I have others that wouldn’t touch a protein powder if I told them it was laced with gold.  I have certain trainer friends that rely on a steady diet of bars, supplements and drinks to maintain their physiques while I have others that swear by clean eating and water.

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The swole juice

The short answer is this: can supplements help?  Yes.  Are they essential?  No.

Let’s start with the basics.  If you are trying to lean out, get stronger, or perform better in sports, you’ll need to take in adequate protein – and doing so from whole food is not always easy.  Protein in the form of meat, fish and eggs is sometimes hard to eat and prepare, and if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it may not even be an option for you.  There is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the centrality of protein for everything from muscle repair to sports recovery to body fat loss, and it’s one of the first nutritional changes I work on with many (primarily female, but also males looking to build mass) of my clients who currently overeat carbs and undereat protein and fat.

All that being said, my first honest recommendation is to supplement a whole-foods diet with a high-quality protein powder.  I am a big fan of IsoPure Zero Carb Creamy Vanilla, not because I think it’s the greatest thing ever to hit the market; more because I like the taste, it has no sugar, and it’s easily found all over my lovely island.  If you need a non-whey or a complete vegan or an organic protein powder, I highly recommend checking out this list.  And on a quick summary note – here’s an easy chart to help you figure out your protein needs:

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Moving on from the obvious, let’s get a bit more niche.  If you work out hard, or are starting to work out harder than you ever have in the past, or if you are determined to put on a heckuva lot more muscle, or if you are training for an ultra endurance event, or if you are looking to get significantly leaner than you are now – these are all good reasons to consider taking 10 grams or more of BCAA each and every day.  You can take your pick of how you down your dose (and please note that if you do choose a BCAA powder, it tastes and smells like fresh hell, and you will need SOMETHING to mix it down) and as always, check with your doc first – but I’ve seen a lot of clients get great results from just adding this one simple supplement.

Speaking of results – the types of nootropics you choose to take can vary greatly depending on your goals (gain muscle? lose fat? age better? move without pain?), how you prefer to feel during exercise (supercharged? zen? powerful?  in the zone?), and what the rest of your diet looks like (short in salad?  grab a green powder.  no beef?  yes iron.). I am not a huge supplements pusher myself, so for more details on a few of these, you’ll need a more detailed article than what I’m covering here, but one of the most natural supplements that I use and recommend is good ol’ fashioned coffee – the most scientifically-backed way to enhance performance and endurance for most sports.

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Me after my first cup

A final note on any supplements, vitamins, and/or enhancers – be smart and scientific whenever you’re choosing to put a synthetic product into your body.  Look at the consumer reports for both the supplement AND its active ingredients, and if it’s something well-covered in scientific literature (such as creatine), weigh the pros and cons accordingly, and consider the difference between short and long-term use.

At the end of the day, there is no supplement that works as well, as safely, and as consistently as regular resistance and cardio training combined with a diverse whole foods plant-and-protein-based diet.  End of story.

Ask Amanda: How Healthy is TOO Healthy?

In the course of my Precision Nutrition coaching homework, I’ve read a lot about overcoming the “introductory” type of of challenges you get when coaching folks that are new to health and fitness (things like, “I don’t like vegetables” or “do I really have to eat protein with every meal?” or “why are five Diet Cokes a day a problem if they have zero calories?”).

However, it’s not the newbie clients that are the most challenging.  Not by a long shot.

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My clients are too savvy for me to sneak this by them 😉

I am currently reading the chapter about “special scenarios” in nutrition, and it is here that we delve deep into the many, MANY types of disordered eating (DE).  Mind you, this is not the psychiatric/clinical type of “eating disorder” we associate with diagnosed anorexia or bulimia (although those are definitely disordered).  DE habits can include:

  • constantly obsessing over food / eating / not eating
  • eating behaviors that both cause and are trying to relieve distress simultaneously
  • eating in a way that doesn’t match physiological need (i.e., eating way more or less than you actually need for optimal health)
  • eating behaviors that harm yourself or others
  • orthorexia
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One lonely tomato does not make a healthy meal…for anyone

If you haven’t heard of that last one, you might want to read up on it, as orthorexia is one of the fastest growing DE tendencies around the world.  It means an obsession with “clean eating” – not just healthy eating to lose weight, but an all-consuming focus on the relationship between food choices and health (alongside an increasing inabilty to enjoy food socially, or feel satisfied by food that isn’t stringently prepared/”approved”).

But is that such a bad thing, you might ask?  Don’t all us high-falutin’ nutrition folks wish the world were more like us, with our macros and our tracking apps and proper portions and our real-food-focused organic gluten-free sugar-free dairy-free spelt grains?

Sort of…well, actually probably no.

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Mmm, salad.

Here’s the thing I always try to hit home with my clients: human nutrition is, and will always be, a balancing act.  You have to balance the food you want to eat (fries!) with the body you want to have (abs!) with a lifestyle you truly enjoy (fun!) and the best possible health you can achieve (fit!).  Examples:

  • If you have the fries sometimes, you will probably have the fun, you likely won’t have all six of the abs, but you just as likely won’t probably do any long-term damage to your health.
  • If you never have the fries, you probably have no fun (though perhaps also no guilt?), you might just find your abs, and your general health can still go either way.
  • If you have all the fries all the time, it probably gets less and less fun, you can forget about the abs, and you are probably not living in your healthiest body.

You see how this works?  There are mandatory tradeoffs between lifestyle and nutrition, and they’re not all either damning or rewarding – they just are (one of my favorite-ever infographics about this very topic can be found here).

trade

Why is time always wayyyyy in the other direction?

As a trainer, I feel a dutiful responsibility to demonstrate a strong, fit body, balanced nutrition, and a healthy life-work balance to my clients – but I have long given up on the pursuit of perfection.  As a wellness and health coach, I make my own tradeoffs too, and those of you know who me know that I will always choose an ice cold beer over uncovering those 3rd-6th abs (I’m ok with a two-pack at age 34, aight?).

So how do you know if you have a disordered relationship with food?  A wise man once said, check yourself before you wreck yourself:

  • Are you terrified of becoming overweight (especially if you have never been overweight)?
  • Do you feel guilt after eating?
  • Do you avoid eating, even when you are physically hungry?
  • Have others expressed concern over how much you eat, whether too little or too much?
  • Do you exercise with the sole purpose of burning the caloric content of your food?
  • Do you feel controlled by the food that you choose to eat (or not eat)?
  • Do you feel like others pressure you to eat more/less?
  • Do you claim to feel better when your stomach is empty?
  • Are you constantly preoccupied with thoughts about being fat or being thin?
  • Do you avoid trying new foods, going to social events with food present, or celebrating with food because you are afraid of eating “bad” food?

There’s no “grade” for the above test, but it is loosely based on the Eating Attitudes Test from Psychcentral.com, a screening tool used to pre-diagnose common disordered eating patterns before they become full-blown disorders – and I find it helpful to start some necessary – if often uncomfortable – discussions with clients that I sense may be heading down the DE path (or recovering from former DE patterns).

If you think you might have some of the warning signs of DE, definitely get an appointment with a nutritionist or dietitian to get your habits back on track and make sure you’re eating a balanced, satisfying, and nutritionally sound diet for your body. Healthy eating is a major part of a wellness lifestyle, but it’s not the only part – and when eating (or not eating) takes away the joy from other parts of your life, you know it’s time to reevaluate.

What tradeoffs do you make in balancing your body, health, diet – and sanity?

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!

Ask Amanda: Precision Nutrition

A long time ago in a place far, far away, I got my first Sports Nutrition certification.  For what I was doing at the time (mainly, teaching group exercise classes and giving some basic diet advice on the side), it was enough – I was able to articulate the basic tenets of metabolism, energy balance, and clean eating with some level of authority.

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Don’t get it twisted – I never was, and (probably) never will be, a registered dietitian.  An R.D. is authorized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  All R.D.s have a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), have undergone extensive scientific coursework in the area of dietetics, have completed an internship in various nutrition settings and have passed a licensing/registration exam.

Whew.

As for me, while I do have two Masters degrees (one perhaps more relevant to these topics than the other, but hey, all education is worthwhile, right?), I am “only” a nutritionist – defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  And since no one asked me any specific #AskAmanda questions this week (sniff), I figured I’d tell you guys a little bit about the Precision Nutrition certification I am working on right now.

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The PN certification itself is incredible – it covers a wide range of topics from the nitty-gritty (cellular makeup, metabolic processes, nutrient breakdown) to the psychological (nutrition counseling, working with difficult clients, motivational skills) to the practical (PDFs of helpful forms, legal documents, and assessment tools).  But I am not here to promote the PN cert – they’re not paying me for that (ha).

Rather, what I love about Precision Nutrition is that it doesn’t end at the textbook – they have a lively, active Facebook group and an incredibly informative blog with super-helpful infographics that I’ve already used with a variety of clients to explain topics like:

The biggest thing for me about being a qualified nutritionist is debunking all of the crap advice that people get from who-knows-what sources (US Weekly magazine; some celebrity website or trainer; a doctor who got board licensed in the 1960s; American President Donald Trump) and doing my best to provide up-to-date, relevant, digestible, and helpful information to my clients in the most straightforward way possible.

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That said – here are my quickest, best nutrition tips that I give to almost every client:

  • fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and refined carbs are the problem
  • whatever cuisine you’re eating or wherever in the world you are, if you can find a meal consisting of protein and vegetables, that’s going to be the healthiest choice
  • eating late at night is a really bad habit.  Cut it out.  Same goes for post-alcohol binges.
  • try eliminating dairy and/or wheat, especially if you have persistent bloating and swelling issues
  • drink enough (2-3 liters daily) water, and if that’s too boring, add in some green tea, black coffee, and coconut water – but not much else
  • and finally – eat enough food.  Starvation destroys your metabolism.  You’re better than that.

If you’re truly interested in fitness, you must also be interested in food – and really, you should be interested in understanding fuel.  There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone, but there are certain tenets of health eating (as I’ve outlined above) that really do transcend individual differences and make a big impact on how we look, feel, and perform.

What are your best clean-eating habits?  How do you regulate your healthy diet?

Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

After (semi) lecturing a client about why it was important to lose body fat BUT maintain lean muscle (even if the “weight” on the scale stood stagnant because of it), she looked me straight in the fact and said, “So this whole process is just about building a better metabolism?”

I wanted to hug her.  “YES,” I cried to my dear and startled client, “YES IT IS!”  

And herein lies one of the most obvious but most misunderstood connections between exercise, body composition, and nutrition: metabolism.  Scientifically, metabolism is the sum of all the chemical processes inside our body that help us maintain life.  In layman’s terms, metabolism is the way in which your body converts and uses energy for fuel.

So why does this metabolism stuff matter to those of us out here in the streets, just trying to get fit?

There are lots of reasons.  Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) refers to the amount of calories your body burns at rest – and the higher your BMR, the less you have to do to actually burn the energy (read: food) you consume.

People with a greater muscle-to-fat ratio have higher BMR, even if their weight is exactly the same as someone with more fat than muscle.  Men tend to have higher BMR than women (sh*t, they win again!).  And people who go on starvation (VERY low-calorie) diets, even temporarily, can actually permanently decrease their BMR by sending the body into a “starvation mode” and causing it to hold onto energy and store it as fat.

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A bit exaggerated…but like, not much. #damnyoumen

In short: metabolism matters, and you definitely don’t want to mess yours up.  So what can you do to promote a faster, better metabolic rate?

First and foremost – SLEEP!  A lack of sleep, particularly when chronic, can lead to a neuroendocrine imbalance that not only makes the body store more energy as fat, but can also make you feel ravenous all day long (increased appetite hormones) and forget to tell you when you’re had enough to eat (decreased satiation regulators).

Second of all, lift weights.  I’ve talked about this time and time again, but the single best thing you can do to “speed up” (and I use this term loosely since you don’t actually change the metabolism itself but rather its efficiency in processing energy) your metabolism is to build lean muscle.  Every pound of muscle burns TRIPLE the amount of calories (six versus two) than the same weight in fat.  If you want to burn more by doing less (something appealing even to my least-active client), muscle is where it’s at.

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

Third – and this may seem obvious – eat food.  Your metabolism is like a gas grill, and it doesn’t spark a fire without fuel.  When you don’t eat enough, not only does your body think it’s starving (and start holding onto every bit of energy/food you DO put into it), it starts to cannibalize your precious muscle tissue (SEE ABOVE) for energy – not good. What you eat is also important – protein is the best muscle-retaining macronutrient out there, fiber can rev up the fat-burning process even more, and staying hydrated (with water, by the way) makes all of your body’s most vital processes run smoothly and more efficiently.

Finally, be a mover (and heck, while you’re at it, a shaker).  Separate from the resistance exercise I mentioned above, what scientists are now calling NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) can actually be more effective in helping you lose weight and build fat-burning metabolism than “actual ” exercise.  Everything from fidgeting to taking the stairs up to your office to standing instead of sitting to take a phone call counts as NEAT, and in very active individuals, their NEAT daily calorie burn is more than what most other people might burn in a 30-minute elliptical session (something many people mistakenly consider a “workout,” which is a topic for another time).

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The combination of what you eat, how you move, and your other lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.) is mostly responsible for how efficient your metabolism works – but don’t discount the “big G-factor” known as genetics (womp womp, I know).  If your family is prone to PCOS, Cushing’s Syndrome, diabetes, or thyroid issues, or if you’re on certain antidepressants or other medications, your metabolism may be slower than most – and it’s out of your control.  But even with these clients, I always encourage them not to use their medical conditions as excuses to be lazy with diet an exercise – but rather as a catalyst to rise above what they can’t control and focus on what they can (clean eating, regular workouts, and a positive mindset).

Do you think you have a “fast” or a “slow” metabolism – and do you personally believe it can change over time and/or with lifestyle habits?

Ask Amanda: Food As Fuel

As a sports nutritionist, my practice is a little bit different from that of your average clinical dietitian or clinic nutritionist.  As opposed to trying to cure a condition or better your overall internal health, my real background is in eating for optimal performance – to run faster, for example, or to get a stronger swim stroke.

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Be better.  Move more.

Sure, the majority of my nutrition clients are looking for something more general – weight and/or fat loss – but a lot of my high-performing friends (think other trainers, competitive athletes, and amateur racers) are actually clueless about how to best fuel their bodies to better their sports performance.

This week’s #AskAmanda centers on exactly that – what to eat before and after a workout, when to eat it, and how important is sports-specific nutrition.

A reader mentioned that she is perplexed about what to eat before yoga, since if she doesn’t eat anything, she’s lightheaded during practice, but if she eats too much, she feels heavy and inflexible.  In this case I would absolutely recommend taking in a small amount (100-200 calories) of liquid, easily digestible carbohydrate-focused calories, such as a glass of enriched soymilk or a nondairy fruit smoothie made with 1/2 cup almond milk and a handful of strawberries, or if you can stomach real food while holding a headstand, go for half a banana, a few dates, or a piece of sprouted grain toast.

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Oats, oats, they’re good for your heart…

For longer duration exercise (think runs of 60+ minutes, Spin classes, 2000-meter swims, or similar), you’ll need a bit more fuel – but it’ll have to be equally digestible. Here I’d recommend taking in closer to 300 calories of mostly high-GI carbs, such as a baked potato with olive oil, a bowl of organic rolled oats made with non-dairy milk and a handful of berries, or a couple slices of sprouted grain bread spread with 1/2 an avocado. Endurance exercise lasting under one hour, by the way, requires no extra nutrition outside your normal meals – if you’re feeling low on energy, try mixing coconut water into your water bottle, or nosh a handful of nuts just before you head out.

Finally, high-intensity training – such as HIIT, weight lifting, Crossfit, or similar – means high-impact protein is needed to repair and build muscles as soon as possible after the activity.  Assuming you start your workout well-fueled, aim to take in about 200-300 calories of mostly protein and a few lower-GI carbs within 30-60 minutes after exercise. Here I’d recommend something like a small can of tuna mixed with 2-3 TB Greek yogurt spread on a few whole grain crackers, a sweet potato topped with steamed broccoli and shredded chicken breast, or a quick sandwich of sprouted grain bread and natural peanut butter.

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Choose quality protein over junky carbs.

The crucial foods to avoid before any physical activity are oily, spicy meals (think heavy sauces, fried foods, and curries), dairy products (milk, lactose protein powders, and yogurt are definite barf-brewers), beans and seeds (gas-o-rama), eggs (zero carb), and fancy coffee drinks (the combination of caffeine, dairy and vigorous movement is like a gastrointestinal time bomb).

What are your favorite pre-and-post-workout foods – or do you have an “uh oh” fuelling horror story?