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: Health at MANY Size(s)

So I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, mostly because I have been taking on a lot of new, diverse clients with new, diverse needs.

For example, I have a woman trying to get pregnant but can’t kick the junk food habit and lose the body fat she needs to get there.  I have a fellow who has never lifted weights and is struggling to develop even the basic muscle mass to support his (bigger) frame.  I have another gal who second-guesses every bite of food she puts in her mouth…and ends up skipping meals because she feels so unsure about what healthy choices look like.

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Point is this: I work with, and like to think that I help, a lot of different people with a lot of different needs, so I like to stay informed about what’s new and current in the world of fitness and nutrition – and expert podcasts are a great way to do that.

Some of the ones I listen to are as follows (and guys – PLEASE comment if you have a fitness/wellness/nutrition podcast that you absolutely love so I can subscribe!):

  • Love, Food – a podcast addressing common psychological issues surrounding food
  • Nutrition Diva – a science-focused podcast with short bites of nutritional research
  • Don’t Salt My Game – a body-image and nutrition podcast by an anti-diet dietitian

It was on the latter that I discovered a particular – but strong and prevalent – bias I have regarding my entire nutrition practice and how I approach diet and exercise and it is this:

I don’t believe in – and will not entertain as a tenet of professional practice – the HAES (Health At Every Size) movement.

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Lots of HAES activism out there!

I don’t agree with what it stands for, I don’t believe what it implies, and I think that what it does to the social perception and critical understandings of health, fitness, wellness, and nutrition is more detrimental than helpful.

Ok, whoa.  Even as I wrote that, it sounds harsh.  But allow me to extrapolate.

Starting with the source – the main “hub” for the HAES movements, the HAES Community page, who suggest that:

The war on obesity has taken its toll. Extensive “collateral damage” has resulted: food and body preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders, discrimination, poor health, etc. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat.  Health at Every Size is the new peace movement.”

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Sounds ok so far, right?  I mean, I am obviously in support of a pro-health, pro-acceptance community that values wellness and balance over self-hate and illness. 

So let’s keep digging, shall we?

Wikipedia further defines the HAES movement (my underlined emphasis added) as:

“…a pseudoscientific theory advanced by certain sectors of the fat acceptance movement.  Its main tenet involves rejection of overwhelming evidence and the scientific consensus regarding the link between excessive calorie intake, a sedentary lifestyle, and lack of physical exercise, improper nutrition, and greater body weight – and its effects on a person’s health.”

RationalWiki (did everyone else already know this exists – and that it’s glorious?) takes an even deeper jab and defines the HAES movement as (my underlined emphasis added):

“…a pseudo-scientific concept peddled by certain fat activists which asserts — in complete opposition to current medical knowledge — that no kind of obesity is linked to poor health or unhealthiness…this leads to the assertion that if obesity is always a natural state of being then it’s perfectly fine and not at all unhealthy.”

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Now we’re getting to the stuff I take issue with, readers: the science.

The reality is this: health at every size is a myth.  A seminal 1979 study on the topic found that obesity (a BMI of more than 30, which for a 5’4″ person is over 155 pounds/79KG) and for a 6’0″ person is over 200 pounds/100KG) is not only related to the more obvious health risks of diabetes, gout, heart disease, bone/joint and gallbladder problems, but also correlated with:

  • psychosocial disability
  • greater risk during surgery/anaesthesia, especially when aged
  • more frequent absenteeism from work and school

Another crucial study found that overweight and obese persons tend to die sooner than average-weight persons with the same habits – and that the younger you are when you first become overweight, the stronger the mortality risk throughout your life – but what’s also important to point out is that the “ideal longevity BMI” (the BMI correlated with the longest recorded lifespans) is 20-24.9 (for our 5’4″ person, thats 115-140 pounds/52-63KG, for our 6’0″ person, that’s 145-180/65-81KG).

And guys, it’s outside of the scope of this piece – but don’t even start me on the costs of treating obesity worldwide, particularly when compared to the potential costs of preventing it.

So how to reconcile HAES with this actual, data-backed science?

Here are my two cents.  Every day, (primarily) women walk into my gym with complaints about their bodies – about how they function, sometimes, but mostly about how they look.

Almost always the former can be addressed with some strength work, flexibility improvements and moderate fat loss (if overweight); the latter is the one that I think HAES is trying to “free” us from – but with all the wrong messages.

The message that medically at-risk bodies are healthy is wrong.  The message that you are mentally and physically thriving at a 30 (obese) or 40 (morbidly obese) BMI is misleading.  The message that staying/being/becoming fat is a preferred way to address size-based discrimination and eating disorders is horrific.  I don’t like any of it, and I think that promoting this kind of thinking, especially among young women just starting to know their bodies and how they exist in the world, sets up a lifetime of struggle.

Where the HAES and other body-positivity movements have it right is this: encouraging self-respect, intuitive eating, the joy of movement, and compassionate self-care should be a priority for all fitness and wellness professionals.

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When we participate in a culture that promotes body-shaming, negative-reinforcement training methods, overly restrictive or unsafe diet practices, or overtraining (over-exercise, under-sleeping, under-eating, over-stressing), we are part of the problem. 

When we make a commitment to separating value and character judgments from human bodies, employing positive-motivational coaching, helping clients with intuitive and mindful eating habits, and monitoring our clients for all markers of overall wellness (not just their weight and fat), we become part of the solution.

Thus, #fitfam, I suggest and stand for the revised term of Health at MANY Sizes, rather than HAES.  There is no one body type that means healthy, just like there is no one body type that means beautiful, or that means worthy.  My best self might not resemble yours, and what’s healthy for me might not be ideal for you.  That’s ok.

But if we are painfully honest with ourselves about what we look and feel like when we’re thriving – I know I used that word before, but I really do love it – I bet a healthy weight is right in there, alongside the glowing skin, high energy, stamina, and resilience that is characteristic of true wellness and health.

What’s your opinion of HAES?  When do you feel like you’re truly thriving?

Ask Amanda: Cracking Cortisol Control

By this point in our adult lives, we’ve all probably seen some infomercial touting the deadly effects of the “belly fat hormone” called cortisolsomething like this, perhaps:

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Wow really…works with ANY diet?  McDonalds, here I come (JK JK JK)

The word cortisol is used enough in diet pill advertising that it’s worth clarifying what the hormone actually is, and more importantly, what it does (and doesn’t do):

  • cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands
  • cortisol controls blood sugar levels, controls salt and water balance, and influences blood pressure (so yeah, it’s important)
  • too much cortisol can lead to abdominal weight gain, weakness, and mood swings (extreme case: Cushing disease)
  • too little cortisol can lead to fatigue, dizziness, and dark/discoloured skin (extreme case: Addison’s disease)

Ok, sounds fine – but even without the full disease end of the spectrum, excess cortisol production can royally mess up our metabolisms.  Chronic stress, long-term corticosteroid use, and erratic sleep patterns make it worse, as do chronic inflammation, hypoglycemia, and other hormonal imbalances (such as high estrogen).

So what’s an otherwise healthy person to do when the doc says your midsection weight gain, adult acne, persistent fatigue, or other symptoms are related to your cortisol levels?

You know my answer; same as Hippocrates: let food be thy medicine.

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Harsh but true.

The first step in controlling cortisol (and guys, this applies to belly fat in general no matter WHAT your hormonal makeup) is getting your diet in order.  If you’re unsure about your intake, track it for a while (I use the MyFitnessPal app because it’s easy and has EVERY food imaginable) and note the sugars/carbs (processed/refined carbs gotta go), saturated fat (stay under 15g daily), and fibre contents (aim for minimum 35g) in your food.  I find that clients often don’t identify patterns in their eating habits until they’re laid out in front of them in a log or chart.

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Some beginner macro charts for those of you with different goals.

Second, and perhaps even more important for those with cortisol-control problems: develop strategies to control your stress.  Sure, this is easier said than done, but there are some surefire ways to decrease the impact of chronic stress on your physical body, such as setting aside 5 minutes per day for mindfulness meditation, learning and practising relaxing breathing techniques, or even employing the “three to thrive” method popularised by life coach Tony Robbins.

If stress remains a problem even after trying some of the mind-based ideas above, it may be time to dig a bit deeper into the adaptogen (internal) and essential oil (external) applications a lot of my clients have found success with.  Adaptogens (which are easily dropped into a protein smoothie, by the way) are herbs that, when combined in specific ways, can help to lower oxidative stress on the body, while certain essential oils have been shown to promote better sleep, digestion, and stress management.

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Quick cheat sheet for essential oil uses and benefits

Third, and you know that ThisFitBlonde can’t possibly skip over this EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE cortisol-balancing strategy: GET OUT AND EXERCISE!  Yes, I said “out,” because outdoor exercise performed for about 30-60 minutes daily is one of the best stress relievers available – plus it’s free of charge, helps you feel more connected to your surrounding environment, and has that nice little benefit of some extra weight loss when performed in conjunction with the dietary recommendations above.

Elevated cortisol levels happen to all of us at some point – they’re responsible for the “flight or fight” response crucial to human survival, after all – but they’re not an excuse for falling out of shape.  Taking concrete steps to balance your bod and clean up your diet will give you the “reset” you need to combat the cortisol creep.

What healthy strategies do you use to control your overall weight and body fat? 

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:

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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.

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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.

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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: The Bulk of the Issue

There are a lot of keywords in health and fitness that drive me crazy because they mean absolutely nothing yet are used ad nauseam.  “Natural” is one of them (in terms of describing food products).  “Fat-burning zone” is another (in terms of justifying boring, low-intensity exercise).

But the worst offender of all, in my opinion, is “toning.”

Toning is a fake fitness word that savvy marketing execs invented to sell weirdly-wedged sneakers, tiny little hand weights, and complicated thigh-squeezing contraptions.  The gentle and often feminized concept of “toning” gives women the (misguided) idea that they can firm up / tighten / reduce the size of their body parts without having to – dare I say it – lift heavy weights in the gym.

tiny weight

I can legitimately GUARANTEE that THIS woman does not only lift THOSE weights.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of Instagram-famous influencers and trainers out there that have bodacious bods that they may (or may not) have gotten though one or more of the following “toning” go-tos: body resistance exercise, yoga, Pilates, barre method, or pole fitness.  But the reality, gals and gents, is this:

  • if you are a man, you need to lift heavy weights and build muscle mass to maintain your testosterone levels, stay energised, ensure proper posture, and keep your central fat deposits from accumulating
  • if you are a woman under 35, you need to lift weights and build lean mass to protect your bone density, especially if you plan on having a healthy pregnancy, and speed up your metabolism while you still can
  • if you are a woman over 35, you need to lift even heavier weights to maintain your lean mass (as it starts to decrease with every passing year no matter what you do, sigh), kick your slowing metabolism in the booty, and make sure certain body parts (read: tush & tummy) don’t fall victim to the insidious threat of gravity

And don’t be fooled, folks – pretty much ANY exercise (and in many cases, none at all) will “tone up” a genetically stick-skinny twentysomething subsisting on a steady diet of gluten-free oxygen puffs and armed with an endless set of Photoshop and photo-filter tricks (and on a semi-unrelated note, a bunch of those booty-licious internet babes claiming to have gotten their backsides from a few cable kickbacks and good genes may be uh, as they say, hiding some implants under the hood as well).

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Spoiler alert: this is NOT from a SQUAT

Snark much?  I digress.

But the main point of what is unexpectedly turning into a rant is this: lifting heavy weights (often heavier than you think, even weights attached to bars) will not make you bulky. Lifting weights in excess of 4KG / 8 pounds will not make you masculine, or hulk-ish, or broad. Very few women (and I’ve trained over 100 of them of all ages, races and sizes for over 11 years) start a serious weight-training regimen and get bigger – unless gaining mass and size is her goal.  As I’ve noted before:

lose weight

Lots of women carry around excess body fat precisely because they don’t lift weights, and therefore can’t build or maintain enough lean mass to help burn off the calories they eat – plus they tend to undereat protein and overeat carbohydrates, which is a post for another time (but still a common and significant issue).  And as I’ve said so many times before:

cupcakes

Ok, so enough of making the case.  What exactly should you be doing in the gym (and kitchen) to achieve the “toned” look (sigh, but for the sake of the post, humour me – and know that the “toned” look can of course mean different things to different people, just like the term “bulky” can mean different things to different people)?

 Allow me to give you some true trainer-tried-and-tested tips:

  • first, get a trainer.  Shameless self-promotion?  Maybe a tiny bit.  But before you start picking up heavy things, you should make sure you have at least one session with a trainer who can show you how to pick up heavy things correctly.
  • next, streamline your goals.  Do you want killer arms (hello bench presses and pull-ups)?  An overall lean bod (try compound movements like thrusters)?  Legs to kill (meet your two new best friends, squats and deadlifts)?  Six pack abs (spoiler alert: these are actually made mostly from protein and salad; less from crunches)?
  • third, get a program.  Whether the aforementioned trainer writes it for you or you get it from a reliable source like figure competitor Jamie Eason, make sure you have a specific, measurable weight training program to keep yourself accountable to – and don’t forget to keep records of sets/reps/etc. to make sure you’re on track
  • fourth, progress yourself.  A lot of my clients have sailed through steps 1-3 but then hit a wall, thinking that once they know “what weight they use for stuff” they’re good to go forever.  Not the case for getting lean n’ mean.  You’ve gotta keep upping the ante and building your body stronger (and yes – leaner in the process) within a reasonable program of progression.  Again, a trainer really helps with this.
  • finally, eat your protein.  Even the best-toned of intentions fall flabby when they’re not coupled with a high-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet.  If you’re looking to build lean muscle, consider 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (about 2 grams per KG), and if you’re looking to maintain your muscle, consider about .75 grams per pound (1.5 grams per KG).  Lean protein sources are best here, so think about egg whites, chicken breast, protein powder, white fish, and Greek yogurt.
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Clean, lean and mean (I mean, that fish is giving me the eye) protein

My lovely people over at Girls Gone Strong sum it up best:

“Lifting heavy” doesn’t give you one particular body type.  Lifting heavy will give you a strong, sexy, fit, kick-ass version of the body you were given.

Mic drop.

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).

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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!

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.

taf

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.

holistic

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?