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: (Don’t) Fall Into the Gap

In honour of today being Valentine’s Day, I figured I’d do a little piece on self-love, with a side of ranting (because come on, that’s what I do best).

I was on a Skype call recently with a remote client that I train online (you can do that with me, by the way, should you not be local to Singapore), and I was trying to demonstrate something – so I stood on a chair so she could clearly see my legs.

Before I could get into the explanation of the thing itself, she stopped and said – “your thighs – they don’t touch!”

I’d heard of the so-called “thigh gap” before, of course – but it caught me by surprise that it was worthy of being called out over Skype.

thigh gap

Thigh gap vs. no gap.  Scintillating stuff, I know.

For those of you who aren’t in the know (and believe me, when it comes to this trend, consider yourself lucky to be out of the loop), the “thigh gap” for many women is the ultimate expression of thinness, fitness, desirability, physical perfection – it’s like the six-pack for men, but perhaps more unattainable (and stupid, IMO).

But what bothers me most about the thigh gap, more so than its association with the above ideas, is its association with being FEMININE and FRAGILE, or as Wikipedia says:

“…the thigh gap had become an aspect of physical attractiveness in the Western world and has been associated with fragility and femininity, although it is also seen as desirable by some men as a sign of fitness.”

A sign of fragility (um…not so great for hip-breakin’ in your elder years?).  A sign of femininity (let me hike up my 1950s hoop skirt and see…)? And a sign of FITNESS?!?  ABSOLUTELY untrue.

Having a thigh gap is a sign of one of three things: you have very thin (often NOT fit) legs, you are bowlegged or have a wide-set pelvic structure, or you stand a certain way to “roll back” your legs into a thigh gap a la Instagram models.

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Many athletic-bodied women actually have NARROW hips, meaning fit women may be LESS likely to have a thigh gap.

My point in all this is that ALL a “thigh gap” is telling you is whether or not you can feel the cool breeze between your upper legs – and not a thing more.

Just like the “thighbrow” (don’t fall down this rabbit hole, guys, unless you really want to) or what my pre-social media generation used to call “gratuitous cleavage,” the thigh gap is nothing more than positioning parts of your body in such as a way as to be perceived more attractive or desirable to the (small; IMO irrelevant) component of the population who actually notices and/or values that load of sh*t.

Which brings me to my actual point.

I train and work with women (and men) every day, and what I notice most about how women (versus men) self-talk in the gym, it’s this: they’re we’re almost always commenting on the way their bodies look (rather than how they feel or function). 

If we lift something heavy, we want to make sure it’ll “pay off” in visible leanness.  If we run, we might notice certain areas “bouncing around” and we assume they shouldn’t be.  If we stretch, we turn away from the mirror so we don’t have to see our (perfectly normal) skin folded over our waistbands as we bend.

It’s a whole can of worms, folks.  And the GD “thigh gap” is just one symptom of it.

As women, we have to call ourselves on the default habit of bringing everything back to our physical bodies – particularly while we’re doing something healthy for those fabulous bodies (like exercising, or getting a massage, or dancing with friends).

If your thighs touch when you stand up, it’s not a sign of poor fitness.  If your belly flops over a bit when you BEND OVER, that’s a completely normal effect of human movement.  If you notice that your butt bounces a few moments behind you when you’re running on the treadmill, it’s probably because you have some nice muscles back there flexing to help you stride – not because you have too much “junk the trunk.”

I challenge my clients to focus on the intrinsic benefits of exercise and clean eating, even if it doesn’t seem natural at first.  Instead of obsessing over getting into a certain dress or wearing a bikini at whatever vacation or seeing a magical number pop up on the scale, why not consider:

  • how much better you sleep when you’re being consistently active
  • how much more energy you have when you’re not eating crapola
  • how much better sex is when you’re in good physical shape (cough, er ah, just sayin’)
  • how much your kids appreciate when you have energy/ability to keep up with them
  • how great it feels to accomplish a solid, write-it-down-in-numbers fitness goal (like running your first full mile, or lifting a new PR on the weights floor)
  • how much less stress you have when you drop the body loathing and celebrate the body doing

Especially as a fitness professional, where my body IS part of my business no matter how much I’d pretend or hope it wouldn’t be, I know I can work harder to change the body focus for myself – and encourage that among the women that I train.

We can all take a few moments to appreciate the things our bodies can do, the humans our bodies have produced, the memories our bodies have walked us through, and the adventures our bodies have yet to experience – without saying a single bad word about ’em.

Right?

So let’s.  And this Valentine’s (or GALentine’s, as I’ve noticed the cool kids are starting to celebrate) Day, I hope you can incorporate some beautiful self-love rituals that do not have a damn thing to do with the way your body looks (my plan? holding hands with my adorable man all night, eating a fine meat-filled dinner, and getting a little buzz off some overpriced craft beer).

What’s your favourite way to celebrate Valentine’s Day – or celebrate your healthy bod?

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: Hatching Healthy Habits

There’s two types of people in this world: people who feel excited and hopeful about the coming of a new year, and people who feel overwhelmed and defeated by it.  As is my general glass-half-full attitude about most things in life, I am of the former camp.

Last year I wrote a bit about setting purposeful health-oriented New Year’s resolutions, and I stand by that advice – which was, by the way, to be mindful, realistic, and consistent in whatever you set out to change about your overall well-being.

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Two years back I was talking about the things I WON’T be doing in the new year, which is sort of hilarious and eye-opening to look back upon (let’s just say I’ve gotten over SYTTD and 36-ounce jars of peanut butter sort of naturally, if not willingly, haha) – and I even did a little post about what to call your goal-setting list if not “resolutions.”

This year, an old friend of mine posted a fantastic article about habits – little, everyday things that really do add up to complete life changes – that really hit home.  See, this is exactly the kind of thing I encourage my clients to do at DISCREET, and small incremental changes really are the only way I find that people can hold on to healthy behaviours for more than a few weeks. at a time.

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Should you be clickbait-averse (the full list is linked above), allow me to summarise the ones I love most below:

  1.  Drink a glass of water every morning when you wake up.  Guys, the ONE thing that each and every one of my clients gets on their meal programs is the admonition to drink 3 liters (100 ounces) of water per day.  It matters.
  2. Eat raw fruit or vegetables with every meal.  With nutrition, think about adding more produce and protein before you think about taking things away.  It works.
  3. Sit in silence for a few minutes every day.  I downloaded Buddhify this year and haven’t looked back – almost every day, I make time for a 5-20 minute meditation session it reenergises and focuses me as much as a nap or a coffee might otherwise have done (though truth be told, I still love my naps and coffees).

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  1. Respond to all invitations and opportunities with, “I’ll check my calendar.”  Too many times my default response is “sure!” simply because I want to come off agreeable and helpful – only to find that I’ve painted myself into a corner in terms of my schedule.  On the other hand, there are certain things I always say “no” to (like my friend’s African dance class that she’s invited me to a thousand times) that I could probably give more time to consider and maybe even (gasp) attend!
  2. Write a thank-you note every week.  I am decent about writing handwritten notes for gifts, but not so good about writing them for abstract gratitude (of which I have plenty!).  Step one is buying cute cards you’re proud to give; step two is leaving them directly in your line of sight so you have no choice but to pen ’em up.
  3. Keep your bike out where you can see it.  I used to own a bike but it wasn’t really a “commuting” type bike (think triathlon geometry).  Now, all over Singapore they have these bike-sharing programs where you can literally just pick up a bike off the street, scan it with your phone, and pay a nominal fee (like .50-$1 per half hour) to ride it where you need to go.  Ashamedly, I haven’t tried this yet – which is why it’s DEFINITELY on my to-do list for 2018!

I’ll try and do a longer resolutions post next week as I have a lot of major plans for 2018 (turning 35, potentially considering childbirth, moving, revamping my business) but I wanted to throw out these little nuggets of inspiration to get the ball rolling now.

What are your go-to healthy habits?  What do you do every day to stay well?

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.

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: Aw, She Got the Velcro

Let’s be real: you can get a great workout in whatever junky outfit you have lying around the house.  I’ve had clients come to me in baggy, oversized college T-shirts, flannel pyjama pants, and all manner of odd gear from reflective soccer shorts to collared polo shirts to an actual full-length unitard.

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Actually I’d love it if my client rolled up in this

But let’s be real.  Even though you don’t have to dress like you’re straight off the lululemon runway to work up a sweat, there is something about dropping down into a burpee with perfectly-in-place high-waisted capri or taking a jog in a strappy-but-secure stylish sports bra that makes the whole exercise experience a bit…nicer.

And why wouldn’t you want your sports gear to be damn cute as well?

Already I can hear the snores from the less-interested male clients and hey, you’re right – the selection of red/black/blue shirts and black/grey shorts at your local Big 5 might not be super inspiring, so if you’re looking for more stylish stuff, check out these brands.

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Listen, these men can basically work out in ANYTHING and no one is mad….except maybe put on some shoes, middle guy, sheesh.

But for my ladies, we are in a veritable wonderland of gorgeous, stylish, and somehow still functional fitness clothing at every price point – so let’s embrace it, dammit.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have some fairly wild taste when it comes to gym clothes, but for the sake of this post, I’ll stick to the basics: key pieces I wear every day, and general stuff I think the average fit female would like to wear herself.

Let’s start from the bottom up: shoes and socks.  I am a die-hard, can’t-be-swayed, own-the-same-pair-in-six-colours Nike Flyknit Free fan.  I didn’t always wear minimalist shoes; in fact, for the first eight years of my running career, I couldn’t be swayed from Asics Gel Nimbus (though now if I put them on they’d feel like cement blocks).

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An accurate representation of my current shoe wardrobe

However, my point is this: find a shoe that you absolutely ADORE (you get excited to actually put on, doesn’t cause you pain while working out, and is comfy) and buy it in at least three colors – no, not (just) for vanity, but so you can rotate between the pairs and prevent injury.  So many of my clients wear a single pair of way-too-old shoes to the grave and then wonder why they have shin splints or knee pain all of a sudden.

As for the socks, some simple guidelines: skip the cotton (tend to get soggy and stretch out); go for compression and arch support if you’re running in them; and make sure they’re cut higher in the back to avoid slippage in shoes.  From there, the world is your oyster.  My fave sock picks?

Feetures High Performance Cushion No-Show Tab Socks

Nike Elite Lightweight No-Show Tab Socks

Balega Enduro No Show Arch Support Socks

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For even MORE support, go whole hog with the NEWZILL knee-highs.

Now that we’ve got our feet sorted, how about we talk lower half?  I live in probably one of the most inhospitable running climates on Earth in that it is always hot, always humid, and more often than not, either blazing sun or pouring rain.  For this reason, I favour a nice compression short for lifting and an easy breezy lightweight split short for running. The best of both?  See below:

Affordable compression shorts that you can buy in a thousand colours: either the Nike Pro 3″ Training Shorts or the Cotton On Gym Short.  The high waist, thick band, and tight fit of the shorts makes them stay put on your upper thigh and stay comfortable throughout even a longer workout.  In terms of the running shorts, there is one INCREDIBLE product by Salomon that takes the take – they are literally like you’re wearing nothing at all.  Behold, the S-Lab Light 3 Short (not cheap; worth it):

salomon

Please understand how light, flippy and comfortable these second-skin shorts are.

Onward and upward to the top half of the bod – again, my apologies to those of you with “seasons” as you probably need things like “sleeves” and “jackets” in your life, and I wont’ cover any of that business here.  But again – in terms of dealing with heat, Nike does it again with their collection of well-fitted and ultra-lightweight singlets.  Some top choices?

Nike Breathe Elastika – love the choice to tie up or leave down depending on the day

Nike Breeze Cool – my current count is four; in teal, nean yellow, cobalt, and black

Nike Breathe Tank – like you’re wearing nothing at all…nothing at all…

Should you not be as unilaterally obsessed with the Nike brand as I am, I’d be remiss to not mention lululemon’s amazing line of built-in bra tops (the only brand I trust to actually hold ’em in, if you catch my drift), the standout of which is the Fresh in Mesh Tank that I will eventually own in every colour possible:

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Cutest ever, am I right?

One last note on accessories, despite the fact that I am actually a pretty simple gal when it comes to things like gym bags (whatever I toss my stuff in becomes my “bag”), watches (don’t wear one), and gadgets (I’m definitely not the one to ask about things like copper balance bracelets or knee straps or anything like that) – but I love a good, sporty hat or visor, and my absolute fave are the ones from Headsweats.  Comfortable, performance-oriented, and unbeatable for hot weather whether you’re running, golfing, or heck, just standing outdoors for 4 minutes in Singapore heat:

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This one’s even reflective – great for night runs!

That’s it for my list of raves and faves when it comes to performance gear (special thanks to Nike, Cotton On BODY, lululemon and Amazon for making it even easier to get my fave picks ordered online) – but I’d love to hear what YOUR favourite choices are when it comes to all things exercise.

Tell me, readers – who are YOU wearing (in the gym)?

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: It Ain’t Over ‘Til…

I train a lot of clients from all different backgrounds, body types, and ability levels.  One day, a client of mine saw another (extremely lean, extremely fit) client and commented:

“Why is she still doing personal training?  She already looks amazing!”

A few weeks later, I mentioned to a different client that I had started training a trainer – meaning one of my personal training clients is also a reputable and successful personal trainer in her own right.  She was astonished, asking:

“Why would someone like that even need a trainer?”

KB Bod

This is not the ONLY reason people hire trainers.

These two questions are representative of two of my main pet-peeve misunderstandings about health and fitness in general, which are:

  • (1) that once you “look” fit (or in most cases, skinny) enough, you’re done
  • (2) that people who already “look” fit (or again, sigh, skinny) don’t need training

Most of the health and fitness professionals I interact with accepted long ago the idea that wellness (and weight loss, and endurance event training, and dietary changes, and whatever other process of self-betterment we specialise in helping people with) is a journey, not a destination.  

So why do so many clients get hung up on the latter?

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Wellness as a journey.

When it comes to taking care of your health, there is no “done.”  You don’t get fit by sitting on your hump, so why would it  make sense that to stay fit you’d get to do that?

The dirty little not-so-secret is this – not only do you never get to be done; some things actually get harder.  More muscle is harder to maintain than less.  Faster runners have to push harder to elevate their heart rates than slower ones.  Getting smaller means you burn fewer calories and thus have to eat less.   Womp womp (cue the sad violin).

Furthermore, the idea that the fitter you are, the less you need a trainer is just infuriating.  Why do Olympic athletes have coaches?  Why do Hollywood celebrities hire an entire team of nutritionists, trainers, and wellness coaches to keep them tip-top and red-carpet ready?  In fact, the fittest, strongest, and healthiest people in the world have one thing in common: they all have coaches (or at least had a coach at the crucial tipping/development point of their personal fitness journeys).

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This phenomenal athlete STILL needs this amazing coach to be her best.

So why in the fresh hell would you think the average Joe/Jane doesn’t “need” some help?

Granted, we all feel very passionate about the necessity of our own professions, and I’m sure there are tailors out there who would be shocked to know I always buy off the rack or hairdressers that would die to know I haven’t cut my hair in over a year.  That said, I’m not talking about clothes or haircuts – I am legitimately talking about the one thing that can make or break every single day of your life, from how you feel when you wake up to how you function throughout your day to how well you sleep – your health.

And what could possibly be more priceless than taking care of THAT?

I suppose my point in all of this (as I realise I am about to go full soapbox on this entry) would be to advise all the folks working hard out there in the #fitfam to reevaluate the way you think, speak, and judge about fitness.

Refrain from entertaining the idea that fitness goals have a specific beginning and ending, and refrain even more from thinking that the only way to get between these two arbitrary points is X (whether X is Paleo, marathon running, Keto, barre method, or whatever flavour of the day is popular right now).

Try not to compliment fellow fit friends on their bodies as much as their accomplishments, and try to encourage each other to keep reaching goals (rather than saying things like, “Wow, you did a marathon – time to hit the couch for a while, huh?”).

race

Every.  Single.  Time.

And finally – for the sake of my profession, my clients’ investments, and the health and fitness industry at large – consider that anyone and everyone can benefit from the counsel, guidance, and programming that a licensed and certified professional can offer.

Think you eat “pretty well”?  Have your food log reviewed by a registered dietitian.  Got a decent workout routine but not seeing the results you want?  Book a few sessions with a personal trainer to see where you can spice up your program.  Been stuck in a career rut for a while but can’t figure out your next steps?  A sit-down with a wellness coach may be just what you need.  Seeking out help and building a network of wellness professionals is not an admission of weakness; rather, it is a commitment to building strength in the areas of your life that matter the most to your long-term success.

Mic drop.