Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Food As Fuel

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

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Be better.  Move more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Choose quality protein over junky carbs.

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

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

Ask Amanda: Gimmicks Make Me Gag

A few friends of mine in L.A. have been #AskingAmanda about the true “health factor” of a popular spot called Moon Juice and seeing as I’ve been a bit out of the scene (you know, just 8000+ miles) for a while, I had to do some online digging to find out exactly what that place was.

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Pretty pretty Moon Juice, Los Angeles

For those of you who are as ignorant (or non-SoCal-residing) as me, here’s a primer:

The Moon Juice slogan is “plant-based alchemy to elevate body, beauty, and consciousness,” which in layman’s terms means “we’re going to charge $7 for the same bag of dried mango you can get at the neighbourhood bodega, and serve it up with a side of self-righteousness.”  Ok, I’m being a bit harsh.  But places like this have one thing in common:

They sell you basic (and usually inexpensive) ingredients, repackaged and upcharged to make healthy eating seem hip.

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Don’t forget your daily…ashwagandha.

At its simplest, I have no problem with this marketing strategy (and guys, recognise it for what it is: A MARKETING STRATEGY).  I’d LOVE for my nutrition clients to use more anti-inflammatory spices in their meals; if it takes baking cumin into a swiss chard “crisp” and charging six bucks an ounce for it, well, that part is actually fine with me (the “dusts,” activated nuts, and powdered supplements from Moon Juice are all perfectly healthy, unlike a lot of competing “natural” foods brands).

The problems I have with this new batch of new-age “granola” food are as follows:

  • they’re expensive AF, perpetuating the excuse that “I can’t afford to eat healthy”
  • a lot of it is just masking and repackaging unhealthy ingredients (read: sugar!) in seemingly healthy ways (don’t get me started on KIND Bars, Jamba Juices, or the now-popular in Singapore Unicorn Tears)
  • powders, pills, and shakes, even if made with the good stuff, disguise the appearance of what “real” ingredients look like – further distancing the relationship between modern humans and their food
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MIND BLOWN

That being said, what these places are doing right is this: putting healthy food into attractive formats and selling it in convenient and attractive ways, which means the average (monied) person (who may never buy, juice, and pack their own organic kale) has increased access to better food choices on the go, which in our fast-paced society is a definite plus.  One of the top questions I get from clients (especially in Singapore!) is “where can I get something fast to eat that won’t destroy my diet?” and I’d love to point them in the direction of something like a Moon Juice if we had it here (note: we do have some awesome go-to healthy spots like Kitchen by Food Rebel, Little Farms, and Mojo, but they’re not as centrally located and affordable as I’d personally prefer).

A final note on health and fitness gimmicks: be discerning, guys.  Don’t pay $6 for a sugar-packed, preservative-ridden bag of “Yo Cherry Guilt-Free Snacks” (an actual product sent to me by a client last night looking for a healthy snack choice at the movies) when you can pack your own (bigger!) bag of raw almonds, dried unsweetened cherries, and cacao nibs for a cheaper, cleaner choice.

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If you need dat granola fix, stat

Don’t let fancy-looking packaging, the word “natural,” or the popularity of a product be your reason for choosing it.  Read the label (pro tip: if food doesn’t HAVE a label, like a fresh apple, it’s probably the healthier choice) carefully, watch for hidden sugar and high sodium, and get the majority of your daily calories from clean, unprocessed, unpackaged, as-close-looking-to-the-original-state-of-the-food (think celery sticks rather than celery “juice”) foods as possible.

Have you come across a “gimmicky” food or product you just KNOW isn’t healthy?  Let TFB be your soapbox – and warn the others! 😉

Ask Amanda: You’ve Got the White Stuff

By 2017 we’ve all started to realize that sugar (white carbs), not fat, is the real culprit in making people fat (and if you haven’t, here’s a primer on how that all works).  Most of us know that sugary beverages like soda are the fast track to weight gain, and that cutting carbs (not necessarily eliminating, but decreasing) will help you lose body fat.

But let’s also be real – there’s a lot of confusion about what sugar actually is, the differences between the types of sugars on the market, in what ways added versus natural sugars are different, and whether artificial (calorie-free) or natural sugars are “better” for you in the long run.

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ALL of these are sugar.  NONE of these are healthy.  You’re welcome.

#AskAmanda is here to save the day – as much as I can, at least – with some not-so-sweet talk on sugars and how they affect your overall health.

First of all, know this: consuming sugar in any amount is not superb for the human body. We need carbs to live, but we don’t need refined sugar (and in fact, studies confirm that our ancestors lived just fine without it) – so when we have it, it hits the system hard and fast.  Think I’m kidding?  Scientists have found the addictive properties of sugar are similar to that of cocaine – and in fact, even worse.

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Sugar addict response, far right – more intense than drug addict at center.

Second, understand that artificial sugars (Stevia, Truvia, Equal, Sweet N’ Low, aspartame, etc.) are no free pass.  In fact, a recent study just found that artificial sweeteners contribute to accumulation of body fat in humans – the exact opposite aim of what these “sugar-free” products claim to do.  Artificial sugars are chemical compounds that trick the brain into thinking it’s getting real sugar – and in turn leave the body craving for the sweetness factor it’s not actually getting, which more often than not leads to a binge on actual sugar (backfire!).  So what’s the solution?

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Just as dairy is best enjoyed sparingly BUT in its full-fat form, sugary treats are similar.  If you’re going to have a cookie, have a homemade chocolate-chip one with real chocolate and full brown sugar, rather than a few “fat free” packaged ones stuffed with chemical substitutes and fake sweeteners (again, this will only trigger cravings for real sweetness in the end).  Unlike dairy, sugar has no redeeming nutritional value – it’s pure additive; pure calories; pure carbohydrate – but used in moderation (there are about 15 calories in one tableside “packet” of white sugar), will not derail a diet that is otherwise healthy.

A quick note on that, while we’re here – a “healthy” diet is one that is comprised of at least 7-9 servings of vegetables, at least one gram of lean protein (chicken, fish, pork, tofu, lean beef) per kilogram of body weight, at least 2.5 litres of plain water, 1-2 maximum servings of whole grain carbohydrates, and less than 25g total sugar (including fructose, from fruit, lactose, from dairy, and all other added sugars) per day.

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Clean eating made simple: if it’s in this picture, you can eat it.

If you’re not sure if your diet adds up, it’s worth logging your meals for 3-5 days (use an app like MyFitnessPal if you’re not into transcribing food labels) so you can track thees numbers – specifically your carbs/sugars, veggie servings, and protein counts – and see where you can make real, tangible improvements – pretty sweet after all, huh? 😉

Do you have a sweet tooth – and if so, how do you feed it in moderation?

Ask Amanda: The Opposite of Exercise

A wonderful (and sidenote, gorgeous) TFB reader and bride-to-be came to me with a frustrated #AskAmanda question earlier this week, and I felt for her, because I feel like it’s something I commonly hear from training clients that are just starting out:

“I’m busting my ass in the gym (or, training for this marathon; or, doing CrossFit; or, taking the 40-day hot yoga challenge, etc. etc.) and I’m actually GAINING weight.”

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Sound familiar?

Believe it or not, I’ve been there.  There was a time in my life when I was running more than 25 miles per week, lifting weights, and doing CrossFit, and watching that infuriating little red ticker on my scale NOT BUDGE AN OUNCE.  Here I was, legitimately exercising at a high intensity at least 2 hours per day and not losing weight.  Seems impossible, right?

How could adding more exercise produce results that are the exact opposite of exercise?

So….here’s the thing, guys.  Remember my 80/10/10 theory (if not, read all about it here)? The basic idea is this: only 10% of the way your body looks in terms of fat-to-muscle composition comes from the gym.  The other ten percent comes from genetics (hey, don’t fight Mother Nature).  And the remaining EIGHTY (eight-zero) percent comes straight from what you put into your mouth: your diet.

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Focus on the first and last columns.

Anyone who’s lost a significant amount of weight without illness or surgery will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it’s making a radical dietary change that made the final difference in watching the scale go down, down down.  Social media, pop culture, and fitness magazines do their best to tell you that it’s “gettin’ swole” in the gym or doing some particular sort of workout that’s going to make your six pack pop – when in reality, dropping carbs for a week will do more for your abs than a thousand crunches ever will.

That being said, of course there are some nutritional strategies that are more effective than others, and there are some workouts that are more effective than others, and there are some “insider” trainer tips that can help speed along body fat loss – and I want to give you a little insight into all of those, right now:

BE.  CONSISTENT.  Above all, you need to be consistent in your diet and exercise routine.  As you know, I am a big fan of intermittent fasting (IF), and the reason it works for me is because I do it every day.  Maybe IF isn’t for you, but maybe the four-hour body is.  Maybe my style of working out (mid-distance running interspersed with traditional weight training and twice-per-week obstacle training) isn’t for you, but Pilates is.  I am not as concerned with WHAT clean-eating plan you’re following or WHAT workout you’re doing, as long as  you’re not doing it a couple days a week and acting “shocked” when results aren’t there.  Success is a full-time gig, my friends.

TRACK & CONQUER INFLAMMATION.  Especially when picking up the iron for the first time, a lot of my clients experience a great deal of muscle soreness and inflammation, which can lead to skipping workouts, poor sleep quality, and just general feelings of OUCH.  I wrote a whole blog on how to get over this initial exercise adaptation (so hey, I’m not gonna repeat myself too much here) but just know this: if you don’t reduce inflammation in the body, your brain doesn’t receive enough of the leptin hormone (yep, the one that controls and regulates your appetite), and you end up hungry & tired.

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TIME YOUR MEALS TO CONTROL YOUR APPETITE.  A lot of first-time marathoners complain that they’re ravenous because of their increase in weekly running mileage – but the strategy here is to use your meals strategically so that they curb your appetite and refuel your body rather than leave you stranded and starving.  My best advice is to exercise first thing in the morning – yes, before you’ve even eaten – to “use” a large, nutritious breakfast (NOT this “fat-free yogurt and fruit” BS that so many of my clients think is healthy) as your recovery meal (by eating before you work out, you “use up” the fuel during your work out, and often feel hungry afterward and need a “second breakfast” to keep going).  Have a lunch that features lots of protein and a healthy carb, then let the carbs go after 4pm – focusing on protein alone as afternoon snacks (read: hard boiled egg, protein shake) and as the centerpiece at dinner.  As the old saying goes, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

DROP THE WHITE STUFF.  Speaking of eating, the three food “groups” (eye roll) you can let go in a jiffy if you’re honestly trying to cut fat are sugar, flour and salt.  Point blank. These three ingredients (especially when consumed to excess) are poison to your system, dull your skin, slow your metabolism, clog up your bowels, and worst of all, make you fat.  You know what DOESN’T make you fat, in the ultimate irony?  FAT.  You can even lose weight drinking liquid butter for breakfast – but not if you can’t drop the croissants.

DIURETIC YOUR DIET.  A lot of us retain a lot of water (per the above, often due to overzealous salt and sugar intakes) that in turn makes us have the “appearance” of chubbiness even when body fat is not that high – think puffed-up cheeks, swollen hands and feet, and distended bellies.  If you are one of these people (and hey-o, I am too!), diuretic foods and beverages can be your best friend.  Granted, you don’t want to lose all the water in your system and you need to stay super hydrated throughout the day for diuretics to be healthy and effective, but integrating diuretic foods can help beat the bloat and give you a slimmer, tighter appearance almost instantly (definitely a fitness-model trick for photoshoot day, believe you me).  Here’s a list to help you figure out what to eat.

Finally, USE YOUR GYM TIME WISELY.  Most of us don’t have hours to slog away on the treadmill and per my above points on inflammation, appetite, and weight loss – you don’t want to be doing that anyway.  Building more muscle is the surest way to make your body a lean, mean, metabolic-functioning machine, and building more muscle comes from a combination of eating enough protein and 3-4 sessions per week of lifting heavy weights (ladies, you too).  Add in a day or two of HIIT-style cardio to shed a little more fat and bingo – your kick-started fat loss journey has begun.

What’s worked for you in terms of body fat loss – and if you’ve never needed to lose weight, what are your best stay-slim strategies?

Ask Amanda: The Six Pack Story

Among my female clients, the requests for body sculpting via personal training and nutrition are many: some want skinnier thighs, some want a bigger booty, some are looking for cut arms, others want a flat stomach, a lot want to lose back fat, etc etc.

Among my male clients, the most common request is simple: get me a six pack.

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Not quite there yet, fellas.

If you search the internet, you’ll find a myriad of articles pointing you in the direction of which exercises to do for a six pack (an issue which I will touch, but not dwell, on in this entry) – but relatively few explaining the other components (diet, sleep, stress control) that are even more crucial to achieve this physiological phenomenon.

A few years back, the website Greatist had one of their writers perform an “absperiment” to see if he could get six-pack abs in six weeks.  Some caveats: dude was, well, male (always going to be harder for us ladies to nail the sixer), young, and already above-average in terms of fitness and exercise habits.  That said, like many of my clients, despite his genearl fitness, he didn’t have that visible, hard midsection muscle development that seems to scream, more than any other muscle you can have, “I am fit!  I am sexy!”

Spoiler alert on his story:  he did it.  He got one.  And it nearly killed him.  Read here for a list of the sacrifices he made to achieve his goal – and then reconsider if you want to read the rest of my tips, hahah.

The reason I bring up his story is because I want to write this piece as a how-to guidenot as a must-do mandate.  If you want to know the real talk on getting a six pack, you also must know that it is not generally an easy, nor pleasant, nor natural thing for most of us – and the people you see that have wicked-awesome ones are usually genetic beasts or absolute ascetics – or both.  That said, with dedication, persistence, and self-control, it is not outside the realm of possibility (especially for those who are young, fit, and male) – and I’ll give you my best advice on how to get there.

First things first – great abs are made in the kitchen.  Carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, too much sodium, and nearly ALL sugars gotta go (as in, 100% gone) if you want to get that six-pack fast – and protein and “good” fat consumption has to go wayyyyy up (think about 1 gram protein and 1/2 gram fat per pound of bodyweight, minimum).  For most of us, we have to drop our portion sizes, and for almost everyone, we have to cook at home for every meal to avoid the inevitable salt, oil, and grease bombs that restaurants serve in massive proportion.

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Second, the exercise.  A visible six-pack, especially for men, isn’t just a “tight” core – it takes a larger, stronger muscle development to really pop.  That’s why crunches and planks, though fantastic otherwise, won’t a six-pack make.  Think of incorporating hypertrophic (muscle-growing) moves, such as ab wheel rollouts, hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and medicine ball declines to your program – the more you add weight and resistance to an abdominal exercise, the more the muscle will grow in size (and visibility).  You’ll need to make sure you’re doing other fat-burning full body exercise as well (since you can’t just “target” the fat on your abs without getting the fat in other places off, too) – and I’ll recommend HIIT (over steady-state cardio) as a time-efficient way of doing this.

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Third, let’s chat about nutrient timing.  Yes, I’ve already taken away your precious carbs and alcohol, and now I’m going to take away even the time in which you can eat food.  Whether or not you choose to go for full-on intermittent fasting (IMO, the quickest way to shock your body into ketosis, the fat-burning metabolic process), you’ll need to put a limit on how many hours of the day you spend eating, and at what time in the day you stop eating any form of carbohydrates (yes, even vegetable ones).  Most folks entering the six-pack zone stay fasted until lunch, include around 100g of carbs in that first meal, and then eliminate carbs anytime after 4pm – putting a firm end point their overall food intake no later than 8-9pm.  It’s not easy, but timing your food intake is effective – and cost-free!

Next, don’t forget about the key component in hypertrophy (again, muscle gain): adequate and consistent sleep.  When you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles don’t recover, which means they don’t build in size, which means you’ll never actually see them (visibility being a key part of the six-pack allure, of course).  Add to that the fact that when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is constantly searching for sources of energy, which makes your appetite more ravenous and your body crave for more carbohydrate sources from which to get it – a double whammy for fat loss.  Also don’t forget that when you’re tired, your workouts suffer – and regular, intense exercise is a key part of the overall process.

Finally – and this is really the summative point for every other tip I’ve given you guys – you have to be consistent, and you can’t afford to cheat.  Visible six-pack abs come from a combination of being very physically fit and having a very low body fat percentage, and there’s no way to skirt around that.  You have to keep your diet insanely clean (as in, cleaner than even a dietician or doctor would prescribe for optimal health), work out 5-6 days per week (hard), and manage your sleep and stress patterns like a professional.  These are not easy tasks, nor are they even doable for some folks depending on your home and work situations, but they are what it takes to get the oh-so-coveted ripples in the midsection.

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What your “six pack” looks like at different body fat percentages

In my professional opinion as a personal trainer, there are so many other goals worth working toward that may or may not produce a six pack.  Eating more vegetables will boost your immune system and keep you healthy.  Integrating more protein and fewer carbohydrates into your diet will help you lose weight.  Lifting weights and performing heart-rate-raising cardio exercise will improve your heart health, bone density, and longevity.  These are the goals worth working for – not just the six blocks on your bod.

So what do you think, readers?  Are washboard abs worth the trouble – or all hype – for you?

Ask Amanda: Oiled Up & Ready

Every now and then, ThisFitBlonde takes a break from yakkin’ about fitness (my first love) to talk about nutrition (my…life partner?).

A quick disclaimer, for the sake of my clinical (and wayyyyyy more well-qualified) friends: I am a certified sports nutritionist, which means that I have the necessary background and examinations to advise clients on what types of foods to eat to better their athletic and fitness performance.

I am not a registered dietitian (R.D.), which is a health professional that has completed a relevant bachelor’s degree, done countless hours in a supervised and accredited practice program, and passed a (very challenging) national examination.  Whew.

That said, I do feel qualified to offer an informed opinion on certain nutritional topics – and which oils are best to use while cooking is one of them.  A lot of clients of mine “default” to olive oil because they’ve heard it’s healthy; some use coconut oil on everything because they’ve heard it’s even better; even others spend a fortune on avocado or hempseed oil because it sounds a bit fancier, or maybe because they think it boasts a higher smoke point.

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Sound familiar?

I want to clear up some of the pros and cons on different oils and offer my professional opinion – both in terms of health and performance – on which ones you should be using.  For those of you who are already bored of this post, print out this easy-to-read guide – it’ll give you the down low in one quick visual you can post on your fridge.

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OLIVE.  This is basically your #1 best all-around oil – it’s high in the good fats, low in the dangerous ones, tastes delicious, delivers on the flavonoids, tastes good in dressings and is pretty useful for cooking.  Higher quality olive oils are bought in tins or dark glass bottles, not clear ones, and extra virgin (versus regular olive oil) has a stronger flavor.

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COCONUT.  I’m talking unrefined (the type that’s solid at room temp) and virgin, as the other types (read: cheap) are definitely not healthy to ingest.  High in the good saturated fat (lauric acid), low in the bad ones, superb as a butter substitute in baking and fabulous for cooking Asian cuisine (for flavor) and cooking in general (for its high smoke point).

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GRASS FED BUTTER.  Please don’t ignore those two words in front of the yummy word “butter” because they do matter – and ghee, or clarified butter, also counts here.  Real, honest butter has a ton of Vitamin A, E, and K2, and if you’re using the clarified sort, it doesn’t burn when cooking (since clarifying removes the lactose and proteins).  Plus, um, did you realize that BUTTER IS OF COURSE THE MOST DELICIOUS?!?!?

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HEMPSEED.  It’s basically the same as olive oil in its health properties, but with the added benefit of having the type of Omega-6 fatty acid that acts as an anti-inflammatory, which we can all use.  Hempseed oil has also been shown to have an anti-clotting effect on the blood – but this one is best used for dressings and cold foods, as heating hempseed oil changes its nutritional composition somewhat significantly.

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OILS TO AVOID.  I’ve just highlighted the ones I’d recommend to clients, but in general, you’re going to want to avoid this (shockingly) long list for any sort of long-term use (as in, fine for the occasional dose of Grandma’s Christmas cookies but not ideal for everyday cooking): soybean, palm, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, pumpkin seed, margarine, lard.  These contain way too much Omega-6 (bad) fat and not enough Omega-3 (good) fatty acids to make ’em worth your while, and some are also high in saturated and trans fats to boot.

All this talk about oil is making me hungry – and making me think I’ll need to add a follow up post about one my favorite nutrition myths to debunk – that FAT doesn’t actually make you fat, and OILS are actually a wonderful part of a healthy diet!  But until next time, readers…

What’s your favorite oil to use for cooking, baking, or just a good old-fashioned bread dip?

Ask Amanda: Clean House

A few months ago a loyal client asked me a tough question and it’s taken until now for me to figure out how to answer it.  She is a dedicated client; works her buns off in the gym and does her best to shop for and prepare healthy meals.

Her problem, though, is a common one: her family doesn’t eat clean – and doesn’t want to.

How hard is it to prepare a nice, clean meal of chicken breast and broccoli and have your kids begging for mac n’ cheese?  Or to stick with a piece of grilled fish and salad when the husband brings home a bag of deliciously greasy-smelling McDonalds?  Or spend your time putting together a big batch of quinoa pilaf for the whole fam and they turn up their noses?

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In my opinion, what happens at home is about 100 times more important than what happens in the gym, and more often than not, is also a better determinant of how successful you will be on your fitness program.  You can hit it hard on your exercise program but come home to a den of temptation – and once you’re in the comfort of your own home, it’s a lot easier to give in.

I used to be a huge fan of the TV reality show The Biggest Loser, and it used to kill me when you’d see episodes of the newly-health-conscious contestants going home to their families and seeing their entire program unravel because their partners and kids refused to support their new wellness routines.  Time and time again you’d watch these formerly-obese people return to the toxic environments that enabled them to become that way, and like a caged wolf released back into the wild, they’d slip right back into their “natural” habits.

So what do you do when you want to make a lifestyle change and the people around you don’t?

My first answer comes with a lot of tough love: find new people to be around.  Ok, so that’s easier said than done when it comes to family, sure – but if you are part of a group of friends that gets their kicks from sitting around eating junk food, hating on “skinny people” and lamenting how hard/unpleasant it is to get up and exercise, it may be time to surround yourself with some new, more positive influences.  Find a bootcamp of like-minded people.  Hire a personal trainer to be your fitness partner.  Recruit a lunch buddy at work that will go get salads with you when the entire office orders in a pizza.  You control who you let into your inner circle, and if you can find a tribe that supports you, you are more likely to find success.

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Now onto the family/home issue more specifically.  If you are serious about making a lifestyle change, especially if it’s a critical issue of health (you need to lose weight because of prediabetes, for example), you should be able to have an open and honest conversation with someone who truly loves you about why you need their support.

Don’t let anyone belittle or rationalize away your reasons for wanting to make a positive change; see if you can work together to create and post an actual, written action plan (i.e. “we cook dinner at home three nights per week” or “I take walks at lunch every weekday”) that you can point to whenever there is some tension about wanting to do/eat/add/eliminate something in your life.  Never be afraid or ashamed to ask for what you need from your partner, especially if it is something that matters to your long-term health and happiness.

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As for the “kids food” issue, this of course is a bigger philosophical discussion than I have room for in this little ol’ blog (and truth be told, as someone who is not yet a parent, I may as well stuff my foot in my mouth before I talk about how someone else should raise their kids).

But what I can say is this: children are children.  They will eat what they are provided or they will hold out until they’re truly hungry, but either way, you are the parent and you are in control of what goes on the plate.  If you don’t put mac n’ cheese in the house, there is no mac n’ cheese in the house.  If you demonstrate healthy habits by putting green vegetables on the table at dinnertime, even if they don’t touch them at first, they will still see the example of you making a commitment to healthier options at home (remember those somewhat-creepy “I learned it by watching you” anti-drug commercials in the 90s ?  Yeah, it applies here too).

It make take time, effort, and a few tears to make healthy changes happen in your household – but as they say, nothing worth having comes easy.  When it comes to your wellness goals, you’re the one in charge – and where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Pioneer the positive habits and attitudes you want to embrace, and one day, the people around you will want to do it without their hands being forced.  Be your own best example.

How do you deal with less-than-supportive peers when you’re working toward a goal?

Ask Amanda: Bulletproof Your Mornings

If you haven’t heard of “bulletproofing” your morning coffee, you’re not alone.  Whenever I casually toss it out in a group of my non-trainer, non-nutritionist friends I get weird looks, similar to when I assume that everyone knows what a burpee is or how to interpret the acronym AMRAP.

It sounds high-tech, a little dangerous, and kind of gimmick-y.  And so, even though bulletproof coffee is on the menu for only five bucks at one of my favorite little coffee bars in Singapore, I doubt the majority of folks that go into that place even have a clue what it means – or why it is such an amazing, valid, and useful food-beverage hybrid.

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At its simplest, bulletproof coffee is simply a high-quality coffee mixed with coconut oil and butter.  Yes, you heard me right – you put a ton of plant and animal fat in your coffee, then you swig it down all thick and creamy-like.  As you can imagine, it is not a low-calorie treat, it is not for the faint of palate, and it is (in my personal opinion) one of the most g*ddamn delicious ways to enjoy your morning cuppa joe.

Bulletproof coffee has come up on this blog briefly, once suggested as an alternative to the skinny vanilla latte (or any other sugary blended beverage, to be honest) and once as a recommended part of a balanced breakfast.  But I’ve never actually gone into the nitty gritty of what bulletproof is, why it matters, and how you can give it an honest try.

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First of all, true bulletproof coffee isn’t just a bean/oil/butter combo.  It’s a very specific “upgraded” black coffee, “brain octane” MCT coconut oil, and grass-fed clarified butter (like ghee).  A man named Dave Asprey went on a Himalayan trek during which all they were given for breakfast was a steaming hot cup of strong coffee with yak’s (very fatty) milk, and he found that it not only helped him stay full and sustain his high activity level throughout the trekking day, but that it was also helping him lose body fat – a very notable development indeed.

Upon returning, he did some experimenting and came up with the bulletproof recipe – and its central claim that it puts the body into ketosis (burning fat for fuel, aka that thing we’re always trying to get our metabolisms to do).  While this claim has yet to be backed by any actual science (sorry, Dave), there is great evidence to the fact that MCT oil (i.e. one-third of the bulletproof formula) helps send the body into ketosis all on its lonesome, which combined with the satiety provided by the butter and the caffeine boost from the coffee can make for one helluva satisfying breakfast drink.

So what do I personally think of it all?

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As a committed intermittent faster, I am a huge fan of “using” bulletproof coffee to get you over the hump of no longer eating breakfast (a huge transition for a lot of those new to IF).  Sure, it’s a bit of a cheat, but because the ketonic effect of MCT complements the ketonic metabolic goals of IF in general, I call it a win-win – you feel good, you wake up, you stay full, and you can push your fast a little longer than you might otherwise.

On the contrary, bulletproof coffee is still just coffee, and if you’re the type of person who needs to chew in the morning, it probably won’t take over your usual breakfast food – and shouldn’t be added on to what you’re eating due to the fact that it’s a nearly all-fat, nearly 500-calorie little beverage.  Some rogue bulletproofers have experimented with adding egg whites or protein powder, making for a more meal-like experience, albeit at the expense of the purity of the main ingredients.  And don’t forget that texture here is absolutely crucial – you need to put the ingredients in a blender (nor stir with a spoon) to get the full experience of deliciousness.

In my humble opinion, if you have normal cholesterol and don’t feel the need for a sweet, food-filled breakfast, bulletproof could be an absolute breakthrough for you – and it’s definitely something worth giving a whirl (pun intended) in your morning routine.

What do you eat for breakfast?  Are you a coffee person, bulletproof or otherwise?

Ask Amanda: The Tummy Conundrum

I think I’ve mentioned before that the majority of my clients come to me to “lose weight and tone up “- but if we boil it down a bit further, I’d say 90% of those weight-loss clients would more specifically say this:

I want to lose my belly fat.

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Whether it’s from pregnancy, poor diet, aging, alcohol, or a combination of factors, lamentations about the midsection top the list of complaints I get from even my fittest clients.

So what is there to do?

There’s an old saying in the fitness community that “great abs are made in the kitchen,” and I’ll agree with that 99% (the other bit I’ll address in a moment).  Diet is the single most important factor in beating the bulge, not only in the torso but all over the body.  That said, especially as we age, more of our body fat tends to “settle” in the middle (hey, blame gravity), meaning that any excess glycogen (read: carbohydrate, you know, sugar and starch) calories tend to team up and gather there as well.  Bummer, huh?

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But all is not lost.

Besides cutting down on carbohydrates (read here for a comprehensive belly-fat-beating list of foods you can eliminate from your daily diet), there are actually some really simple ways to target android fat that don’t even involve exercise.  First, get enough rest – the hormone cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) kicks belly fat storage into high gear when you’re getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night – and is even worse when you spend your waking hours stressed out as well.

Second, consider eliminating dairya topic I wrote about in a prior Ask Amanda and a belly-bloating culprit many of us don’t even realize we’re encouraging.  For some, wheat can also contribute to gas retention and discomfort – so it’s worth trying an elimination period from each to see if your body reacts to either type of food.

Third, make sure you’re drinking enough water – about 3 liters daily – since sodium retention is a major cause of bloating, and dehydration only makes those effects worse – something those of us who have woken up to a puffy, rounded face after a hard night of drinking and late-night eats can definitely attest to (cough, cough).

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And finally – this is a fitness blog, after all – the exercise piece of the puzzle.  Truth be told, most of us have decent abs, they’re just hidden under a nice warm layer of fat.  In order to give your middle the best chance of looking lean, you must combine a clean diet, consistent hydration, proper sleep habits, destressing techniques, and lengthening and strengthening exercises for the core.  Some examples of what I mean are:

Once you’ve got all these pieces of the puzzle in order, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the central fat starts to disappear – and how toned the rest of your body will appear, as well.

What are your favorite midsection-melting moves?  How do you like to tone your tummy?