Dealing With Unwitting Saboteurs to Your Health

cupcakesSo you decided you had enough of being overweight, tired all the time, and self-conscious of your appearance.    You read several popular books and blogs on how to lose weight,  have a good understanding of what you need to do, and are ready to move forward.  You psyche yourself up, purge your pantry and refrigerator of all those sinful, sugary treats and replace them with fresh organic vegetables, lean protein and healthy snacks.   For exercise, you diligently walk around your block three times every evening before dinner.  To your surprise and pleasure, after five days you weigh yourself and find that you have lost four pounds– “Awesome!” you shriek to yourself–  “Yeah!!”  And you’re on your way to a new life, until…

…your spouse or significant other comes into the kitchen as you are chopping red leaf lettuce.  “Hi Hon, how about a nice pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia after dinner tonight?  You deserve it, come on!”  Or your co-worker drops by your cubicle at 11:30 AM and says, “Feel like going to the All You Can Eat Buffet for lunch?”

Suddenly thoughts of you eating that rich, creamy ice cream emerge, and you actually start salivating.  The image of the colorful tub of ice cream right before you reinforces those memories and you forget about the lettuce for a moment.  Or, you imagine rows of comfort food at the buffet line and start craving the assortment of all those sweet, salty, and fatty foods; a welcome taste after five days of salad and lean protein.

What is happening here is that your significant other/ co-worker is unwittingly acting as an enabler– a negative term used to describe someone who, through their actions, enables or encourages another person’s negative behavior.  It is the opposite of a good role model.  Instead of providing positive leadership and good example, the enabler is reinforcing your unwanted behavior by encouraging it in some way.   It can be a difficult situation on many levels since it involves a relationship.   What is one to do?

Here’s what you do:  Before you start your weight loss journey, inform all the people in your immediate circle (especially the person you are living with) of your intention to reach a healthy weight and achieve optimal health, and ask them for their support.   Be serious about it; no joking.  Make sure you say it in a way that leaves no other possible interpretation.   Don’t even be afraid to get emotional about it, because it is your life and your future well-being you are talking about.  Tell your partner/roommate specifically what you’ll be doing; how your daily routine will change and how he/she will be affected.   If it’s your spouse and he/she objects for any reason or attempts to downplay the need to lose weight (“I love you just the way you are”), tell him if he truly loved you, he would respect your wishes and offer encouragement.  Put the ball in his court so he feels an obligation.  Hopefully, your spouse will come around and choose to support your efforts.

What to say to your partner:

1.  I’ll use a male spouse as an example.  If you are following a particular diet plan, explain to him how it works.  If there is a book you are going by, ask him to read it so he can be on “the same page” as you, be knowledgeable of the procedure and offer assistance throughout your journey.  In an ideal situation, your spouse will go on the plan with you and both of you can motivate one another and serve as an accountability partner to the other.

2.  If your spouse does not want to change, or doesn’t need to, and has a rather neutral or nonchalant attitude towards your decision, ask him/her to at least not tempt you with the foods you are trying to avoid; i.e. desserts, soda, refined carbs, fat laden foods, etc.  Tell him to not eat it in front of you, as it will create a feeling of deprivation.  You may have to eat separately while you are starting out and still vulnerable to getting sidetracked.

3.  Unfortunately, some people will have spouses who will purposefully attempt to derail their weight loss efforts.  These are people who have an issue in their life (low self-esteem, lazy, no self-discipline, controlling, or other negative trait) and cannot stand seeing their partner experience success or happiness.    It is a “misery loves company” attitude.    Such a toxic relationship can be a huge obstacle to someone trying to lead a healthy life.  For situations like this, there are deeper issues that should be addressed.  You will need to draw on your inner strength and determination to make yourself immune to his actions.   Find people who will support your efforts; perhaps at work, in a local support group, and even on online health and weight loss forums.    Most national weight loss systems have a built-in support structure that goes along with the regimen.  Medifast™ has one of the best in the industry, offering a free personal health coach, online support forums, and even live weekly doctor and nurse calls to answer questions for customers.

Before Getting Back Into Shape, Start With This Important Task

mindset2The human brain is said to be the most complex structure in the universe.   Although scientists have a much better understanding of how the brain works compared to 50 years ago, much of it is still a mystery.  We do know that intelligence is related to the number of synaptic connections in the brain (interconnected neurons, or brain cells– Einstein’s was off the charts).   And thanks to technology that can measure neuronal activity within the brain, we have an idea where the various sensations such as anger, fear, and love are produced in the brain.

But when it comes to “mindset” issues involving weight loss (emotional eating, ingrained habits), rather than venture too deep into the mechanical workings of the brain, it is more practical to focus on the things within one’s power to change.   After all, there is a somewhat cynical saying in the field of neurology– “Science can explain how the brain works using various models, but (so far) we are helpless to cure any neurological disease or problem with our current knowledge.”  Think about that for a moment.  If the most highly skilled neurologists in the world can’t give you a pill capable of changing your brain, then they are no better off than you in correcting the problem.

If you are one of the millions of people mired in long-standing habits that are slowly destroying your health, the first thing to do is to admit it to yourself, and let it absorb into your consciousness.  Have a conversation with yourself when you are alone, with no distractions.

First calm down any scattered noise that may be occupying your mind– job worries, financial worries, relationship worries, health worries, vices, pleasures, and anything else.

Next, take a couple of deep breaths.  Find a mirror, look straight into your eyes and tell yourself you must stop _____ because it is hurting you; setting you up for poor health that will eventually impact your loved ones as well.  Then affirm, “From this moment on, I shall make a commitment to strive for a life of optimal health.”

Next, assess your home, work and car physical environments.  If they include any items that support/enable your bad habits; whether actual items, arrangement of items, or anything else, find a way to purge them or neutralize them.   If any have monetary value, realize that anything that drains your health actually costs you money.  Replace them with health-promoting items such as live plants, positive message posters and screen savers, calming music, and so on.   You must create “fertile ground” in your surroundings because this is where your senses take in information in the form of images, words, sounds, and actions.   If you can control certain sensory inputs in your environment, take advantage of it; you will need it because society is full of health-destroying temptations that can trip you and put you back into your old routine.  So, create that “protective bubble” around you as best you can, and it will be easier to stay on track.

Simple Lifestyle Adjustment to Promote Good Health

appleheadWhen on a mission to lose weight and achieve optimal health, it helps to use your  best ally– your brain.  Your brain is your partner in this journey.  While it can betray you if you don’t have your mindset in order, your brain can help you just as much, if you feed it the right messages.  This means filling your environment with health-promoting items, reading up on nutrition and exercise, listening to calming music, listening to inspirational audio programs, and associating with positive, health-conscious people.

What you are doing here is creating a buffer against the obesigenic (obesity-promoting) forces all around you by taking advantage of the things that you can control in your environment; kind of like earthquake-proofing a building, or fortifying a house against a hurricane.

As you make small, incremental, health-affirming changes in your daily routine, you will experience a “shift” in your subconscious mind.  At this point, healthy habits will have replaced unhealthy habits as your “default” behavior.  You will no longer have to draw on willpower to resist the temptation of a double-chocolate layer cake offered to you for dessert, as it will come naturally.  This is the state of subconsciousness that overweight individuals should strive to achieve.  It is priceless as it is a one-way path to realizing optimal health and longevity.

So, as you embark on this journey, think of new ways to build your “house of health.”  You want it to be a strong fortress, because the world we live in today is full of triggers and temptations that draw people away from health– fast food chains, celebrity endorsed junk food, all you can eat buffets, holiday treats, sedentary jobs, and much more.  Make it so these forces have a difficult time affecting your habits.

One of the things you can do is find healthy alternatives to common high-calorie comfort foods.

Here are a few examples:

1.  Instead of coke or diet coke, mix 8 oz. of cold, sparkling water like Perrier to 2 oz. of pomegranate juice.  This refreshing drink has much less calories, doesn’t spike your insulin levels and the small amount of juice offers some anti oxidants.  Plus, you get that nice carbonated sensation as you drink it.

2.  Do you just love the taste of white rice along with your meat at dinnertime?  Instead of eating refined, white rice, steam one half head of white cauliflower till it is soft enough to mince easily, let cool.  Mince it to the consistency of boiled rice grains, and then pan fry in 1 tbs of olive oil for one minute.  Add three shakes of sea salt.  The cauliflower, while it has some amount of starch, naturally contains vitamins and minerals and of course is less processed and refined than rice.

3.  Avoid the potential hormone risks and toxins in pasteurized milk by making almond milk.  Blend a handful of raw almonds with 12 oz. purified water in your blender; strain out the nut grinds if you prefer.  Optionally add one tsp. of organic honey to sweeten.

4.  Ditch all bagged and boxed snack foods, which are all typically high carb, high sodium, refined flour products with little nutritional value.  For snacks, fill a large tupperware with a mix of toasted almonds, toasted walnuts, thick dried coconut shavings, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and a handful of organic raisins and dried cherries (with no added sugar).  The natural sweetness of the fruits and the oils from the nuts will fulfill any sweet and fat cravings.  Limit to no more than one cup per day.

5.  If you drink coffee, get into the habit of forgoing sugar with it.  Add a dollop of whole, organic milk or half and half.   The lactose in them is enough to sweeten your coffee; think of the cream as your sugar as well.

These are just a few, creative ways to outsmart the forces of obesity clamoring for your attention.   If you have a favorite healthy meal alternative, please let us know in the comments!

Can Avoiding Social Interaction Hurt Your Health?

friendsAre humans more adept to living alone, or among other humans?  In other words, are we, as a species, a “herding” species; a more socially advanced version of a herd of buffaloes or pride of lions?

There is no doubt that humans can survive living alone, and be content about it.  Examples are in just about every neighborhood in the U.S.  Now, I’m not talking about single people who don’t have a mate; I’m talking about society’s “loners” who for whatever reason have chosen to disengage themselves from society.   But is living a solitary life good for humans, health wise?  That is the question we’ll explore in this post.

A University of Chicago study funded by the National Institute of Aging analyzed data gathered in 2001 and found that men and women between 50-68 years old who scored the highest on measures of loneliness  had higher blood pressure than the norm.   Their blood pressure measured as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people.  The differences between lonely and non-lonely people were smallest at age 50 and greatest among the oldest people tested, suggesting that loneliness has acumulative detrimental effect on health.

John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago social psychologist who studies the biological effects of loneliness,  found that loneliness is tied to hardening of the arteries (which explains high blood pressure findings in lonelier people), inflammation in the body, and problems with learning and memory.   Fruit flies kept in isolation have worse health and die sooner than those that interact with others, showing that social engagement may be hard-wired, according to Cacioppo.

In one study, Cacioppo and Steve Cole of UCLA examined how the immune system changed over time in people who were socially isolated. They observed a change in the kinds of genes that lonely people’s immune systems were expressing (genetic expression is when a gene for a particular trait, for example Alzheimer’s disease, is making that trait happen, rather than being dormant). Genes over-expressed in the loneliest individuals included many involved in immune system activation and inflammation. In addition, several key gene sets were under-expressed, including those involved in antiviral responses and antibody protections.   The conclusion is that lonely people are more susceptible to diseases, including cancer, because of lowered immune system response.  Cacioppo states that prolonged loneliness also increases the stress hormone cortisol and reduces the quality of sleep– two factors that promote obesity.  Cortisol is converted from the inactive cortisone by an enzyme present in abdominal and subcutaneous fat.   Cortisol is a hormone that plays a role in energy regulation in the body, determining which substrates (carbohydrate, fat or protein) to use for energy and converting excess energy to fat.  Excess cortisol secretion is tied to increased abdominal (visceral) fat, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

So, back to the question:  are humans genetically wired for solitary living, or social engagement?  As you can see, science suggest that the human body does better when the individual is connected in some way to others.  The reasons can be traced back to ancient times, when people needed each other to stay alive.   Loneliness doesn’t just make people feel unhappy, it actually makes them feel unsafe — mentally and physically.   These primitive emotions were a survival instinct that evolved in the human species.   “It bound prehistoric people to those they relied on for food, shelter and protection;  to help them raise their young and carry on their genetic legacy, ” according to Cacioppo.   He surmises that the distress people feel today when they drift toward the edges of a group serves as a warning — like physical pain — that they need to reengage or face danger.

The message here is that it is important to long-term health to be connected with others.   Longevity does not favor the person who chooses a life of social isolation.   If you’re trying to reach a healthy weight, having a support group can be instrumental in your success.   Social Engagement– one of the Five Pillars of health.

Sleep and Rest: An Oft Ignored Essential Component to a Healthy Body

restThe five pillars of health, as defined by this site, are Mindset, Nutrition, Rest, Movement, and Social Engagement.  Everything else that’s good for you is a combination of two or more.  Weaken one of these pillars, and you open yourself up to ill health.

With life’s hectic pace, many people slip on several of these pillars, especially Nutrition, Rest, and Movement.  Time constraints, poor time management, and poor prioritizing are to blame.  That is why we have “sick care” and not health care in this country– we abuse our bodies, which often do a valiant job trying to maintain health until the accumulation of stressors take a toll in the form of fatigue, weight gain, painful joints, high blood pressure and worse.

Rest should be the easiest of the pillars to accomplish; after all, rest is basically about doing “nothing.”  How hard is it to do nothing?  Yet people still fail to get their daily dose of rest.

If you do something that makes your body feel naturally good afterwards (which rules out drugs and alcohol), that’s its way of telling you that what you just did is what it wants more of.  After a good night’s sleep, you feel rested and energetic, ready to take on the day.  Your mind is clear and your attitude is positive.  You feel refreshed.  But despite this, people willfully override this message and deprive themselves of sleep.  They stay up late watching TV as a way to “relax” at the end of the day (a poor choice if you ask me) or surf the web for the latest celebrity or negative news that isn’t worth knowing.   Many force themselves to work late into the night because to them,  their job simply “demands” it.

Whatever the excuse, it’s just an excuse.  Health should be your over-arching priority.  Without it, you can’t do the things you enjoy in life or need to do to support yourself and your family over the long haul.

If you must work late, start by making a compromise– cut the number of days in half that you are accustomed to working late.  Make arrangements with your employer.  Find ways to be more efficient.  Delegate.  Identify and eliminate wasteful and unproductive time in your daily schedule (checking emails?  phone calls?  micro-managing?  chatty co-worker?  long lunch  breaks?).  Then get to the point where you only work one day a week late, or none.  Get a minimum of eight hours sleep a night.  Better yet, also take a short 20-30 minute power nap during lunch.  Those short afternoon naps can be really effective in recharging your body, and your brain.  It will make you more productive and able to get things done in less time– freeing up more time for rest and exercise.

Obesity Rate Holding Steady at Around 30% of Entire U.S. Adult Population

The Centers for Disease Control recently released the latest figures on obesity in the United States, calculated for 2011 to 2012.

Here are the key findings of their study:

  • More than one-third (34.9%) of adults were obese in 2011–2012.
  • In 2011–2012, the prevalence of obesity was higher among middle-aged adults (39.5%) than among younger (30.3%) or older (35.4%) adults.
  • The overall prevalence of obesity did not differ between men and women in 2011–2012. Amongnon-Hispanic black adults, however, 56.6% of women were obese compared with 37.1% of men.
  • In 2011–2012, the prevalence of obesity was higher among non-Hispanic black (47.8%), Hispanic (42.5%), and non-Hispanic white (32.6%) adults than among non-Hispanic Asian adults (10.8%).
  • The prevalence of obesity among adults did not change between 2009–2010 and 2011–2012.

As in 2009–2010, more than 78 million adults were obese in 2011–2012. The majority of these obese adults (more than 50 million) were non-Hispanic white.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) is a cross-sectional survey designed to monitor the health and nutritional status of the civilian non-institutionalized U.S. population. It is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).















My Comments:

What these statistics say are two things:

(1) The environmental forces that drive obesity are alive and well;

(2) Current public health policy has not been effective in reducing the nation’s obesity rate

The food industry spends millions of dollars a year to market their products to the masses, with no regard to their products’ effects on their customers’ health, and therefore healthcare costs and the economy.  Make no mistake, advertisers invest heavily on research that seeks to find the right emotional triggers that get people to buy.   Commercials and advertisements tap into pleasure centers of the brain using very specific colors, scenes, and scripts.  The investment is paying off, as people get hooked to their high-sugar, high sodium and high fat products which are sometimes boldly advertised as having health benefits.  The next time you are forced to watch a McDonald’s commercial on TV, remind yourself that you are being marketed to, and watch it with an objective, skeptical eye.

Public health policy and nutritional guidelines set forth by the medical establishment need some major changes if the obesity rate is to fall.  There needs to be more high-impact outreach, especially in low income communities, on how to prevent obesity.  The main culprits at work are cheap, widely available highly processed grain-based foods full of added sugar; as well as flavored drinks sweetened by high fructose corn syrup.  Wheat and sugar have addictive effects, causing one to overeat and develop a dependency on them to maintain their energy.  It’s a vicious cycle that can very quickly pile on body fat with little effort.

A return to naturally-occurring foods is needed to stem the rate of obesity.  This includes grass fed, free-range animal protein and eggs; organic green vegetables; antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits of bright colors; mercury-free, wild-caught deep water seafood; healthy oils from nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut and fish; and purified water.  When one eats healthy for some time, the sugar addiction fades and so does the hunger craving.

The Optimal Body System is a comprehensive health transformation program consisting of sequential PowerPoint videos that address head-on 14 factors related to weight gain and health.  It is designed especially for those 78 million obese adults in the U.S. and the other 50 million or so that are not far behind.  The course addresses all the factors associated with the obesity epidemic and essentially “re-trains” subconscious thought using guided action checklists and deep-level nutrition education.   I believe that obesity begins with changing subconscious thinking, because the subconscious mind drives the behaviors that shape who we are physically (body shape, appearance); internally (the working order of your internal anatomy and physiology) and emotionally(how we treat ourselves and other people).  This is the key to eradicating obesity that is largely absent in most weight loss diets and public health policy.

When Nutrition Advice is Controversial, Who Should You Believe?

laptopThe plethora of weight loss and nutrition information found on the internet  can be confusing and contradictory, leading one to ask “Who should I trust?”

Off the top of my head, here are just a few controversial subjects on nutrition where you have two opposing sides:  Veganism vs. Paleolithic Diet; whether soy is a nutritious food or dangerous food, and whether skipping breakfast promotes weight loss or weight  gain.  What usually happens is that the person looking for a weight loss approach online reads through a bunch of these claims and settles on the one that appeals to him/her the most.

But the question remains, when it comes to nutrition and weight loss information, “Who should you trust?”

I offer these guidelines when analyzing any nutrition-related claim or statement:

1.  Is there a major interest (corporate or other) behind the claim or statement?

If there is one, it doesn’t automatically mean that the claim is false.  Just realize that there is a financial incentive involved, and factor it into your decision-making.   A recent issue where this came into play was  California’s Proposition 37 (2012), which proposed mandatory labeling of food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The proponents believe that the verdict isn’t out yet on the safety of eating GMO foods; some believe that it is downright harmful.  Yet, as logical a request as it may sound (Wouldn’t it be nice for mom to know if the food she is feeding her baby has GMOs?), the measure failed to pass.   Proponents attributed its failure to the massive ad spending by Prop 37′s opponents; more than 5x that of supporters of the measure.  And who are these entities who don’t want consumers to know what’s in their food?  Here’s a partial list:

  • Monsanto
  • Dupont
  • Council for Biotechnology Information
  • Grocery Manufacturers Association
  • PepsiCo
  • Coca-Cola
  • Kraft Foods
  • Kellogg Company

As you can see, these are corporations with deep pockets  and industry advocates who have a financial interest in defeating Prop 37.   It is more likely than not that their motivation is not based on the concern for human health, but rather their costs and profit margin.

2.  Do the claims promise a slim/healthier body, with minimal effort on your part?

Usually this type of claim is marketing at work.  The entity making such a claim knows that the weight loss market is super-saturated, so they try to stand out by claiming the outrageous.  Yes, it does get attention, because it is human nature to avoid pain, discomfort and sacrifice.   If there is an easy way out, we want it.   Sometimes it’s true that the easy way is the best way, but if you are 30 or more pounds overweight, in order to shed those pounds you need to burn all that stored energy in your fat cells and there is no “easy” way around it.  You’ll need to exert more energy every day (exercise) and/or reduce your caloric intake below your baseline caloric expenditure in order to lose the weight.

3.  Is the diet plan far out from the norm?

Like #2, such claims are usually an attempt to “out-do” the previous diet fad by linking itself to some kind of exotic ingredient that promises to be the silver bullet of losing weight.  Generally, any diet or eating strategy that can help one lose weight safely will feature portion control, caloric reduction and have a balance of protein, carbohydrates and good fats.   The good plans will have their different version of the above factors.  But when you get an eating plan that features one ingredient (Grapefruit diet, Cabbage diet, etc.), or are told that all you have to do is take a supplement like Garcinia cambogia,  it’s not worth your time and money; don’t fall for it.

4.  Does the product labeling have “health” buzz words?

First of all, if you are picking a food item that has a label sticker, that’s the first red flag.  Anything that is bagged or boxed, in a jar or can is processed.  If the packaging claims “Fat-Free,” “Zero Trans-Fats,” “Rich in Calcium,” “Heart Healthy” or other health buzz word, then put it back where you found it.  Instead, get something that is an unadulterated part of an animal or plant.

The short of it is that losing fat weight is conceptually simple, but shrouded with complex issues.  Be aware that much of your success in reaching a healthy weight and achieving optimal health is dependent on your mindset.   There are a lot of good resources on healthy eating, and it doesn’t take long to grasp the concept– eating moderately/ being mindful of your body’s minimal caloric needs, choosing natural, nutrient-dense food; restricting your sugar intake, getting enough rest, and drinking enough water in the day.  But where people fail is eliminating habits detrimental to long-term health and developing and executing the behaviors that are conducive to optimal health.   So if you really want to lose weight and live a long, healthy life, the bulk of your efforts should focus on reshaping your mindset.  Do that, and every thing else will fall into place naturally, and permanently.

I have created a system that helps people lose unwanted weight and keep it off– permanently.  It consists of educational videos on the many drivers of obesity and contains a daily checklist system designed to cultivate healthy behaviors.  Follow the checklists, and it is impossible to fail.  The system is part of  the Optimal Body System series.


 This article originally appeared in my prior site, Weight Loss Mavens.

How to Burn More Fat by Exercising Less; Time-Wise

exercise1Is it possible to burn more fat by exercising 20 minutes instead of 40 minutes?  The answer is yes, if you do what’s called “high intensity interval training (HIIT).”

HIIT refers to performing maximum or 90% exercise exertion for a few seconds, immediately followed by a rest period of a longer duration.  For example, pedaling as fast as you can on a stationary bike for 15 seconds, followed by 45 seconds of light pedaling, and repeating it ten times, for a total of ten minutes.  You can apply this principle to many other types of exercises including running, swimming, jumping jacks, plyometrics (jumping), and even weight lifting.

Several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session. This has been shown to hold true even when the session is not done at an extremely high intensity.

In fact, some leading researchers believe that too much “duration” running, or running at a constant pace for more than 20 minutes can promote fat cell creation.  The reasoning is that after 20 minutes of running, metabolism shifts from glucose (blood sugar) burning to body fat burning.  But if you do it too often, what it tells the body is that fat is needed for fuel during exercise, so the body takes more dietary fat and stores it in your fat cells.

Dr. Al Sears, M.D. is a leading proponent of shorter, burst type exercise sessions to improve cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity, as well as burning excess body fat.  He believes, and the research shows, that following such a regimen can be a strong deterrent to getting a heart attack because this type of exercise increases your heart’s reserve capacity (ability to pump blood) and strengthens your lungs.

One study demonstrated that you can burn more fat exercising for 20 minutes than for 40 minutes!

In the study, women either exercised for 20 minutes, alternating 8 seconds of sprinting on a bike with 12 seconds of exercising lightly, or exercised at a regular pace for 40 minutes. After exercising three times a week for 15 weeks, those who did the 20-minute, alternating routine lost three times as much fat as the other women.

So there you have it, a proven way to exercise less and burn more fat.  The other benefit to shorter interval training is that you can still do it even if you don’t have much time in your schedule to exercise.  As little as 10 minutes of HIIT a day can have a profound, positive impact on your health.   Also, you will incur less microtrauma to your knees by doing shorter high intensity interval training as opposed to running five miles on asphalt three times a week.

A note of caution, however.  If you are not well-conditioned, gradually work up to max speed in your interval training.  Do not attempt to sprint all out when starting high intensity interval training; the risk of injuring yourself is greater if your muscles, joints, and reflexes are not accustomed to this level of exercise.  Seek the help of a personal trainer, and tell him/her that you want to learn HIIT.

This article originally appeared in my previous blog, Weight Loss Mavens.

What Exactly is a Calorie, and What Does It Do to the Body?

calorimeterThe word “calorie” is at the very center of any weight loss discussion.  But have you ever stopped to think what a calorie actually is?  Most people will say it is the stuff in food that can make you fat, and that foods containing a lot of sugar or fat are high in calories.  True, but let’s find out more.  Getting a good handle on these topics, I believe, is helpful to staying interested in your health and thus ultimately being healthy.

In science, the calorie (symbol = cal) is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

The food and diet-related calorie is actually the kilocalorie (symbol kcal) and is the amount (1 kcal) of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.  However, because the kcal is used much more frequently by so many more “non-scientist” people, the kilocalorie has basically overtaken the scientific calorie’s symbol of “cal.”

So if one can of soda has 140 calories (remember, it’s really 140 kilocalories), it contains the energy to raise the temperature of about 140 kg (about 308 lbs) of water one degree Celsius.  That’s a lot of energy to me.  It’s easy to see how drinking just two of these a day can really add to weight gain.  By the way, the image at the beginning of this post shows a basic calorimeter, an instrument used to measure the amount of calories in a particular food.

But where does this energy come from in food?  Recall from grade school that the two basic forms of energy are kinetic energy and potential energy.  Kinetic energy is contained in a moving mass, like a speeding freight train.  Potential energy is stored energy; as in a drawn bow about to shoot an arrow.   Food has potential energy stored in the chemical bonds of the atoms that comprise it; namely carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.    When you eat food, your body digests it and breaks it down into its basic components of carbohydrates, fats and proteins and then further in into their individual units of glucose, fatty acids and amino acids; respectively.  As these nutrients enter your cells, they undergo one of several metabolic pathways that eventually create energy through “oxidation” where bonds are broken and energy is released.  It’s fairly complex, but this energy is what enables your cells to do their thing– divide, attack foreign invaders, make RNA and proteins, excrete waste and maintain their osmotic pressure (which prevents you from shriveling up like a prune) to name a few.

Do Calories Make You Fat?

When it comes to weight loss, it is often stated that “you need to burn more calories than take in in order for your body to lose weight.”   While this is basically true, I must warn you that there is more to healthy weight loss than just calorie counting.  The source of the calories (type of food) influences weight almost as much as the calories themselves because of the different ways the human body reacts to carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Timing of eating is important as well.  Then, there are the many variables that determine how many calories you burn that are tied to your current state of health, body fat percentage, liver health, gut health, pre-existing medical conditions, lifestyle habits and even climate where you live.

So technically, not all calories are created equal when it comes to dieting and losing weight!  The reason for this is differing insulin response and leptin response to different types of food.  Insulin plays a central role in determining whether energy from food is burned or stored.  It drives glucose into cells for energy; stores some as glycogen in the liver and muscles, and converts excess glucose to fatty acids where they are converted into triglycerides inside adipose tissue (body fat).   Carbohydrates (sugar, fructose, grain-based carbs, starches) trigger a larger insulin surge than the slower-metabolizing fats, vegetable carbs and proteins.  Getting most of your calories from carbs will therefore keep your insulin levels comparatively high, which promotes fat storage and discourages fat burning.

If the majority of your diet for most of your life to date consisted of sugary, starchy and grain-based foods (juices, juice drinks, soda, breads, rice, cereal, pasta, bagged/boxed snacks, potatoes) you are releasing too much insulin into your bloodstream, too often.   High levels of insulin make it very difficult for your body to burn body fat for energy.   Prolonged, high levels lead to insulin insensitivity, where the cells don’t respond to insulin leading to a build up of glucose in the bloodstream; very much like a traffic backup due to an accident on the freeway.  The high levels of sugar in your bloodstream trigger the body to secrete even more insulin to try to drive the sugar into your muscles, but the effects are minimal, due to insulin insensitivity of your cells.  With high insulin levels, body fat metabolism is shut off and instead, the excess sugar is converted to increasing amounts of body fat.

If you consume a lot of fructose (high fructose corn syrup), it desensitizes leptin, the hormone that tells you when you are full, which can cause you to eat more and thus consume more calories from that particular food.  Soda is notorious for having this effect.

In summary, in order to burn excess fat you must not only consume less calories than you expend, you must also eat food that doesn’t trigger large insulin surges but rather provides steady, constant energy so that insulin levels are gradual and low, and muscle tissue is spared (i.e. your body doesn’t break down muscle for energy while you are dieting).  The best foods for this job are proteins, good fats (saturated and unsaturated– from nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, avocado, olives) and vegetable carbs (broccoli, cauliflower, stalky plants) from naturally occurring, unprocessed organic foods.  Don’t think that you can eat all the pasta, bread and desserts you want; starve yourself the next day and expect to lose weight; it won’t work.

Remember, the source of your calories matters; not just the numbers–  a calorie is NOT a calorie is NOT a calorie!

This article was originally posted in my previous blog, WeightLossMavens.

The Primitive, Genetic Connection to Easy Weight Gain in Us All

cavemanPeople who gain weight easily and have a tough time losing it are not to be blamed entirely for their situation.  There is more to the story than “a lack of will power.”

You see, humans as a species are wired to consume and store large amounts of energy (calories).  There is a genetic component to how we behave around food that can be difficult to suppress.

For millions of years, early man lived in a world where there were no cars, freeways, or supermarkets.  “Cavemen” had to expend a considerable amount of energy (thus, calories) every day acquiring food.  This meant walking at a fast pace for perhaps 20 or more miles a day hunting for prey.  The terrain wasn’t always flat, so there was likely a lot of climbing, swimming, and moving heavy things out of the way.  Quite often he had to run away from sabre tooth tigers and other predators.  Now that’s a workout that you can’t afford to fail.

When early man did come upon prey, he had to chase it and either club it or spear it.  Then, he had to skin it, gut it, and carry it back to the cave, again hoping that a hungry predator wasn’t going to steal it from him.  I don’t know how much a mastadon leg weighed back then, but I’m sure it was something like a telephone pole.  Imagine having to do this for dinner every day– there wouldn’t be a single overweight person on the planet!

Fast-forward to 2013.  Humans are driven by the same genes as our early ancestors, but now it doesn’t require as much caloric expenditure to get calories (energy); in fact, no where near as many.  Just get in your car, press on the gas pedal, go in the store, and load up and push your cart.  About 50 calories expended in all.  Then you eat that pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, about 1,000 calories in all.  Can you see the imbalance?  Those excess calories are stored as fat.

The other genetic-driven tendency that influences our eating behavior is the one that caused early man to eat as much food as he could when he encountered it.  Back then, there was no guarantee that he would find food the next day or week, so the tendency was for the caveman to gorge himself.  This was a survival mechanism that still exists in us today.  Plus, since there was no refrigeration back then, they had to eat the whole animal, or it would spoil.  Same goes for a bush of berries– the clan likely stripped it clean.

So, the next time you wonder why it’s difficult to stop when you’re at an all-you- can-eat buffet, or you are faced with a big bag of chips, this is the reason.  But despite this genetic tendency, the brain still has the ability to over-rule unwanted behavior.  When you see a lot of food in front of you, first of all slow down, take a deep  breath and think about it.  It’s not going to run away. Chew slowly and savor the flavors.  Imagine the food as you are chewing it.  This will dampen that primitive urge to pile on your plate and eat everything in sight.

Here’s another effective strategy to control overeating (especially as we approach the holidays):   5-10 minutes into your meal, STOP EATING for five minutes, and tune in to the present.  Time yourself.  That short interruption will further dampen those primitive, impulsive processes occurring in your brain, and your hunger and urge to eat will be less intense.    After the five minutes have passed, you will be more conscious of what you are doing and will have more control over your eating.   This is a great strategy to prevent over-eating.

This article was originally posted in my old site, Weight Loss Mavens.