Thursday, 24 July 2008

Missing the Point

I was going to leave the issue of appetite alone for a while. Readers of this blog will know that appetite is a recurring theme. I have hit it from several angles over the past few months and by now you should be convinced (or at least have considered), that no amount of calorie restriction is going to get you thin - or keep you thin - if it leaves your appetite unfulfilled. 'Traditional' calorie restriction i.e. the type that does not satisfy your appetite, will eventually result in a lack of energy, fatigue and general unhappiness. It will also affect body composition for the worse.

Hunger, like thirst, is a highly evolved mechanism to signal a requisite action. There is little performance hit when these signals first manifest, but a failure to address either will eventually lead to physical and mental impairment.

There is too little focus on either the precision of these mechanism or how they can go awry. Both scientific research and politicians focus on issues 'downstream' of appetite, which, whilst having obvious value, will do little to resolve the problem of obesity.

Leadership

It is the scientific community and politicians who have the power to resolve the problem of obesity in the community - but don't hold your breath. Today I read with real dismay a speech by Alan Johnson (Labour MP for West Hull and Hessle) addressed to the Fabian Society. In it he came out with the classic line "Obesity is the product of a simple imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure".

On the face of it this sounds reasonable. Sadly it is rubbish! Of course, broadly speaking, if we eat more energy than we burn off, then the body will accumulate fat. But what this line of thinking does not address is 'how is it that we can repeatedly eat more calories than we need to sustain ourselves?'.

I mean, if we eat 'more than we need' at breakfast, why doesn't our appetite adjust so that we eat less at lunchtime? It sounds a reasonable proposition doesn't it?

The problem with Johnson's thinking (and it isn't just him, it is endemic throughout the political system, scientific population and general public), is that if you take this logic to its natural conclusion, it makes little sense. So, for example, if we eat 'more than we need' at breakfast, then according to Johnson's logic, even though we have a surplus of energy from breakfast, we may then go on to eat 'more than we need' at lunch, and then we may then go on to eat 'more than we need' at teatime, day in and day out.

When you read it like that - successive over eating sounds frankly odd, and the mere thought gives me stomach ache. It just makes NO sense that we could persist on such a cycle.

Now let us revisit this scenario as I see it. If we eat 'more than we need' at breakfast, our bodies will adjust such that hunger will manifest at a later period than normal - so, we have a late lunch. Or, if we chose to eat at the same time, our appetite is reduced and we eat a smaller lunch. That sounds much more plausible doesn't it?

The Johnson model allows us to eat ourselves in to poor health and a state of immobility. The Asclepius model dovetails in to other evolutionary mechanism - two million years in the making and refining - such as thirst.

Johnson's understanding of overeating makes no more sense than over-drinking (exceptionally rare). What's more, his idea ignores concepts of hunger and appetite.

Heating

You could draw any number of further analogies. If you fill a car with petrol, well filling the tank up to the top means you can drive further before the petrol light (hunger) illuminates. Less petrol means the petrol-warning light comes on earlier. If you get to the next petrol station without the petrol light going on, you will have to put less petrol in. It is an idea so simple it maddens me that it is missed.

Alternatively, think of your body's heating system. If you get too cold, your body starts to shiver. If you get too hot you sweat. Your body tries to adjust to maintain homeostasis within a particular range.

Sweating occurs for a given internal temperature that is affected by external heat (climate/weather, clothing, a fire) and internal heat (physical activity). But without changing these factors, you cannot simply chose to 'push' more sweat out.

If you do expose yourself to more heat (such as putting on more clothing), you would not expect your body to shiver. Or, if cold, you would not try to get your body to sweat. Basically , you would not fight these natural mechanisms. You trust that your body will sweat/shiver appropriately as required to sustain your internal temperature within a range.

You have no direct control over these mechanism and would certainly not really want to battle them. So why give advice to battle hunger and appetite?

Politics

Politicians are elected to make key decisions about how our society is run. There are a few ticking time bombs out there for them to tackle - the aging population, an increasingly obese population and more importantly the mixture of the two, which will have serious socio-economic implications within the next decade or so.

Politicians need to drive at the root of the problem, but instead seem content to offer weak platitudes (eat less, do more), and throw money at treating sickness rather than preventing its cause. That money comes from tax - but you can only tax a population so far - beyond that, the whole economic model breaks. We are reaching breaking point.

Sadly few seem able to look with fresh eyes at the problem of chronic (Western) disease, obesity and the consequence of trapping people in an infirm state.

People have a right to a dignified old age. Pepole should have health for most of their lives. Sickness should be occasional, NOT chronic. Terminal illness should bring a swift death, but a terminal illness should come after a long life.

Diet is stripping people of the chance of a long and healthy life, and medicine ensures they live long enough to suffer.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Fat as a Battery

Kerrrr-ching! Responding to a comment on my blog, out popped a single phrase that crystallises my views on the topic of fat - and which should be fundamental to your understanding of body fat; 'Fat is a battery'.

We can take this analogy further - I sit here working on a laptop. If I unplug the laptop from the mains, it seamlessly functions on its battery (fat). An indicator in the bottom corner shows the current power level. When the power level drops to a certain point, a dialogue box is displayed (hunger pang), with a relevant warning. The laptop will continue to function on its battery, but as the battery runs down, the warnings become increasingly frequent, and in extreme cases, the laptop will become inactive and shut down until a fresh power source is available.

If I hook the laptop back in to the mains, it will function again, and recharge its battery. Once charged, there is no further dialogue box warning of the the charge state (hunger has been sated). Whilst charging, the indicator in the bottom corner of the screen could be thought of as appetite. The more you run down your battery, the greater the required charging to reach 'full charge' (so the more you run your fat down, the bigger your appetite).

If the indicator (appetite) is faulty then the battery could overcharge or undercharge. Welcome to the world of the refined carb-eater.

Thirst

Thirst is a complementary mechanism to appetite. News reports today carry the story of a woman who drank too much
water. As with the diet industry, there is a hydration industry that persuades us to drink ritualistically rather than in response to thirst. Hyponatraemia is a greater threat than obesity - but that is due to the immediacy of consequence. Obesity and degraded insulin sensitivity are both harmful - the ill effects just takes longer to manifest.

What is curious about this story is that the BBC felt the need to wheel out some Professor to state, "...people should drink when their body tells them to - when they get thirsty."

OMG! Do we REALLY need to be told to obey our thirst? Unfortunately few would extend this logic to the more revolutionary advice to obey your appetite. Oh how I would love to hear someone Professor-type come out and state "...people should eat when their body tells them to - when they get hungry."

But no, people are told to cut back on their food (eat less) and ignore their hunger or, conversely, to do more but maintain the same calorific intake....and ignore their appetite.

Back to the story; The British Dietetic Association (BDA) offer the advice that "the amount of water actually needed in a day varies from person to person, and depends on other factors such as climate, and exercise". Not rocket science is it? One of their members noted that "You shouldn't be drinking massively over and above what you feel comfortable with, when you're not thirsty, in a mechanical way."

Now I am not sure what thirst in a 'mechanical way' is, but the same could be said of food - "You shouldn't be eating massively over and above what you feel comfortable with, when you're not hungry."

A quick visit to the BDA site shows a complete disregard for the notion of appetite and hunger. Their PDF on weight loss does not mention the word 'appetite' and involves ritualistic eating (the usual 'start the day with a breakfast' and 'eat regular balanced meals' type advice).

The term 'balanced' means different things to different people. What is more concerning is the advice to watch your portion size. This implicitly ignores appetite and hunger. Their PDF on fad diets is similarly lacking in consistency with their view on thirst. How can people hope to regulate what they eat if they have no responsive mechanism to indicate they have had 'enough'? Well the fact is that we DO have a responsive mechanism to indicate enough. Appetite. All we need to do is to ensure that it is callibrated. This beats a food diary any day.

Instinct

So there you have it. According to the BDA, trust your instincts when it comes to thirst, but not when it comes to hunger. Me? I say TRUST your evolutionary mechanisms. If these mechanisms tell you to drink, drink. If they tell you to eat, eat. If they tell you to rest, rest. If you become bored and restless, get out and seek novelty and activity. These instincts can be misled - and identifying the cause is not always easy. The negative results will however, become apparent over time.

The BDA may pick and choose which instincts they agree with, but as these instincts have evolved over millions of years, I trust all of them. After a lifetime of poor habits these instincts may need some form of re-callibration, but it CAN be done.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Another Appetite Rant

I was thinking about that old piece of nutritional advice:

Calories In = Calories Out.

This is the standard advice that is fed (pun intended) to us to explain obesity. The idea is that if you are obese then it MUST be because you 'stuff your fat face'. Such an argument can be addressed in a single word. Appetite.

Why Can't We Trust Our Appetite?

This is a theme I keep coming back to. Time and again in clinical trials, epidemiological trials and the like effort is expended on how much we eat and what we eat. To me this misses the point. We have evolved as a highly developed and successful species over the past two million years. We can eat a range of food, and inhabit a range of habitats. We are dynamic.
Our energy expenditure varies with respect to the habitat we are in and in the effort required to obtain new energy (food).

Habitat

Now think about our habitat - and lets look at one variable such as temperature. We use energy to keep warm in cold environments. Cold can come from long term environmental factors lasting decades, habitation variation (living at extreme latitudes such as near the poles), seasonal variance (which in itself can more noticeable at, say, altitude), or simply the transition from day to night. Jumping in to cold water on a warm day elicits a similar effect. Clearly we have to develop a dynamic response to temperature changes. These changes can be long term (climatic) or very short term (a jump in to a mountain stream). When cold, we shiver. this is the body trying to make us move as movement generates heat.

This movement takes energy. Given variety of sources from which we can experience 'cold' our bodies need to adapt to short term and long term changes in energy requirements.

Food Sources

When considering food sources, from an evolutionary point of view you have to realise you are 'a meal looking for a meal'! Just as you would love to trap a bear and end the day snuggling down with a new bear-fur loin cloth and matching bear fur duvet, there were (and in some countries still are), myriad other predators who view you as a potential 'low-carb' snack.

In a savannah type environment you would need speed. In fact, did you ever wonder why you freeze when in front of an audience? Well, imagine you are on the savannah and there were lots of eyes on you....not a problem unless they were the eyes of a pride of lions. If you keep still then you have a chance that they will not spot you (although they might still smell you), but if they get too close or start to circle you then a burst of speed, jinking from side to side and then climbing a tree, might well offer the greatest chance of escape.

Now if it is you and your tribe doing the hunting, you will use your creativity and ingenuity to kill game. You may come up with an elaborate trap involving a trip wire or snare (classic problem solving). You may chose to use the brute strength of the exhaustion hunt (which, far from involving marathon style steady state exercise, often involved a variety of speeds, dictated by the difficulty of the obstacles in the terrain around you). If you are tracking animals you will draw upon a wealth of knowledge and experience. Memory function will be tested as will visualisation. You have to remember the route back to camp and, as the game is dictating the route, you'd do well to have remembered water holes and wild food available en-route.
Big game would require greater strength to bring down, but being generally more fatty than that of smaller animals, would overcome any problems associated with the consumption of excess protein.

Energy Requirements Vary

So there you have it! I have tried to paint a picture of how our energy demands can vary rapidly in both how we expend our energy and how we obtain it.

You may wonder where I am going with this! There is a minimum amount of energy you require to simply function as YOU. This is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the amount of energy you will expend simply moving around, beating your heart and working hour lungs. If you throw in a run or the lifting of some weight, then this is energy expenditure over and above your BMR.

What is obvious is that looking at the variables that can affect us, our energy demands can vary wildly. The environmental factor of cold might kick in more at night, or simply for a few minutes (swimming across a river), or it might last months (such as surviving over winter). The 'meal factor' is also incredibly variable; if a rhino is chasing you and you climb a tree, the chances are you are safe. If a big cat is after you, your escape may be more drawn out - the lion may follow you up the tree so you might have to spend some time wielding your spear or other such weapon).

So given all these variables on energy expenditure, what should regulate our energy requirements. APPETITE!

Appetite

There is no evolutionary advantage to allowing ourselves to eat ourselves in to a state of immobility. There is no evolutionary advantage to us being unable to function due to a lack of energy.

How did we overcome this problem? Well one look on your local high street will tell you all you need to know. We developed the ability to store fat. Fat storage is a survival mechanism to keep us going between meals. Fat is a dynamic energy source. You should NEVER be weak with hunger, ONLY with starvation. Fasting for one or two days DOES NOT AND SHOULD NOT constitute a state of starvation. If you are hungry, your body should be recycling fat stores and bringing the energy 'online'. If you run down your fat reserves, then your body will look to rebuild them. That is the 'deal' that means you will always have the energy to get yourself out of trouble and over a lean period. Simple really.

In relation to this mobile energy store, the other part the of the deal is that the body should not allow you to pack on so much weight in fat that your athletic ability is compromised. This much should be obvious.

So to ensure we 'eat enough' to replenish our fat stores, 'but not too much' such that we impair mobility, we need a tightly controlled mechanism. Such a precision mechanism must have evolved over millennia. The exacting requirements over which it has control mean that it must be highly tuned and an optimal piece of biological, evolutionary engineering. And indeed it is.
It is called our appetite.

Now somebody tell me why such a refined tool as our appetite seems to fail so many on a Western diet? While you are at it, tell me why so little research is dedicated to appetite. Simply focusing on calorific intake and calorific expenditure seems to me to be, in effect, shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted. Our appetite is being misled by a change only visible in non-hunter gatherers. Hmmmmm I wonder what THAT could be?

Friday, 18 July 2008

Ask an Expert

There are few scientific references on this site. My output is opinion. I base it on personal experience and experimentation. This in turn is driven by reading of wider research dedicated to nutrition and fitness.

I try not to make any outlandish claims and simply try to blog with honesty. If you want to get all sciency then go to Cochrane or PubMed and you will find plenty of research dedicated to the paleo philosophy - and its benefits on a nutritional and athletic basis. There are additional blogs and websites run by those with a scientific background which will distill the science in to a simpler form.

There are also many papers and hundreds of sites run by equally qualified doctors and scientists that follow the traditional/government approved advice on exercise and nutrition.

With so many conflicting views, who should you believe? This is where I suggest you experiment for yourself!

One thing to keep in mind is the physique of the person giving the advice - particularly if it is dietary.

Smoke and Mirrors

I have seen several dietitians who are themselves obese. All of them were firmly in the 'low fat, complex carb' camp. But nutritional advice from fat dietitian makes me think that their advice either does not work, or is such that it simply cannot be followed in the short, medium or long term.

You might say that for example, advice to give up smoking from a doctor who himself smokes, is good advice regardless. This is indeed true. But a smoking doctor is not telling you HOW to smoke. Telling someone HOW to do something suggests a skill in that activity. You cannot have a skill in an activity by NOT doing it. This is an important distinction.

There are several diet advisors on TV. One in particular has an incredibly bad physique. Sure she is thin (the apparent goal of so many people today), but I suspect she has a lot of visceral fat. Her body composition looks very poor. There is a distinct lack of muscle mass and no tone. Don't get me wrong, she promises in her books and programs to make you thin and that is indeed what she does. But, if you gain thinness at the expense of muscle mass, this does not constitute much of an improvement in your health - and particularly your metabolic health.

Find an Expert

To some point, all diets will work in terms of getting your body to burn fat. Whether they are healthful is another matter. The paleo philosophy is different in that it constitutes a lifestyle change that is intended to guide you in the long term. Form follows function - your body will get fitter, leaner and stronger in response to this change. The philosophy is simple and the results are of a quality I have not found on any other program.

Once you are behind the philosophy, you have obtained the value from it and can work out the rest for yourself. Better than that, you do not need science and references to implement or progress. A simple annual health check at the doctors, general happiness and athletic prowess are the only measures you need.

I am going to put up a picture of myself at some point. I want a record of how my physique has adapted to my own implementation of this paleo philosophy. Readers will be able to see that not only can I 'live' my advice, but also the physical results it produces.

Science sits behind the curve, in terms of both research and proof. An absence of proof is not a proof of absence.

Finally, when you think you have found an expert, consider this;

I may lack scientific credentials, but I promise you that the number of HGs who have read the science is precisely zero - and they ARE the experts.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Fasting

I feel I have reached a new phase with my fasting. There is seldom a time where I have to snack - even after a fast. The fasts are truely instinctive. They don't really feel like fasts as I will abstain for a 24 hour period (running from evening meal on day one to evening meal on day two), so I do actually have at least one meal each day.

I have mentioned elsewhere that I get a feeling of slight hunger at some point on a fasting day, but nothing too uncomfortable - especially when compared with my hunger pangs as a refined carb eater. In those days, five hours from eating a low fat, wholemeal, complex-carb lunch would see me getting withdrawal-symptom like hunger. In addition, where as I used to get occasional weakness and shaking with hunger - there is none of that now. On a fasting day I can gladly work-out at lunchtime and in the evening hit a kick-boxing class without a second thought. On my return home I feel ready to eat.

I fasted today. I mentioned to a colleague at work that I couldn't wait for my evening meal. I made a similar comment on leaving work for the day to the same colleague. She claimed I was obviously starving and had been 'talking about food all day'.

This is a classic response from those under the spell of refined carbohydrate. Such people would find it uncomfortable to fast. I however, can fast with ease. My comments (and there WERE only two of them), was actually driven by the appeal and anticipation of food. This wasn't in response to hunger (although I am sure the smell of food at lunchtime might have driven some thoughts of food), it was simply an appreciation for how good my evening meal was going to be (organic roasted chicken with stir fry vegetables). Such quality fare inspires me (and I write this having just eaten).

That is another significant step in my paleo journey. I really do appreciate the flavours of foods now. Carb food can often taste the same - so much of what we eat is artificially sweetend. But eating 'close to the ground' develops a broader palette.

Plug Out,Baby

I have been in correspondence with a colleague. He has also adopted a paleo lifestyle. We seem to have had a similar background in terms of following a 'body-nazi' training program - the 'more is more' kind of approach so beloved of modern fitness coaches in trendy gyms.

With the adoption of a paleo philosophy has come the focus on variety and intensity. The desire to push training to the maximal level is still there, but is now supplemented by an appreciation of the value of lighter training sessions. The frequency, duration and exercise composition of each workout, is routinely changed. There is an irony - the routine of change!

Thus, my colleague and I discuss new exercises and foodstuffs/recipes, the benefits of this variety, the implications of the regular changes we make to our lives regarding nutrition, training principles and health in general.

These exchanges often form the basis of posts. (I have several such posts that are written up - but need a bit of editing before they are published. I like the fact that I can capture a lot of my thoughts and save them this way).

Recently we had a short exchange that reflected something I had wanted to blog about for ages. Time.

Somewhere In Time

People make excuses as to why they cannot do something - be it a chore or exercise. One continuing excuse is that of a 'lack of time'. Many of us consider ourselves to be time poor. But, here is a little experiment to gauge how much spare time you REALLY have in life:

1) Go home tonight,
2) Head for the kitchen and get the sharpest knife you own.
3) Locate each TV in your house,
4) Unplug the TV.
5) Cut the plug off the cable.
6) You might have to repeat steps 3 to 5 for the computer in your house, but stick with the TV for now.

Results

Within a week you should find that there are times in the day when you are bored as you have nothing to do. this form of boredom is free times' way of saying "let's do something new/novel/interesting/unusual". Respond to this urge.

A secondary result is that, after time - perhaps a week, maybe more, maybe less, on reflection, you should find that you have packed that little bit more in to your week. You may well have been more productive. You may find that you have been able to complete some odd jobs around the house AND keep up with the world's affairs by the medium of radio rather than the geostationary format of the TV.

You might have found the quality of things like family life improve as you communicate and interact with your children/wife without the distraction of that unruly cathode-ray/plasma/LCD child in the corner of your room (it is often said that a TV in the bedroom is like a third person in the relationship).

There will be those that say, "I am too tired to try this experiment - I need my TV in the evenings as this is how I relax". A fair point, but also a bag of crap! The TV does not allow you to relax. Relaxation comes from simple contemplation. A state unobtainable whilst watching TV.

Body-Nazi

This phrase 'body-nazi' is one of my father's. He used to see me running long and hard several times a week. He would witness my time in the gym and my dedication to iron-work in general.

Those early days spent at the gym were among a lot of other 'heavy-lifters' and bodybuilders. I admired their dedication and boy, could they lift some serious weight. One complimentary phrase that used to be applied quite often was that 'so and so trains like an animal' or 'so and so trains like a beast'.

In retrospect, this is actually quite ironic. I mean lifting weights three out of four days, usually indoors, cycling through training phases - and all whilst lifting 'as much as you can' - is far from anything an animal would do. Animal activity is far from steady-state. It is movement based, in activities engaging chains of muscles. Maximal output is periodic and occasional. Variety of movement is key. I train more like an animal now than at any time in the past, but only a few would recognise this.

Conversely, in social circles being a 'bit of an animal' means you are wild. Party animals are invariably high-carbers - hardly a model of an animal. The movement patterns one assumes has the characteristic of a wild animal - so in that respect, I suppose they are more like an animal than those in the gym.

Someone once described me as being like 'an animal' for tearing in to a chicken carcass at the dinner table using my fingers (in a Henry VIII 'stylee') . I took it as a compliment!

Cut that plug. Harvest that time. Follow your (animal) instinct.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Visualisation

One of my previous posts mentioned memory tricks. As a guitarists, when I learn a piece of music there is clearly a complex mental process going on. But music is quite easy to memorise. I blogged earlier about remembering a pack of 52 shuffled cards - something I can do but which is rather more abstract than music, and something that requires a high degree of visualisation.

Visualisation is a significant skill in an evolutionary capacity. Imagine if you are tracking game, this may involve travelling significant distances. Not only would you have to remember the way home (which would be far from trivial in anything other than Savannah), but also it would pay in many cases to remember resources such as (plant) food and water sources along the way. Should you ever visit an area again you would know of resource to sustain your hunt.

In fact knowing of food and water resource in a wider geographical area actually enables you to roam further from camp and increases your 'harvestable area'. You have a greater 'reach'. In addition, should resource become scarce in one area, you could simply move to another as resources in the locale have effectively already been recce'd.

This is where visualisation comes. Pre-writing, you'd identify plants and geographic locations purely from memory. I really like this kind of explanation for WHY we can develop seemingly complex, abstract skills, tying as it does, a paleo theme with a modern party trick (remembering a pack of shuffled cards). Maybe this link is contrived. I certainly have yet to come across any science to back up my theory (yet), but it fits in to my paleo-philosophy, a tenet of which is to 'grow your mind'.

In the long term, the memory system I use will be developed to card-count in Blackjack. I 'd like to clean up at the casinos (needless to say I have a few books on card counting strategy in my 'To Read' pile). It is easy to go and sprint up a hill or lift a weight and think 'this is paleo'. The paleo quality of activity is obvious. But one day, I will be sitting in a tuxedo at Napoleon's Blackjack Casino using visualisation in a hostile and pressurised environment also thinking 'this is paleo'. It may not be as obvious, but in many ways my animal instincts will be challenged just the same!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Flow and Uncertainity

Nassim Taleb is definitely a 'thinker of the moment'. He has offered a great point about success breeding stress, because the successful need to be organised and organisation demands a schedule. Schedules demand a timetable and agenda - which is a source of mini-deadlines and their attendent stress as we seek to fulfill the schedule on time.

This is a concept I alluded to in my post on flow. There are important things and unimportant things. The difficulty is knowing the difference. But, you will NEVER address all of the things, whether important of unimportant.

Agenda and timetables comprise task/work events. They are a useful way of arranging a bus service or airline flight schedule, but for us humans, they can become obstacles. Time will wash you past that obstacle, whether you like it or not; whether you met that task or not.

Are you going to let this affect you? It probably will as any agenda item that was important enough for you to document will have a degree of criticality. My solution? Don't put the obstacles there in the first place. Chose the obstacles you wish to tackle carefully. Understand the limitations of what you can control, embrace the unpredictable, learn from the feedback and 'go with it'.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants

I was on a blog recently discussing this very advice and the idea that "your appetite will adjust, at least to some extent, to your intake."

Here is an abridged post of what I wrote. The bolded headings are the 'arguments' used to explain obesity.

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"Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants" - sounds simple doesn't it. Along with "eat a balanced diet" it is actually misses the point. Let me explain...

I have said before that few people if any, think "You know what, I have eaten 'enough food', but I think I will now eat some more!" People eat in accordance to their appetite. So why can't we trust our appetite to dictate how much we eat (or indeed to ensure we eat 'not too much')? Is it because our appetite can be misled by certain foods or is there some other mechanism at work?You would think that when in calorific deficit - particularly after exercise, our appetite would spur us to eat a bit more to rebuild our reserves. If we have had a particularly easy day, and energy expenditure is low, you'd think our appetites would diminish accordingly.

This seems to be the way it works in much of the animal kingdom (I have yet to see a wildlife program featuring a fat lion in its native habitat). What is undoubted is that nobody can persist in a chronic state of hunger - eventually you will give in to your hunger. Thus, the advice to eat 'not too much' seems to miss the point.


Portion Size

It has been suggested that we are fat because portions are bigger. I don't buy this idea! This might seem like a contrived analogy, but think about your breathing. Breathing adapts to your body's oxygen requirements - but if you force yourself to breath harder, faster and deeper several times a day, over time will you develop a NEED to breath in more air? I think not.


Affluence

Hunger is controlled by appetite which one presumes evolved over millenia to regulate energy consumption and respond to energy requirements. If people eat to the point they become obese, we have to entertain the possibility that our appetite has somehow been blunted/desensitised/misled by *something*. Even considering affluence (which may mean we can buy more food), it does not follow that you will simply eat more food (again we are back to the breathing analogy). Affluence might however affect the TYPE of food you eat. The type of food you can now buy may offer poorer satiety or maladapt the hunger response.


Clean Your Plate/Social Conditioning/Learned Behaviour

The idea of a learned behaviour is interesting - as children, most of us will have had our parents demand we eat all of our dinner with a 'reward' of desert, but if I over-eat (like at Christmas), and push myself to eat more, I like most people feel sick. Furthermore, I eat less at/delay my next meal.


Do More

In addition, if I expend more energy, I eat more. This is why I don't but the 'eat more do less' advice. Exercise makes me hungry - something most of us experience, particularly after something like swimming. If I cut back on food, I feel weak and less able to exercise (or at least limited to exercising at a lesser intensity).


Eat Less

If I cut back on food intake for a few days, I have to binge. The binge is my body telling me that it has been running on fat stores and needs to replace the fat.


American/Cultural Obesity

US food outlets offer massive portions. They are also an affluent nation. They are less physically active than just about any other nation and car ownership is high. Ownership of labour saving devices is also high (such as dishwashers). But the nutritional profile of the American diet is markedly different to that of the Japanese for example, who are generally thin. Look at the consumption for HFCS in America. This is the kind of thing that I would suspect of 'blunting' our appetite response.


Eating To Regulate A Large Body-Mass

I am not sure that upkeep of a large body mass is credible. Fat guys have to carry more weight around, they have to work harder simply to move and so I suspect will have a higher basal metabolic rate. So there is no advantage for the body to adapt this way.


For me, it is more likely that our physiology dictates consumption/appetite rather than psychology. I still hold the idea that our appetite is being misled somehow.

Do Not Do As I Say, Do As I Do

Don't believe what I say. Not a word of it. Look at my disclaimer. It should tell you all you need to know. I have no formal medical background. I have no formal athletic background. I have no super-powers, psychic abilities or supernatural skills of any sort. I cannot divine, nor read your palm or the stars.

Do As I Do

My education in nutrition and athletic training comes from reading. Lots. Now "reading lots" does not mean "well read"! But like many avid armchair athletes, I devour as much literature as I can regarding fitness and health. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff.


So How Do You Sort The Wheat From The Chaff?

After a while reading books, papers and blogs, you become adepts at spotting themes. For example, many diets are the same principle rehashed with a new title. The details may change, but the underlying theme remains the same. The low carb/paleo diet is chock-full of such diets. This is marketing at work. Ignore it. Try to understand the underlying principle of a diet or a mode of training. Once you have done this, your will see the marketing for what it is.

Ultimately, the way to develop your knowledge is from personal experimentation and to respond to feedback.

Baseline

First things first. Baseline your current level of fitness and health. Go to the doctors and get him/her to check you out. Get as much checked out as you can - cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat percentage, heart rate, the lot.

Next, take some measurements of your own. Record rashes, aches and pains. Use a diary to record daily periods of energy and exhaustion. Take key measurements such as the circumference of your waist, the size of your biceps and thighs. Use a mirror to look at yourself undressed. Can you see your abdominal muscles? Is your posture symmetrical?

Measure your resting pulse. Go for a short run. Run for ten minutes or so. How far did you get - a mile? Note the route you took. Think of a short circuit of maybe one or two kilometers, which starts and finishes at your house. How long did it take you to complete?

After running exercise, take your pules every five minutes or so. (After running don't just sit down, keep walking slowly around). How long did it take for your pulse to return to normal?

Go to a gym and get and introduction. They should give you and introductory session. Try to use this session to get an idea of your strength in basic exercises (ensure good technique). What is your maximum lift in a dead lift and/or squat? They may also provide you with an introductory program.

Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight. Ignore your weight.

Ignore your weight.

In case you missed it. Ignore your weight.


The Next Stage

Write down your goals. Make long term (up to and over one year), and medium term goals. Make sure your goals are achievable. Add in 'checkpoints' along the way.

Start off slowly. If you have not exercised for years, make your goals broad and vague. Something along the lines of "Over the next three months, I will engage in vigorous exercise for 30 minutes, twice a week."

If you have been reasonably active, then you might want to put some more specific goals in place. This might be to knock your time down on your 'favourite' run by a minute, or, to achieve 10 pull ups. In each case you should apply a time period in which to achieve the checkpoint and goals.

Devise a program to achieve your goals.

Gyms often issue a vanilla template for nutrition and exercise. It will be a good starting point for the uninitiated, but don't be afraid to change it. Make small adjustments at first - based upon knowledge you have drawn from other sources. Be critical with these changes (see below). Experiment!

Specificity is key. If you want to be good at 100m and have a goal of knocking 1/10 second off your PB, no amount of rowing is going to help you with this!

Rest! After a hard session take a day off. If you end up doing two days 'on', take the following day off. You will be the last to know when you are over-training.

Over-training can be simply identified as the point where, after your usual rest period between training sessions you continually lose gains. There are other indicators - injury (training causes localised trauma but your rest periods should be designed to allow you to recover), a lack of motivation, perpetual colds. It is hard to over-train, but harder to spot it yourself. Conversely, it is easy for others to spot in you!

You may plateau around six weeks. This is a point where you stop making gains in a particular exercise. Shake things up. Change the repetition and sets. Take a break from that exercise and try a new movement.

Work on basic movements that involve many muscle groups rather than isolation exercises (e.g. a chin up rather than a concentration curl for the biceps). Always maintain good form.

Review

There is no failure, only feedback. Periodically review your training. Did you miss a goal? If so why? Were you making the checkpoints? If so then a rest might be in order, or an extra checkpoint prior to your final goal.

Compare your current statistics to your baseline. If you wanted to lose body fat and you still cannot see your abs after a year of hard training and a careful diet. Don't panic, maybe your waist size has shrunk dramatically - you may be closer to your goal than you think.

After any nutritional change, you should visit the doctor for an annual medical.

Failure to Review

I have blogged before about some of the people at my gym. I have seen some of them training hard for at least five years in a bid to lose weight. They talk of calorie restriction and arduous sessions on the treadmill and bikes. However, they are just as fat now as when I first saw them. They are definitely fitter (they have to be, given the volume of work they do). However, cognitive dissonance stops them from looking at themselves and realising that their program is not working. I guess this is because their personal trainer is advising them - and there is a belief that the guy in the tracksuit with a diploma knows what he is on about. But if, after five years of trying to lose fat, you have not lost fat, at what point do you expect things to happen? Next month, next week, a year, five years?

Again, review your performance and be critical. Use your baseline measurements and reflect on your goals. Slow progress to a goal is still progress - don't be too hasty in getting rid of anything that offers progress, even if it is slow progress.

Drop It

After several years of training, you should be able to reach a point of instinctive training. It is still useful to note what exercise you perform and include measures of rep schemes, loads and times, but as long as you maintain variety, and are happy with results, you do not need to compulsively log each ailment, measurement and indicator.

Conclusion

There is a lot to take in here. The worst action is no action. Don't get bogged down in detail. Above all keep the changes small, the review periodic and above all experiment!

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Further, Faster, Stronger, Fasting

I try to keep abreast of all the dietary research out there. I read plenty of blogs and visit plenty of sites dedicated to diet, nutrition, sport and training in general. I have a limited knowledge of both and specialised medical research and highly scientific debate can 'lose me' after a while!

My opinion is informed from medical literature dedicated to nutrition and training, and also from a few selected blogs. Fortunately I have my own body on which to experiment and actively do so by adapting my nutrition and training. Ultimately I simply go for what feels 'right'. If I follow my own intuition based upon stuff I have read, and see improvements in my physical performance, a reduction in injury and illness, and get a general thumbs-up from the doctor at each annual medical, I assume I am doing something right.

There are several blogs out there run by doctors. The level of debate suggests that these guys know their stuff - but I noticed that more than a few of them have derided the paleo approach to nutrition. This got me thinking; "have I simply swapped one dietary dogma (low fat, complex carbs) for another (paleo)?"

Just because the paleo diet is 'natural' in terms of being an eating pattern based upon an ancestral template, does not necessarily mean that it is optimal.

This is one of the most important points I think we should all bear in mind. We think of 'natural' as somehow 'better' and 'safer'. The reality is far from this simple. Consecutive days of very hard training will require rapid replenishment of glycogen in your muscles. Arguably complex carbohydrates would be an optimal way of achieving this goal. (Whether training hard on consecutive days is 'optimal' is another matter).

Back to the blogging doctors. Several of them had put up posts criticising paleo diets. And this really set me thinking. I was reassured by my annual medical (including a cholesterol test), that eating a diet high in saturated fat, nuts and red meat with about 35-50% of my diet (by volume) coming from vegetables and fruit was an effective way to live, but is it optimal?

Now in the past year I have included a 24 hour fast periodically. I normally fast from tea-time one day to tea time the next. I fast every three or so days. Herein I found an answer to my question.

When my nutritional profile was based upon the traditional food pyramid, I would often be ravenously hungry several times a day even though I would eat until 'full' at each meal. My blood sugar levels could plummet quickly - particularly after exercise. In fact I would awaken famished and even the stretch from lunch time to the evening meal (a period of no more than 6 hours), would cause me to get 'the shakes'. At no time on this 'traditional diet' would I have been able to contemplate a 24 hour fast! And this was the answer to my question.

Eating the paleo way, such problems are a thing of the past. I can fast effortlessly for 24 hours several times a week. I might get a mild hunger at some point during the day, but never a gnawing one. In fact on some fast days I do a 30 minute, intense workout at lunchtime, and then an hour of kickboxing that evening. All without any feeling of weakness. During exercise, the hunger actually goes away! On non-fast days, my hunger is well under control between meals.

Now after a fast, believe me, I 'chow-down' big style - eating more than I would at each meal after a non-fast day. Clearly after a fast I must have built up a calorific deficit and that is reflected in my appetite. In fact after a fast, I am more inclined to eat an extra (third) meal (normally I only eat two meals a day and rarely snack). I am in a position to trust my appetite and I never feel bloated or 'stuffed', regardless of how much I have eaten. I simply get a feeling of 'enough' and that is it.

For me this is a perfect situation. I can eat when I want (two meals a day normally suffice). I can fast for at least 24 hours without a deterioration in my performance. During a fast I MUST be accessing and cycling my fat stores - exactly what they were intended for! After a fast, I trust my appetite to dictate how much I eat for my body to replenish its fat stores. If I need an extra meal (particularly after a fast), I eat one. I adjust portions in any one meal according to my appetite. My body fat is well under 10%.

Doesn't this sound simple? Doesn't this sound EXACTLY how the body SHOULD function? I have only managed to achieve this on a paleo diet. I must add one more point about the fasting. After about three days of eating, I just don't actually feel like eating much if anything the next (fourth) day. Not eating until that evening is actually an appealing situation. As I have already said, I might have a mild hunger, but it is insufficient to compel me to eat. (As soon the hunger does develop to a point that prompts me to eat, I respond to it).

Many people learn to eat out of habit and social conditioning. This, in conjunction with the consumption of foods with elicit a poor level of satiety and for which we are poorly adapted, is what I believe has lead to many people becoming obese.

In a carbohydrate-scarce environment, it would make sense that we would gorge on such a valuable nutritional resource should we come across it (especially if it meant we could perform intense physical activity on consecutive days - a distinct evolutionary advantage in a dangerous environment). Given its scarcity, how could our bodies have adapted to handle chronic supply of such a resource?

Fat storage/cycling is simply a mechanism to keep us going between eating. I have re-engaged with my appetite and developed the metabolic pathways to my fat stores. Fasting for me has been an intuitive extension of my dietary habit and an indicator of my metabolic health. Body fat for me is not simply baggage that inhibits. It is a trusted source of energy to make me go. A resource that I can instinctively draw from and replenish. How could the role of body fat be any more complex?