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Health and Fitness

Why is nutrition information so confusing?

Photo credit: Arek Socha

We’re bombarded with nutrition information these days. Every day there seems to be a new study showing how this or that food may cause cancer…or eating lots of one special food (cabbage? kale? green tea?)  makes you lose weight…or that taking this company’s special supplement cures all ills. Even documented, peer-reviewed studies seem to contradict one another.

The fundamental principles of science involve combining many ideas and concepts, then testing, evaluating, re-evaluating and so on – over decades – to ultimately come to a final conclusion.

Interestingly, nutrition science is still in its infancy:

  • Macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) weren’t discovered until the mid-1800’s.
  • Vitamins were discovered in the early to mid-1900’s.
  • Only in the past two decades have studies emerged on newer problems, such as what foods are healthy in a world of tasty, cheap, processed food where people move and exercise very little.

Below are nine reasons why nutrition science can be so confusing. [Note: content and graphics courtesy of Precision Nutrition.com]

#1 – Nutrition research is still very young.

It takes time to master a science. Compared to chemistry, for example, nutrition science is still in its infancy.

#2 – Most research funding goes toward disease treatment – not preventative nutrition

Most researchers would rather work towards finding an end to an epidemic – not how to get rid of a muffin top.

#3 – Nutrition research is often funded by “interested parties”

Where the money comes from can often affect a study’s results. While this doesn’t mean researchers are “cheating,” corporate pressures can influence a study’s design so the research outcomes are more likely to show what the company wants.

#4 – Confounding variables make it difficult to prove the effects of food

Even in the best controlled trial, it’s difficult to isolate the effects of nutrition from all the other factors that affect human health. In fact, just the act of participating in a research study can change the outcome one way or another.

#5 – Most nutrition studies are observational

Observational studies rely on participants’ completing questionnaires about their lifestyles and eating habits. This approach is fraught with errors, as people tend to underreport what they eat, and overreport how much they exercise. Furthermore, observation-only studies can’t account for all variables, resulting in faulty and meaningless correlations.

#6 – Measurement tools always have limitations

For example, even with a straightforward question such as “how do calories affect weight” it’s difficult to get a concrete answer, because:

#7 – What you eat does not affect your health immediately

For example, to definitively prove whether red meat causes cancer would require a large group of human subjects to live in a metabolic chamber eating varying amounts of red meat for 30 years or more. Who wants to sign up for that?

#8 – You must never assume a particular study’s findings apply to YOU.

Even if you could seal a group of people in a metabolic chamber and study them for 30 years, the results would still not provide evidence of who else those results would apply to. Here’s why:

#9 – If doing the scientific research seems difficult – reporting on it is even harder

Remember this:

Hopefully these points help you understand that just because a study comes out stating that food X causes disease Y doesn’t mean the end of the world. Most importantly, remember that there is a vast difference between correlation and causation. Correlation means two things are observed to happen at the same time, but causation means one thing truly is the cause of the other – and is much harder to prove.

So how do you interpret nutritional information so it’s meaningful for YOU ? Talk to an independent nutritionist, registered dietician, or health/wellness coach – preferably one who’s impartial, meaning they are not selling a particular nutraceutical product/ supplement or commercial weight loss program. These professionals will give you non-biased, personalized advice to help you reach your wellness goals.

Laurie Kelly is a Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 coach, specializing in exercise and sports-based nutrition coaching. She is also a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, and a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Strength Training, Weight Loss

How do I get rid of my belly?

Belly fat_Budda

This is without a doubt the most frequently asked question I get as a personal trainer – probably because there’s so much information, and mis-information, available nowadays about this subject. Call it the midsection, core, belly, muffin top, spare tire, or something else – we all have one and we all struggle with getting, and keeping, it looking the way we want.

First, let’s talk about the “core.” It’s technically a collection of muscles that spans from the glutes to the rib cage – front, back and sides. These include the rectus abdominus (what makes the “six-pack”) and transverse abdominus in the front, the groups of obliques on the sides, the hip flexor complex, the glutes complex, and the smaller muscles of the low back. The muscles of the core serve an important purpose: to support and move the spine. This is why core strengthening and mobility are so important. When the core is weak, a host of other problems up and down the chain ensue.

Now, let’s talk about fat. The body contains three types:

Triglycerides: These are fat cells that circulate in the bloodstream. They comprise about 95% of all fat in the body and have many functions.

Subcutaneous fat: The layer of fat directly below the skin’s surface, such as between the skin and the abdominal wall, or the dreaded cellulite in the thighs and upper arms.

Visceral fat: This is what we usually think of as “belly” fat. It’s located deep within the belly, below the stomach muscles and close to the internal organs.

Why do we store excess visceral fat?

There are many reasons why humans store excess body fat. Here are three of the most common ones:

Inactivity and excess caloric intake

As a society, we’re becoming more and more sedentary with rates of overweight and obesity at epidemic proportions. Technology, desk jobs, urban sprawl, and the prevalence of highly palatable, inexpensive, high calorie foods are just some of the contributing factors. When we consume more energy (in the form of calories) than we expend, the extra energy is stored as body fat. [Read:  Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The Debate is Finally Over.]

Stress

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s produced by the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, most of which nowadays are more imagined than real. Interestingly, other things that we don’t necessarily think of as “stressful” actually place the body into stress mode and generate cortisol production: too much high intensity cardio exercise, and extremely low calorie diets. A steady stream of cortisol, which can’t be used by the body for fight-or-flight, winds up stored as body fat. [Read: More About Cortisol, the Stress Hormone]

Metabolic Syndrome

This condition affects an estimated one-third of Americans. It causes the body to store food as fat instead of using it for energy. Starches and simple sugars are the biggest problem, and even very active people can have it.

Metabolic syndrome is linked with a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin, a hormone, moves glucose (sugar) into the cells to generate energy. With insulin resistance, however, it can’t do its job – so excess glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of getting into cells to be used for energy. This excess glucose winds up stored as fat.

Eliminating belly fat – what doesn’t work, and what does

It seems everyone has some magical prescription for reducing belly fat – whether it’s a pill, potion, special food diet, or exercise routine. One thing is for certain – there is no magic solution. Instead, here are some proven, commonsense ways to achieve a slimmer midsection:

Do:  Stand more and sit less. When we sit, the core muscles are not engaged or active. Standing, however, activates the core just to keep the body upright. Find ways to incorporate less sitting and more standing into your daily activities.

Do: Eat fewer empty carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Replace them with more fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats and whole grains. Check the sugar content on processed foods you eat regularly. You’ll be amazed how much added sugar is in so many of the foods we eat, from supposedly “healthy” breakfast cereals to spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t really matter what type of sugar (thinking of the high fructose corn syrup scare from a few years ago). [Read: How to Get Your Eating Back on Track]

Do: Exercise the right way.

  • Forget about crunches: these are the least effective form of core exercise.
  • Whenever possible, avoid using weight machines for strength training. Instead, use dumbbells, stretch cords/bands, barbells, or just body weight. Most weight machines involve sitting, so there’s no core engagement involved. When you must hold your body upright and lift the weight, your core is constantly active. [Read: The Myth of Weight Machines]
  • Recognize that you cannot “spot reduce” fat from specific areas of the body through targeted exercises. Working your abs for 4 hours a day, seven days a week will give you very strong (and larger) ab muscles, but they’ll reside underneath that layer of fat.

Instead, develop a regular weekly exercise program that incorporates full-body strength training two to three times per week, and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Short bursts of higher-intensity intervals, with plenty of recovery in between, can also increase calorie-burning without over-stressing the system. Build these into your strength training or cardio sessions to add variety to your workouts.

One final word…

It’s important to emphasize that physical appearance is not nearly as important as having a strong, healthy body. Excess visceral fat can lead to serious health risks. A strong (not necessarily flat) core is foundational to wellbeing, providing balance, good posture, and elimination of aches and pains up and down the kinetic chain from the neck to the knees.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, she specializes in helping people in mid-life and beyond to become stronger, fitter, and lead healthy and active lives. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Injury Prevention, Strength Training

How Often Should I Exercise?

Woman on mat w KB

“Train the body, don’t drain the body” is an adage often touted by experienced personal trainers. What this means is that exercise should add energy and life to your body – not take it away. But how do you know when you’re doing enough, versus too much or too little? Continue reading “How Often Should I Exercise?”

Wellness

Demystifying Oxidative Stress

Pile of question marks

If you haven’t heard the term “oxidative stress” mentioned at least once a day in social media, supplement advertisements, and popular magazines, you might be living under a rock. (Can I join you there, by the way?) Oxidative stress is the latest fear-mongering buzzword tossed around the health and wellness community these days. It sounds scary and bad, very scientific, and hard to understand. In this article I hope to shed light and clarity on just what oxidative stress is, so you can make lifestyle choices for yourself and your loved ones based on facts, not hype. Continue reading “Demystifying Oxidative Stress”

Weight Loss

Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.

women s left and right hand
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

When it comes to body change, there’s no topic more polarizing than “calories in vs. calories out.” Some argue it’s the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Others say it’s oversimplified and misguided. In this article by Dr. John Berardi, Ph.D., he explores every angle of the debate from “eat less, move more,” to hormonal issues, to diets that offer a “metabolic advantage.” In doing so, he answers—once and for all—how important calories in vs. calories out really is and discusses what it means for you. Continue reading “Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.”

Strength Training

Want to Succeed with Exercise? Master the Basics!

Master the basics_going up stairs

It seems we’re bombarded every week with some new fitness trend, exercise gizmo, “new” workout program, or supplement guaranteed to make you a success in your workout efforts. If it’s “new” or everyone’s doing it, it must be what really works, right?

Perhaps for some. But in my opinion, success in exercise and training – like most things in life – comes down to mastering the basics. Continue reading “Want to Succeed with Exercise? Master the Basics!”

Weight Loss

How to get your eating back on track – Part 2

food sandwich eat fitness

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I introduced some of the simplest ways to fix a “broken diet” and start eating better, including identifying and removing nutritional deficiencies, adjusting food amount and food type, and the pitfalls of calorie counting. In this Part 2, we dive deeper into some more sophisticated strategies around food and macronutrient composition and eating for your body type; meal frequency, and calorie/carb cycling. Continue reading “How to get your eating back on track – Part 2”

Weight Loss

It’s Not About the Scale

blue tape measuring on clear glass square weighing scale

Many people believe that to improve their health and stick to their fitness goals, they should weight themselves every single day. While that may work for some as a motivator, scale weight can often be misleading and demoralizing as a measure of progress toward better health. Why? Because body weight alone doesn’t provide a complete picture of health, and can fluctuate dramatically based on what you ate the day before, how hard you exercised, monthly cycle status, and so much more. Instead of obsessing over the scale, try focusing on these factors instead. Continue reading “It’s Not About the Scale”

Injury Prevention, Running, Strength Training

Prevent Knee Pain With These Simple Exercises

Knee pain

Knee pain is often what sidelines many runners and keeps would-be runners from taking up the sport. But if you don’t have a serious degenerative disorder in the joint itself, you can help stave off a knee injury, improve running function, and make running easier and pain-free by strengthening the muscles that support the knee itself. Continue reading “Prevent Knee Pain With These Simple Exercises”