7 foods you should never eat

March 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s a great post about seven foods you should never eat. Mostly because of high levels of contaminates and chemicals, which can lead to all sorts of health problems.  I won’t go into the studies and reasons why each one is on the list (you can read the original article for that).  I just wanted to give you the list.  So here it is:

  1. Canned tomatoes
  2. Corn-fed beef
  3. Microwave popcorn
  4. Non-organic potatoes
  5. Farmed salmon
  6. Milk produced with artificial hormones
  7. Non-organic apples


mmmm, newspaper ink

March 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I heard an interesting program on BBC Radio 4 this morning about toxins from packaging potentially leaking into your food.  The main culprit is recycled cardboard.  It if is recycled from newspaper, the toxins in the ink can potentially get into your food at dangerously high levels.  And the longer it sits on the shelf the more ink leaks in. 

Some companies are taking action and making sure that their packaging doesn’t have mineral oils, which are the chemicals from the ink.  At its worst, significant ingestion of mineral oils can cause the inflammation of internal organs and even cancer.  The best course of action is to check companies’ websites to see if you can find information on their packaging.  Otherwise, buy the freshest possible products – the more time they sit on the shelf, the more time there is for toxins to seep in.  There’s also a good article here with more information.

does aspartame really cause health problems?

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Aspartame is bad for you.  It will give you cancer and make you blind and break into your house late at night and steal all your stuff.  It’s pure evil and it’s out to hurt you.  I’ve always heard and been vaguely familiar with this type of scaremongering about artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame.  I didn’t pay much attention to it and generally dismissed it as a conspiracy theory or the normal type of banter that comes from people who think everything is harmful.  But I’ve been hearing more and more of it and it’s coming from credible sources, so I think it’s time to pay attention.

Artificial sweeteners are especially popular in diet drinks, which have been seeing a boom in sales because of the perception that they are healthier than regular, sugary drinks.  I just read about a study the other day that shows people who consume one diet soft drink per day have a 48% high risk of a heart attack or stroke than those who do drink regular soft drinks or none at all.  If that’s not enough, other research points to a long list of other aspartame related health problems: brain damage, seizures, brain tumors, vision impairment, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, headaches, hypertension and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

Another increasingly popular claim I’m hearing is that sweeteners produce an insulin spike by tricking the body into thinking it is consuming sugar because of its sweet taste.  This means that the body thinks it has extra energy to burn and therefore stops using fat for energy.  So sweeteners end up producing the opposite effect they are supposed to have, making it bad news for anyone who thought their diet drink was going to help them lose weight.

But are any of these claims true?  In short, maybe.  But the jury is still out with regards to aspartame and other sweeteners so it’s hard to tell.  There are arguments for and against sweeteners.  For example, here’s one that says there is no increased risk of cancer, here’s one that says there are no verified health problems associated with aspartame, and here’s one that say there’s no evidence that sucralose causes any health issues.

So, I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you think artificial sweeteners are safe or not.

crossfit: the best training program in the world

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I would like to shamelessly promote the exercise program that has completely changed my approach and attitude towards fitness over the past few years: Crossfit.  The idea is that you cross-train with lots of practical exercises (no machines required) to become an all-round fit athlete. It’s essentially lots of intense circuit training with some gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting thrown in for good measure. 

Originally starting out as a niche workout program for people in emergency services and the military, it’s grown into somewhat of a cult phenomenon over the past few years – just Google ‘Crossfit’ and see how many different gyms, variations and articles there are.  Loads.  But the heart of it all is at Crossfit.com, where the workout of the day (WOD) is posted, with lots of instructional videos to help you learn about the weird new exercises (like handstand push-ups!).  Best of all, it’s completely free.

Crossfit was founded by Greg Glassman, a gymnastics trainer who is referred to by the Crossfit community as Coach, with a capital ‘C’ (one of the cultish aspects of the program).  The rationale behind Crossfit is that if you perform lots of practical and intense exercises, it will make you bigger, faster and stronger.  Workouts are short and fast.  They’re often less than 20mins but will leave you doubled over and gasping for air.  The workout called “Cindy”, for example, is as many rounds as you can in 20mins of: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats.  Workouts like this push you to the limit both aerobically and anaerobically – you’re building up your endurance and your strength at the same time. 

One way of describing Crossfit is to call is to call it the generalist of exercise.  Running, weightlifting, swimming, biking – these are all specializations that require certain movements and training.  A long-distance runner is probably not very good at weightlifting and vice versa. But a crossfiter would be pretty good at both of these.  One of the things makes Crossfit so great is the focus on functional movements that help you to build core strength.  For example, deadlifts give you the strength and form to pick up anything heavy off the floor – great for moving!  For firefighters, being able to do pull-ups could save their life if they were hanging on a window ledge or ladder.  The workouts themselves are fun, short and constantly training.  I got hooked from the very first time I tried Crossfit when my brother introduced me to it, and I haven’t looked back since.  I can only suggest that you try it out for yourself.

What water bottle are you using?

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

If you workout then I’m sure you use a water bottle or a shaker bottle.  You probably pay more attention to what’s in the bottle than the bottle it self.  But it’s time to take a look at what bottle you’re using because it could be harming your health. 

Bisphenol-A (BPA) was, until recently, a chemical component in nearly every water bottle.  But more and more studies are showing that it could be toxic and damaging to our health – possibly even leading to cancer.  This is especially true of plastics that you use over and over and wash on a regular basis.  The more use you get out of them, the more they break down and are potentially harmful. 

In a number of countries, like Canada, BPA in baby bottles has been banned for some time, but the concern is spreading to beyond babies.  Chicago has banned all bottles with BPA and the trend is set to continue for other cities and countries.

BPA-free bottles are now widely available.  For more on the subject, I recommend this New York Times analysis.

are high protein diets safe?

June 2, 2010 1 comment

Diets high in protein have been the staple for many athletes and bodybuilders over the years.  Protein is the essential building block for muscles and increases size, strength and power. A very good thing for athletes and anyone who exercises regularly.  But can we have too much of a good thing?  That seems to be a common belief among people who argue that high protein diets can cause health problems like kidney dysfunction and osteoporosis.

Let’s take a look at what actual research has been done on high protein diets to clear up some of the myths about associated health problems.

There is no evidence linking high protein diets to kidney problems in healthy people

No studies have shown that high protein consumption can cause kidney dysfunction in healthy people.  As Dr John Berardi notes, “there is absolutely no data in healthy adults suggesting that a high protein intake causes the onset of renal (kidney) dysfunction. There aren’t even any correlational studies showing this effect in healthy people.” The only research that shows a correlation between high protein intake and kidney problems is in people who are already suffering from kidney disease.  So for those who have kidney disease, a high protein diet may not be advisable.  But there is no reason to believe that this is the case in healthy people.

Studies actually show health benefits from high protein diets

Bone health:  some people believe that high protein can cause a loss of calcium and lead to problems like osteoporosis.  But when studies were done to test this belief, they actually found the opposite to be true, with a “positive association between protein intake and bone mineral density”.

Blood pressure: large studies in the US [1, 2] and China [3] have found a negative relationship between blood pressure and the amount of protein consumed – indicating that high protein diets are associated with low blood pressure.

Heart disease: a 14 year study of over 80,000 women found “that replacing carbohydrates with protein may be associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease”.  This is truer in cases where protein comes from lean sources like chicken, fish and vegetables, and less so in cases where protein comes from high cholesterol and saturated fat sources (pork, beef, lamb, eggs, etc.).

Liver function: protein in needed for liver tissue repair and high protein diets have been found to be beneficial for people suffering from liver disease.

We are genetically designed to consume high protein diets

As mentioned in my previous blog about the caveman diet, proponents argue that developments in food have far outpaced human genes.  We are built to eat unprocessed foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats. Palaeolithic diets were high in protein – around 3 to 4 times more protein that in modern diets.  Arguing in favour of the cavemen diet, Dr Anssi Manninen from University of Oulu in Finland states, “it is implausible that an animal that adapted to a high protein diet for 5 million years suddenly in 10,000 years becomes a predominant carbohydrate burner.”

drink water

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Whether you pay attention to it or not, water affects every aspect of our lives – from sanitation to cooking to, well, you.  About 70% of our bodyweight is water.  We can’t live without it.  But many people aren’t getting enough.  This is the case not just in developing countries where it is difficult to access safe drinking water, but also in developed countries where clean water is plentiful.  In fact, a study shows that up to 27% of people in the US might suffer from chronic dehydration.

So what?

Well, here’s a list of problems you’re more likely to encounter if you’re not drinking enough water:

  • Cancers (urinary tract, colon and breast)
  • Heart disease (mitral valve prolapse)
  • Kidney stones
  • Childhood obesity
  • Diminished mental and physical performance
  • Diminished salivary gland function

But how much water is ‘enough’?  The very helpful answer is: it depends.  It depends on your weight, food consumption, physical activity, environment and diuretic consumption (caffeine and alcohol).   As a guide, you should be drinking 1ml of water per calorie of food.  So, if you’re eating 2,500 calories per day that means you should be drinking 2.5L of water per day.  However, approximately 1L of that will come from food (especially fruits and vegetables) and another 250ml coming from the water of oxidation.  That leaves 1.25L, or 5 cups, that needs to come from drinking water.  Follow?

However, these are the calculations for an inactive individual.  If you/’re doing exercise then you are sweating more and need to drink more.  A rough guide is to consume 1L of water per hour of exercise.  So, want to figure out how much water you should be drinking per day?  Try this calculation:

[Number of calories/1,000] + [hours of exercise x 1] – 1.25 (fluids from food and oxidation) = number of litres per day

So, if I eat 2,800 calories per day and exercise for 45mins, my water intake calculation will be:

[2,800 calories/1,000] + [0.75 x 1] – 1.25
2.8                 +      0.75     – 1.25  =  2.3L

So, I would need to drink 2.3L, or about 9 cups, of water per day to keep my fluid levels constant and avoid dehydration.  This doesn’t account for diuretics like coffee and alcohol, which actually create a negative fluid effect – which is why a late night drinking session can result in headaches and vomiting, which are symptoms of dehydration.  Make sure you drink even more water if you’re drinking caffeine and alcoholic drinks – you’ll be glad the next morning!

Dehydration occurs with as little as 1%-2% loss of bodyweight from fluids.  Even just 1% loss impairs exercise performance.  That means non-diuretic fluid intake (from water, sports drinks, etc) must be enough to keep bodyweight constant for optimal physical performance.  So when you’re at the gym, running, or whatever, make sure you’re drinking something to replenish your lost fluids.  There is plenty more to say about ideal exercise drinks (e.g. protein and carbohydrate combinations), but I will leave that for a future blog.

Always err on the side of too much water if you’re in doubt as to how much you need to drink.  You can use the urine test as a crude method for judging how hydrated you are: dark is dehydrated and pale is adequately hydrated.  Just remember that more exercise, food and diuretics (coffee, alcohol) mean more water is needed.  So drink up.

get fit in 4 minutes with tabata training

May 12, 2010 1 comment

The title of this blog looks like one of those ridiculous claims that you would see on the front cover of Men’s Health.  But I stand behind it because it’s been proven that four minutes of Tabata training really is more effective than an hour of cardio training.

The Tabata method is becoming an increasingly popular form of high intensity interval training (HIIT).  HIIT consists of short bursts of intense activity at near max heart rate, followed by less intense exercise or rest.  For example, sprint 30 seconds, jog one minute, sprint 30 seconds, jog one minute, and so on until you can’t continue.

The Tabata method takes this type of HIIT as a template and turns it into an exact science to maximise anaerobic capacity and VO2max.  In other words, four minutes of Tabata training produces better fitness results than an hour of endurance training.

All the hype comes from a 1996 study by the training method’s namesake, Izumi Tabata, from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.  In his six-week study, participants were divided into two groups.  The first group did one hour of moderate cardio (70% VO2max).  The second group did eight rounds of 20 seconds intense exercise (170% VO2max) followed by 10 seconds rest – equalling a total of only four minutes.  Here are the results:

  Group 1 Group 2
Exercise Moderate cardio Tabata training: 20 seconds of activity followed by 10 seconds rest for eight rounds
Time 60mins 4mins
Frequency Five days per week for six weeks Five days per week for six weeks
Increase in anaerobic capacity Not significant 28%
Increase in VO2max 10% 14%

And the winner is: Tabata training.  In just four intense minutes, Tabata training achieves greater aerobic and anaerobic capacity and more max oxygen consumption than an hour of cardio training.  This not only means higher levels of fitness and exercise tolerance, but even results in more weight loss than moderate cardio.  Time to get off that elliptical machine!

Here’s how you do Tabata training:

Tabata training can be done with any exercise, but I prefer body weight exercises because they allow you to easily stick to the 20sec/10sec work/rest split, they can be done anywhere and they are challenging.  If you’re doing Tabata for the first time, I recommend starting with air squats.  So you would do eight rounds of:

  1. As many air squats as you can in 20 seconds
  2. Rest 10 seconds

Record the lowest number of squats that you did in any given set and use this as your benchmark.  So, if the lowest number of squats you could do in any of the eight rounds was 15, then this is your benchmark to beat next time.  Make sure you have a stopwatch, because the timing is precise.

Want something more challenging?  Try ‘Tabata Something Else’, taken from the CrossFit website.  It’s the same 20sec/10sec x8 routine, but with four different exercises: pull ups, push ups, sit ups and squats.  You do a four-minute Tabata sequence for each exercise, totalling 16 minutes.

  1. Pull ups: max reps in 20secs followed by 10secs rest: x8
  2. Push ups: ditto
  3. Sit ups: ditto
  4. Squats: ditto

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on your progress, record the total number of reps you did for each exercise for the entire 16 minutes then try to beat this next time.

One final note: make sure you go all out in Tabata training.  You should be well outside of your comfort zone and feel exhausted when you finish.  It’s only four minutes, but it should be a very hard four minutes.

barefoot running – what’s the big deal?

May 6, 2010 1 comment

A growing number of runners have been ditching their shoes and going barefoot.  This eccentric community of athletes may have been a joke in the running world for a long time, but some compelling research is proving that they’re not so crazy after all.  In fact, barefoot running appears to have a lot of benefits over running with shoes.

Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, from Harvard University, recently published a study in the journal Nature in favour of barefoot running.  He states that if “endurance running was an important behaviour before the invention of modern shoes, then natural selection is expected to have operated to lower the risk of injury and discomfort when barefoot or in minimal footwear.”  In other words, humans have been barefoot running for millions of years, so why do we think modern ‘shod running’ is better for us?

Lieberman says about 75-80% of runners in the West are heel strikers – meaning they land on their heels then roll to the front of their foot.  This is creating significant force and strain on the heel – two to three times the runner’s bodyweight in fact.

But many of the runners I’ve spoken to have said heel-to-toe running is how they’ve been taught.  Are personal trainers and running coaches teaching people form that will end up hurting them?  Perhaps.  Heel-to-toe running causes “sudden forces with high rates and magnitudes of loading that travel rapidly up the body and thus may contribute to the high incidence of running-related injuries, especially tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis”. These repetitive stress injuries affect about 1/3rd of all runners according to Lieberman.

You might think that advances in running shoe design have helped people to reduce injuries, but surprisingly the “incidence of such injuries has remained considerable for 30 years despite technological advancements that provide more cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for heel–toe running27, 28, 29

Barefoot runners, on the other hand, tend to land slightly on the balls of their feet, creating much less force than shod runners.  Barefoot running helps to reduce heel striking and improves posture.  Lieberman says that “previous studies have found that habitually shod runners tend to adopt a flatter foot placement when barefoot than when shod, thus reducing stresses on the foot.12, 13, 14, 15

Take a look at this video.  It’s a good explanation of Lieberman’s case for barefoot running:

Aside from running on grass or the beach, you’re probably thinking that barefoot running will be pretty painful.  You’re right – I tried it the other day and it was unpleasant for my tender feet! For people like me who don’t have tough, leathery soles, there are shoes that are designed to simulate barefoot running without shredding you feet.   Barefoot running is a fun and interesting experience if nothings else. So give it a try and you may find yourself part of the growing barefoot community.

what are we eating?

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a rummage through the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey the other day.  It records the eating habits of over 1,000 people in the UK, so it paints a good picture of most people’s nutritional composition.

I thought it would be interesting to compare what the ‘average’ person eats to government guidelines for nutrition.  The chart below is that comparison.  I’ve highlighted the areas were people are not meeting guidelines in red, the areas where they are meeting guidelines in green and left the areas with no min/max guidelines white.  How do you match up?

A lot more red than green in there.  Conclusions about what the average person is eating:
•    Too much saturated fat – mostly from meat and dairy (cheese)
•    Not enough good fats – poly and monounsaturates (e.g. from oily fish and nuts)
•    Too much sugar – especially from processed carbs
•    Not enough fibre – e.g. from wholegrain carbs, beans, etc.

The average person’s current carbohydrates/fat/protein ratio is 47:35:18.  It should be more like 40:30:30.  People are getting too much of their energy from fat and carbohydrates.  Not only that, but they’re getting the wrong type of fat (saturated rather than poly- and monounsaturates) and wrong type of carbs (processed rather than wholegrain).

Interestingly, people are very close to meeting their 5 a day fruit and vegetables.  The average is 4.4.  Still not ideal, but I would have guessed it to be a lot lower.

If you’re curious, there’s lot more interesting information here, including specific foods consumed, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, break-down by age, rates of obesity, number of vegetarians, etc.