Unhealthy Health Foods

Last night, my wife and I had an interesting and unexpected nutritional experience. Craving something sweet, we dug through the cabinets and came up with a box of fat-free/sugar-free chocolate pudding. That seemed promising and, though we normally avoid artificially fat-free/sugar-free foods, desperate times call for desperate measures.

It was a disaster. Flavor-wise, the pudding was fine. But both our stomachs immediately protested. My wife couldn’t even finish her serving. And this got me thinking. I’ve written in the past about the lie that is fat-free food so I wasn’t totally surprised by these results. Still, the severity of it startled me. So, here’s the question: What did this do to us and when is it better to avoid these so-called “healthy” variations? Is there such a thing as unhealthy health foods?


The Truth About Sugar and Fat

Food manufacturers are very aware of buzzwords that sell their products and use them liberally. Among the most popular, and time-honored, of these are those featured on the aforementioned pudding box: Sugar-free and fat-free. But do these features automatically make a food more healthy? Should we always do what we can to avoid sugars and fat?

That all depends on you and your goals, especially when it comes to sugar. This oft-maligned ingredient comes in many forms but is always used as a sweetener (obviously) and is always a simple carbohydrate. It’s classification as “simple” means – among other things – that sugar has a large and rapid impact on your blood sugar levels. In the case of people with diabetes or at risk for the condition, it’s extremely important to keep your blood sugar at healthy levels.

For athletes, however, strategic use of these simple carbs can be a powerful weapon. Not only does sugar provide a boost of energy, insulin spikes – soon after exercise – encourage muscle growth. So, proper timing of simple carbs – in otherwise healthy people – can actually be a very good thing.

Likewise, fat has been seen as a dietary villain for several decades now. Recent research, though, has shattered these notions. Fat, like protein and carbs, is a nutrient that is vital to proper function of the human body. Despite its reputation, dietary fat does not automatically create body fat. It also does not immediately poison your heart or harden your arteries. In fact, certain types of fat have been associated with improved brain function, cardiovascular health and weight loss.

Clearly, then, sugars and fats do not totally deserve their bad reputations. When proper choices are made in the right context and in moderation, sugar and fat can have a place in the athlete’s diet.

But there’s also a darker side to artificially fat- and sugar-free food than just being unnecessary.


What’s Really Happening

Similar to their natural counterpart, artificial sweeteners have also come under fire in recent years. Various claims have been made about the effects of these substances, including an increased risk of cancer, with mixed results in the lab. One thing that is known about artificial sweeteners, though, is that they do not actually help you lose weight. Which is especially concerning because most artificial sweeteners are essentially calorie-free. Artificial sweeteners have been linked with obesity, diabetes and increased food cravings in high-quality studies.

Fat-free foods are also achieved through some odd means. When it occurs in foods, fat does several things. First, it makes food delicious. Second, fat acts as a thickener and gives food texture. When the fats are removed, a substance needs to be added that will replace flavor and give the resultant food a natural feel. Various additives are used to accomplish this, including fat substitutes. These chemicals are particularly strange because, although they chemically resemble fat, your body can’t actually digest them. Essentially, these fat-like additives pass through your body totally unharmed which can cause all sorts of digestive discomfort.


The Bottom Line

If you are trying to avoid sugars and fats, it’s best to do so by choosing foods that are naturally lacking. At the same time, both sugar and fat can have a place in a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.









Running Gear for Weather Changes

152941946Where I live, a heat wave blasted us with extreme temperatures to the point I called quits on my long run this weekend. My schedule called for 14 miles and I cut it short by four miles–even struggling for the 10 I did complete. But in two days, the forecasters call for rain. I love autumn, but the weather often becomes unpredictable and ranges from extreme hot and cold. Here are a few solutions for the changing season:

1. Wear running sleaves. If you feel yourself constantly rolling up your short sleeves or running in tank tops, you’ll appreciate the light running sleeves you can pull out of your pocket when the wind starts whipping. Only a small portion of your shoulder and upper arm will remain exposed to the elements. They can even protect you when it is hot out from UV rays.

2. Headbands. You can cover your ears when you get cold–ears are part of the body that feels cold temperature the quickest–and then pull it back behind your ears when the weather gets warmer and use it to hold back your hair. For men, if you don’t want to look like your wearing a headband when it warms up, you can remove it and wrap it around your wrist–making it look like nothing more than a wristband.

3. Compression socks. Not only do these help with lactic acid build up, they can keep your legs warm for those bothered by running tights. If you feel too hot, roll them right off and stick them in a pocket.

4. Warm-up suits. First to the Finish offers warm-up outfits that you can even do your long runs in if you need, offering both wind and rain resistance. If you warm up, they are easy to get in and out of–simply wear lighter running clothes underneath.

Happy training.


What Is The Best Weight Loss Diet?

There are tons of diets out there, all vying for your attention. In fact, entire websites exist to provide a platform for reviewing these various protocols in an effort to answer the pressing question: What is the best weight loss diet?

To make the debate even more frustrating, new diets are constantly cropping up and being pushed through books, magazines and websites. In the hopes of providing an answer to this ever-present question, a team of researchers from the United States and Canada reviewed 59 different articles to try to find the single most effective diet. What did they come up with?


The Study and Findings

As mentioned, the meta-analysis included 59 different articles that studied the effectiveness of a range of “named diets” – branded eating-styles like the famed and controversial Atkins Diet. Of course, the major difference in most of these diets rested in their manipulation of macronutrient distribution (low-fat, low-carb, etc.).

After reviewing the body of existing research, the paper concluded that “the largest weight loss was associated with low-carbohydrate diets.” So, that’s it, right? Debate over. Low-carb wins!


The low-fat protocols still resulted in significant weight loss and, the article was careful to note that the differences were minor. Looking at specific brand diets, though, the researchers ultimately concluded that there was no significant difference in the efficacy of one diet brand over another.

Okay, so you probably just want an answer. What is the most effective diet? The one you can stick to. Or, in the clinical language of the analysis: “Patients may choose, among those associated with the largest weight loss, the diet that gives them the least challenges with adherence.”


Cautions, Caveats and Reality

Unfortunately, this doesn’t totally give you carte blanche to eat however you want as long as you do it consistently. First off, there’s the concern about micronutrients that can be lacking from some restrictive diets. For example, many people get so excited about the prospect of gorging on steak while on a high-protein diet that they totally neglect their need for greens. That does not go away.

There is also the fact that all of the diets covered in this review are “calorie-restricted,” meaning that the weight loss is primarily linked to a low caloric intake. That is a key ingredient to stimulate weight loss.

Remember, as well, that all the rules change if you have a medical condition such as diabetes that is directly linked to certain dietary habits. Low-carb (specifically low glycemic index) diets have been shown time and again to benefit type II diabetes. Athletes also have specific dietary needs to be addressed.

The take-home from this paper, then, is not that you can eat however you want. It’s that you can select the best diet for your situation – which may bring you to a lesser-of-two-evils situation – as long as it’s a healthy diet that you can follow for years.









Hypothyroidism and the Endurance Athlete

ankle sprain, painAs runners, we perform more cardio than an average exerciser–and most of us can’t imagine a life without running. However, as with all forms of exercise, we need to be cognizant of the challenges that come with extreme amounts of exercise.

Researchers have discovered that heavy amounts of cardiovascular exercise causes the body to stay in flight of “flight or fight mode” and this can cause it to lower the production of the thyroid hormone called T3. This can lead to hypothyroidism.


Symptoms include:

Weight gain


Sensitivity to cold



Joint or muscle pain

Paleness or dry skin

In a study published in Neuroendocrinology Letters,  acute aerobic exercise on thyroid hormones was researched in 60 male well-trained athletes by performing bicycle ergometer at 45% (low intensity), 70% (moderate intensity), and 90% (high intensity). At each intensity level, heart rate, blood lactic acid, T3 (as mentioned above), T4, free triiodothyronine (fT3) and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) values were measured.

Results showed that exercise at the 70% level, where you probably do your tempo runs, caused the most changes in the hormone values. Even at 90% intensity, where you do your track/speed workouts, the levels of T3 and T4 started to fall. Researchers concluded “maximal aerobic exercise greatly affects the level of circulating thyroid hormones.”

Another research study looked at females who ran 14 miles per week, but asked them to up it to 30 miles per week. Results showed again that an increase in cardiovascular training had negative effects on hormone levels.

This does not mean you are going to suffer from hypothyroidism because you run–often the body will adjust to the new training on its own. But it is something to be aware of and watch for any of the above symptoms, which can often be misinterpreted as simply over training.

The best way to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism is with blood tests and it can be treated with medications to help balance the thyroid.

The best athlete is the one who is informed!







Wine Is Good For Your Heart – If You Exercise

In the 1990s research began in earnest into the so-called French Paradox. This statistical riddle sought to understand why the French – whose diet is full of fats – have a remarkably low incidence of heart disease. While the entire idea is still largely controversial, the prevailing theory caught people’s attention and the concept stuck. After all, who wouldn’t be excited to hear that wine is good for your heart?

Still, research has no been totally unable to prove or explain the supposed protective role that wine consumption can have on heart health. Even though many “experts” have been touting wine as a protective measure in the decades since the theory first emerged, the hard science has been largely inconclusive.

In fact, some of the more exciting studies in to the subject were just plain flawed. For example, early buzz surrounded findings that resveratrol – a substance in red wine – was the key to its cardiac benefits. What many people didn’t know, however, is that the mice used in the study were given megadoses of the compound that were several thousand times larger than any human would ever get from drinking red wine. Additional studies also failed to support these preliminary reports.

But a statistical link between moderate wine consumption and heart health persisted. A recent study from the European Society of Cardiology seems to finally shed some light on this subject.


In Vino Veritas

The study (called In Vino Veritas) followed 146 people for a full year. All of the subjects in the study had a mild to moderate risk of cardiovascular disease and were assigned to drink either red or white wine for the course of the study. Just for the sake of continuity, all of the wine was from the same area and produced in the same year. The participants were told not to change their diets and asked to keep a log on their consumption of wine and other alcohols, as well as use of medicine and exercise.

At the end of the year, the subjects’ HDL and LDL levels were taken along with other markers for hardening of the arteries. Surprisingly, there was no change in HDL levels at the end of the study regardless what kind of wine they had been enjoying. A rise in HDL would have indicated better heart health. However, LDL levels had lowered slightly in both groups, which is a fairly good sign. Only the red wine group saw a decrease in total cholesterol, though.

Overall, then, wine consumption does not have as powerful an influence on cardiovascular health as we were all so ready to believe. There was an interesting subgroup, though, that did see improvements in HDL, LDL and total cholesterol: regular exercisers. This group experienced positive results despite what type of wine they had been assigned.

While the exact mechanisms that make wine and exercise work together in this regard are not yet fully understood, the take-away is still pretty clear. Wine does have some positive effects on the heart but only when you also exercise regularly. Just don’t do them at the same time.









Running in Alaska

race-day-720x288Two weeks ago I finished another marathon in Alaska, the last frontier of this country. Known for its vast wilderness and as a hunting-lover’s dream, I can attest  it also serves as a runner’s dream. With countless trails right next to busy streets and no severe humidity and extreme summer temperatures, I wholeheartedly promote signing up for a race in Alaska.

What you’ll experience:

Before my race, I was given instructions on how to deal with wildlife and what to do if I see a bear. Although this sounds dangerous, I never felt fearful. Plenty of other runners provided safety in numbers. But I loved that extra wildlife element normally not found in other city races.

During my race, I saw a moose and a bald eagle dip into the water and grab a fish. These special moments are rarely found in a standard city race. I love running memories like this.

Mosquitoes and other bugs populated the race and I even noticed a girl with mosquitoes covering the back of her head. This is an easy problem to solve with bug spray, but Off doesn’t work. It’s best to buy bug spray when you arrive in Alaska.

Whether the sun shines or remains hidden behind gray skies, you won’t deal with hot summer temperatures and it’ll feel refreshing to run without the summer heat as an added element.

I don’t like large expos where you park a mile away, deal with lines and scoot through a labyrinth to get out. You burn precious calories and waste energy dealing with the chaos. Because of the size of the Alaska races, you can move in and out quickly without it taking up your afternoon and waste money on parking, adding to the expense of the race itself.

I hope to return next year for another Alaskan race. Hope to see you at the starting line.


Simple Workouts – Stop Overthinking It

Personally, I tend to overthink just about everything; I like things to be meticulously planned and thoroughly organized. And, in the fitness world, I’m not alone in this. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts, regardless of their level of fitness, routinely spend hours researching, questioning and planning their workouts. This is especially true of strength training, where new techniques are always popping up and, frankly, complicating things. You would think that a pastime that famously involves picking things up and putting them down would have a limited potential for getting complex, but the approaches seem to be ever-increasing. Could it be, though, that we’re going overboard? Is it possible that, in our effort to constantly improve our workouts, we’ve missed the mark?


Experts Weigh In

For years now, compound exercises have been lauded as the simply solution to strength training. These large, multi-joint lifts (think squats and bench press) work several muscle groups at once and essentially make the best use of your time at the gym. Focusing on large muscle groups, like your legs and chest, has also been shown to improve your metabolism in the long-run by activating huge amounts of muscle fibers and making favorable changes to your hormone levels.

But that’s not good enough, apparently.

The major complaint that many people voiced regarding compound-based training was the lack of isolation lifts. Perhaps out of years of habit, many gym-goers felt guilty skipping the classic singe-muscle exercise like bicep curls. And so the idea of Pre-Exhaustion Training started gaining popularity. This theory states you should use an isolation exercise to “pre-exhaust” a stronger muscle group before involving it in a compound lift. Logically, this makes sense since every muscle used in a compound lift doesn’t share an equal amount of the load.

Does this technique hold up under scientific scrutiny, though? Nope. In a recent study, published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, researchers tested this approach in untrained individuals. At the end of the 12-week program, no extra benefits in strength or body composition resulted from pre-exhaustion training.


Making Application

So what, though? What does pre-exhaustion training have to do with overall workout complexity? Well, buried in their findings, the researchers also reported one interesting little fact. According to lead author James Fisher, “Our results suggest that exercise order and rest interval make no difference to chronic strength increases following 12 weeks of training, but rather should be chosen based on personal preference.”

That is the key: Personal Preference. Since no extra strength benefits were linked with specific exercise order or rest interval, you should design your workouts based on what you can and will actually do. Fisher went on to explain that significant gains in strength can be made from as little as two, 23-minute workouts per week with sufficient effort.

Again, it comes back to this simple fact: The most effective workout is the one that do. Ultimately, if you do them regularly, it doesn’t matter if you favor simple workouts over more complex options.








Breakfast for Runners

 Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you arise each morning, your body has starved for 9-12 hours–your glycogen and blood-glucose levels dropped and you need to replenish your body to revitalize it for the day. But for morning runners, what can you eat? You don’t want a large breakfast to cause gastrointestinal problems but you need some calories to get you through a workout.

I conducted some research to find out options. As we all know, what may work for some, may not work for another. But eating breakfast will prime your body for a good run, provided you choose wisely with a proper mix of good carbohydrates and protein. Here are a few to test out that do not overload you with calories:

Carbohydrate Lovers
Steel cut oats provide healthy carbs and make you feel fuller longer. You should test this out on a smaller run (i.e., less than three miles) to make sure your body can handle something as substantial as oats. Try adding berries to the top and a drizzle of honey for flavor. Also, the honey can provide a sugar spike to get you running longer–with the same effect as a gel.

Protein Fanatics
A small package of trail mix is easier on your stomach than heavy eggs and sausage or bacon. You can even make your own by adding in oats, nuts and a little chocolate if you can take sugar in the morning.

Sensitive Stomachs
A meal replacement drink would work best if you can’t handle heavy breakfasts before you run. My coaches always recommended the product Ensure, but others such as Slim Fast would work–depends on your taste preferences.

Sweet Tooths
If you like your muffins/pastries in the morning, try a protein bar in a sweeter flavor. You’ll get your sugar fix plus some added protein.





What Is The Truth About Triclosan?

In recent weeks, a previously unknown substance called triclosan has been dominating the headlines thanks to ever-growing assertions that the additive is remarkably dangerous. Even amid all that negative press, though, triclosan still has it’s defenders – including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the organization, “Triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans” and we do “not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time.” Still, people are worried and many other groups are pushing to the have the substance banned altogether. So, what is triclosan and should you ban it from your home?


It’s Everywhere… For No Reason

Simply put, triclosan is an antibacterial additive that has been tossed into an enormous and surprising array of consumer products. No only is it used in soaps, toothpastes and bodywashes but you can even find this chemical in cooking tools, children’s toys, footwear and furniture.

In all of its applications, the expressed purpose of triclosan is to stop the spread of bacteria. You may have even seen that your running shoes have been treated with Microban or Biofresh, codenames for triclosan.

And, while triclosan definitely is very effective at killing all those little bugs, it isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the FDA states that there is no added benefit in having triclosan included in soaps or bodywashes and that products that do contain the chemical aren’t any more effective than those that do not.


Why All The Worry?

If triclosan has been packed i to so many products that we use daily for almost 30 years now, why is everyone suddenly so concerned?

As it turns out, research has found that triclosan could bring with it some very serious side effects. Frighteningly, one of those studies was even redacted by the FDA and kept secret until just this year when a lawsuit dragged them into the light. The hidden findings linked triclosan with birth defects in rats and mice that the researchers later theorized were caused by disruptions to the animals’ hormone systems.

More recent studies have definitively shown that triclosan – even in low levels – does cause problems with the production of several hormones, including thyroid hormone, estrogen and testosterone. Because of this connection, some experts warn that there could be an increased risk of breast cancer when using triclosan.

As triclosan’s defenders have been quick to point out, though, these findings have yet to be replicated in humans. Still, if this stuff creates this sort of havoc in the bodies of mice, rats and frogs, we have to wonder what it’s doing to us.

Other studies have shown that triclosan can accumulate in your system after years of exposure, regardless of the source. This means that whether you ingest small amounts of the chemical from your toothpaste of rub it on your skin as lotion, it’s getting in to your blood stream.

If, after reviewing the information, you’d rather limit your exposure to triclosan, here is a list of common products that contain the chemical (courtesy of BeyondPesticides.com). Keep in mind that this list is not, by any means comprehensive. If you really want to get this stuff out of your life, start checking labels.

Soap: Dial® Liquid handsoap and bodywash; Tea Tree Therapy™ Liquid Soap; Clearasil® Daily Face Wash; Dermalogica® Skin Purifying Wipes; DermaKleen™ Antibacterial Lotion Soap; CVS Antibacterial Soap, Ajax Antibacterial Dishsoap, Ultra Concentrated Dawn Antibacterial Dishsoap, Kimcare Antibacterial Clear Soap, Bath and Body Works Antibacterial Hand Soaps, Gels and Foaming Sanitizers.

Dental Care: Colgate Total®; Breeze™ Daily Mouthwash; Reach® Antibacterial Toothbrush

Cosmetics: Garden Botanika® Powder Foundation; Mavala Lip Base; Movate® Skin Litening Cream HQ; Paul Mitchell Detangler Comb, Revlon ColorStay LipSHINE Lipcolor Plus Gloss, Babor Volume Mascara, Phytomer Perfect Visage Gentle Cleansing Milk, Phytomer Hydracontinue Instant Moisture Cream, Bath and Body Works Antibacterial Moisturizing Lotions.

Deodorant: Arm and Hammer® Essentials Natural Deodorant; Queen Helene® Tea Trea Oil Deodorant and Aloe Deodorant; DeCleor Deodorant Stick; Epoch® Deodorant with Citrisomes.

First Aid: SyDERMA® Skin Protectant plus First Aid Antiseptic; Healwell Plantar Fasciitis Night Splint; Solarcaine® First Aid Medicated Spray; Nexcare™ First Aid, Skin Crack Care; : Universal Cervical Collar with Microban.

Kitchenware: Farberware® Microban Cutting Boards; Franklin Machine Products FMP Ice Cream Scoop SZ 20 Microban; Hobart Semi-Automatic Slicer; Chix® Food Service Wipes with Microban; Compact Web Foot® Wet Mop Heads.

Other Personal Care Products: Murad Acne Complex® Kit, ®; Diabet-x™ Cream; Scunci Microban Comb, Sportslick Pocket Slick.

Clothes: Biofresh® socks, undergarments, tops and bottoms.

Office and School Products: Ticonderoga® Pencils with Microban Protection, Avery® Touchgaurd View Binders, C-line® products, Clauss® cutting instruments, Costco® products, Sharp® printing calculators. Westcott® scissors

Other: Bionare® Cool Mist Humidifier; Deciguard AB® Antimicrobial Ear Plugs; Bauer® Re-Akt hockey helmet and 7500 hockey helment; Miller Paint Acro Pure Interior Paint; Holmes Foot Buddy™ HMH120U Antimicrobial Foot Buddy Foot Warmer, Blue Mountain Wall Coverings, California Paints®, Davis Paint® Perfection, Hirschfield’s Paint®,O’Leary Paint®, EHC AMRail Escalator Handrails, Dupont™ Air Filters, Winix Dehumidifiers, J Cloth® towels, select Quickie cleaning products, Kimberly Clark® WYPALL X80 Towels, Canopy® kitchen towels, ALUF Plastics®, BioEars earplugs, Petmate® LeBistro feeders and waterers, Infantino cart covers and baby carriers, Oreck XL®, Bissell Healthy Home Vacuum™, NuTone® Central Vacuum systems, Rival® Seal-A-Meal® Vacuum Food Sealer, CleenFreek SportsHygiene Yoga Mat, Resilite Sports Products, Rubbermaid® Coolers, Stufitts sports gear, Venture Products® fitness mats, Custom Building Products, DAP®Kwik Seal Plus®, Laticrete, Niasa Biquichamp® mortar grout and sealant, ProAdvanced Products.









Do You Need Vitamin D?

Goodshoot 1We all know the importance of receiving a proper supply of essential vitamins and minerals. But do runners already get enough Vitamin D? Spending time outdoors in the sun will generate a good supply of Vitamin D, as the sun’s rays automatically provide it–and most runners soak in extra time outside, especially long-distance ones.

But the answer is yes.

According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, “Research suggests vitamin D’s active role in immune function, protein synthesis, muscle function, inflammatory response, cellular growth and regulation of skeletal muscle… It is apparent that the athlete is at an equal risk for vitamin D insufficiency.”  A lack of Vitamin D can cause muscle weakness and influence an athlete’s performance.

The summer months help, as there is prolonged daylight. But especially as shorter days approach, it is important to be cognizant of how much sunlight your body receives. Think of your body as a plant–you need sun to survive.

Who is at risk of a lack of Vitamin D?

If you spend your time running early in the morning, late at night or always indoors, you need to supplement your diet with Vitamin D (over-the-counter vitamins work well). As winter approaches, it is a good idea to make it a habit of taking Vitamin D already. Also, if you are darker skinned, your body will not absorb the sun’s rays as well.

How much is enough?

An ideal level of Vitamin D is greater than 50 ng/ml for optimal performance in runners. Be sure to stay above 40 ng/ml because if you dip below this level, your body will move all of your Vitamin D to metabolic needs.

See Your Doctor

Have your doctor test for your Vitamin D levels and also talk to him or her if you take any medications. They may play a part in how much Vitamin D your body is able to digest.

With the proper amounts, you’ll see a marked improvement in your running abilities.