The Facts on Fat-Free Foods

When searching for healthy foods, we generally gravitate towards low-fat or fat-free options. Without giving it much extra thought, we conclude that once we see those words on a container it must be the best choice. But the fact is to make a normal fatty food low- or no- fat, it has to go through quite the process. Sometimes, this involves adding substances you wouldn’t normally like to be eating or removing things that should be included in your diet. In other cases, these fat-free foods may actually be hampering your natural biological processes.


The Flavor and Fullness Problem

Here’s a culinary fact that’s been accepted in cultures across the globe for generations: Fat is delicious. And this idea was harshly supported during the so-called low-fat diet movement of the late 20th century, when manufacturers discovered that taking out all that fat made their foods unappetizing. The flavor wasn’t the only thing that was affected, though. The foods also weren’t as filling.

Several creative solutions have found their way into the supermarkets. The most popular option is simply to load the food up with sugar and salt. Because of this, fat-free options commonly have as many, it not more, calories than their traditional counterpart.

Consider peanut butter. The reduced-fat option contains a few less grams of fat but the same amount of those calories! This is because, in many cases, those grams of fat have been replaced by an equal amount of sugar.

Similar routes are sometimes taken, using different chemicals. The food industry has cleverly invented “fat replacers,” which can be any mixture of protein, carbs and chemically altered fats. While these substances haven’t been conclusively linked to any long-term side effects, they don’t seem great in the short-term. For example, Olestra is one of the more frequently used altered fats and has been shown to cause digestive upset. This strange substance also passes through your body undigested, therefore giving you none of the vitamins usually paired with fat. Because of this, people who have a lot of Olestra in their diet could experience deficiencies in vitamins A, D and E.

Occasionally, food companies turn to a more out-of-the-box solution. A prevalent, and odd, way to make food fat-free is to added cellulose which is more commonly known as wood pulp. This mixture of finally ground saw dust and water has no flavor but is full of enough fiber to act as a thickener in the place of fats. Plus, using it allows companies to not only advertise that their products of “low-fat,” they are also now “high-fiber!”


Other Considerations

But the issue with fat-free foods is a little more complicated than counting calories. Take, for instance, your salad. In that bowl of green is a ton of vitamins, all of which are vital to your health and well-being. Many of those vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning that they need to be ingested with some form of fat to be properly absorbed but your body. Fat-free dressing doesn’t give it the vehicle it needs and could leave you with a vitamin deficiency.

There’s also the fact, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, that not all fats are bad for you. In fact, the fats in peanut butter are some of the healthy type that your body needs. So, picking the reduced-fat option means that you’re denying yourself an important nutrient.

Instead of relying of fat-free foods, remember that body is added to your body when you eat too many calories. It doesn’t matter where those calories come from. Rather than trying to be totally fat-free pick healthy fats like those found in nuts, fish and olive oil.

Do you have any tips for balancing healthy fats in your diet? Please share them in the comments.




New York City Marathon

I tried for three years to win that special lottery for the New York City Marathon. I failed. From 2010-2012, I waited on the day of the announcement hoping to receive the email notifying me that I’m an official participant. I crossed my fingers, felt butterflies in my stomach and clicked refresh on my inbox page.


The first year, 2010, I just automatically assumed I would get in. Silly me. I had numerous friends get in on their first try, some even lived in New York City. I heard that those who lived in New York had a much harder time winning the lottery. But my friends got in. Naturally, I figured this would happen for me, too. I woke up that morning three years ago humming “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z. I was shocked–shocked–I didn’t get in. How could this happen? How could I be the only one of my friends that didn’t get in on my first try? I’m not someone with good luck, obviously.

In 2011, I thought for sure it’ll happen this year. How could I miss out on one year and again the next? My luck isn’t THAT bad. Apparently it is.

By 2012, I had my doubts. But I really wanted in. Every runner I knew had registered for the lottery and we said if we get in, we’ll all go together. They all got in except me and one other person. At least I had someone to commiserate with in my annoyance. But as Mother Nature would have it, the marathon was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy.

According to the New York City Marathon rules, if you don’t get in three years in a row, then you automatically get in for your fourth year. After the cancellation of the marathon last year, I figured it wouldn’t matter that it was my fourth time. All those people who couldn’t run last year would get in for 2013, thus rendering it impossible to make enough open slots for those who’d receive automatic entry.

I was wrong. I got in. It’s a very expensive race. I think my credit card hates me right now as I just registered, spending literally hundreds of dollars. It’ll hate me even more when I charge up a hotel room and flight. But I get to run through the burroughs of one of the greatest cities in the world.

Happy Running!

Can Core Training Help You?

With beach season rapidly approaching, most people are probably becoming very concerned with the appearance of their midsection, regardless of their sport. And so, at gyms all over the country, you will doubtlessly see an increase in the attendance at “core training” classes and possibly even a line developing around the abdominal machines.

Although it seems like this sort of focus on the condition of our abs is nothing new, the whole idea of core training has seen a new increase. But is it just vanity or can working your abs really serve a functional purpose?


What Is Core Training?

Before we discuss the real-world usefulness of core training, we should have a clear understanding of what it is. For some people, this phrase translates to countless crunches until they’re stuck in the fetal position. Many more, however, turn to the ever-growing number of books and fitness plans that all claims to hold the secret to sculpted abs.

True core training is much more than this, though. First, it’s important to understand that the “core” being trained isn’t just the abs but includes many muscles that sometimes get neglected. The “core” accounts for the hips, lower back and shoulders as well since all of these muscle groups contribute to stability and balance during movement. And that is the long-forgotten purpose of the abs: they hold us upright and support the body through just about every activity.


Can It Help Runners?

With that in mind, it makes sense to consider the possibility that core training could improve the performance of just about any athlete. Specifically, research has focused on the efficiency of core training for runners, with interesting results.

A 2009 study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research split 28 healthy adults into two groups: one followed a 6-week core training program, the other did not. Both groups were tested before and after the program for balance, speed and their body’s ability to absorb the impact of running. At the end, it was found that while balance and impact absorption didn’t improve with core training, running speed did.

While more research is needed, this study shows promise for core training. It is possible, however, that the increase in speed with due to a rise in cardiovascular efficiency cause by the workout. But that doesn’t mean you should skip your core training since, as mentioned, a good core routine means a lot more than just crunches.


Building Your Routine

Let’s consider the crunch and the structure of your abs. The primary muscle in this group is the rectus abdominis, which is responsible for the movement of our torso in several directions. Now imagine the classic crunch: You lay on your back and bring your ribs close to your pelvis.

This is not the natural function of the rectus abdominis. While it is true that the muscle can perform this movement, how useful is it? Do you bring your ribs to your pelvis when you walk? Since the abs are there to support upright movement, we need to focus on exercises that simulate that sort of activity.

Use planks and glute bridges to strengthen core stability since these exercise require balance and control. For a greater challenge which will give you more strength, and muscle tone, try wood chops, side bends and lunges followed by a twist.

A well designed core program could not only improve your athletic performance but could even help boost your quality of life.

Have you benefited from a decent core training routine? Please share your tips in the comments.



Running in the Heat

It’s that time of year–when the heat of summer descends upon us. Although it’s not even Memorial Day, where I live the mercury soars and even the mornings feel a little too warm for a good run. But the treadmill doesn’t work for me. I don’t like the feeling of running in place and glancing constantly at the time clicking by on the machine. How do I combat the heat? Here are five ways I cope:

1. I bring a cooler with ice to keep in my car. If I run somewhere away from home (i.e., I drive to the location of my run), I keep a couple of water bottles in a cooler. Although it may hurt to drink something very cold, after a few minutes, it is tepid drinking water. It also feels good to pour a little bit of the cold water over my head to cool myself off and keep my body temperature down.

2. I discovered visors. I cannot stand wearing hats when I run. It makes me very hot, even ones that are made with breathable fabric–kudos to those of you who do! Because of how difficult hats were for me, I had a running coach once recommend a visor–but I thought they were silly looking. I decided to try it and it’s been the best discovery. The heat dissipates from my head because it’s not covered and I get that shade from the brim, which is much more effective than sunglasses.

3. I look for new running routes with shade. In the city where I live, it is very open. I don’t live in a part of the country with woodsy areas where shade is plentiful. But I have learned to discover them. I run the perimeter of parking garages, downtown where the buildings hide the sun and in areas with tall apartment complexes. It’s not ideal, as I’d rather be out in nature. But you do what you need to do to not overheat.

4. I add in crosstraining. Because of my dislike of the dreadmill, I sometimes just cannot run in the summer. It just gets too hot and even dangerous to go outside. I risk heat stroke and dehydration. The summer is a great time for me to take Zumba classes, CrossFit and add in a spinning class here and there.

5. I also keep an extra wicking shirt in the cooler. Halfway through my run, I switch shirts. The new one is ice cold and hits my core, which is the most important part of your body to keep cool.

Happy running!

How Much is Too Much?

Athletes push themselves, both mentally and physically, during each training session and even more so during competition. But, regardless of your sport, you’ve probably encountered frustrating lulls in your progress. Maybe you were making rapid advancements before hitting a sudden plateau, where improvements just stopped. Or maybe you experienced an injury that took you out of your routine for an extended period of time.

Both of these irritating situations can be avoided and managed by monitoring both your workout frequency and intensity. The trick is to find a routine that is perfect for you: It must be challenging enough to force positive adaptations but realistic for your current fitness level.


Your Starting Point

This first step, while it seems simple, can be the most difficult. Over the course of six months, keep a journal of your workouts. For example, a runner would want to record distance, pace, details about terrain and maybe their heart rate. It’s also important that both immediately following, and the next day, you record any soreness you might experience.

Ultimately, you want to be able to look back on this record and see how specific aspects of your workout effect you. You should be especially interested in your total weekly mileage. Looking back on this log, you want to find a weekly mileage that left you feeling rested and injury-free. This will be your starting point, or baseline mileage.


Moving Up

But, if you just continue to train at your baseline, you won’t see much improvement. You have to gradually increase your mileage. To do this, tack on just one extra mile to your long run every two weeks. This will give your body a week to adapt to the new challenge, instead of risking injury by increasing your mileage too quickly.

Notice that I specified adding this mile to your long run. While your exact program design will vary, you should have one day each week where endurance is your focus. Keeping that confined to just one workout will give you plenty of time to rest between workouts.

This rest period is extremely important. After adequate rest, your body reaches a period referred to as supercompensation. During this phase, you’ll be able to perform well above your normal ability. For most people, this happens after about 6 days of rest. However, the exact amount of time you personally need to reach supercompensation may take some trial-and-error to find.


Mix It Up

Another important marker of a balanced program is variety. This isn’t just a matter of trying new things all the time to avoid boredom, though. You’re overall training pattern should cycle from below baseline, to baseline, above baseline and a gradual decrease back down. Ideally, you should time this cycle so that you peak right around your competition.

Have you found the balance in your workouts? Please share your tips in the comments.







A Tribute to Mother’s Day

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and I felt lucky to spend the day in the presence of my mother. I know not everyone receives such a special opportunity to spend the day with their mom. I didn’t last year and may not again; I didn’t take it for granted.

I decided to ask my mother to go with me for a run. My mother does NOT run. At all. She will walk and walk, but suggest adding a little pep to the step and she’s out. Naturally, she said no. Therefore, I headed off for a jog on my own and decided to dedicate each mile to something about my mother and running. For my four miles, these were my thoughts each step of the way:

Mile 1: Thanks mom for raising me in a home that valued athletics. My father played baseball and sports were always playing on the television. During family dinners we discussed the latest teams and trades. I didn’t gravitate to team sports–perhaps I am not a team player. I always felt like I let people down. Running fit my personality. I could run fast or slow and no one cared but me. I truly believe if my childhood didn’t consist of sports, my passion for running would cease to exist.

Mile 2: Thanks mom for my drive. My mother got married at the very young age of 19 and had me when she was just 21. She managed to raise three children and work outside the home–quite challenging considered my father traveled 3 to 4 days a week for his job. But she stayed very driven and focused. I like to think I inherited that with my running. I constantly set goals for myself in completing a certain amount of races and finishing marathons.

Mile 3: Thanks mom for my love of travel. My mother is naturally curious about the world and that trickled down to me. I now have run marathons all over the world: Peru, Australia, Iceland, Antarctica, South Africa…to name just a few. Running and traveling are my two greatest hobbies/passions. A number of my greatest memories were created on the marathon courses in an obscure country somewhere in the world.

Mile 4: Thanks mom for the blessing of gratitude. I learned never to take anything for granted. I always feel grateful for a body that holds up to pain and suffering, a body that can tolerate and bounce back quite rapidly after a long run. In my various running presentations I give, I always state how grateful I am for my ability to run because I know that on any day it can be taken away from me.

Happy belated Mother’s Day!

Understanding Fat

Fat, even more than carbs, is a terribly misunderstood nutrient. Often maligned by dieters and fitness “experts,” fat is generally labelled as something to avoid. But, confusingly, fat is still considered a vital nutrient by health authorities. So why do we need to eat fat? What role does it play in the human body? Specifically, how can runners benefit from the right amount of fat?

The Confusion
Part of the problem when it comes to discussing fat is that there’s a big difference between dietary fat, that marbles your steak, and bodily fat, which is more correctly called adipose tissue.

The bane of the exercisers existence, adipose tissue is created by the body to store excess calories. The interesting part is that your body doesn’t care whether these calories come from carbs, protein or fat; If you don’t immediately need the energy, then, it becomes adipose tissue for later use.

This confusion has led to many health-conscious individuals going on low-fat diets in an effort to cut back their bodily fat. A problem arises, however, when these same people continue to eat excess calories and thus gain weight anyway.

So when discussing fat, it’s important to understand that the fat you eat does not go immediately to your hips. In fact, along with carbohydrates, fat is a main source of energy for your body. As an athlete, the energy provided by fat can make all the difference in your performance levels during both training and competition.

But, this doesn’t give you license to chow down on bacon during your training season. Not all fats are created equal, though, so it’s vital that you understand which fats to avoid and which can actually improve your health.

The Line-Up

Unfortunately for all the carnivores out there, the so-called unhealthy fats are generally found in meats. These are called saturated fats and have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Another unhealthy fat, trans fat, is also found in some meats but is generally artificially produced by partially hydrogenating the otherwise healthy unsaturated fats. Both saturated and trans fats a usually solid at room temperature and include such delicious things as shortening and butter.

The healthy fats, as mentioned above, are those of the unsaturated variety. Further divided into mono- and poly-unsaturated forms, these fats have actually been shown to lowers cholesterol, decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes and even help improve body composition. These healthy fats are found in fish, nuts, avocado, olive oil and many vegetable oils.

Fatty Fuels

Throughout the day, your body burns a mixture of carbs and fat for fuel. The exact ratio, though, is adjusted based on the availability of fuel, as well as the length and duration of your activity.

During short, intense burst of activity, carbs are the primary fuel. But, since your body can only store limited amounts, your reserves will run out relatively quickly. Fat, however, is the backup fuel once carbs are no longer an option. A diet rich in healthy fats could, therefore, help to improve your performance during endurance events.

A series of studies conducted in South Africa experimented with this theory and found that a high-fat diet greatly increased the endurance of cyclists. Surprisingly, the subjects were able to perform the task for twice as long after eating a high-fat diet.

The Balance

While these findings may seem to suggest that you should load up on fat before your next race, it is much more complicated than that. A high-fat diet can interfere with the necessary role that carbohydrates play in your body, decreasing your performance at high intensities. The key is to eat a balanced diet, consisting of about 20% healthy fats. Under the direction of an experienced trainer, you may wish you experiment with some fat-loading before an event but this should be done with caution.

Have you tried fat-loading for a race? Please share your experience in the comments.




Do You Really Need to Go Organic?

Organic food is rapidly becoming more and more popular. Some even go as far as to the hail it as the solution to a huge variety of medical problems and the key to better health. With the rise of processed foods and genetically modified organisms, as well as a host of other unfamiliar substances finding their way onto our plates, it’s no wonder people are concerned though. Add to this the fear that pollution from industrial farms is contributing to climate change and the case for going organic seems even stronger.

But are organic foods worth it? Just because they carry the official USDA stamp labeling them as organic, should you really expend the extra time, effort and money involved in getting organic foods? Do organic foods contain any more nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts?

What the Label Really Means

The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for declaring a food as “organic,” and bases this decision on a number of factors.

Any animal products, like meat, eggs and dairy, have to come from animals that are completely free from all hormones and antibiotics. These animals must also have been fed a steady diet of all organic foods.

Any produce trying to gain the organic label has to have been grown without the use of conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The fertilizers must also be completely free of sewage sludge.

Organic crops also cannot be bio-engineered or irradiated.

Does It Actually Change Anything?

We all prefer the idea of our corn not being a genetic mutant grown in a field of sewage sludge and drenched in pesticides, but do these things really affect us?

In the hopes of answering that very question, in 2010 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed all the research and came up with an answer: We don’t know. Frustratingly, there just wasn’t enough evidence on either side of the argument to come up with a definite conclusion. And this includes whether or not there is any long-term harm from the exposure to chemicals involved in conventional farming or if the nutrition of the food is reduced.

But, for you, that may not be enough reason to give up your organic crusade. Many people may just never get used to the idea that every apple brings with it a cloud of chemicals. For those people, the Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of the most pesticide ridden food. These “dirty” foods should probably be bought organic.

On the positive side, though, there is also a group of foods that are safe to buy regardless of whether or not they bear the organic label.

Both full lists can be found here.

Taking the broad view, however, may affect your view of organic foods even further. The USDA notes that conventional farming techniques release potentially harmful chemicals into the environment and don’t properly use renewable resources.

Several chemicals used in conventional farming have also been linked to cancer and birth defects, as well.

The argument over organic food is a cloudy and frustrating issue but, in the end, the decision is yours. You may be able to get the benefits of organic foods by supporting your local farmers’ market. Or you might consider growing your own garden as a way to stay active and control your food supply.

Have you gone organic? Please share your thoughts in the comments.