Rethinking U.S. Dietary Guidelines

For a while now, many different organizations and independent health experts have been pushing for a shift in the U.S. dietary guidelines. And for good reason: Obesity and all of it’s associated conditions – including heart disease and diabetes – are still steadily increasing despite all sorts of health initiatives. In fact, according to the CDC, obesity rates in American doubled for adults and tripled for children between 1980 and 2008. Those dates are particularly fascinating because it was during the 1980s that we really saw a push to adopt a low fat dietary approach. Obviously, something needs to change.

Beyond statistical evidence, though, there is an ever-growing collection of scientific information that runs counter to everything we thought we knew about nutrition. One particularly fascinating editorial, published in 2014 in the journal Open Heart focused it’s attention on the 1977 dietary guidelines. It was in that year that Americans were told to decrease their intake of saturated fats and cholesterol while increasing their daily allotment of carbohydrates. The author, Dr James DiNicolantonio, points out that those initial recommendations were based on the incredibly flawed findings of the Seven Countries Study – the authors of which had access to information from 22 countries but chose to only use the data from seven. Later review of the complete information contradicted the recommendations, but was largely ignored since the damage had been done.

The current evidence actually suggests exactly the opposite: That saturated fat does not increase your risk of heart disease but refined carbohydrates do.

Building on this idea, DiNicolantonio worked with a team of researchers to publish a study in a more recent edition of Open Heart that looked more carefully at the historical research that took place before the low-fat craze really got started.



Looking Back

To further build the case against the above-mentioned dietary guidelines, the team went back and performed a meta-analysis of six studies including information from 2467 adult men. The studies used were all took place before 1983 and focused on the relationship between dietary saturated fat, cholesterol and the development of heart disease.

In all of the studies, a reduced-fat diet was not shown to reduce mortality rates any more than the control groups. Basically, decreasing saturated fat intake did very little for the health of the subjects in these studies.

And yet, the recommendations were made anyway.

The team concluded that the available research leading up to the release of the dietary guidelines “did not support the introduction of dietary fat recommendations in order to reduce” the risk of heart disease. They even went so far as to say “Dietary advice not merely needs review; it should not have been introduced.”


A Word of Caution

So, as we learn more and more it seems like the dietary guidelines we were all raised with are not only wrong but potentially dangerous. It should be plainly stated, though, that that does not mean that saturated fat is not without it’s dangers.

First, obesity and heart disease are complex conditions and should not even be blamed on one factor. The increased knowledge of epigentics have even lead some experts to suggest that the culture of the 1950s – which included plenty of tobacco and alcohol, while encouraging women to gain very little weight during pregnancy – may still be effecting our genetic expression.

Second, dietary fat is very calorie-dense. While it may not be as bad for your heart as we once thought, in excess it is most certainly not great for your waistline if its leading you into caloric excess.






Beet Juice: How does it work?

We’ve written in the past about some of the exciting studies surrounding a pretty unexciting product: beet juice. Several sources have found that a shot of the nitrate-reach beet juice could possible improve endurance and power in athletes when taken a few hours before a workout. And, thrilled by the idea of a legal, non-stimulant, completely healthy performance enhancer, many athletes from various sports have stocked up on beet juice shots.

Beyond athletes, though, some patients with high blood pressure have started asking their doctors if they should start taking beet juice as well. All of this hype is based on the theory that beet juice works by expanding your blood vessels, thereby decreasing blood pressure and increasing the amount of nutrients that can reach your muscles – fueling them for more activity.

A new study from Penn State University, though, questions this theory.


Not What We Thought

First off, let’s be clear: This study was not designed to test the performance-enhancing benefits that have been reported from beet juice. Instead, the researchers were trying to investigate the exact mechanism that causes those benefits. As mentioned above, it was previously thought that the high concentration of nitrates in beets led to an increase in nitric oxide – a vasodilating gas that has become a popular preworkout supplement over the past few years.

In this study, however, the team measured the amount of blood that flowed through the brachial artery in the forearms of their subjects during grip exercises. Surprisingly, there was no change in the the width of the artery when the subjects were given beet juice.

The researchers were careful to note, though, that this lack of dilation was not caused by a lack of absorption. Basically, this means that the nitrates in beet juice do get absorbed and do get converted into nitric oxide. But, for whatever reason, it does not result in the vasodilation that everyone expected.

Interestingly, the beet juice did result in a beneficial softening of the arteries which can result the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The researchers did note that the results of this study were limited by the test group. The subjects use here were young and healthy, with very healthy cardiovascular systems. This shows that beet juice likely does not act as a vasodilator in athletes. However, the study did not look at older individuals, or those with per-existing cardiovascular conditions, so more research is necessary to see if the juice could be useful in a clinical setting.

Also, the exercise intensities used in the study were limited. It is possible that higher intensity activities would have gotten different results.


In Application

So this study does not necessarily debunk the use of beet juice as a performance enhancer but it does show that the juice probably does not work the way everyone thinks. Remember, the study did not even look at athletic performance.

If you have taken beet juice in the past and benefited from it, you aren’t doing yourself any harm. The juice is a rich source of micronutrients that can surely improve various facets of your health.







More Fuel is the Key to Racing?

Dublin Marathon 2012I found this study fascinating. I’m always trying to figure out the proper balance of nutrition during a marathon–how much is too much? Sometimes I find myself hungry during a race and have obviously let my tank get too empty, but I worry I will take in to much and cause stomach problems. But that may not be the case…Now it looks like I need to fuel more.

A new study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise shows aggressive fueling may be the key to optimal performance. Researchers recruited runners training for the 2013 Copenhagen Marathon and told them to finish a 10K time trial about seven weeks before the race. Runners were grouped into pairs based on speed. From each pair, one runner used the fueling strategy developed by the researchers, while the other was told to fuel however he or she wanted. All runners completed a half marathon five weeks before race day and so everyone could practice their particular fueling strategy.

Next came marathon day and the results were surprising:

In the 2013 Copenhagen Marathon, the 28 runners who were using the fueling plan ran an average of 4.7 percent faster than the 28 who didn’t. No one reported gastrointestinal issues–which to me, is the most curious result of all. You’d think the opposite would be true, but I was pleased to discover that’s not the case.

Each runner on the scientists’ fueling plan took in about 25 ounces of H20 and three High5 EnergyGel Plus gels  per hour. Each of these gels contains 30 milligrams of caffeine, a known performance enhancer.

High5 EnergyGel is not available in the U.S., so to replicate the study, look for a gel that contains caffeine and more than one type of sugar (glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, etc.) If you are not a caffeinated beverage drinker, this much caffeine may have poor results and give you the shakes. Try to ease into it.


Caffeine for the Athlete

In several past posts, we’ve discussed the use of caffeine when it comes to athletic performance. For the most part, though, we’ve only looked at general information. Thanks to some newer research that has emerged since those posts were typed, we can now get a little specific. Primarily, we want to look at appropriate dosages of caffeine for and how you can properly manage your caffeine intake for optimum results – and limited side effects.


The Goldilocks Effect

Let’s just get this out there: Caffeine is a drug. As with most drugs, your body will eventually form both a tolerance to – and dependance on – caffeine. Thanks to the dependance, you will crave caffeine and experience withdrawal symptoms when you go without it. But your brain’s ability to form a tolerance means that you will consistently need more and more caffeine to feel the same effects.

For many people, this is knowledge enough to make them totally cut caffeine out of their lives. But the truth is that numerous studies have proven that caffeine can be incredible useful to athletes competing in an number of sports. The stimulant has been shown to improve power output, endurance, mental focus, reaction time and the metabolism of fats. The trick, then, is to find a maintenance dose of caffeine that will allow you to enjoy the benefits without developing a tolerance and dependance.

Since caffeine effects people differently, depending on a variety of factors, it’s difficult to come up with an exact dosage. According to many experts, though, dependance is unlikely to occur when your daily dose hovers around 100mg of caffeine every day – equivalent to about one 8oz cup of coffee. Again, though, this may not be true for everyone and some studies have observed withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing even this small dose. It may take some experimenting to find the sweet spot for you – the lowest possible daily dose of caffeine that allows you to feel the benefits without being totally hooked.


The Hardcore Taper

If you’re really willing to dive in and make some serious sacrifices to get your coffee habit under control while discovering your optimum maintenance dose, you might think about a two-week taper. To start, pick a two week period that seems like it will be relatively low in stress and estimate your normal caffeine intake – including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and anything else you can think of that contains even small amounts of caffeine.

Each day, gradually decrease the amount of caffeine until you’re down to just 100mg. Maintain this for a few days and then – when you’re ready – cut out all caffeine for three days. You will probably experience headaches and other withdrawal symptoms. After a few days, though, these will fade and you will totally free of your caffeine habit. At this point, you can resume 100mg or less of caffeine every day and you should be able to exercise more control over your habit.


For the Athlete

So far, though, we’ve only covered daily use. Once you find your lowest possible baseline dose, you can start to use caffeine as a performance enhancing supplement. In most studies, the optimum dose is calculated as being ~3-6mg of caffeine for each kg of body weight. Which means you’ll have to do some math. Sorry.

If you’ve found your ideal daily dose and it’s relatively low, you should be able to make due with just 3mg/kg. To keep yourself from developing a tolerance while using caffeine in this way, only boost your dose on training days and only when you feel like you need it. Some days you may be feeling great and not need any help, other days may be different.

Strictly speaking, coffee is not the best source of caffeine. The exact amount of caffeine found in the coffee will depend on a huge number of factors, including brewing method, filter type and the quality of bean. If you really want to be precise, you might consider a caffeine pill or powder that has a specific dosage.





Study Confirms: Fast Food Is Unhealthy

To be honest, you likely already knew that your favorite fast food haunt wasn’t doing you any dietary favors. It’s no secret that we should all be limiting our frequency at these establishments if we want to keep our weight down and our bodies functioning properly.

But, after a wave of negative press during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many fast food chains seemingly made an effort to improve their image. During that time, a series of documentaries and investigative news features exposed the unsavory – and often unethical – nutritional practices of these establishments, leading to a huge dip in popularity.

The situation didn’t improve for them when governmental agencies began to move against the use of trans fats in fast foods. This particularly unhealthful form of fat was in just about every item on many restaurants menus and a highly publicized overhaul quickly began.

Then, of course, there was a barrage of criticism over the often ridiculous portion sizes offered – some would even say “encouraged” – by these chains. In response, McDonald’s even dropped their trademark Supersize option in 2004 – although, the chain claimed it was only done in an effort to simplify the menu.

So, with their newer, healthier images fast food chains are still a major part of the American diet. The question arises, then, are they actually any better for us after these changes?


The Startling Numbers

In two reports, researchers at Tufts University compared the portion sizes and nutritional make up of three large fast food chains between 1996 and 2013. Specifically, the team looked at the composition of fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and regular colas.

Despite all of their efforts to make it seem otherwise, the data is clear: Fast food chains have done little to improve their menus. The one notable exception was the sharp decline in the use of trans fats – but only in fries. For the most part, this was directly related to legislative action taken between 2005 and 2009. Trans fats are still alive and well in many other options, though, including burgers and milkshakes.

Even when trans fats did slowly make an exit, however, the food as a whole didn’t really improve all that much. The total calories and sodium content remained remarkably high. Depending on the restaurant, a single cheeseburger could supply you with as much as 63 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake. Add fries to that and you’re up to 91 percent of your allowed sodium for the day.

Of course, it’s not completely surprising that fast food is still unhealthy. What is off-putting, though, is how little things have changed and just how unhealthy these restaurants still are. In fact, some chains even feature menu items that cram about 1000 calories into one single sandwich. For the average person, that’s about half the daily allotment. In one sandwich. Drinks are still woefully large, too, and a single beverage intended for one person could contain as much as 800 calories. A complete fast food meal, then, with burger, fries and a drink could run as much as 1750 calories. That means that that one meal could account for about 88 percent of a 2000 calorie per day diet.

Again, this isn’t really news. But the point is that, despite their well-designed marketing campaigns that try to argue otherwise, fast food restaurants have not really changed their menus.





Apple Cider Vinegar

appleAlthough no expert in food trends, I spot apple cider vinegar mentions popping up in magazines, websites and in e-newsletters delivered to my inbox. I think it may be the newest health craze…and for good reason.

In a recent study conducted in Japan, 175 obese individuals took either vinegar or water for 12 weeks every day. At the end of the study, those who used vinegar had lost weight. On average, the vinegar group lost one to two pounds throughout the three months.

Apple cider vinegar has also been known to help with diabetes and blood sugar control. In fact, ingesting vinegar helps block some of the digestion of starch, keeping blood sugar lowered.

But don’t drink it straight from the bottle. Dilute one to two tablespoons into a glass of water and slowly sip with meals. It’ll help with digestion and possibly constipation.

Keep healthy in 2015 with this recipe!

Dr. Breckin Harris, PLLC, says, “This recipe cuts through a cold and flu in a fraction of the time. It’s antimicrobial effects obliterate bacterial and viral infections- as well as serves as minor detox, blood cleansing, acne clearing, skin glowing, atherosclerotic reducing, metabolism jump starting and weight loss, stamina improving, and energy increasing drink.”

1. Mince 1/2 cup garlic and 1/2 cup ginger
2. Boil garlic and ginger in 2 cups apple cider vinegar for 4 minutes.
3. Add 3 to 4 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of honey to the pot.
4. Cool and drink. Make sure to drink (eat) the garlic and ginger- very IMPORTANT! Add more honey or water if desired. Tho, you want it nice and tangy.
5. Drink 1 cup twice daily- or more if you can handle it.

Not to be used if on blood thinning meds (i.e., Warfarin/Coumadin). Not be used if you have a recent TIA, stroke, or heart attack or are on potassium sparing drugs (i.e., spironolactone). Use sparingly if nursing or pregnant (not to exceed one cup daily).


Tips to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

Well, here we go again. New Year’s. The topic of resolutions is flooding websites, talk shows and magazines right now, with everyone discussing what they want to change and how they’re going to do it. But, as you’ve doubtlessly read in myriad pessimistic articles, the vast majority of resolutions fail. In fact, the official statistics claim that only 8 percent of people actually follow through on their resolutions. And, since most resolutions have to do with health and fitness, this is of particular interest to us. What follows, then, are some basic tips you can use to keep your New Year’s Resolution.

1. Set Good Goals –

The primary downfall of resolutions is that are simply not well-planned goals. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the American Council on Exercise likes the S.M.A.R.T acronym for proper goal design. This means that good goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

So, simply saying “I’m going to lose weight,” doesn’t pass the test. While it is absolutely measurable and attainable, none of the other criteria is satisfied. A much better goal would be “I’m going to lose 5 pounds in a month.” This meets all the requirements to be a SMART goal.

2. Get Quality Advice –

The is an incredible amount of just plain bad advice available to you. It’s everywhere. For example, last week we covered a recent study that exposed the startling amount of false information being spread by means of popular and trusted medical TV talk shows. Often, it’s well-meant. But, perhaps just as often, it’s intended to sell you something. Either way, it’s important to be picky when deciding who to listen to. Not only could following faulty advice impede your progress, it could even serious harm to your health.

If you decide to work with a trainer, don’t be afraid to ask about their credentials since it’s very common for people to work as personal trainers with no education or certification in the field. When it comes to diet advice, though, even more caution is necessary. Everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a “healthy” diet and what works for them may not work for you. For accurate personalized dietary advice, seek out a registered dietician.

Whether its a trainer or a dietician, having a trained professional on your side can be a huge motivation for you to stick to keep your New Year’s Resolution – especially if you’re paying them.


3. Think Long-Term –

Another issue, closely related to the SMART requirements discussed earlier, is that many New Year’s Resolutions are last minute, emotional decisions. There’s no planning behind them, nothing to support them and no real, lasting neurological connection to them. And, while that last bit might sound a little ridiculous, consider this: Healthy eating and exercise are habits. Behind the scenes, habits are nothing but reinforced thinking patterns that form new neural pathways. After about 18 to 21 days of repeating a behavior, these new patterns become hardwired into your brain and form habits.

Keeping your resolution, then, is a matter of sticking to it for close to a month and retraining the way that your brain functions. This requires discipline and planning.





How Accurate Are Medical Talk Shows?

It’s pretty common that I get asked various health and fitness questions – and this is likely true of most fitness professionals – that begin with the words “Doctor Oz says…” or “I saw on the Doctors…” And, most of the time, this puts me in an awkward situation because I usually disagree with the advice being dispensed on medical talk shows. But, since I don’t regularly watch those shows and definitely don’t research each and every claim they make, I’m not exactly fair or unbiased.

A new review published in the British Medical Journal, however, took the time to do exactly that. For the article, a team of researchers randomly selected 40 episodes of The Dr Oz Show and 40 episodes of The Doctors. Every recommendation from each episode was then isolated. Of the resulting pool of recommendations, 80 were then randomly selected from each show. The team then went to work evaluating the research on each of those 160 recommendations to conclude whether the science supported the claims, contradicted them or was simply non-existent.


The Results

Taken as one large sample, the talk shows did not stand up well under scientific scrutiny. Of all 160 recommendations made on the two shows combined, only 54 percent of those claims actually had science to support them. But the paper also looked at each show individually.

For The Dr Oz Show, the evidence supported about 46 percent of his recommendations, contradicted 15 percent and simply did not exist for the final 39 percent. The paper also reports that Dr. Oz makes about 12 recommendations per episode on average. Lower quality evidence, termed either “believable or somewhat believable,” was found for 33 percent of the claims made by Dr. Oz.

The Doctors had slightly better results – but it was a very small advantage. A total of 63 percent of their recommendations had solid scientific backing, 14 percent were opposed by the research and the remaining 24 percent had no related studies to be found. However, 53 percent of the Doctors’ recommendations could be tied to believable or somewhat believable evidence.

It’s also worth noting that any potential conflicts of interest were disclosed only .4 percent of the time, between both shows.


 The Take-Away

Clearly, then, medical talk shows don’t seem to fair well when placed under scientific analysis. Although a 15 percent error rate might not seem like much, think about it this way: That equates to 12 incorrect recommendations made in every 80 – the sample size. On average, Doctor Oz makes 12 recommendations each episode. This means that, statistically speaking, one entire episode of The Doctor Oz Show could be incorrect.

The numbers work out about the same for The Doctors, as well.

Of course, there’s still the fact that over half of the information provided on these two medical talk shows is correct; It’s not all bad. But the paper rightly concludes by saying, “The public should be skeptical about recommendations made on medical talk shows.”

Instead of taking the recommendations presented on medical talk shows as absolute truth, then, allow it to be your starting point. If you hear something that piques your interest, do your own research.






Shortness of Breath After A Workout

Vitamin C has been a star player on the natural remedy scene for a long time now. The humble vitamin, found in many otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables, has been touted to cure just about everything from cancer to nail-biting. Unfortunately, many of these claims just don’t hold up under the lens of scientific study.

A recent review of the available research, however, suggests that vitamin C might just be the answer to a frustratingly common problem among athletes and casual exercisers alike: Shortness of breath.

Post-exercise Shortness of Breath

Specifically, what the researchers were looking at is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). As the name suggests, this refers to the cluster of respiratory problems that happen after strenuous exercise and are caused by a narrowing of the airways. Typically, this manifests itself as a cough, sore throat and – of course – difficulty taking deep breaths.

Most commonly, EIB is an issue for asthmatics but many endurance athletes struggle with it as well – regardless of whether or not they have asthma.

For the purposes of the review in question, nine randomized trials were analyzed and all of them had positive results. Looked at together, the studies found that vitamin C supplementation – in fairly small doses that we’ll discuss later – halved the duration and frequency of EIB in both trained and untrained individuals.

Obviously, these findings are pretty encouraging for those of us who deal with asthma or other respiratory problems associated with exercise.


Putting It Into Practice

So, if you fall into the group of people who deal with EIB, should you start taking vitamin C. And how much?

Much more research is needed before the experts out there can really pin down any dosage recommendations. That being said, the positive results cited above were all found with doses ranging from .5 to 2g daily. Unfortunately, I could not find any information regarding the timing of the dose – whether the vitamin must be taken within a certain time-frame of the workout or can be taken at any point during the day.

It’s also true that you could be suffering with respiratory problems not associated with EIB. If that’s the case, you may see no relief at all from vitamin C supplementation. Here’s the good news, though: Vitamin C is cheap and has a fairly short list of risks associated with it. Especially when compared to other supplements. Because of that, you may want to experiment to see if a little extra vitamin C could help you deal with shortness of breath after a workout.





Retrain Your Brain With Healthy Foods

It’s often been said that exercise is only a small part of the fitness equation – about 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent of your fitness progress is influenced by your diet. And, while there’s no way to really prove these numbers, experience has shown that this is roughly the way things go. Regardless of how hard your workout, it’s frustratingly easy to undo all of that good with a junk food binge.

But the sad fact is that many people simply do not enjoy healthy foods. Research into how the brain reacts to foods has shown us not only how we’ve gotten into this mess, but also how to get out of it.


Misused Reward System

To put it simply, your brain has a way of training you to repeat positive behaviors – those that it perceives as being key to your survival. To do this, your brain floods itself with dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals.

This is a major oversimplification of your body’s Reward System. Under normal circumstances, the whole process is a fantastic way of keeping you happy and healthy, since you will naturally seek out behaviors that previously earned you a reward. The problem is that modern processed foods as designed to give you a massive spike of reward hormones – much bigger than you would normally get from any food found in nature.

And this creates food addictions.

Just like most other chemicals, your body will eventually develop a tolerance to these endorphines after constantly being exposed to unusually high amounts. As a result, you begin to crave more and more junk foods to get the same high. And I’m not being overly dramatic by calling it a “high.” Multiple studies have shown that the process by which we develop addictions to and cravings for food is identical to the brain chemistry of a drug addict.

In fact, a steady diet of these foods can change your thoughts and behaviors in a way that is typical of any addict.

So there’s the problem. But – while you might not have realized the extent of the damage – you likely already knew you had to ditch the junk food. As we’ve seen, though, that is extremely difficult. It is, after all, a legitimate addiction.


Breaking The Cycle

For a long time, researchers where not sure if people could ever be fully free of these cravings once the neural pathways were established. The thought was that, even if eating habits changed, it would be a struggle for the rest of the addicts life.

To get a definitive answer, a team at Tufts University recruited 13 overweight or obese men and women for a new study on the reward system. Eight of the participants were enrolled in a weight loss program, which included a dietary overhaul while the other five remained the control group. At the beginning and end of the 6-month study, both groups received MRIs to monitor the reward centers of their brains.

Interestingly, the weight loss group showed a complete change in the reward pathways of their brains. Not only did these individuals now receive a greater feeling of reward when they ate healthy foods, they had a significantly reduced reaction to junk food.

Even though the cravings associated with years of poor dieting are powerful, and exert a surprising influence on the brain, this study give us hope that we can retrain out brains to actually prefer healthy foods.