Category: Healthy

Arm Yourself With Information

As a trainer and health coach, I’m always surprised at the prevalence of certain fitness myths. While some erroneous beliefs are rooted in old science that has simply been improved upon, others have been dead wrong from the start.

Take the belly fat myth, for example – the belief that the best (or only) way to lose belly fat is by doing sit-ups or other abdominal exercises. In fact, there could be nothing further from the truth. Abdominal exercises, like all strength training, can build or tone muscle, but they will do nothing at all to shed the fat necessary to glimpse those toned muscles. For that, you’re much better off focusing on exercises that burn a lot of calories, like running, kettle bell training, or Tabata classes. Even more effective is cutting calories through diet. Saying no to that second glass of wine, or skipping dessert is the calorie equivalent of all the crunches or planks you might do in a whole week.

Still, the belly fat myth and others persist, and they do so to our detriment. Believing certain “false positive” myths can cause you to waste your time doing things that don’t yield results. That leads to frustration and the false belief that exercise is pointless. There are other types of myths – the “false negatives” – that warn you away from activities that are actually beneficial. These myths are just as harmful as the false positives.

Fitness myths are a little bit like stereotypes – they exist because people apply broad assumptions to something based on limited occurrences. You’ve tried losing belly fat by doing hours of ab exercises, which haven’t worked, and so you assume that exercise won’t help. Or, you know a friend who started running in her late 40s and a few months later, she developed serious knee pain. Or, your sister wanted to get in shape, so she joined a local CrossFit gym, and promptly hurt her shoulder. These kinds of experiences help perpetuate our most popular fitness myths, but if we drill down and look at the real causes, we see a common theme: It’s not that exercise is ineffective or dangerous, it’s that we’re doing it wrong. You didn’t realize that you should have been focusing on diet and cardio to lose your belly fat; your neighbor didn’t know that she was running too many miles too soon in her training program; your sister failed to tell her CrossFit coach about that shoulder injury she sustained in college that still gives her trouble from time to time today.

Your best defense against wasted hours in the gym, frustration and injury is good, solid information. And when it comes to exercise, your best source of information is an experienced fitness professional. Read my NextAvenue article for tips on how to find the right trainer for you. Then head to the gym, and check your fitness misconceptions at the door.

Get The Most Out of Summer

Now that summer is here, the days are incredibly long where I live (it was light out at 4:40 a.m. here this morning, and it will stay light until well after 9:00 p.m.). It’s true that I get less sleep in the summer, but all of that daylight energizes me and makes me want to get the most out of every sun-filled minute. To help me do that, I try to stick to a few habits in the summertime. I thought I’d share those habits with you today.

Rise and Rest With the Sun
Admittedly, this can be tough to do for the first few days, but when I do align my sleep cycle with the sun, I feel amazing! The best part – getting all of my work for the day done before noon.

Eat Seasonal Treats
To me, nothing symbolizes summer more than roaming the aisles at my local farmer’s market, filling a couple of canvas bags with whatever looks irresistible, and then planning a week’s-worth of healthy meals using those fresh, local finds. Well, except maybe biking to my local ice cream shop and ordering a hand-scooped vegan cone. These are the things I’ll dream about longingly come February.

Enjoy Summer Sippers
In the summertime, I like to turn hydration into a creative experiment. My go-to favorite is the fruit or citrus spritzer: squeeze 1/4 of a citrus fruit or muddle a few fresh berries in the bottom of a tall glass, add ice, fill with bubbly water, stir and enjoy. If you’re so inclined, you can make this into a light cocktail by adding half an ounce of any clear liquor, but it tastes so good on its own, you won’t miss the extra calories if you leave that part out.

Make Errands an Adventure
All summer long, I like to take every opportunity to get outside. This means that I hardly drive anywhere, opting to walk or bike instead if at all possible. I invested in a simple rack and a couple of nice panniers (saddle bags) for my bike a few years ago, and they allow me to use pedal power rather than petrol for just about anything I need to do.

Take Your Workouts to the Park
My gym membership doesn’t get as much use during the summer because I try to exercise outdoors at least three or four days per week. Jogging, hiking, cycling and bodyweight exercises in the park are my go-to workouts from May to October. At least once a week, I try to get out of the city and immerse myself in nature, which is as beneficial for my mental health as it is for my body.

What summertime rituals do you have? Share them with the WCL community on our Facebook page.


What We Can Learn From Dogs


This is the republication of a blogpost I put up here in March of 2014, titled “Fit After 50.” Yesterday, we said goodbye to Zeb, but the words I wrote more than two years ago are still true today, so I thought I’d share them with you again. Peace, Zeb.

This is my dog, Zeb. He’s 105 in dog years. He still gets up every morning looking forward to the day, cheerily tackling whatever life throws at him. I like to credit his healthy diet and a reasonable amount of exercise with his longevity and his great quality of life. I often find myself admiring him, hoping I’ll be in half as good a shape as he is when I’m 105. I think we can all learn a thing or two from him, so here are the big lessons from Zeb, as I see them.

1. Do What You Can Until You Can’t Anymore – A lot of people slow down as they age. They move less, sit more. “I’m takin’ it easy,” they might say. But all that lack of movement actually results in a life that is harder. Inactivity leads to weight gain, muscle loss and, most markedly, a loss of function. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, there is no known association between hormonal changes and weight gain in older adults. So if you’ve been blaming a drop in your estrogen or testosterone levels for your expanding waistline, I hate to tell you, but it’s just not true. We gain weight as we age because we become less active. Not only do we exercise less, or less vigorously, but we’re just not as busy running after the kids or otherwise expending the energy it takes to maintain a full household. We think, “Hey, these are my golden years. I’m takin’ it easy.” Zeb says that’s a bunch of bunk – you’ll have plenty of time to take it easy when you’re dead.

2. Quit Worrying About Stuff – I asked Zeb what time it was the other day and he said, “What are you talking about? It’s now.” Then I asked him if that was his potty on the floor and he stared at me blankly and picked up a toy. He really had no idea if that was his potty on the floor because his memory only goes about 15 minutes into the past. When I asked him if he wanted to go to grandma’s house tomorrow, he walked over to the treat basket and stood there expectantly.

Ignorance is bliss, it’s true. As humans, we can’t live our lives pretending that time doesn’t exist (can we?), but we certainly can stop living in the past and worrying about the future. How much stuff do you worry about that you don’t even have any control over? Stress is one of the biggest contributors to a host of adverse conditions and diseases, including weight gain. Spend some time learning how to let go and unwind. Get up and move, breathe some fresh air, sing or dance. Zeb knows better than most of us that life is short, so you should enjoy it while you can.

3. Don’t Eat the Stuff They Scrape Off the Floor – After a couple of Zeb’s dog siblings died of cancer many years ago, we got serious about our diets around here. No more cheap kibble made from the scraps that end up on the meat-packing floor. It’s true, Zeb’s food costs more than mine does, but that’s mostly because I’m vegan and he’s not.

Seriously, though, do you know what’s in the food you eat? Really? Chances are, if you bought eight pounds of it on sale for six dollars, it’s probably not the top-grade stuff. That’s not to say that you have to spend a lot of money to eat well. You can read my recent post on how to eat healthy on a budget. The bottom line is, be a little more choosy about your nutrition; read the labels; count grams of fat and added sugar; and don’t eat stuff that comes in a box or a bag. That’s not food. Most of it never even used to be food. Maybe a tiny part of it used to be food a long time ago, before it underwent a hundred different phases of processing, but if it doesn’t still look like food – like the stuff that grows in the ground or on a tree, stem, stalk, bush or vine – then it probably isn’t. So why are you eating it? You’re a member of the most highly evolved species with the entire food chain at your disposal. Think about that the next time you open your mouth to put something in it.

Well, I’m sure this isn’t the kind of “Fit After 50” blogpost you were expecting, but I figured the last thing anybody needed was one more click-baity article beating on that old drum. It’s pretty simple: If you’re over 50 and you feel like you’re starting to slide, it’s because you are. A lifetime of less-than-perfect eating has joined forces with the natural tendency to move less, which comes with age. The result is your expanding waistline. The decades-long accumulation of dings and injuries have taken their toll, too, so even if you want to move more, it really is more difficult.

Zeb is in the same boat as you, my friend, and you know what he’ll do about it? He’ll get up every morning and do as much as he can until he can’t any more. He’ll eat his healthy food, enjoying every crunchy mouthful, and he won’t worry a bit about yesterday or tomorrow. He’ll pick up his toy and stare at me until I play with him or take him for a walk. Speaking of walk…

What are you waiting for?

The Tales We Tell Ourselves (Part Two)

In my last post, I talked about how everyone from businesses to the media and politicians use the power of story to sell us products, services or ideas. I told a story of my own, about how I nearly bought a new phone I didn’t need as the result of one such self-constructed tale.

While stories can make us ignore facts and ultimately lead to poor decisions (like emotional impulse buying), they can also be powerful tools for positive change.

In my book, Reboot Your Body, I illustrate several ways people can use the power of story to create positive change in their lives. Positive self-talk and visualization are two key habits that are foundational to the program laid out in the book, but what I want to talk about today goes a bit beyond that.

In Chapter 12, I talk about how important it is to take responsibility for your future. One of the tips I offer for helping you do that is to use the power of story and Recast Yourself In a Better Role. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Who you are right now has an awful lot to do with how you’ve been viewing yourself up to this point. What label have you given yourself? Are you the funny person, there to make everyone else laugh? Are you the dependable person, putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own? Are you the super-busy, stressed-out person, just trying to hold it all together? I have news for you—you don’t have to be any of those people. Make the decision right now to stop being that person and start being a different one. You are the writer, producer and director of your life’s script, and you can cast yourself in any role you choose.

Society, the media, your parents, your spouse, your children, your boss—you get a lot of cues from these sources about what you “should” be doing. These can be very strong influencers, and years or decades of trying to meet their expectations has strongly reinforced the role you’ve been playing. By now, you may have come to view this role as your “identity,” but it’s not your identity unless you continue to make it so. As an adult human being, you possess the free will that enables you to be and do whatever you want. If the role you’ve been playing has done you more harm than good, if it has contributed to your weight gain, your unhappiness, your poor health, your insomnia, your anxiety, your depression, then it’s time to recast yourself in a better role.

Right now I want you to really think of your life as a play or a movie, with all of the important people in your life playing the supporting actors in your story. What role would you give yourself if you could decide? What turn would your story take if you could write yourself the perfect script? I want you to think of it in this way because for a little while, in order to start changing, you may need to feel like you’re acting. It might be easier for you to do certain things “in character” than they would be for you to do “in real life.”

Craft the story that you want to live. Become the character that you want to be.”

Imagine the story of your future self, the best possible version of your life. And don’t be afraid to dream big. Once you have that story in your mind, start acting like that character a little more every day, and just see if things don’t start to change for you.

The Protein Quality Myth

The very first question every new vegan asks is, “What about protein?!” I always answer, “All plants have protein,” which is then met with, “But they don’t have all the amino acids I need, do they?” I recently put that question to Garth Davis, MD when I interviewed him for an article about the protein needs of older adults. His surprising answer was that not only do plants have all the essential amino acids we need, but that plants are the ideal source for those amino acids because consuming certain ones in high quantities may be harmful to our health.

It turns out that all whole foods contain some amount of every single dietary amino acid humans need, the only difference is that some foods contain them in larger quantities, and others contain them in very tiny amounts. Forty-five years ago, vegetarian author Frances Lappé addressed the amino acid issue in her book, Diet For a Small Planet. In it, she suggested that vegetarians should combine different plant foods at each meal in order to get enough of each essential amino acid. The book became a bestseller, and as a result, the complicated and unnecessary practice of food combining became widespread among vegans and vegetarians. 10 years later, Lappé updated the book and tried to undo the damage. “In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth,” she wrote. But it was too late – the myth of protein combining persists to this day.

While it is certainly true that we need to consume adequate protein and adequate amounts of the nine essential amino acids in our diet, the idea that we either have to consume animal proteins or pair different plant foods with one another at every meal is a simply not true. Since 1971 a great deal of research has been done on protein, and here are the key findings:

  • Healthy adult women need 46 grams of protein per day and healthy adult men need 56 grams (see 2015 US Dietary Guidelines)
  • Our bodies continually recycle and reuse amino acids in the gut, and the ability of the liver and other tissues to store amino acids over the short term makes protein combining at every meal unnecessary.
  • John McDougall, MD stated it best in a published response to the American Heart Association: “…it is impossible to design an amino acid–deficient diet based on the amounts of unprocessed starches and vegetables sufficient to meet the calorie needs of humans.” In other words, if you’re getting enough calories, then you’re getting enough protein and amino acids.

So we don’t need to worry about getting enough protein and amino acids, but what about too much? Research suggests that intakes of certain amino acids once considered “optimal” may be anything but. In his book, Proteinaholic, Dr. Davis cites a number of recent animal and human studies which have shown that by restricting methionine and leucine intakes we might lower our risk of developing certain cancers and slow the aging process. While plant-based foods have optimally low to moderate amounts of both amino acids, eggs, fish, meat and poultry all contain them in high levels. This is just one more way that our society’s “more is better” attitude toward protein might be proving harmful.

Upon considering the totality of the research on protein and amino acids, it appears that we need to shift our focus away from the myth of “complete” protein sources, and start considering “optimal” sources instead.

Newsflash: Everything You Know About Protein is Wrong

Proteinaholic I’ve been a personal trainer for eight years and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of diet and exercise trends come and go. While most trends catch fire for a few months and then enjoy maybe a year or two of waning popularity, there’s one trend that’s been around much longer than I’ve been a fitness professional, and that trend is protein.

A quick scan of blogpost titles, best seller lists, and packaged food boxes will confirm protein’s unrivaled celebrity. Indeed, protein is considered by many to be the most important nutrient in our diet. I used to be one of the people who believed that.

In my book, Reboot Your Body, I advocated for a higher protein diet as one of several healthy alternatives for people who want to lose weight. Paradoxically, at the same time I was writing that section of my book, I was telling other clients to load up on protein if they wanted to bulk up.

The irony of that never hit me until I read Proteinaholic, by Garth Davis, MD and Howard Jacobson, PhD.

I’ve read many books and studies and seen several great documentaries all saying that our societal love of protein has been misplaced, but this book was different. This book really changed my mind.

Protein Does Not Lead to Weight Loss

For starters, Dr. Davis is a prominent weight loss surgeon. If there’s any one “fact” about protein that is universally accepted above all others, it’s that high-protein diets lead to weight loss, yet here was an expert in the field telling us otherwise. That got my attention right away, but it was Davis’ personal story that finally made me question what I had thought of as indisputable truths about protein.

In the first few chapters of the book, Davis recounts his personal struggles with keeping weight off in his 30’s, which culminated in a health scare when his optometrist told him she could see cholesterol in the capillaries of his eyeballs during a routine eye exam. Dr. Davis was also unhappy about the number of boomerang patients he was seeing – ones who had initially lost weight after surgery, but had gained back most or all of the weight over time. This prompted him to learn everything he could about diet and weight loss (surprisingly, not something most weight loss doctors are taught in medical school), so he began reading any bit of research he could find.

A few months in, Davis started to see a pattern emerge, so he decided to test a theory out on himself – he switched to a plant-based diet, just to see what would happen. He lost weight, felt amazing and his health markers improved dramatically. But he wasn’t convinced that this was something that would work for everyone, so before he started advocating a plant-based diet to his patients, he did more research. The further he dug, the more convinced he became, until the evidence was so overwhelming, he changed the basis of his medical practice and began writing Proteinaholic. While he still performs surgery on patients who have no other option, he now works very hard to intervene long before they get to that point. His intervention strategy is based on the strong recommendation that patients adopt a plant-based diet.

But What About…?

Everything Davis and Jacobson wrote made perfect sense to me, but there was still that voice in the back of my head, the one that said, “But what about…?”

But I’m very active, so what about getting enough protein to build muscle?
But I’m getting older, so aren’t my protein needs higher?
But I’m already vegan, so don’t I need to worry about getting enough protein?

Dr. Davis addressed all of those questions in his book. His answer? “You’re already getting more than you need.”

I was shocked to learn that the US RDA for protein is only 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men, regardless of age. Active individuals may need to bump those levels up a bit, but results from scientific studies on that subject are actually mixed.

At the very most, it appears that athletes and adults over 65 may benefit from getting somewhere around 1.0 – 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If I could call myself an athlete, that would put my own daily requirement somewhere around 65 grams of protein per day, while a 200-pound bodybuilder would need no more than 110 grams per day. That number – 110 grams – is right around the average amount of protein most American men consume every single day. How many of them are 200-pound body builders, I wonder?

Every Food Manufacturer’s Best Friend

A quick google search yielded dozens of articles, many published by and for the food industry, all confirming one thing: Americans are crazy about protein. Manufacturers know they can get a significant boost in product sales by changing nothing other than putting the word “protein” somewhere on the product label. Most consumers do, in fact, seek out foods with higher protein content, whether it’s good for them or not.

As it turns out, it’s not.

Too Much Protein Is Bad For Your Health

In their book, Davis and Jacobson cite nearly 700 sources backing the assertion that consuming too much protein leads to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Davis in an interview I conducted for NextAvenue. What struck me most was the honest conviction with which he spoke. Here was a doctor who stood to lose business if people followed his advice, and yet he was eager to answer any question I put to him. He genuinely wanted to help me understand the truth behind our widespread, misguided beliefs.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll follow up with a few posts elaborating on some of the specific topics Dr. Davis and I talked about, but for now, I will say this: Three years ago, I switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, and nearly every day I worried about whether I was getting enough protein. After reading Proteinaholic, I don’t worry about myself any more. Now I worry about everyone else.