Thursday, February 25, 2010

Advice for those already at the gym:

Exercise information is easy to find but all too often, confusing. If you're a beginner, every men's or women's magazine offers routines of simple exercises to get you started. If you're a serious exercise enthusiast and looking to maximize your training there's plenty of info out there for you too. Indeed, I'm surprised by how many websites and magazine articles give advice that is only appropriate for well conditioned individuals. But what about the people in the middle?

Look around your local gym. Those are the people in the middle. They've made the move from time on the couch to time exercising. They've made improvements to how they look and feel, and understand the benefits of exercise. But chances are they've also hit a plateau, using the same exercises they were taught when they joined. What does a no-longer-a-beginner do before they're an athlete?

Two of my friends are in this position. Middle-aged, they're thinner and healthier than most. They exercise, but not routinely. Not couch potatoes, but not as fit as they desire either. With my friends in mind, I wondered what three exercise tips would I give to help them most?

As it turns out, the list of three was right at the front of my mind. And contrary to most exercise articles out there, only one of my exercise tips is actually about an exercise.

Squats and Deadlifts

Firstly, do squats. They don't show you this on your first gym visit. If you've never exercised, squats will hurt you. Don't do them. But once you've spent a few months on the machines, it's time to leave them behind for the real exercises.

Squats and deadlifts work the whole body. This is key. Working one part, then another, does NOT have the same effect as working the whole body.

Squats can be done with the bar on your back, or held infront. Deadlifts start with the bar on the floor and involve generally the same set of muscles. Either exercise can be built up to include a press, such as you might see in the olympics. Ultimately, that's the way to go. But work towards it slowly.

FYI, Smith machines, leg press machines and all the rest don't count. They don't put the same loads on your secondary muscles and supporting muscles. If you fear free weights, start with dumbbells instead of a barbell.

Drink Milk

Here's where my exercise advice stops being about exercise. This is because exercise (the actual activity at the gym) doesn't make you stronger. It is your body's reaction to the stress of exercise that makes your stronger (and leaner and healthier). So even more important than what exercises you do, is how you feed yourself. Start with milk.

I have lots to say on diet and health. But where to start? I would start with whole milk. Drinking a litre a day of whole (unskimmed) milk melts fat off my body. I've exerperienced it many times and in various ways. I've heard a ton of anecdotal stories. I can't explain it and won't try. The more milk you drink the slimmer you probably are; all other factors being equal.

(Conversely, the more diet colas you drink the fatter you likely are. Sorry, it's just my own experience and eyesight, but I believe it's true.)

And lastly...

Get Your Sleep!

I know when someone has moved from beginner to serious exerciser when they talk about sleep. Sleep is critical, even more so than food or exercise. Consider 9 hours to be the target.

The point of exercise is to stress your body, such that it then rebuilds itself, better than it was. This happens when you sleep. If you're going to the gym but not eating or sleeping properly then you're only doing your body harm.

Most anyone needs 8 hours of sleep a night. (I undertand few of us actually get that.) A little exercise and your sleep need quickly rises to 9 hours or more. If you spent an hour in the gym and an hour on your bike, consider going to bed early and getting 10 hours, guilt free.

And those are my exercise tips. Do full body exercises, eat well - starting with milk, and get your sleep. Try the three together and I bet you can get through any plateau. And I bet you feel better right away. Good luck.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Cholesterol Controversy

Atherosclerosis is better known as "hardening of the arteries". It involves a build-up of cholesterol laden plaque along the inside of your blood vessels. Atherosclerosis sometimes leads to bits of plaque rupturing into the blood stream, blocking blood flow, and causing a heart attack or stroke. These mechanisms, at their macroscopic level, are well understood. Post mortem, researchers can measure the plaque, find the rupture, find the clot, see the dead heart tissue, etc. But are you willing to believe that what causes atherosclerosis is not understood?

Since the mid-eighties the "lipid hypothesis" of plaque formation has been more or less accepted as medical dogma. "It has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that lowering definitely elevated blood cholesterol levels (specifically, blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol) will reduce the risk of heart attacks caused by coronary heart disease." [1] Soon statin drugs became the norm to lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent heart attacks. The results were encouraging.

In addition to drugs, research found that if all cholesterol and fats are cut from the diet then levels of cholesterol in the blood drop and fewer heart attacks occur in people who have already had a heart attack.

Cholesterol is mainly found in saturated fats. Thus saturated fats are routinely singled out as dangerous for people to eat.

The NIH website states," How does cholesterol cause heart disease? When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries." [2] Simple. Perhaps too simple? Indeed, this theory is being questioned by small groups around the world.

THINCS is The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. They believe that "enormous human and financial resources have been wasted on the cholesterol campaign, [while] more promising research areas have been neglected." [3] They contend that there are numerous reasons to look at other theories for the cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Normal scientific practices involve dissent and discussion but THINCS thinks that the lipid-hypothesis is not open to the scrutiny or questioning that it should be.

This unquestioning belief in the cholesterol campaign means researchers like Uffe Ravnskov, a Danish medical doctor, have difficulty getting published. "Dr Ravnskov has received the Skrabanek Award in 1999 from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, for original contributions in the field of medical scepticism. He was also honoured with the Integrity In Science Award 2003 given by The Weston A. Price Foundation." [4] Infamous for his views against "The Cholesterol Myth" he is often quoted and often attacked around the 'net.

Ravnskov states," No study of unselected individuals has found an association between the concentration of LDL or total cholesterol in the blood and the degree of atherosclerosis at autopsy." [5]

But how can he say this? The secret is in the word "unselected". What it boils down to is quite simple. The connection between cholesterol and heart disease is clear. The causation is not. Studies have consistently shown that people with heart disease have cholesterol problems. This isn't refuted. But the connection between eating cholesterol and falling ill with heart disease is assumed by the current scientific consensus. What Ravnskov says is that if you look at healthy people and their cholesterol levels there is no statistical connection to their rates of heart disease.

Most science is based on random studies, sampling as much of a population as possible. However the work on heart disease has centered on studying people who have it already, not on why other people don't have it.

Amongst his many works, Ravnskov even has alternate theories that explain the cholesterol connection and the causation of atherosclerosis.

Prior to general acceptance of the lipid hypothesis, researchers and doctors believed that plaque formation in the arteries was caused by infections in the body. Post mortem research showed direct correlations between arterial plaque build-up and long term sickness. People who had died after long illnesses had extensive plaque build-up and people who died after shorter illnesses had less plaque. [6]

Ravnskov believes there are multiple reasons to look at infection as a cause or contributor to atherosclerosis and heart disease. He believes that cholesterol plays a role as a "non-specific immune response" within the body; that the cholesterol is a response to disease and not the cause.

A study done jointly with Harvard researcher Kilmer McCully postulates how micro-organisms are surrounded and neutralized by lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) within the blood. The invading particle, surrounded by lipoproteins, precipitates out of the blood and in healthy individuals is handled by the immune system. The theory goes that when the immune system is weak, the resulting LDL cholesterol concentrations become plaque which is unstable and prone to rupture. [7]

It all boils down to a "weakened immune response" leads to heart disease. This is very different from "eating saturated fats" causes heart disease. Indeed, for some groups, like the Weston A. Price foundation, mentioned above, these statements are opposite to each other.

Based on the work of Dr. Price (DDS) early last century, the foundation (which Price did not start) has some radical and controversial ideas. A bit too radical for my personal tastes. But they summarize Dr. Price's research on native/natural diets and have, I think, two interesting points. First, the macro nutrient ratios (carbs, proteins, fats) consumed by pre-industrial societies varied widely. There is no magic ratio that is the "ideal" way to eat. Secondly, no natural diet was ever found that was free of saturated fats. [8]

Saturated fats are actually biologically necessary. Even in vegetarian cultures, such as in India, traditional diets included saturated fats from coconuts, butter and other sources. On the opposite end of the scale, such as with the Inuit in the Arctic, meat-rich diets were so dense in nutrients and vitamins that almost no plant-based food needed to be consumed. In all these cases, not only did people intake high levels of saturated fat, but they also had relatively low rates of heart disease.

Nutritionist and W. A. Price Foundation co-founder, Mary G. Enig (PhD), contends that initial connections between saturated fats and heart disease were based on flawed studies which used hydrogenated coconut oils. [9] Hydrogenation is a process of chemically changing fats, usually to make them thicker. Today we know that hydrogenation leads to chemicals called trans-fats.

Natural animal fats (saturated fats) do not contain trans-fats. Cold-pressed vegetable oils such as olive oil (monounsaturated) and corn, sunflower and flax seed oils (polyunsaturated) also don't contain trans-fats. Canola oil, one of the 'heart-healthy alternatives', is a good example of a polyunsaturated oil because it contains no trans-fats. However polyunsaturated oils are unstable when heated. And heating is a part of the oil's extraction such that the canola oil you have at home can be up to 5% trans-fat, before you ever begin your cooking. [10]

Heating saturated fats makes them melt. But it requires temperatures higher than those used to cook, to chemically transform them. Thus, a diet rich in natural sources of saturated fats does not have many trans-fats. (Processed sources of saturated fat, such as the fats in a fast food combo meal - burger and fries - are also very high in hydrogenated trans-fats.)

It's all very confusing! Search on any of the references herein and you will see endless controversy and accusations of pseudoscience and flawed thinking from both sides. Does meat cause heart disease? Will a life of rice cakes and vegetable oil keep us healthy?

I don't know, and probably not.

In all my reading, the only constant I've seen is a series of comparisons between natural, whole foods, and processed foods. I think a lot of the research that has vilified saturated fats should actually be redone with an eye to isolating the effects of trans-fats. And I think that because of the multi-billion dollar annual investment in the lipid-hypothesis, that this research isn't going to be done. The only real conclusion I can draw is that whole, unprocessed foods, are significantly healthier for us than processed foods.

I now go over every ingredients list, when I buy food. If I see "hydrogenated" or "partially-hydrogenated" vegetable oil or E443, I put it down. I've even put down "organic, whole-wheat" bread products that were baked with thickened oil. When I cook, I have started to use natural fats like butter (grass-fed) and coconut oil (cold-pressed virgin oil). These stay chemically stable, both on the stove and in the body, and make good taste wonderful.

I believe our industrialized food manufacturing processes are harming us. I believe that choosing natural (whole, organic, home-cooked) foods is the only sane response to the insane group of theories we call "nutrition". And I believe that if we wait patiently, this situation will worsen instead of improve. As people the world-over switch to vegetable shortenings for 'heart health' more people die of heart disease.

That said, I believe that every time I buy good food I'm voting for a change. Every time I cook a meal, rather than reheat a package, I'm telling the medical and scientific and agricultural communities that people want more research. And finally, I hope, that if enough of us follow this approach, that eventually the truths will be known.


1. (1985). "Consensus conference. Lowering blood cholesterol to prevent heart disease". JAMA 253 (14): 2080–6. doi:10.1001/jama.253.14.2080. PMID 3974099




5. Ravnskov U. "Is atherosclerosis caused by high cholesterol?" Q J Med 2002;95:397-403.

6. Wiesel J. Die Erkrankungen arterieller Gefässe im Verlaufe akuter Infektionen. II Teil. Z Heilkunde 1906; 27:262-294.

7. Uffe Ravnskov and Kilmer S. McCully. "Review and Hypothesis: Vulnerable Plaque Formation from Obstruction of Vasa Vasorum by Homocysteinylated and Oxidized Lipoprotein Aggregates Complexed with Microbial Remnants and LDL Autoantibodies" Annals of Clinical & Laboratory Science, vol. 39, no. 1, 2009 (link)



10. (Note: this final reference is circular back to the work of Dr. Mary G. Enig from reference [9]. It is included as the place I first heard these ideas.)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Butter and Bread

I gave up butter so long ago I almost forget when. Almost. In truth it was about 10 years back when I made a lifestyle change including giving up bread, cola and more. Sick and tired in general, and disgusted with my ample computer-guy physique, I decided (realized) I had to make changes.

So much has changed. So much. And yet, surprisingly, today I'm looking forward to bread and butter. My belief in whole-foods has brought me full circle in terms of what I eat, and how.

For lunch I intend to cook an omelet with bread and butter. If you believe the pseudo-nutrition taught the past few decades that meal sounds like," Cholesterol, saturated fat, carbs, and more saturated fats." And yet somehow I'm eating this way, loosing weight and feeling wonderfully healthy. 5kg in the last 3 months or just under a pound a week.

What changed? The bike I ride regularly was bought in 1991. My oldest training logs go back to September 2000. (In five pages of YMCA 'Conditioning Program Cards' I only wrote the year once. Guess I wasn't expecting it to be so long term.) I took up karate about 17 months ago, when I quit smoking, and with it began regular stretching. But three months ago I made a choice (a realisation) and switched to unprocessed, whole foods.

The results have been amazing! My energy level is up. My exercise rate has doubled to tripled because swollen and painful joints are a thing of the past. I can eat throughout the day and yet feel completely in control of my weight and well being. And I can have organic grass-fed butter on whole-wheat bread and it explodes in my mouth like a candy factory might. Although I can't eat a candy factory.

The ironic part is that all this is unintended. I didn't make the switch for health reasons but instead for... political reasons, for lack of a better word. Food Inc. was my proverbial last straw. I realized I could vote with my money and express my ideas by supporting organic and avoiding factory-food. I changed because I was angry with socio-political-economic trends related to the sustainability of our food supply. But what I'm left with is not anger, but health and unexpected happiness.

And now, a very strong craving for those eggs and that butter! Care to join me?


Author's note: Sorry folks, I realized only after that I had already written this post before. But each month I'm becoming more sure of the results, and their cause. To the cause!