Category Archives: Diet

How Do We Burn Fat? Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?

The process of burning stored body fat is often misunderstood, so why don’t we set the record straight right off the bat.  Your body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat.  Our adipose (fat) tissue is full of stored triglycerides that we would ideally like to oxidize to get the lean, sculpted physique we desire.  A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids held together by a glycerol backbone.  Interestingly, the fatty acids don’t have to be the same.  One triglyceride molecule can contain a combination of different saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc. fatty acids.

When a stored triglyceride is released, the glycerol backbone breaks off and the fatty acids enter the bloodstream.  However, it is important to note that the process does not end here.  You still have to oxidize, or burn the fatty acids, ideally via exercise (although we can still burn fat at rest as well).  Otherwise, the fatty acids can become a stored triglyceride all over again through a process called re-esterification.  What a shame it would be to release stored body fat only for it to return home again.  Remember when I said the body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat?  The cycle never ends.

So how can optimize this process and release and burn more than we store?  The primary method is by achieving a caloric deficit.  Boring answer I know, but hey that’s science.  A caloric deficit can be achieved by consuming less calories in our diet and/or burning more with exercise.  We can also increase our metabolic rate so that we burn more at rest.  The primary method of increasing resting metabolic rate is adding more lean muscle, which burns more calories compared to adipose tissue.

Where do fat burning supplements come into play?  How do they work, if at all?  They actually perform a little bit of each fat burning component; suppressing appetite and increasing metabolic rate.  This is achieved mainly through the stimulant-based ingredients.  Caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine can all help suppress appetite, thus leading to less calories consumed.  More important, however, is their hormonal effect.

Certain ingredients in fat burners can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine.  These hormones signal the release of stored triglycerides into the blood to (hopefully) be oxidized.  In addition, a quality thermogenic should have adequate doses of the amino acid carnitine, which helps fatty acids enter the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to energy.  This is why most fat burning supplements instruct you to take them prior to exercise.  Remember what we said earlier, fatty acids can be re-esterified back into adipose tissue even after being released.  If you’re not an active person, these supplements really won’t do much for you.

At the very least we can agree that the scientific theory is there, but is it worth the cost?  Thermogenic supplements generally range anywhere from $50 to $100.  In my opinion, while the logical mechanism to burn fat is somewhat evident, the research is still iffy at best.  Also, there is an unreasonable expectation that these supplements will cause massive changes in body composition.  In the end, you still have to put forth the effort in the gym, which most are simply unwilling to do.  If you have the disposable income to purchase a fat burner, along with the willingness to still train hard, then by all means do so.  If you have your doubts about the research and don’t want to fork over the cash, then I wouldn’t fault you there either.

Hopefully my concluding statement didn’t appear like a cop-out.  Thermogenic supplements are ‘okay.’  Personally, I usually go with an ephedrine/caffeine stack rather than purchase a supplement off a store shelf.  It is cost efficient and gets the job done.

Why We Need to Stop Demonizing Sugar

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Any conversation with a knowledgeable nutritionist will likely result in frustration for the enthusiastic answer seeker. The reason being, very few things in nutrition are black and white. The answer to many of these ‘is this food good or bad’ questions is ‘it depends.’ Aside from trans fats, I would have a hard time coming up with a nutrient that is unequivocally bad and provides no benefit of any kind. In recent years, sugar has overtaken fat as the culprit for our country’s obesity and health problems. Are we casting blame in the right place?

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What is Sugar?

It bothers me when I hear people, especially doctors, use the words sugar, carbohydrates, and glucose interchangeably. They are not the same. Sugar is a disaccharide, consisting of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Stay with me here, I won’t get too ‘sciencey’ on you. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. It provides energy for our brain (good), exercise (good), can be stored in muscle cells as glycogen (good), and stored in fat cells (not so good). So one half of the equation is pretty good, glucose has some definite benefits for us. Fructose, on the other hand, is much more limited. Fructose is stored in the liver as glycogen (no problems there). However, the capacity of our liver glycogen will eventually fill up. Once it reaches capacity, the excess fructose has to go somewhere. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be used by most of our cells. Excess fructose in the liver is converted to triglycerides, which can then be stored as fat (not good).

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Should Fructose be Avoided Completely?

As mentioned, fructose is metabolized in the liver. What many don’t realize is that your liver is a huge organ, it’s about the size of a football. In times of need, like during low carb dieting, fasting, sleeping, or exercising, your liver will pump out that stored glycogen to be used. Your pancreas will secrete a hormone called glucagon to signal the liver to release stored glycogen in these situations. Point is, those glycogen stores in the liver will deplete over time, so fructose does serve a purpose. While it wouldn’t be optimal to get the majority of your carbohydrates from fructose, it shouldn’t be avoided altogether.

It is clear that an optimal diet would consist of proportionately more glucose than fructose, as glucose can provide more for us overall. Starchy carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats are nearly 100% glucose. However, glucose is not completely absolved of wrongdoing. Remember that any glucose not used for immediate energy, brain function, or storage as muscle glycogen will be stored in fat cells. You need to be mindful of your current situation, and not overeat starchy carbohydrates either.

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What About Healthier Sugars Like Agave

Marketing is extraordinary. You may find agave in the organic/healthy section of your supermarket. However, agave is about 75% fructose, which is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup.

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Final Verdict

In general, do most people eat too much sugar? Absolutely. But, they overeat on starches and fats as well. It would irresponsible to cast blame on one nutrient for our collective health problems. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often to correct one. Collectively, we eat too much and exercise too little.

Don’t Ruin Flexible Dieting For the Rest of Us

Flexible dieting, also known as IIFYM, is the most polarizing diet protocol in the fitness world right now.  Users punch their information into a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator, which then spits out a caloric value and individual macronutrient totals.  The idea behind flexible dieting is that weight loss and weight gain is based primarily on calorie (and subsequently macronutrient) intake.  Thus, food choices are considered somewhat irrelevant as long as one hits their daily macronutrient goals.  It’s hard to argue this point since any intelligent dietitian or nutritionist will tell you that thermodynamics is the basis of any successful diet.  Even the ketogenic diet, which completely changes the body’s primary fuel source, brings thermodynamics into play.  It’s unclear whether or not ketones are metabolically advantageous.  Even if they are, the question becomes ‘how advantageous are they compared to carbs?’  Odds are: not enough to make a considerable difference, but I digress.

The reason flexible dieting is so polarizing is because of an assumption about the diet that is often ignored.  The assumption is that the dieter is getting adequate micronutrients and fiber every day.  If the person is fulfilling this need, then quite frankly it’s hard to eat ‘junk’ all day.  You need a variety of nutrient dense whole foods to get the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that is vital for optimal health.  The problem is… most people aren’t doing this.  And it’s not just a few people ruining the reputation of the diet for the noble IIFYMers either.  Social media makes things very transparent.  Our precious fitspo and fitfam hashtags reveal that people are doing this on a daily basis.

I call this phenomena ‘macro hoarding.’  It occurs when someone consumes mainly protein during breakfast and lunch, thus leaving a ton of fat and carbs left to be used on desserts, pizza, candy, etc. at night.  This is fine once in a while; like a night out with friends where a drunken diner run is almost inevitable.  This is actually a smart, strategic move to keep yourself on track.  Doing this on a daily basis however is not what this diet was designed for, and quite frankly may be a precursor to an eating disorder or at the very least a warped relationship with food.  Flexible dieting is about freedom, not a free-for-all.

Don’t be the one to take advantage of the system.  Do it with your diet and it’ll be a matter of time before it translates to other aspects of your life.

Weight Loss is Easy, Life Screws Up Our Diets

Eat less, exercise more.  It’s the answer nobody wants to hear, but any successful diet pretty much boils down to that principle.  Is there a little more to it?  Of course, but that’s not what this blog is about.  70% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese, and if you think that statistic is overblown just take a look around you.  We know how to lose weight, it’s not as if obesity is this incurable disease like some cancers.  Why the hell can’t we just stick to a weight loss program?

Willpower is often compared to a muscle, in the sense that the more you exhibit willpower the stronger it will become.  This is true, but only to a certain extent.  Willpower has its limitations.  Think of it like a gas tank; some cars have big tanks and some don’t.  The point is, your tank will eventually run empty.  The book ‘Willpower’ by Baumeister and Tierney gives real examples of willpower’s limitations.  It’s a pretty good book, you should check it out (not getting any kickbacks or anything so relax).  They tell the story of a guy who hates his boss, and every day at work he holds back from ripping him a new one.  Consequently, when he gets home he’s short-tempered with his wife and kids.  He has to exhibit so much willpower at work that he has nothing by the time he gets home.

Stress works in a similar fashion.  We can handle stress to a certain degree, but eventually it will break us.  I’m not saying that you’ll necessarily have a nervous breakdown or anxiety attack.  However, we will look for something to help us relax.  We will look for pleasure.  We will look for relief.

Pleasure comes in many forms and we all have our individual preferences.  But when push comes to shove and life is kicking our ass, we want a form of pleasure that is easily attainable.  Sex?  Not always easily attainable (speak for yourself Sean).  Even if you’re in a relationship, you’re relying on the other person to be right here right now and in the mood.  Drugs?  You may have them in your possession, but as far as I know it’s frowned upon to snort a line at your desk.  Vacation?  That requires planning, time, and money.  Food?  Oh, there it is.

Food, the perfect form of pleasure.  It’s everywhere and obtaining it is completely within your control.  It’s inexpensive and there’s no limitations on consuming it.  It’s accepted by society.  No one will look at you funny if there’s a bagel on your desk.  You won’t turn any heads walking down the street eating a snickers.  Food creates a vicious cycle of ‘feel bad, eat, feel bad about eating, repeat.’

Diets fail because life happens.  I need to preface this next statement by saying that I’m only 28 and am completely making an assumption.  But life seems much more difficult and complex than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago.  Depression is a major issue in modern society.  Experts are trying to pinpoint what is causing obesity, citing things like processed foods, high carb diets, and saturated fats.  No one wants to bring up life.  Life is fucking hard sometimes.  Find the real stressor in your life and change it.  You are in control of almost every aspect of your life.  If your job sucks then leave.  If you’re in a bad relationship then leave.  If you have a problem with someone talk to them about it.

 

5 Keys for Success with Flexible Dieting

When people ask me what flexible dieting is, I tell them it’s advanced Weight Watchers.  It’s not meant to belittle the diet, I think it’s a fair description.  Instead of a point system, you track how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you eat on a daily basis.  It doesn’t matter when, what, or how, your primary concern is to hit those numbers, hence the word flexible.  Many people thrive under this diet because of that freedom, but like any diet there will be struggles.  As a practitioner of this diet (which is damn important for giving advice for all you armchair quarterbacks) here are a few keys to get the most out of IIFYM.

 

1. Avoid eating out

The most frustrating thing about calculating macros is finding out later on that they were inaccurate.  It’s the cynic in me, but I have my doubts about the macros restaurants post on their website.  Even if you use your best judgement, there’s so much ambiguity.  What oils are they cooking with?  Is it a fatty cut of meat?  Remember, it tastes good for a reason.

 

2. Experiment with different eating patterns

Just because you have the freedom to eat whenever you want doesn’t mean you have to.  Flexible dieting was the counter to the six meals a day bodybuilder eating pattern.  But that works for a lot of people.  Don’t change for the sake of changing.  Similarly, you can use flexible dieting within an intermittent fasting eating pattern.  Find what you are most comfortable worth and stick with it.

 

3. Make measuring a habit

This works in conjunction with #1.  If you eyeball a handful of nuts and are off by a few ounces, it can ruin your macros for the day.  I suck at estimating and I know I suck at it.  Using a food scale is tedious, but you can rest assured that everything is accurate.  Habits are hard to break, both good and bad.  Once you start using a scale on a regular basis, it won’t be such a hassle.

 

4. Take advantage of IIFYM’s purpose

Dieting is a mental game, cravings will happen.  The purpose of IIFYM is that you are able to fit some junk into your diet if you want it.  Do people abuse this?  Absolutely.  But, if you feel like having some ice cream after a bad day at work, do it!  The whole point of flexible dieting is the freedom to eat dessert without the guilt if you plan for it.

 

5. Take a break

Not necessarily from your diet, but from tracking it.  Odds are you generally eat the same foods every day and have a grasp on their macros.  As I mentioned, it’s important to make measuring a habit, but it can be mentally debilitating after doing it for a long time.  As long as you trust yourself to get back on track, I recommend everyone take a few days off from tracking every now and then to give your mind a reset.