The answer to this seemingly obvious question is often confused by trying to define what fat and fit means.
Over the years the measurement of fat and indeed its distribution has raised some interesting questions. I’m very aware of the muscular athletic awesome looking Crossfit athlete who comes back from their annual medical having been told they are obese according to their BMI. These are people, who when their body fat is checked(using callipers or some sort of science fiction machine) are down into the enviable category!.
The next interesting “quickie” fat measure came when the discussion of abdominal obesity became fashionable The waist to hip ratio measurement was quick and easy and it certainly measured the tummy fat that showed.
Today, we should all be about visceral fat. But, It’s a hard thing to measure without a CT scan . The problem with visceral fat (the fat inside your visceral cavity, or around your organs) , is that skinny people can have visceral fat and that people with a big tummy don’t necessarily have visceral fat. It can sometimes be all subcutaneous!
Basically we can have obvious fat and/or visceral fat.
Now we need to ask what is healthy or what is metabolically unhealthy. According to Ortega (2012) . If you crave the “metabolically unhealthy” crown, you must have one or more of these readings
high blood pressure (≥130/85 mmHg)
high blood triglycerides (≥150 mg/dL)
low HDL “good” cholesterol (<40 and 50 mg/dL in men and women, respectively)
high fasting blood sugar level (≥100 mg/dL)
Since the NHS actually started recording the prevalence of obesity it was correlated with high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low good cholesterol and poor blood sugar. So it was quickly assumed that any overweight person would have these metabolically unhealthy markers. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the step to saying obesity causes them.
However, this is a great example that causation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Is it possible to be visibly overweight ( I know that’s terribly subjective, but work with me) but still have metabolically healthy readings ( good blood pressure, good blood sugar).
Ortega et al wrote ”The intriguing metabolically healthy but obese phenotype: cardiovascular prognosis and role of fitness ”
They ran some tests using BMI and the 4 health markers and noted (i) metabolically healthy but obese individuals have a higher fitness level than their metabolically abnormal and obese peers; (ii) after accounting for fitness, metabolically healthy but obese phenotype is a benign condition, in terms of cardiovascular disease and mortality. this led to these conclusions (i) Higher fitness should be considered a characteristic of metabolically healthy but obese phenotype. (ii) Once fitness is accounted for, the metabolically healthy but obese phenotype is a benign condition, with a better prognosis for mortality and morbidity than metabolically abnormal obese individuals.
“Metabolically healthy” obese participants had a better baseline fitness level on the treadmill test compared with “metabolically abnormal” obese participants (adjusting for age, sex, examination year, smoking and alcohol consumption, and when using either BMI or body fat percentage to define obesity). The difference was the same for men and women.
“Metabolically abnormal” obese participants had significantly increased risk of dying from any cause during follow-up compared with “metabolically healthy” obese participants (adjusting for confounders and using either BMI or body fat percentage to define obesity).
When looking at cardiovascular disease outcomes, “metabolically abnormal” obese participants only had increased risk of a fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular disease event compared with “metabolically healthy” obese participants when using body fat percentage to define obesity. There was no difference in risk when using standard BMI definitions.
“Metabolically healthy” obese participants had no difference in risk of dying from any cause, or of fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular disease events compared with “metabolically healthy” normal-weight or fat participants.
On a narrow set of health criteria and dubious “obesity’ assessments it’s quite possible to argue that you can be fat and fit! However, over the years more concern has been raised about where your fat is . Research has indicated,visceral fat may be doing something far more nasty.
“Visceral Fat Adipokine Secretion Is Associated With Systemic Inflammation in Obese Humans” 2007 concluded “that visceral fat is an important site for IL-6 secretion ( an inflammation causing thing) and provide a potential mechanistic link between visceral fat and systemic inflammation in people with abdominal obesity”. So there is an interesting line of experiments that indicate that visceral fat could be there, releasing nasty stuff.
The interesting thing is that you can be quite skinny and still have visceral fat and you can be obese and have no visceral fat. So based on current evidence and where you fat is you can be both visibly fat and fit and skinny and ill!
Thanks to Andrewstemler.com for this article
It’s something that’s not always recognised, but, Crossfit thrives on intensity, not volume. The secret is “ keep workoutsshort and intense” and“be impressed with intensity, not volume”.
There are those who passionately believe that the core method, and indeed most classes should be just 60 minutes that include a warm up and cool down and one workout.
Crossfit staff seminar trainer James Hobartdiscussed his views in the Crossfit Journal, on the volume v intensitydebate. It’s an issue often raised on the Crossfit level 1 and 2 trainer course. Clearly volume has a siren call. To be an elite crossfitter you need to be able to do multiple workouts, therefore, so the argument goes, the more the better.
Before you accept this at face value, there are some factors you need to consider:
If an elite athlete adds more volume to their regime, it’s built on rock solid mechanics and ability.So the argument goes, if you are scaling your workouts, extra workouts are not the answer.Specific strengthand skill buildingsolves that. “Increased rehearsal of poor movement patterns and shoddy mechanics is a losers gambit”. The winners get to those extraskill/strength classes,: the ones thatfix your issues. Volume is not the cure. Effective coaching and teaching is!
Volume isn’t necessary if the goal is simply getting fitter. On a long term, athletes willcontinue to build work capacity across broad times and modal domains with a singledaily dose of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity”
Never the less, many effective athletes do add volume. Here are their secrets: No matter what extra work or volume you add, you still go “balls to the wall “ in your core Crossfit workout. Youmuststill end up on the floor having a physical and mental break down at the end of that 5-20 minute workout. HOWEVERIf you you are doing your workout of the day, and you are reigning back (only say working at 60% intensity)because you know you have 3 more workouts, a bicep session, some Zumba and a 5k run planned, that’s where it goes wrong.
“You don’t need harder workouts, you need to go harder in your workouts,” Games veteran Tommy Hackenbruck quipped on Instagram.
If you really want to boost your performance, here are someclues. Work your mobility until you move like a supple leopard.Fix your injuries. Learn how toeat well.Get enough sleep, and work with our strength and gymnasticexpert coachesto get the skills and strength you need.
Above all, hit the workout hard!
This said, every body at Crossfit London recognises that our met-con classesfill a need. London life can be super stressful, so for some its great to loose your self among friends in an hours sweat festival. It just happens, thank god,that our hour sweat festivals are really, really good!
I’ve neglected this topic for quite a while, but like a combustion engine, the steam is starting to arise as we see diet tribes form, and an abundance of misinformation spouted from our vegan friends. Now, my issue isn’t with vegans themselves, I sincerely respect ones decision not to contribute to suffering and all of the ethical reasons behind avoiding animal products.
And I get it, the images of veganism are appealing. Eating closer to nature, fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, fermented this, activated that, on top of that you get to call yourself “plant based” which just feels awesome. Then you’re not eating those “dead caucuses,” those “rotting animals.” Throw on top of this the tribe that will take you in, and the reinforcement from the newsgrab that says that “study says vegans live 10 years longer than meat eaters” or virtually any line from What the Health.That last part is the reason for this article. No, it’s not about the many health benefits of eating meat, it’s instead about the headlines surrounding health in general, and a phenomenon in research known as the healthy user bias. What is it?The healthy user bias is a term used in research to explain that people who engage in one behaviour that is perceived as healthy are more likely to engage in other behaviours that are healthy. For example, those who are exercise and more likely to eat healthily. Conversely, those who smoke cigarettes are more likely to drink alcohol.Another example is with a vegetarian diet. Typically, vegetarians are going to be more health – conscious… They drink less alcohol, are unlikely to smoke, and exercise more (14). You see this in real life as well… One doesn’t just “go” vegetarian, it’s usually thrown in with a yoga membership and some more health conscious decisions. Now, throw a population based study of over 10,000 people together, and the vegetarians are likely going to come up much healthier than their meat eating mates. So was it the kale? Was it the yoga? Was it the positive emotions that went along with avoiding meat? We don’t really know.
But that doesn’t stop the headlines of course… Check this one out:
“Vegans Live Longer Than Those Who Eat Meat or Eggs, Research finds” (that’s an actual headline)
What we perceive: Meat bad, vegan good.Now, digging past the headline we find that this study documented 130, 000 people over 30 years, and divided them up into meat eating and non – meat eating groups. The results of the study found that meat eaters had higher death rates than non meat eaters, so the conclusion that the media drew is that red meat causes an early death, and veggies cause a long life.
Now right here, the damage is done. The brain loves confirmation bias, and even when you know there’s probably more to the story, the message has gotten through and we start to form those connections between meat and disease.
What there’s no discussion of is the healthy user bias. There’s no mention of vegan folk being more likely to exercise, get eight hours of sleep, and eat non processed foods. There’s also no mention of meat eaters being MORE likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and eat more processed foods. It doesn’t make the study obsolete, but there should be questions asked rather than conclusions made.
So the question then becomes, “how do we control these variables and really work out if a vegan diet really does lead to longer lifespans?” Well, it’s difficult, but researchers really do try to minimise the effect of the healthy user bias.
One savvy study looked at people who shopped at health food stores. And I’m not talking about the joint where old mate gets his pre workout from, I’m talking about the ones with “organic, free range, and bio dynamic” splattered around the place. The same meat and non meat eaters were divided up, and this time there was no significant difference in all cause mortality between vegetarian and omnivore groups. Does this mean an all meat diet is healthier? No, it just means that we need to keep experimenting and asking questions.
So what can we agree on?
There’s so much divide and tribalism in nutrition, but most things would be agreed upon by all parties. Here’s what we can do to be a healthy user:
Avoid processed meats. Despite many studies weighing them equally, we can all agree that hot dogs from the supermarket are not in the same category as a grass fed steak. Processed meats are low in nutrients, high in calories, and seem to have correlations with certain cancers (though this is not settled).Avoid char grilling your meats. When we char the hell out of our steak, we’re not only losing out on taste, we’re also cooking up some unhealthy chemicals. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when we overdo out meats, and they seem to change DNA that can cause cancer. More on that here.
Eat vegetables at every meal. This is a great goal to have. There are some exceptions with certain microbiome conditions, but on the whole, eating vegetables gives you a stack of vitamins, minerals and a whole bunch of funky compounds that are super healthy.
Eat a variety of high quality meats: It gets a bad wrap, but meat is actually packed with quality nutrients. CoQ10, zinc, b vitamins, choline, and certain amino acids are all things you can ONLY find in sufficient quantities in meat. This is without mentioning the protein factor, which shows up time and time again as one of the most important factors in keeping healthy.
Avoid Big Agriculture and Eat Local: Local is the new organic. It’s like organic but without the fancy tagline. I recommend buying meat from farmers you know and trust. You’re supporting a thriving, sustainable practice and getting a whole lotta health to go with it.
Sun, Sleep and Socialisation: No topic of health deserves mention without considering the three S’s…. It’s like Paleo 2.0. These three factors will help you feel better than any diet will, so let’s get our priorities right before we start dividing ourselves.
Thank you for reading.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in Bethnal Green, London E2 , he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.
Burkert et al. The association between eating behaviours and various health parameters. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088278&type=printable Baines, Powers, Brown. (2007). How does the health and well-being of young Australian vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women compare with non-vegetarians?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17411462/
Key et al. (1996). Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8842068
We love flexibility, and we humans are particularly good at it. Noah el Harari (he wrote Sapiens), credits flexibility and adaptability as the reason we’re still here, and you speak to anyone in the current day and there’s a serious desire to have a flexible life, without rigidity or structure.
It’s defined as the ability to be easily modified, or the willingness to change or compromise – don’t we all want these. But what about flexibility in the body? No, I’m not talking about being able to do a back bend, I’m talking about the ability to shift between fuel sources depending on the situation – this is the modern phenomenon of metabolic flexibility. Yes, this does means that you can burn fat when you want!
So what is it?
Cell defines metabolic flexibility as “the ability of an organism to respond or adapt according to changes in metabolic or energy demand as well as the prevailing conditions or activity.” Goodpaster (2017).
Though the sexier definition comes from Dr Mike T Nelson, who states that “Metabolic Flexibility enables you to (1) transition between fats and carbohydrates so you can burn more fat when you’re not exercising; and (2) use carbohydrates when you are exercising to fuel that activity and perform at a higher level.”
Forget bulletproof coffee, this sounds like the ultimate “biohack.”
Not only does Metabolic Flexibility have huge effects on looking better naked, but it can drastically improve one’s overall heath and quality of life. In fact, our ability to be metabolically flexible has strong links with mitochondrial function, insulin sensitivity and oxygen utilisation (Goodpaster, 2017). It’s not a new concept either, metabolic flexibility has played a crucial role in our survival, as we would have frequent periods of fasting and indulging, forcing the body to go through physiological change to create a more robust human – you could easily argue that we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have metabolic flexibility.
Kelley et al. (2002) sums it up well: “Due to possible discontinuities in both the supply and demand for energy, humans need a clear capacity to use lipid and carbohydrate fuels and transition between them.(1)”
So let’s look at someone who’s metabolically flexible. These guys are more likely to be lean, active and can go long periods without food. Part of this is being used to using fat as a fuel source and not having huge peaks and troughs in energy that’s dictated by how log ago their last top up of sugar was. There have been correlations with those who undergo intermittent fasting and a ketogenic diet being more metabolically flexible, but then there is solid research on hunter – gatherer communities who live mostly on carbohydrates demonstrating a good level of metabolic flexibility as well. So this topic goes beyond macros and into about lifestyle, genetics and the microbiome.
On the other hand, let’s look at someone who is “metabolically inflexible.” This person is probably overweight, inactive and might kill someone if they don’t have access to a bagel. Why? Well, their energy peaks and slumps throughout the day as they move from each sweet treat to the next…. These folk are “sugar burners” Many of these folk are victims to the modern food system that’s littered with refined carbohydrates, and are supported by it as well (it’s like an abusive relationship). “A little Hungry? Great! Have this delicious cheap sweet thing then come back in two hours for another.”
As we know, this leads to huge blood sugar fluctuations, overconsumption of nutrient poor and calorie rich food, obesity and dietary related disease. These guys have a really tough time burning fat and getting lean, as they’re running on sugar. Once sugar depletes, there’s a serious craving for more sugar.
Okay Steve, I’m sold, how do I become more metabolically flexible?!
How to get more metabolically flexible.
Shocker I know, but if we move our bodies, we become healthier. Which exercises make me more metabolically flexible you ask? Well, it seems that constant movement (not being a desk jockey) with high intense resistance training is a great combo. So go for that morning walk and follow it up with a weights session, and throw SOME higher intensity stuff in there….
2. Cut down on refined carbs:
Breads, bagels, pastas, sweets, they’re all going to halt your ability to become a “fat burner.” Why? Well the body is likely going to be using these as fuel first, kind of like paper on a fire, but we’re continuing to top up on paper (or bagels) then your body doesn’t have an opportunity to access fat stores for energy.
The most important one on the list, a bad night of sleep is the best way to become sugar dependent – Noticed how good all that junk food looks after a night of bad sleep? The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that ONE night of shortened sleep led to insulin levels that looked like that of a type 2 diabetic in healthy people. Good luck saying “no” to cake at the office in this situation.
4. Follow time restricted eating:
The whole intermittent fasting phenomenon follows similar principles of metabolic flexibility. Giving your guts some time between meals and eating in a window (8 hours seems to be opimum) has shown to improve hunger swings, fat burning capacity and metabolic flexibility (Obesity Society). An easy way to do this is having your first meal at 10am and your last meal at 6pm.
5. Chill out
Most of the points above are redundant if we don’t consider the impact of stress on the system. The father of this topic, Dr. Robert Sapolsky has studied the impact of stress and it’s impact on homeostasis at length. His findings show that chronic, prolonged stress alters insulin levels, blood sugar levels, frontal lobe function (responsible for decision making), and has a direct impact on our ability to burn fat.
Concluding, the phenomenon of metabolic flexibility is a key health marker and has a significant impact on our ability to not only look better naked, but to build a more resilient body that’s resistant to dietary related diseases. As always, it takes a holistic approach to achieve this level of health, taking into account fitness, nutrition and lifestyle factors.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in London, he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.
Donga et al. (2010) A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in healthy subjects. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 95, Issue 6, 1 June 2010, Pages 2963–2968
Freese et al. (2017) The sedentary revolution: Have we lost our metabolic flexibility. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5710317/
Goodpaster, B., & Sparks, L (2017) Metabolic Flexibility in Health and Disease. Cell Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2017.04.015
Kelley, D.E., He, J., Menshikova, E.V., Ritov, V.B. (2002) Dysfunction of mitochondria in human skeletal muscle in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. 51(10).
Moro. (2016) Effects of eight weeks of time – restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine
If you’re reading this blog, odds are you’re already neck-deep in the CrossFit Kool-Aid, so I won’t waste your time explaining the whole ‘CrossFit’ thing to you. But that means you’re all too aware that life can be a struggle for the CrossFitter about town. Tearing your hands. Having to explain what CrossFit is every time you mention it (which is frequently). Getting out of bed after Annie. Walking up stairs after Cindy. Having to turn down an invitation to thirsty Thursday because it’s Fran tomorrow and you need to beat your PR.
Life is tough.
Here are 10 life-hacks to make your day, inside and outside of the gym, a little bit easier. These aren’t wishy-washy ‘eat clean’, ‘trust the process’, ‘take a rest day’, ‘work on your weaknesses’ type hacks. We all know them, and we know we ignore them. These are real-life, genuinely applicable hacks to make your CrossFit lives easier.
#1 Accessory Successory
More accessories means better CrossFit. You perform better with knee sleeves, wrist wraps and headbands on. You just do. You’re sure of it because of that one winter when your knee hurt a bit and now you need knee sleeves for every WOD. Unfortunately, CrossFit makes you sweat. Sweat breeds bacteria. Bacteria smells like ass. Ergo, your accessories smell like ass.
The solution: don’t put on a special cold-wash cycle for these little things. Take off your knee sleeves, wrist-wraps and other fabric accoutrements in the shower, pour some shower gel on them and give ’em a stomp. They’ll be dry and smelling sweet by the next day ready to wear again.
#2 On your knees
Speaking of knee sleeves, they have another purpose other than smelling like death and protecting from imaginary injuries.
Got a lunging WOD coming up? While the rest of the class bumbles around getting a mat – which they will then repeatedly trip on throughout the workout – slip on a pair of thick, cheap sleeves and your knees will be nice and protected wherever you may lunge.
Rocktape currently has a sale on their KneeCaps (true as at 26th Aug 2018) and are selling them for £12.99 per pair (not per sleeve as is often the case).
#3 Fail to prepare (your nutrition), prepare to fail!
(Get ready! Shameless self-promotion coming up)
Most of us do CrossFit because we want to look good naked. Unfortunately the hard part isn’t the WOD, it’s the other 23 hours of the day. If you’re not fuelling properly, you’re not going to get the results you want.
If only there was some sort of shop, cafe or ‘refuelling bar’ right in the gym. Oh wait, there is!
You can get NOCCO, coffee and various protein-infused treats at SE11 and CFL, or in the Shake It bar at CFL you can pre-order your shakes before the workout and pick them up on your way out (after you’ve taken your knee-sleeves for a shower).
Even if you don’t buy something from the gym, eat something. Anything.
#4 Don’t hang your WOD from the end of your rope
Have you ever been mid-way through a WOD only for the fastener to come off your skipping rope and ruin what was bound to be a white-board-topping time? If not, odds are you’ve seen it happen to someone else and watched them scrabble around on the floor trying to find their little rope screw fastener thingy.
Are you planning on growing any taller? No? Then you don’t need your rope to be adjustable anymore. Superglue down the plastic nubbins at end of your rope and you’ll never have to worry about it coming apart again.
#5 Peeing clearly
We workout, we sweat, we lose fluids, we drink more. But even before you did CrossFit, odds are you weren’t drinking enough water. Now that you are, the likelihood is that your water deficit is even greater.
While you’re at work, have a 2 litre bottle of water sitting on your desk as a constant reminder to drink. That two litre bottle needs to be empty by the end of the day. When it is, fill it back up, pop it in the fridge, and it’ll be ready for tomorrow.
Or better yet, buy our exclusive CFLDN water bottle and be the envy of your friends and super-hydrated at the same time.
#6 Hipster Hair Hack
A few years ago this hack would have been aimed almost exclusively at the ladies, but with the rise of the man-bun, this is no longer the case.
If you have long hair, you’ve likely had your ponytail come loose during a WOD, or got it caught under a bar bringing it down onto your back, or even been stupid enough to trap yourself under a foam roller. Don’t be that guy (or gal).
Leave a few spare hairbands around your water bottle, so that you’re never caught short during your next hair-related emergency.
Man-bun don’t look so silly no more, do it?
#7 You call that a knife? This is a knife!
Thick, hard calluses tear.
Thin, soft ones don’t.
Torn hands = no CrossFit.
You do the maths.
‘Corn and callus knife’ available at Boots to shave down those thick bits o’ nasty skin.
Make sure to replace the blade frequently and don’t be too aggressive with it! It’s still a knife.
#8 Double deadlift hack
I heard once that more injuries in the gym come from loading and unloading bars with careless form, than they do from the actual lift. That may or may not be true, but the next time you load a bar consider what your spine looks like vs how it looks when you perform the deadlift.
Love them or hate them, at some point you’re going to have to pick up a heavy thing at the gym. Whenever deadlifts roll around, first thing you should do is pick a spot by the plate stack. Save yourself time shlepping plates back and forth by loading up right next to the stacks.
Next hack: loading and unloading. You only have two hands to lift the bar off the floor and slide new plates on at the same time, which gets tricky as things get heavier. Don’t bother buying a deadlift jack; save yourself some time and money and grab a 0.5kg plate. Roll your loaded bar onto that plate and it will raise the bar a few millimetres off the floor, and enough that a plate will slide on or off with ease.
#9 Get a grip
Are you using a hook grip yet? No? You’re an idiot.
You know those CrossFit fail videos where someone wrenches a bar off the floor, only for their hands to slip and then they fall on their ass? Odds are they weren’t using a hook grip. There’s not an elite-level CrossFitter or Olympic Lifter in the world who doesn’t use this grip. You should be using it too.
If you’re not using it yet, here’s how to start:
Every time you pick up an empty bar and the class starts doing drills, do it with a hook-grip (see picture). Then go back to your normal grip when you add weight. It will hurt, but it won’t hurt forever. Do this for a few weeks and eventually the hook-grip will feel like second nature and your regular grip will feel weird.
But it won’t happen until you do it. Start light. Stick with it.
#10 He ain’t heavy, I do CrossFit
I’m sorry to tell you, you’ve been doing partner-carries all wrong. Forget piggy-backing. Piggy-backs are for babies and pigs (presumably).
Check out this video which explains the Fireman’s carry.
(Recognise the gym? That’s what Malcolm Place looked like in 2011!)
This was the first question I received from a little nutrition presentation I did. The audience turned to the questioner then to me as they were clearly thinking the same thing…. “Do I have to give up my sweet, precious, liquid gold?!”
The answer was “no, it’s not, but maybe yes, it depends…” This is the standard response for many health and fitness questions because everything depends on the person, goals and context – (be skeptical of those who say otherwise).
Yes! You’re an individual! And your processing of coffee is going to be different to that guy you know who makes a brew before he goes to bed. You might be like 50% of the population and have a variant of the CYP1A2 gene which makes you a ‘slow metaboliser’ of caffeine, putting you more at risk of hypertension, heart disease and impaired fasting glucose through excess coffee consumption. You might be taking oral contraceptives – this will double the clearance rate for caffeine, so you’re probably good with half a shot of espresso if you’re on the pill.
But coffee, let’s talk about the good:
It increases resting energy expenditure
It increases mental energy.
It enhances cognitive function
It increases neuromuscular function and coordination.
It has many antioxidant properties.
It Increases short term memory.
But we know this, right, the media loves headlines that boast the benefits of coffee, and there has been a lot of research documenting these pros. We must also remember that caffeine is a drug, and like all drugs it does have its drawbacks.
So when we finish that yin yoga class, adenosine is produced and we feel like a space cadet. Take that same yin yoga class, but add an espresso half an hour before and we won’t have the same spaced out feeling. Why? because caffeine blocks adenosine production, up-regulating our own neurotransmitters such as dopamine and glutamate, and blocking our capacity to slllooww doowwnnn. So caffeine is not actually making us wired, it’s putting a brick on the brake pedal, allowing us to keep charging.
BUT I LIKE BEING UP AND ABOUT, HARD CHARGING, ALWAYS ON THE GO, DOING EVERYTHING AT ONCE…
To work out the effects of coffee, we must factor in our external environment. Most of us live in a sympathetic/stress dominant society. High intensity exercise, smartphones, 12 hour workdays and the ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ mantra means that we’re often wired from dawn to dusk – no this is not good. Add caffeine to this sympathetic state and we can easily become over – stimulated where anxiety and jitteriness can override the cognitive benefits to the brew.
I can attest to this in my own life. Get me on a holiday and 2 coffees a day will really hit the spot but if I have the same amount when I’m in the city, running a business, studying and training heavily and that same amount might send me over the edge. Realising this has led me to avoiding caffeine in stressful times like exams or long work days, but enjoying it when I feel myself more balanced.
In a more practical sense, let’s look at when coffee can or cannot help you:
Studies show that coffee is good for ‘getting shit done.’ Not necessarily for creativity but for completing learned tasks that don’t require creativity or intuition. For unskilled, learned behaviour, e.g. data entry, you can get a lot more done, and probably have more fun.
The story is different when we need to apply abstract thinking and creativity. Studies indicate that caffeine will improve speed, but not necessarily skill. Though creativity is hard to measure in a lab setting, there’s some good evidence to suggest that moments of insight happen with the wandering mind. In my experience, moments of creativity occur when we’re in a float tank, after a yoga class, in meditation, and not when you’re forcing it. For me, jacking myself up with caffeine to inject some creativity often results in reverting to admin because we LOVE GETTING SHIT DONE.
For power sports like powerlifting and weightlifting, caffeine can play a role but I’d limit it to competition days and times when you really need a pickup. If you require it to get you psyched for every training session then you should take a day off and go for a walk in the sun.
Verdict: Avoid as a ‘pick me up,’ use in competition days.
In high intensity sports like MMA and CrossFit, caffeine can be effective, but again, if you’re using it to get you psyched about a workout then it’s time to pause and reflect. I’ve been around CrossFit for awhile and I’ve seen many people rely on stimulants to get them through workouts, neglecting the messages their body is sending them and leaving them susceptible to injury and burnout. Further, they block the parasympathetic nervous system activation that’s essential for recovery, and they end up moving through workouts without any purpose or intent – kind of like a wounded warrior in a battle scene who’s throwing their sword around courageously but failing to connect.
Verdict: Use on competition days and avoid reliance on it.
In endurance sports like rugby, AFL, or triathlon I don’t think caffeine has a place in training or on game day. The effects of caffeine are too short lived to be beneficial for the whole game. In these sports we need to think about longevity, recovery, and getting up and going week after week. Caffeine could only be used for the last 20 minute push in a grand final, but we want to be relying on adrenaline and muscular endurance 99% of the time.
Verdict: Avoid except for the last 20 minutes in a Grand Final.
In Social Occasions
Coffee holds a special place in our culture, and for many it’s a beautiful tool for getting people together, and this is the more important than any of the above. I’m coming to believe that the healthiest thing that you can do is have a good community and quality relationships, so I won’t let any of the above get in the way of enjoying coffee for social reasons.
If you enjoy coffee and it’s helping you in some form or another, then go for it. If you’re operating from one espresso to the next then maybe it’s time for a few days off, or a yoga class. For athletes, I’d seriously look at the effect that coffee is having on adrenal function and performance, and use it sparingly. Again, the case of coffee comes down to bio-individuality; who you are, what your goals are etc. One thing that we can all agree on though, is that you should always, at all costs, avoid decaf.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in London, he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols. You can work with him here http://barefoothealth.me/nutrition-coaching/
Baird B, Smallwood J, Mrazek M, Kam J, Franklin M, Schooler, J. (2012). “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.” Psychological Science. 23(10).
Cornelis, El – Sohemy, Kabagambe & Campos. (2006) “Coffee, CYP1A2 genotype, and risk of myocardial infarction.” JAMA, 2006. 295(10).
Glade, Michael J. “Caffeine—Not Just a Stimulant.” Nutrition 26.10 (2010): 932-38.
Lifehacker: “What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain.” http://lifehacker.com/5585217/what-caffeine-actually-does-to-your-brain
Mackenzie, Todd, Richard Comi, Patrick Sluss, Ronit Keisari, Simone Manwar, Janice Kim, Robin Larson, and John A. Baron. “Metabolic and Hormonal Effects of Caffeine: Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Crossover Trial.” Metabolism 56.12 (2007): 1694-698.
Martinez, Campbell Franek, Buchanan, Colquhoun. “The effect of acute pre – workout supplementation on power and strength performance.” Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. (2016): 13:29.
In a world of keto, low carb, high fat, low carb high fat, paleo, primal, vegan and carnivarian (actually a thing now) there’s no wonder there’s so much mass confusion about what the best diet is. Amongst these doctrines, there is very little room for context – the low carb keto folk will say that carbs are the devil, without considering someone’s level of exercise or hormone status, while some vegan folk think that plants will change the world and meat causes diabetes – an actual claim from the recent propaganda film: What the Health.
And I get it, tribes are cool and extremes are easy, but in order to work out what YOU should be eating, the solution goes beyond tribalism and into your personal framework. We learnt this in my previous post on carbs making you fat where I made the claim that carb intake should be dependent on your activity level and goals (weight loss, mass gain, performance). In this post we go deeper and look at different bodytypes and their ability to turn carbs into energy or store as bodyfat…. Yes, there’s solid evidence to say that your carb intake should be determined by your bodytype!
Let’s look at the three main bodytypes or somatotypes made popular by William Sheldon in 1940 (you might remember them from high school health class):
Two important footnotes:
You’re not one strict bodytype. It’s important to know that you don’t fall strictly into one category – categorisation always sucks! Rather, we’re a mix of all, and have one dominant bodytype, much like the vata, pitta and kapha doshas in ayurvedic medicine.
You can move between bodytypes. It’s also possible that an endo can become a meso or a meso to become an ecto. Diet, activity and lifestyle play a strong role in where we sit and where we can go – GREAT NEWS!
These folk are usually long, lean and wirey. They are known as “hard gainers” as they will have a tough time putting on mass. They use strength from their nervous system rather than muscle mass, making recovery extra important.
On Carbs: These guys shouldn’t worry too much about how many carbs they’re taking in. They’re usually sensitive to insulin (good thing), making them efficient carb burners. They’re usually sympathetic nervous system dominant, have a high metabolic rate, and can annoy many of their friends by eating whatever they want and remain thin.
Nutrition recommendations: Ensure you’re getting a good amount of carbs throughout the day, particularly around exercise. Also make sure you’re getting protein at every meal. Your body wants to stay lean, so make sure you keep your muscle mass high by eating enough protein. And don’t use your ecto status to eat whatever you want! You must take care of your gut, liver and nervous system (all seem to be more sensitive with ectomorphs) by eating quality foods.
Exercise recommendations: You may like your cardio because you’re good at it, but don’t ignore weight training as it’s probably going to be more important for you. Do compound exercises (squat, bench press, pullup, deadlift) at a heavy weight and make sure your nervous system is well recovered between sessions.
I hate celebrity comparisons but Beiber is all Ecto
These guys are characterised by having higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone, and having a high potential to gain muscle mass. Like their ectomorph friends, they’re usually more insulin sensitive, making it easy to process carbs, especially if they’re active. Ectomorphs usually hate these guys as they can spend a few months at the gym and be looking like the hulk. Mesomorphs guys should still watch what they eat if they want to stay lean, as a big off season can mean storing of bodyfat. Carbs should still be eaten at every meal, and should be prioritised around training.
Nutrition Recommendations: Eat a mixed diet of proteins, carbs and fats, getting a solid serving of carbs in around workouts. If you’re more sedentary, watch your carb consumption if you want to keep lean and mean.
Exercise Recommendations: Ensure you keep up a regular training regime. Don’t let it slide and rely on your natural athleticism! Embrace variation and get into both strength and conditioning.
Serena Williams: The ultimate Meso.
Our more grounded, heavy set friends, these folk are known to be less active, and often curse themselves for their uncanny ability to put on weight… They’re usually weapons in the weight room, and have a natural ability to lift BIG.
Carbs for these folk should be taken in with caution, as too many can easily be stored as bodyfat. Getting the bulk of them in around exercise is a good idea, and monitoring their intake at our times in the day is also recommended.
Nutrition Recommendations: Prioritise fat and protein, and get the bulk of your carbs around your workouts. A low carb diet might work well for you, particularly if you’re sedentary. Also, chew your food for improved satiety signalling and watch for portion sizes! If you’re new this, you might want to track your calories via an app like myfitnesspal to get an idea of where you’re at.
Exercise Recommendations: Move! It may not always feel easy but trust me it’s worth it. Cardio might feel tough, but it’s going to do you the world of good and give you energy! And cardio doesn’t always mean running! If you can’t make it to the gym, then a long walk is nearly as good.
If anyone knows this lady, I’m currently taking on new clients.
So what to take away from this? Work out where you’re at, where you want to go, then put together the right plan to get you there. If you need some help getting yourself there, that’s where coaches come into play!
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in London, he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.
Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin SecretionThe DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2673150
The role of carbohydrates in insulin resistance. The Journal of Nutrition. DOI: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/131/10/2782S/4686473
Main characteristics of metabolically obese normal weight and metabolically healthy obese phenotypes. Nutrition Reviews. DOI: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/73/3/175/1837133?redirectedFrom=fulltext
Somatotype, Nutrition and Obesity. Reviews on Environmental Health. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11199249
Somatotype and disease prevalence in adults. Reviews on Environmental Health. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12088094
Carbs…. it’s a dirty word. Controversy, curiosity, even conflict arises when you bring up this word among the healthsphere. Everyone has an opinion on carbs; how essential they are, how they’re going to kill you or how they make you a bad person. The food industry has noticed this too and we’ve seen a low carb revolution where people can feel better about their 6th pint of beer because this one is low carb.
A few things about carbs before we start:
There are many foods that are classified as carbohydrates: breads, pasta, rice, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, oats, fruits, legumes.
They’re one of three macronutrients, alongside fat and protein.
They’re broken up into sugars, starches or fibre.
They mostly provide energy, but can easily be turned into fat (this is an important evolutionary mechanism).
They’re actually non – essential (despite what our health professionals may believe). You can get on fine without them, whereas protein and fats are essential.
Much of the myopia around carbs has come from our awful food guidelines that have told us to eat a shitload of them. And why not, they’re cheap, easy to access, and usually delicious. Check out the old food pyramid:
After a few decades of rampant obesity and dietary disease, people began to question this pyramid and everything we believed about nutrition. There’s a great piece from the New York Times on that here. As a result, there’s been a crusade of folk condemning carbs, many trying low carb diets, paleo diets, ketogenic diets. Many doing well off them, many not so well.
Like most things in nutrition, the answers about carbs really depends on you. Who are you? What do you do? How does this feel? how does that feel? The answer cannot be explained in a BuzzFeed news title.
These nuances are prevalent in the many studies that have been done on different diets of traditional societies. On one side there are the Kitavans who eat a high carb diet (rich in starches) on the other side there are the massai who are reported to eat a diet low in carbs. Which is superior? Well, both diets seem to work as they don’t suffer from any dietary related disease or metabolic syndrome, and are robustly healthy as noted in Staffan Lindeberg’s research
Where we DO have some more answers is with carbs and their influence on physical activity. And we know this, right? “Carbs give you energy!” Says everyone who objects to your low carb diet. And they’re not wrong, carbs are a valuable source of energy and they’re the body’s first choice of fuel for most physical activity. Though this mantra tends to be abused as the office jockey will stock up on muffins to give her “energy” to get through the day.
So what do I do?
First, start by “earning your carbs” which means we’re matching our carb intake with our physical activity, and getting the nutrient timing right to maximise your recovery.
To make this simpler, here are three different people, with very lifestyles, each of whom has a completely different carbohydrate need:
Person 1: Office Jockey
Goals: Lose 20kg of bodyfat.
Training Volume: Very Little. This guy moves from his bed, to his car, to his office and then reverses these steps at the end of the day.
Recommended Carb Intake: Very little. I’d recommend going low in carbohydrates (<100g per day) and sticking to a higher fat, moderate protein diet. These carbs should come mostly from green leafy vegetables and he should go easy on the fruit.
Since weight loss is his main goal, I’d prioritise fat and protein, and aim to get these at every meal. It also goes without saying that he should get some god damn movement in his life and avoid all refined carbs and sugars.
Person 2: Fit Mum
Goals: Lose a few kgs, stay in shape for life, keep up with her kids.
Training Volume: Crossfit 3xpw, long walks on weekends, general moving around with kids.
Recommended Carb Intake: Moderate. Between 100-150g per day, and slightly more on training days. Carbs should come from green leafy veggies, and starches (potato, sweet potato, pumpkin) and the bulk of her intake should come post workout. Two pieces of fruit per day is okay, but she shouldn’t go overboard, and should still make sure she’s getting adequate protein and fat at each meal.
Person 3: Games Athlete
Goals: Improved performance: stronger, faster, compete at an elite level.
Training Volume: Training 6+ times per week, sometimes twice a day. Lifts weights, sprints, does cardio, and high intensity sessions.
Recommended Carb Intake: High, >200g of carbs per day, from a variety of sources: starches (potato, sweet potato), rice, rice, oats, whole grains.
Even these are very vague guidelines. If you want a more accurate snapshot, you need to factor in thyroid status, adrenal profile, and gut function and this can play a huge role in the impact carbs will play on the body. For example, if we’re suffering from hypothyroidism, then a moderate carb approach will be more appropriate due to the raised insulin and conversion of T4 into T3. Whereas if you’ve got blood sugar issues, then any sort of ‘moderate’ approach to carb consumption can be like kryptonite.
So as you can see, there’s no perfect health diet for all humans, and anyone who says otherwise is misinformed or an arsehole. A good place to start would be asking yourself, “what is my physical activity like?” “How do I feel when I eat this?” “Am I over/underweight?” What’s my performance like?” “Do I have an underlying health condition?” With an understanding of your body and it’s needs, you’re setting yourself to be a strong and capable human.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and a Coach at Crossfit London.
CrossFit and paleo, two concepts that have grown side by side for the past fifteen years. Two market driven movements that promote health, minimalism, community, and two movements that are as controversial as they effective.
Having high stakes in both of these (I coach crossfit and use a paleo template in my nutrition coaching), I have seen first hand just how effective, and also how damaging these approaches can be.
First, we should look at both movements in their rawest form. CrossFit: A method of exercise that practices functional movement at high intensity. Paleo: A way of eating that promotes eating fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, nuts and seeds. In other words, eating as minimally processed foods as possible.
USUALLY, a standard paleo diet will be slimmer on the carbs and larger on the protein. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t consciously smash your sweet potato and go “high carb paleo,” but most of us who go paleo will be leaning to the lower side of carb consumption (<150g per day) – that’s about 3 sweet potatoes.
Now, questions of doing paleo and crossfit; “is it optimal? Will it help me lose weight? Will it help me gain muscle? Will it save my life?” The answers to these are like so many in nutrition… “it depends.”
So it’s hard to give a definitive answer as to whether it’s right for you, but in an effort to reach a conclusion, I’ll give you three real life examples of people I’ve come across and you can make up your mind where you sit from there.
This girl is training 2 hours per day, 5+ times per week. She lifts heavy, goes fast, and is completely dedicated to making the sport. Her goals are to to put on muscle to lift heavy, but not too much that it interrupts her conditioning.
2. ‘The Superdad.’
He’s recently taken up crossfit and trains 3 times per week. He has a busy schedule with two kids and a full time job, but fitness still holds an important part in his life. His goals are to lose weight and stay strong to keep up with his kids.
3. ‘The Office Jockey.’
This guy has recently taken up crossfit as the doctor suggested it. He’s overweight, has insulin resistance, and has high blood pressure. This guy is also extremely sedentary, and hasn’t had regular movement or sunlight since school. He’s started training 2 times per week and goals are to lose weight, feel more energy and build some muscle mass.
Now, the verdicts. 1. Should the “Athlete” eat paleo?
No! Why? Let’s look at her schedule… She’s training around 2 hours a day and spends the rest of the time recovering and thinking about training… Glamorous?! She’s using her anaerobic system consistently, and this system runs on glucose (carbs), not fat or ketones. Fran doesn’t run well on fat.
Carbs such as potato, sweet potato, beets, pumpkin, as well as non – paleo foods in rice, quinoa, oats (gasp) and other whole grains should be a staple for these guys, whereas our first two friends should be more diligent with them. Protein should obviously be a priority as maintaining muscle mass is important, and fat should be adequate.
Nutrient timing is also important. Post workout carbs will help funnelling nutrients to the muscles so adding some dextrose to her Barefoot Health protein shake would be helpful.
But won’t all those carbs store as bodyfat? Carbs, insulin, fat storage right?! Not quite. When we’re doing this type of anaerobic training, we mostly store these carbs as glycogen, not body fat. A whole different set of rules applies to our “Superdad” or “Office Jockey”, so don’t do a Michael Phelps and eat 12 wheat bix for breakfast just yet.
2. Should the “Superdad” eat paleo?
Yes! Greg Glassman’s initial mantra of “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar” is a perfect fit for this guy. In addition to this, a little tinkering with carb timing and quantity is required here to make sure he’s keeping the belly fat off. He should ensure he’s getting carbs post workout, and enough to support his activity – around 150g per day seems to be a good area to stick to. His plan also has some wiggle room… Since he’s pretty active, sleeps well, and has good community, sticking to a plan of 80/20 paleo/non paleo will work well and be sustainable and give enough room for a glass of wine over his grass – fed steak.
3. Should the ‘Office Jockey’ eat paleo?
Yes! Absolutely. It might just save his life. Most carbohydrates will not be friends with this man, and his diet should be centred around healthy fats, protein and veggies. Why? Well he’s one of 2 million Australians with pre diabetes, and a continuation of his current lifestyle will land him will land him in a very dangerous state. Having extremely low glucose tolerance means eating things like cereals and wholegrain bread is lethal, as it’s jacking up our blood sugar, and we don’t have the necessary insulin function to maintain homeostasis. (cereal and wholegrain bread are both recommended from our chief authority on diabetes – shocked face).
Now, should this fella get into the gym, and I hope he would, he might want to add some post workout carbs in the form of sweet potato or pumpkin, but I’d recommend going between 50-100g of carbs in the short term to restore some baseline of health.
So the point here is to accept that we’re all the same but different animals with different nutrition requirements for optimal health. At a baseline we can all agree that a diet with heaps of veggies, enough protein and healthy fats is good for all. But digging deeper, we need to consider our genetics, activity level, activity type, hormonal profile and GI status when deciding what the optimal diet is.
It’s been a hard back week at CrossFit London. Most of you use your backs well, moderate your loads and maintain a tight core when lifting, meaning deadlifting isn’t an issue.
If deadlifting is an issue, it’s normally traced down to a lack of what Stuart McGill calls ” back hygiene”. Poor back hygiene means you use your back when lifting, all the time! You also abuse your back every day, by slumping and slouching ( or overextending). I t could also mean you are ok, but you cannot control yourself in a WOD. You’ll pile through in a workout no matter what your body is telling you ( it’s ok, I did this too, but, it’s tough being an asshole isn’t it!)
I’m an expert in this area because, for years, this is what I did. Zero back hygiene. My back took everything I threw at it. Until it broke.
If you have back pain, there are 5 key mistakes you probably make. I made them all
1) Having a slumping place. That’s the place where you mold furniture to the worst position for your back, and you slump there for hours.
for the record, here is my slumping place
2) I went searching for physio’s, therapists and experts to fix my back. The reality is that they all fixed it. I just went right on home and screwed it up again
3) I failed to take responsibility: I blamed CrossFit for setting the deadlift, furniture manufacturers for making soft sofa’s, girlfriends for buying soft sofa’s, the door of our flat being wide enough to allow a soft sofa into my life. I also loaded stress, poor diet and worry into the mix, to get top quality pain, I certainly didn’t moderate my exercise: anger drove my deadlift up to levels that would guarantee to destroy it.
4) A refusal to do the “guaranteed to work” boring therapy exercises
5) A refusal to realise that I was a “backaholic”. That I loved slumping and I liked that sickly sweet pain that comes with 8 hours of hanging in your back. I think I also liked the sympathy I got, but that’s awful to confess (in fact, I’m going to edit that confession out).
The good news is this: unless you have back plague, or a demon has possessed your spine, you can fix your back. Back plague, demonic possession otherwise known as Red Flags are here: if you have these symptoms, you do have a medical condition (or a demon) and you need help fast.
But, unless you are in the tiny minority who has something really wrong with their back , your pain is down to you, and you can fix it if you want or can be bothered to.
If any of our members are remotely interested, we will go through the skills and drills you need to fix your back on Sunday 16th July at 10.30am in the back room at 9 Malcolm Place E2, for free. The class “back hygeine” is on the booking schedule. You should be able to book in and the system won’t charge you!
Don’t worry about me! If no one shows, I’ll drink coffee! After all, I’ve decided to manage my back. I’m so over needing it to hurt