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A question of nutrition - Part 4

Eine Frage der Ernährung - Teil 4

Tuna and mercury?

Q: What's the final word on tuna and mercury? Tuna is a bodybuilding staple, but I'm starting to worry about eating too much of it.

A: The short answer: don't worry about this. I say this as someone who worries as much as anyone about the toxic effects of mercury - not to mention the government's half-hearted efforts to control this problem. There is no doubt that mercury is found in many fish. Where it gets complicated is when we try to define the level at which it really poses a risk to our health. This depends on a number of different factors. A pregnant woman and the developing fetus are much more susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury than the average bodybuilder. Many of the warnings about high levels of mercury in fish were in fact aimed at this population (pregnant women, not bodybuilders).

Then there is the question of how we define a "safe" amount. Many people believe that the official standards are too lax. To them, this is like saying that speeding only becomes a problem when you're going over 180 km/h. If this is the standard, then almost all of us are driving safely. But let's look at this from a different angle. If you stop eating fish, you pay a price for it. Most experts believe that the consequences for general health of giving up fish completely are far more serious than any potential problems caused by mercury in our bodies. There are two things you can do: First, you should take plenty of selenium, which seems to have a chelating effect on mercury. Secondly, you can try to find tuna that contains less mercury.

Overall, I think the benefits of cold water fish like tuna and salmon, which are such excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, more than outweigh the potential dangers. If you are pregnant, then my advice will be slightly different, but not that much different.

Eat a lot, die young?

Q: I have a problem. I want to build as much muscle as possible and that means eating a lot and training hard. But I also want to live long and it seems like calorie restriction might help with that. Does calorie restriction work? Do bodybuilders like me die young?

A: Good question and I wish I had a perfect answer. As in many areas of life, the best strategy for one goal (training for a marathon or the Arnold Classics) may not necessarily be the best strategy for another goal (living as long as the soy-loving people of Okinawa). I don't know of any study that has looked at how long professional bodybuilders live, but it might make sense to look at a few examples. You might remember Chris Dickerson, the winner of the Mr. Olympia title in 1982.

When I lived in New York in the mid-nineties, I trained at the same gym where Chris worked as a trainer. He didn't look like he did on stage in 1982, of course, but he looked fit, healthy and robust. And a friend of mine, former Mr. America Tom Terwilliger is the prime example of good health. He's a successful motivational speaker, but he's a slim reflection of the man who once graced the cover of Muscular Development. While I can't speak for these guys, I'm assuming none of them continue to use the same "supplement program" from before or continue to train as hard. The same goes for Lee Labrada. But these guys are in very good shape and live a healthy and active lifestyle. It's hard to find a reason why they should die early. Quite the opposite.

That being said, science shows that calorie restriction is a potentially effective strategy for prolonging life. A reduction of 25 to 33 percent seems to be sufficient. It's not the kind of strategy you'd follow if you want to build muscle, but you don't have to look like a vegan beanstalk to reap the benefits. Personally, I'd say that as long as your calories are coming from really good sources, you're not abusing your body (you know what I mean), you're getting adequate amounts of rest, sun and sleep, and your life is balanced, you should be fine. And remember that our goals change as we get older. As you approach 60, looking like Dorian Yates probably won't be as important to you. A low body fat percentage, plenty of energy, nice muscles and well-functioning sexual organs will probably be enough for you. Being the most muscular guy in the neighborhood will be less important than being alive and healthy.


Q: I've seen claims that chia seeds are better than flaxseed or even fish oil. What do you think about this?

A: I would take a guess: You heard these claims from someone trying to sell you chia. Chia appears to be a good food and a viable substitute for flaxseed as a source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. The USDA database shows that chia seeds contain slightly more fiber and slightly more calcium and phosphorus, while flax seeds contain slightly more protein and more undifferentiated polyunsaturated fatty acids. All in all, they are not that different from each other. In the quantities you are likely to consume - a few tablespoons here and there - it shouldn't make much difference whether you use flaxseed or chia seeds, apart from convenience. Flaxseeds need to be hulled as they have a hard shell, whereas chia seeds do not.

To be fair, it should be mentioned that there are a few studies on chia - a member of the mint family with the Latin name Slavia Hispanica L. - which show that chia can lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and improve blood sugar control in diabetics. But there is also a lot of research on the benefits of flaxseed. One thing that flaxseed has over chia seeds is the presence of lignans, which have numerous health benefits including anti-cancer effects. There has been a lot of press coverage about a particular brand of chia seeds called Salba, whose manufacturer claims that they are far superior to regular chia seeds. These Salba chia seeds were also used in the study mentioned above.

But Wayne Coates, a professor at the University of Arizona and author of a book on the subject (Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs) believes that Salba's marketing is nothing more than pure marketing, as Salba is nothing more than ordinary white chia. His website compares white and black chia and you can see at first glance that there is no difference. So there is no grind to pay a higher price for Salba. As for comparing chia to fish oil, this is completely ridiculous. Chia seeds and flaxseed are sources of alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, so it's not fair to compare chia to fish oil. Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, two completely different omega-3 fatty acids that are not comparable to alpha-linolenic acid. The body will produce EPA and DHA from alpha-linolenic acid, but the conversion rate is not particularly high. If alpha-linolenic acid is your only source of omega-3 fatty acids, then you should make sure to take at least one or better several tablespoons of linseed oil or a few tablespoons of linseed or chia seeds every day. On the other hand, you can also stick chia seeds on a silly little clay figure and give it as a Christmas present to someone who doesn't know video games.

Stressed out? How about L-theanine

Q: Is it true that the amino acid theanine can help you relax?

A: I wrote about the amino acid theanine in my book The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth, which is said to have the ability to relieve anxiety, which it does.

Theanine is an amino acid not found in normal dietary protein and is found in green tea, which may be one of the reasons why green tea does not cause anxiety despite its caffeine content. I find theanine very helpful and always have some on hand when dealing with publishers and editors. Theanine blocks the binding of L-glutamic acid, a stimulating neurotransmitter, to the glutamate receptors in the brain. If you imagine glutamic acid molecules as lamps and the receptors as electronic connections on a wall, then theanine switches off some of these connections. Fewer lamps are switched on, there is less bright light and the brain is less "excited". Does that make sense?

A 1999 study examined the brain activity of volunteers who were given 50 to 200 mg of L-theanine. The supplement helped to generate alpha waves in the brain, which have a relaxing effect. Theanine also increased levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA.

Does Diet Coke make me fat?

Q: Will light drinks make me fat, as some studies claim? How can something with no calories have this effect?

A: We don't know for sure that they will make you fat, but they have been linked to obesity in several ways.

Two years ago, a University of Texas Health Science Center study found that there was a 41 percent increased risk of obesity per can of light drink consumed. "We observed that the more light drinks a person drank, the more likely they were to gain weight," said Sharon Fowler, an epidemiologist representing the American Diabetes Association.

We don't know why this happens, but we have a few theories. One is psychological. Many people unconsciously consume more food because they think it's okay since they're drinking Diet Coke. I call this the Disneyland theory - go to Disneyland and watch people with a huge portion of fries in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other.

A second theory is that the sweet taste could cause an insulin response through classical conditioning - like Pavlov's dog - even though the drink actually provides no calories. (Translator's note: this theory has been clearly refuted by numerous studies, as at least in humans an insulin release can only occur as a reaction to an increase in blood sugar levels. Animal studies are not conclusive here, as in some species insulin secretion can also be stimulated by other factors). The most promising theory, however, is that calorie-free drinks that taste like they are supposed to provide calories somehow interfere with the brain's regulatory mechanisms for controlling appetite and calorie control.

No one yet knows the real reasons. It could all turn out to be a coincidence - fat people simply drink more light drinks. But I doubt it. Either way, there are plenty more reasons to avoid the chemicals and artificial sweeteners in light drinks - regardless of whether they actually have an effect on weight.

Is it all for the drain?

Q: I've been hearing more and more lately that vitamins and other supplements do nothing more than generate "expensive urine". Is that true? Am I really peeing it all out again?

A: The next time some idiot tells you something like this, ask them to explain the concept of the cocaine addict who spends a week's wages on coke or a Mr. Olympia contestant whose medicine cabinet is full of Deca and Dianabol.

If one of these guys pees in a cup, you will find traces of his drugs. Does this mean that these substances have no effect between ingestion and excretion? Of course not. If no traces of these drugs showed up in the urine sample, then the dealers would have some explaining to do.

Expensive urine? Give me a break with that nonsense.

By Jonny Bowden

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