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A question of nutrition - Part 5

Eine Frage der Ernährung - Teil 5

Measure your belly!

Q: I've read that your waist size can be the best indicator of your overall health. Is this true? If so, what are the guidelines here?

A: For years, we nutritionists have used a low-tech method as an indicator of insulin resistance: a waist circumference of 100 cm or more for men or 88 cm or more for women. If your waist circumference exceeds this value, then you can bet your life savings that you are suffering from insulin resistance and are on your way to even bigger problems.

Interestingly, these abdominal circumferences are the exact numbers that a recent study correlated with double the risk of death compared to smaller abdominal circumferences - less than 86 centimeters for men and less than 71 centimeters for women. Each 5-centimeter increase in abdominal circumference increased the risk of death by 17% for men and 13% for women. Previous research showed that the same figures - 100 cm for men or 88 cm for women - were an indicator of a higher risk of stroke. I don't usually like terms like "the best indicator of overall health" because there are so many interwoven factors that come into play, but if there is such a thing as a best indicator by far, belly fat would be a hot contender for the title. Not all body fat is created equal. The fat stored around the hips, butt and thighs, also known as subcutaneous fat because it's just under the skin, may drive you crazy and make your jeans burst, but it's not nearly as dangerous as the other type of body fat - belly fat, which is stored around the midsection and is also known as visceral fat. The latter is a metabolic nightmare.

Stored deep inside the abdomen, it is a metabolically active fat that directly increases the risk of all kinds of health problems, including metabolic syndrome and diabetes. In the study mentioned above, scientists examined data from nearly 360,000 Europeans who were followed over a 10-year period. The men and women with the largest waist circumference had twice the risk of premature death compared to people with a smaller waist circumference.

This was true even when all other risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption were eliminated. "There are not many simple individual characteristics that can increase the risk of premature death to this extent," said study author Tobias Pischon, MD, MPH.

So yes, belly fat tells you a lot about your health. It may not be the best indicator of overall health by far, but it's pretty darn close.

Fighting water with water?

Q: What's with this new study showing that drinking extra water in the morning can help with water elimination?

A: Don't get too excited. As one reporter correctly pointed out about this study, "the effects are small and the study results are preliminary." But there is evidence that water can help burn a few extra calories, and since the benefits of water for other things are so numerous, you should definitely drink enough water if you don't already. And if you don't already, you'd be an idiot and probably not even reading this column. Here are the facts: German scientists studied calorie consumption in 14 healthy and normal-weight men and women. Within 10 minutes of consuming 500 ml of water, the subjects' metabolic rate increased by about 30% and reached its maximum after 30 to 40 minutes.

Interestingly, there was a difference between the sexes - the increase in metabolic rate in men involved more fat burning, while the increase in metabolic rate in women involved more carbohydrate burning. 30% may sound like a lot, but when you consider that the resting metabolic rate of a 70 kilo person is about 1.2 kcal per minute (about 75 kcal per hour), a 30% increase in metabolic rate is only 20 kcal. Consuming an additional 1.5 liters per day would equate to an additional 17,400 kcal of calories consumed per year, or about five pounds of fat.

That may not be a huge weight loss, but here's the interesting part: water is needed for almost every metabolic process in the body. It flushes waste products and toxins out of the body. It helps lubricate joints and keep skin fresh and moisturized. And it helps prevent water retention - even if this is a bit of a paradox. So you need to drink water anyway, and if it helps you lose an extra half pound a month, that's a nice bonus.

For you trainers with weight loss clients, I have a formula. There is absolutely no science to support this formula, but I have found that it works really well for most people: Take your current weight in pounds, divide it by 2, and drink that many ounces of water per day (converted to the metric system, this is roughly body weight in kilos * 35 ml of water). For a person weighing 80 kilos, that would be about 2.8 liters.

Drinking this much can't hurt and could help you considerably.

Secondary hormones

Q: People talk about all the hormones in poultry, milk, etc. Is this something to worry about? The bottom line is that all hormones are large proteins. Aren't they broken down into their individual amino acids during digestion anyway?

A: Where did you read this propaganda? Carbon monoxide is just a simple mixture of carbon and oxygen and yet you don't suck it out of the tailpipe, do you?

The hormones used in livestock farming in many countries can have all sorts of effects on the body, none of which have been fully studied and none of which are likely to be really good. And it's not just the hormones. These poorly treated animals are pumped full of antibiotics and fed an unnatural diet of grain that makes them sick and shifts the balance of their fats towards the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.

So even if you're not a supporter of animal rights, you should still avoid the meat available in supermarkets like the plague for selfish reasons. Grass-fed and humanely treated animals should be the meat of choice, as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, which can help you lose fat, and don't contain antibiotics or hormones that you don't need or want. If you are taking hormones, you should get them from a doctor and know what you are taking. Do you really want to take the hormones that are given to cattle?

Less oil, more T

Q: As a weight-training man who wants to build bigger muscles, what foods can I eat to lower my estrogen levels naturally?

A: My question to you is how do you know what your estrogen levels are? And if you don't know how high they are, how do you know if they need to be reduced? All men naturally convert small amounts of testosterone into estrogen - just as women naturally produce some testosterone in their bodies. In general, if you have a large amount of testosterone - either because your body produces a lot of testosterone or because you have a nice cooperative doctor - your estrogen levels will also be slightly higher, as some of the extra testosterone will be converted to estrogen. Too low estrogen levels are not desirable either, as estrogen has some important protective benefits. But of course oestrogen levels should not be too high either.

The fact is that without a blood test, preferably done by a doctor who knows a lot about hormones, there is no way to know what your estrogen levels are. And, at the risk of sounding like a teacher, I'd like to point out that it's never a good idea to tweak your hormones without medical supervision. In fact, it's a pretty stupid idea.

There's nothing wrong with using testosterone, but trying to figure out the right dosage without a blood test and smart monitoring is about as smart as trying to hit the dartboard blindfolded in a crowded pub. You might hit the target, but you're more likely to hit something/someone else. If your estrogen levels are indeed too high, your doctor may suggest a low dose of an aromatase inhibitor. Aromatase is the enzyme responsible for converting testosterone to estrogen. One way to reduce this conversion is to inhibit this enzyme. I don't know of any foods that you could eat that have an anti-oestrogen effect, but I do know of some foods that you should avoid - including soy. If you don't want to give up soy completely, then you should at least eat less of it. The phytoestrogens found in soy can be helpful for some people in certain cases, but if you're a man worried about high estrogen levels, the last thing you want is more estrogen in your diet - even if it's the weaker versions like the estrogen derivatives found in soy.

That is, of course, unless you have a strange desire to grow man boobs.

Good food at the airport

Q: I often find myself in airports that are flooded with fast food restaurants and gift stores. Where can I get some protein and healthy fats here?

A: Airport food used to be a nightmare, but it's gotten a lot better. I see all kinds of restaurants and snack bars where you can find chicken salad, sushi, cheese & nuts and all kinds of good stuff. Something else you can take anywhere would be beef jerky and a bag of mixed nuts.

Less acid

Q: I've been hearing a lot lately about the acid-heavy American diet. But what does acid-heavy mean in this context and what harmful effects does it have?

A: Acidic and alkaline/basic are represented by the Ph scale, which ranges from 0 (extremely acidic, like battery acid) to 14 (extremely alkaline). A Ph of 7 is considered neutral and the Ph of the blood is usually kept in a very narrow range between 7.35 and 7.45, preferably 7.40, which is a touch towards the alkaline side of the scale. Please read the following carefully as it has important implications for both general health and bodybuilding in particular.

Since I know most readers care more about bodybuilding than general health (okay, I'm kidding), I'll cover that part first. As you get older, you lose some muscle mass - even if you train with weights to maintain your muscles. One reason you lose muscle has to do with nitrogen, which, as you get older, is broken down at a faster rate than you can consume it. And the reason this happens is due to a slow change in kidney function, which results in an acidic state of the blood. And as you probably know, you can't build new muscle without a positive nitrogen balance.

From a health perspective, this is the same acidic state that contributes to a loss of calcium, which ultimately leads to osteoporosis. This is further exacerbated by a high sodium to potassium ratio in the Western diet, but that's another story. A diet rich in animal foods, grains and sugar shifts the blood's pH slightly towards the acidic range. This slightly more acidic blood pH also contributes to reduced muscle strength, increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and a loss of calcium, as well as a loss of zinc, magnesium and other important minerals.

What can you do about this?

The answer is simple: eat more fruit and vegetables. The problem is not animal products per se, but the imbalance between highly acidic foods (of which we usually eat a ton) and alkaline foods (of which we eat too little). "Balancing animal products with fruits and vegetables is the key to keeping blood Ph levels in the slightly alkaline range," says bodybuilder and USDA scientist C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD.

A 1995 study by Remer, T., and F. Manz titled "Potential renal acid load of foods and its influence on urine pH." published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association 95 (7): 791-797) examined the acidifying and alkalizing effects of foods. Raisins and spinach were particularly alkalizing, but all types of fruits and vegetables will help establish a healthy acid-alkaline balance.

By Jonny Bowden


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