Mind-Muscle Connection: The Missing Piece To Your Fitness?

mind-body-connection-nerve-muscle

Chances are high it’s not the first time you hear someone talking about mind-muscle connection. But perhaps I’ve just made you notice you never really wondered what it’s all about (you’re so welcome.) Well, it’s obviously about Mind. Muscle. Connection. Sure it must be a good thing. Almost like what they call mindfulness maybe.

Or not quite. Let me dig into it and we’ll find out what’s in there for you!

So the story starts in bodybuilding. Ok, now some of you may already drift off thinking: those muscle guys? Sorry, not my cup of tea. And let the story end right here. You hear “them” groaning from the other corner of the gym and go like: wait, didn’t they just add those extra plates themselves?… or maybe I’m just exaggerating and you consider anyone who to some extent works towards the goal of forming their bodies could be called a body-builder. And I agree that’s a pretty cool idea.

Whether you like or don’t understand the idea of body-building (yet), I’ve got to tell you there’s some knowledge in this kind of sport that could be of use for everyone who wants to live a healthy active lifestyle.

What sounds like some sort of spiritual experience is actually considered to be fundamental to traditional bodybuilding training principles: behind mind-muscle connection stands the idea of intentional focus on squeezing and isolating the muscle that you are trying to target when doing weight training exercises.

Among bodybuilders this particular focus is key to improved muscle activation and a great pump – no other word could better describe this feeling of being invincible after a great weight lifting session. The “pump” is caused by increased blood flow and swelling in the working muscle tissue. However, ultimately and perhaps most relevant to athletes is the assumption that mind-muscle connection leads to improved muscle growth. The gainz.

Muscle squeezing seems fun stuff. Only unfortunate that research cannot really back up the muscle building benefits of the so popular technique: in fact, there are some studies claiming that mind-muscle connection could be of little or no importance to gaining muscle mass. Arguing that muscles are moving the weight anyways, there is no need to consciously activate a particular muscle. Instead, one should rather focus on executing the exercise with proper form, using appropriate range of motion.

Again, there is people shooting back. Obviously, there is a lack of evidence coming from long-term studies that support either of the conclusions around mind-muscle connection, as the professional bodybuilder Jeff Nippard discussed in one of his latest science-based videos on YouTube. Also, there is reason to believe that the ability to consciously contract a certain muscle seems to differ between upper and lower extremities. As research needs to further explore the importance of mind-muscle connection on muscle growth, it might be worth to consider that improved focus can have other beneficial effects.

In the end, aren’t form and mind-muscle connection inter-connected? Many athletes perceive that targeting a muscle by conscious contraction helps improve and maintain proper exercise technique in the long term aiming for continuous progress.

Ok, bodybuilding stories so far so good. The benefit of gaining muscle mass for weight loss and general health I already touched upon in my article Not eating is Not the answer. Regardless if it’s about maintaining weight, losing fat or gaining muscle mass, or improving performance – fitness is a lifelong learning process and I believe that everyone can win from practicing mind-muscle connection. Instead of simply moving (body) weight from A to B conscious muscle contraction or focus helps you more consciously experience the exercise and explore the movement (on another level).

Can there be any greater motivation than feeling your way into the exercise?

What seems to keep bodybuilders motivated could just be worth a try to find (more) excitement in forming our bodies. Even if some of you may now want to close the loop towards mindfulness (yes, please go ahead!) finally, isn’t it all connected to the consistent aim to feeling good, the connection of mind and muscle – mind and body. It’s the process of experimenting that is filling into the full picture step by step, revealing every individual’s way to enjoy motion… and perhaps it’s just about increased conscious movement, the feeling, that is the missing piece to form your attitude towards exercising that you were looking for.


If you still wonder how this mind-muscle connection feels like or want to improve your workout experience, here are some general tips straight out of the body-building community:

  • Use less weight. I know this can be tough when all you can see is people around you lifting heavy stuff… But key (as from maybe all perspectives in life) is: Don’t compare yourself with others. Everyone has once started, you’re not the first new gym member. Still not convinced? Take these: 1. People are way too busy with their own workout and there’s less eyes on you than you might think. 2. For the scale of impression it applies: Form over weight. 3. Overcoming insecurities is just part of the whole process that will make you grow.
  • Stay in controll of the movement. By moving the weight slowly you can find a better connection to your muscle, keep proper form and prevent injury. After a while you will learn to intuitatively match weight, repetitions, Focus will make you gain trust in the learning process instead of going aimlessly through the motions on a machine.
  • Discover the function of your muscles. There is a number of ways to isolate a particular muscle you want to train. Try different exercises, angles, work on your form, or ask a PT to help you. What is your favourite exercise? And why? Where in your body do you feel it most? You know this love-hate relationship you have with sore muscles – that’s often when you are able to feel your muscles isolated. The fun part: go and work out “through the pain”… and you are able to focus and target the muscle with ease.

Ok, just the “regular disclaimer”: I’m not a PT but a nutritionist who some time ago found that enthusiasm for strength training was just completing the passion I have for a healthy lifestyle. Interestingly, as it is with nutrition science, there is a lot you hear about what you should do or should not do that will get you to your goal. But even if it was a goal that got you start the journey to your own fitness, isn’t it the learning and growing on the way there that makes it so exciting and fun?

Does an apple a day (still) keep the doctor away?

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More than early enough we were told to “eat our greens”. Teachers were teaching it, doctors were preaching it, and our parents were somewhere in there too (while being a good role model? …only you know the truth). Already back then fruits and veggies became the healthiest thing on earth. Like real superheroes. Too bad they couldn’t fly, climb up tall buildings or save citizen from fire-spitting monsters. But mum said they had other powers, so they must be pretty cool, too.

Later we came to understand it’s because veggies are feeding us with all the good stuff (like vitamins, minerals, fibres and antioxidants…) and all this while adding very little to our calorie account. Double the profit? Indeed, up to this point everything seemed just too great to be true. And that’s when some people came and said that we’re munching on “empty” stuff. Cucumbers – just water? Terrifying idea.

No more superpowers? Hey, where did the nutrition go?

In fact several sources claim that the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables has been declining over the past decades. Soil depletion to be blamed. Obviously, monocultures are exploiting our soils by producing faster, greater yields, every single year without giving fields time to restore. How (on earth…) can one expect to grow healthy crops on tired soils? Of course, there must be consequences. And there are. Corrosion of farmland, loss of biodiversity, and a decline in water supply are just some of the results of our predominant consumption model.

Even if apples still look like apples, are they still what our parents once called “apples”, just a few decades ago? What’s really in it?

Sounds a bit scary, hugh? But here the “good news”: Not every study agrees with the findings. Obviously  as always – there is much more to consider before trusting generalizing statements.

Articles like a recent publication in the Journal of Food Consumption and Analysis review studies that earlier were raising the concern. Factors like natural ranges in nutrition content, crop varieties, origin, ripeness, as well as sampling and laboratory analysis can be confounding the results. A decline in nutritional content of fruits and vegetables does not seem to be confirmed. Moreover, comparisons show that the mineral content in fertilized cultivations has not declined but a “dilution effect” could explain the premature conclusions: mineral content simply cannot keep up as crops are breeded to grow faster and bigger…

Confusing messages, again! This must be this thing about nutrition… being one of those hot topics people just want to chime in. We just assume they all want the best for us. But what are we supposed to do now? Eat (more) meat? (More) supplements?

Well, the answer to this question doesn’t seem to be black nor white. We know that a plant-based diet has many health benefits. But obviously, it’s not only about eating less meat but giving a little extra attention to what we put into our systems to provide our bodies with everything they need to stay healthy and strong. As a nutritionist this is how I think about it:

  • Several national guidelines recommend 500 g of veggies per day as an adequate intake to prevent major nutrition-related diseases – often referred to as “3 servings of vegetables and 2 of fruits”. Other sources claim this is not enough (…) No prob, why not make it 1 kg, just to make sure people eat on the safe side. Who cares that less than 20 % manage to “eat their (500 g of) greens” anyways? Why not better say: Try to aim for 5 servings most of the day. Then sneak in some extra – as by fresh soups or smoothies for instance! Focus on eating wholefood will do the rest. Grains, beans and roots may be higher in calories but are for sure great nutrient sources!

 

  • “Organic” sounds like the saviour – but is it, really? Yes and No. What we call for organically grown (without the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms) does not contain more of the good stuff. On the other hand, compared to conventional food, it does contain less of the unnecessary, so it could be a good choice anyways! The majority of crops on this planet is grown with extensive use of natural resources… start buying local and organic can help sustain farmland and our food supply. Besides, discovering local food markets with friends and family can be real fun!

 

  • What’s not obvious still counts. Milk comes with vitamin D… salt with iodine… Real raw products? Many foods are more processed than they look at first sight. Historically, the fortification of foods was grounded in the idea to ensure the intake of critical nutrients that were at risk to run deficient on an average diet some decades ago. But are these extras (still) necessary today? With having access to a higher variety of foods from different sources, and an abundance of food supplements… probably not. Still, the more the better (to market?)

I sometimes wonder what is healthier: to worry or not to worry at all about our food choices? Of course, caring about the content of our food can be called for responsible eating in many ways. But as much control as we want to have about our systems, dealing on micronutrient levels will probably always be challenging: we may be just satisfied with a rather rough idea, trusting our body knows best how to take care.

5 things you will notice after going vegan for 30 days

vegan-diet

That one day in July I just knew: That’s it. I’m ready. I saw others doing it. And to be honest, the experiment (as I first called it), had been long overdue.

What I’m talking about is a plant-based diet. I mean eating just plants. No meat, no fish, no eggs (…) in short: No animal products on my plate. I wanted to go vegan. 10 days or a month – we will see how things go, I thought.

It was not the first time I felt it’s time for a change, but for some reason I got incredibly enthusiastic about this experiment. I love experimenting with food and discovering the way diet affects my body sensation and image. People who know me also know: it just needs a glance into my fridge and they could tell what’s really going on. There’s just this one thing that’s for sure: I never restrict myself. “Dieting”? No thanks. Interestingly, it’s the same thought that for a long time hold me back from trying a vegan diet. I assumed that excluding meat and dairy products would be more of a sacrifice to me. “Living life to the fullest” must involve all the flavours, doesn’t it? Little did I know…

Thanks to Youtube and other influencing channels I had been sneaking around the vegan fitness world for quite a while, and finally had to admit: I got inspired. How would this be going to affect my energy levels, workouts – and most of all, my lifestyle? Quite a lot, I figured. So let’s do it!

Do you remember the last time you deliberately decided to change your life? Perhaps you tried out something completely new or did things just a little differently?

Hell yes, I asked for change – so change was what I got. Actually, there’s many details I was not aware of before I started the experiment. Obviously, plant food offers a lot to digest (not only for our guts). Have you ever thought about going vegan but for some reason stopped with the idea of it? Then imagine this:


 

1. There’s rainbows on your plate.

Yes, it doesn’t just sound amazing. It really is. Eating had never been as colourful to me. Don’t get me wrong. I had been always eating a lot of plants. But who would have thought that taking away the meat gives so much space for other things on your plate! Sometimes I just went with colours and added a little bit of the green or yellow that could make the picture complete (no need to photoshoot every meal, but most likely you will want to).

And it already starts in the grocery store: instead of rushing through the veggie deparment this is where you are going to spend most of your shopping. Touching the food, inspecting it (sorry, this is not meant to sound sexy) – Isn’t it way more satisfying than putting cans & jars into your cart?

2. Beans are the shit.

“Where do you get your protein from?” You just don’t go and ask a vegan this question. Why? Because they are friendly but they might hurt you. Just kidding. Perhaps people just care – or they want to educate themselves.

Fact is: Protein is (almost) everywhere. Yes, there is a difference in the quantity and quality of animal and plant protein which I have mentioned earlier. However, it all comes down to the overall diet – the combination of foods we provide our bodies with. Alright, opinions are still controversial about “do vegans get enough protein”… but it seems like we don’t even know what this “enough” means for the individual. On the contrary, numerous comprehensive studies support the hypothesis that a wholefood, plant-based diet supports longevity and a overall high quality of life.

3. You now know you never really knew how to cook.

No offense. But seriously, vegans know how to cook. Okay, I’m certainly not a benchmark for cake baking competitors or do surprise friends and family with the occasional 3-course dinner. I love food but it hardly ever gets me to spend more than 30 minutes in the kitchen. On the contrary, the most delicious meal could be the one that makes the least effort. And the good thing is: I did not need to change anything about this for the sake of eating vegan.

But what changed is the way I think about my meals: Suddenly variety became even more important. Although I don’t necessarily need to freak out about not getting enough protein, I want to make sure I provide different “food profiles” for my system. For sure, it will never get boring – just change the way you would normally prepare a certain type of veggie and it will open a whole new world of different flavours and textures to you.

4. You can and will eat more.

(Ok, here they got me…) Living on plants will in most cases automatically shift your macronutrient ratio. In other words, the calories coming from carbohydrates will most likely increase (unless you go nuts or crazy on the more “restricted” plant sources of fat). Vegans have a higher fibre intake which ultimately requires more space in your stomach and more energy for digestion.

So even if you might be concerned that increasing your carbohydrate intake will make you fat, just the opposite might happen. But please don’t get me started on carbs here, better read: What if carbs were our friends?

5. It’s a lot easier than you’d have ever thought.

Have you ever wondered where vegans go and eat out? You’ll be surprised: they are among us. Ok, the regular burger place might just be open-minded enough to provide one vegan option. But if you haven’t noticed the change compared to how vegan dining looked like 5 years ago… why even bother. Really, vegan is becoming a trend and smart restaurants know that.

So what would make it easier to eat plant based: Claiming “I’m vegan” or make your choice with every single meal: Meat or no meat? Here my confession: During my “vegan month” I had 3 meals that were actually not that vegan. Yes, they contained seafood or meat. So what? Experiment failed? I let you draw the conclusion.


 

To me, “the experiment” was a full success. Knowing that I could go back to eating meat at any time made me relax and totally listen to my body’s cravings. And I was surprised how little I missed the meat. And when I did, I did not restrict myself – and noticed that even after such a long time it did not give me the feeling I expected: Meat did not satisfy me more than any other vegan meal.

Do you eat meat every day? Do you think about why you include it in your meals? And do you listen to how it feels when you eat?

Wow, I managed to (almost) get around talking about ethical, environmental and health aspects in a post about veganism. If you want to read more about my thoughts on this please enjoy the following article: Eat mostly plants.

What if carbs were our friends?

new-year-resolutions-carbs-carbohydrates.jpegThroughout my life, I’ve been told so many times that I had to avoid “carbs” in order to stay lean or lose body weight or fat. Accordingly, foods like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes were likely to stand on the red list as made for bounty hunters. Diet regimes are praising the success of cutting carbs like it was a life philosophy. Easy job since cutting out “carbohydrates” as a macronutrient simplifies the rules considerably – in theory. Whoever tried to follow a low carb diet in the long term may not agree it is as easy. Our body just loves carbs!

And it’s not so strange since sugar is the preferred energy fuel for our system. The simpler the carb the faster it hits the bloodstream and is available for our cells. And what happens if we cannot feed our brain’s craving fast enough? Yup, we get hangry. Additionally, our natural carb addiction gets supported by the release of happiness hormones when we then give sugar to our system, leaving us wanting more. Biology the entire food industry lives on. On the other hand, low-carb diets like Atkins, Paleo, or the ketogenic diet are based on the effect of carbohydrates on insulin levels interfering with fat storage or mobilization – the ultimate key to fat loss as they believe: a low-carb diet would force the body utilize fat for energy thus promote weight loss.

No good times for loving carbs (so much discrimination among the “macros”, really!) – understanding and accepting carbohydrates as a nutrient of equal value as protein or fat may take its time. Even as a nutritionist I felt at times tempted to simply acknowledge the benefits of a low carb diet as they seem to work for many people especially when aiming for weight loss. However, as I shared with you earlier, I have learnt to be critical towards study results. So here again we have to ask us: How little is low carb followed in the respective study? What’s replacing the carbs in these people’s diets? How does the change of diet impact the overall energy intake? Does the changed lifestyle influence their physical activity level? And the list goes on… In the end what we know is that a calorie deficit plays the most important role when wanting to lose weight. To be honest I would rather spend my time on considering what I miss out when avoiding carbohydrates:

  • Carbs are not created equal! Okay, here I have to draw the line. Bare in mind the difference between complex carbohydrates as coming from whole foods – and sugar from processed foods or candy. Simple sugar simply doesn’t need that much time to be used – or stored as fat.
  • Where else to get the fibre from. Ok, ok. Foods don’t need to be high in carbohydrates to contain fibre when we look at vegetables. However, the nutritional density and variety of vitamins and minerals varies greatly. Including more whole grains, beans, lentils and peas moreover add extra protein to your diet which in combination with the fibre keeps you satisfied for long.
  • In need for quick energy? Carbs will do before all others. As much as keto diets claim to not affect your workout as your body adapts to the source of fuel it gets provided with, carbohydrates will always be the first choice maintaing performance for intense workouts. Moreover, carbs are vital for “recovery” (refilling our easy-to-access energy stocks in muscle tissue) and play an important role in preserving and building muscle mass.

Not sure if these arguments could convince you to including more carbs into your diet. Maybe you are right as happy, healthy, and achieving your personal goals with the oh so low carb diet. My intention after all was rather to consider the potentials carbohydrates may have for you and how you can use them for your wellbeing. Everyone works differently and research has by far not worked out individualized nutrition benefits. However, if you are not happy and don’t see any “results” why not just test to do something differently and change your habits? There is more than one single way to do things. Just pretend, what if carbs were our friends?

My New Year’s Resolution: Back to friends with carbs as part of home-cooked real food (yeah, at times got a little too convenient there)!

How to keep in shape over the holidays

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Christmas is right around the corner. Looking forward to spend some quality time with family and friends there is one matter that is surrounded by great excitement and stress simultaneously: the food. Well, we all know that the holidays are not likely to be characterized by restraint. On the contrary, Christmas dinner is a central part of the celebrations, and believing the stories I get to hear every year… and not least from my own experience… people can get crazy about their food around this time (or maybe food orgies can describe the idea pretty well).

Does everybody think there won’t be any food left next year? As soon as the celebrations are over we get the receipt from days of non-stop feast hitting us like a punch into the face: The numbers on the scale are fired into unknown dimensions and we would love to replace our tight pair of jeans with the now so beloved chillout-pants… yeah, say at least for a while… maybe some of the reasons why the gym is packed during the first two weeks of january? Who knows.

The question that arises naturally to me is: How can we prevent from overeating and feeling bad about our food choices over the holidays? Don’t get me wrong, I certainly won’t aim for weight loss over the days between the years… but I’m sure I’m not the only one trying to figure out the best way to skip the food-coma-discomfort while at the same time keep motivation up. I’m not a calorie-counting kind of person, nope! Definitely not. And oh, I will for sure not calculate on carbs over Christmas. I’ve been trying out some approaches over the past years and learnt what doesn’t work for me: Being way too harsh to myself. The following tips are therefore based on my preferences but keep in mind we all know our lack of willpower the best – let me know what works for you!

  • Everything is better… Let’s start with the most effective: motion. At any time of the year, it’s a proven strategy to keep motivated to go for the healthier food choices. I talked about the feel-good hormones released during workout many times before. And I stick to it as one of the best rewards from working your body. I know it might be hard to maintain the regular workout scheme when the gym isn’t close and you are tired from all the heavy food – but when you think about it, it requires so little to still keep up some form of balance and feel good. You know yourself best. What is the most realistic to maintain? Even a walk together with your family would burn some calories – and can be fun besides.
  • … than nothing. You manage to hit the gym twice over 10 days? Great! You can dedicate yourself to 15 mins morning workout each day? Great! Twice 5 mins per day? Great! – Yes, basically everything is great as long as it’s feasible and feels good. It doesn’t need to be time consuming at all, better take some activity every day which is better than nothing! Tip: There are countless workout videos on youtube giving inspiration for home exercises and requiring no equipment… Not let access to ideas be the problem. Why not set up a “100 squats per day” challenge with your siblings
  • Good on you, breakfast skippers! We know Christmas food can be heavy. Oh, believe me it’s easy to consume 1000 cal from only one meal, especially when you have the one or the other drink with it. And I probably don’t have to mention the snacks before and after. Unfortunately also on Christmas we are bound to the physical law: Calories in vs calories out. I know, tell me what is fair! Skipping one meal and focusing on the two most important to you might be one part of the solution. Or have you ever tried intermittent fasting? It might be worth to consider breaking your fast from sleeping a little later some days… this way you give your insulin levels a rest and fat is burnt for energy (short conclusion – feel free to read my article Not eating is Not the answer).
  • And last but not at all least! Finally, think of the ones who don’t have the choice. People who need to be hungry today. Be grateful for all prosperity and don’t take abundance of food for granted. Give it some thoughts and keep it in mind for this years celebrations and I’m sure your dinner experience will be different! Don’t stress out about food and enjoy Christmas with the ones you love.

Merry Christmas to you all!

What is The Future of Food?

future-food-restaurant-eatingWe need to eat. Several times a day. If it wasn’t for the will to stay alive there are many other reasons to do so. I often ask myself: Do we live from food or do we live for food? While we cannot abandon the need to eat, food is incredibly powerful: With access not being equally distributed across global and societal levels, used as a tool by many different stakeholders food has become a highly politicized natural resource. The concerns of climate change and a fast growing world population pushing earth beyond its natural limits raise the question: What is the healthiest and most sustainable diet for ourselves, future generations, and our planet? Under the slogan “Your plate. Our planet.” on friday December 9 more than 1000 visitors came to listen to the world’s most influential scientists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs in this field at Stockholm Conference Centre. 

Way too often I need to get reminded of how privileged I am. I get to eat whenever I feel hungry and entering the supermarket around the corner I find myself having the choice between hundreds of different options. As if this wasn’t spoilt enough I don’t even need to cook myself but know exactly where to go and get my favourite dinner (or why not get it delivered?). However, with increasing prosperity we notice phenomenons like obesity, coronary heart disease, cancer -you name it- becoming more and more common. Are unlimited choices a burden to our health? Poor nutrition does not only concern developing countries any more. It is right here among us, feeding the pharmaceutical industry to come up with solutions for treating the outcomes of unhealthy lifestyles. Anyways, at least it is serving the economy.

While there is still too many people who don’t know how to use diet as a tool to better health, there is even less people who are aware of that our food choice has great impact on the environment. Land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, pollution and depletion of oceans […] The dimensions of how food production affects the environment are ungraspable but research agrees it is the number one burden – with livestock being the major threat to the system (still coming before today’s “natural” habit of using plane and car for transportation). The once so strong ecosystem that has been recovering ever since is according to experts approaching a “tipping point” where there is no turning back: It seems to be on us whether we are leaving an irreversible destroyed system making global food supply even more challenging for the generations to come – or take action now.

So do we all need to give up meat? Actually, research has shown that growing livestock to a certain extent does have positive effects on land use in some regions. However, the diet considered as both the healthiest and most sustainable is a plant based diet – low in fat and high in fibre (learn more about the benefits of a vegetarian diet in my article Eat Mostly Plants). However, a meat eater myself, I do value the nutritional function of animal products especially with regard to the aim of “building the body” (I learnt it’s a great source of iron and protein). In fact, I tried out a variety of different dietary approaches at times focusing on health, weight loss, weight gain, sustainability, animal welfare, fair trade, organic production… oh yes, I passed along them all and I have to say – even though I came back to eating meat (for now, you never know…) – I am so glad I have considered a full range of factors and gained new perspectives and knowledge on what I have on my plate.

Now, does that solve our problem? Well, not really. However, I believe that awareness is key to make changes. I do also believe food choice matters when it comes to lowering our impact on the environment. However, to me it seems quite utopic that all of a sudden everyone would stop eating meat. I think we should rather get away from making meat the “star” of a meal already because it is better for our health. I still refer to the moderation approach – nothing is good for you when eaten in binge. There is still so many things we don’t know about nutrition, research has just started to “uncover the top” of an iceberg clarifying how we work. I choose to eat animal products because I feel it completes my nutrition (even if some research might speak against). I want to choose from the full range of products with a conscious manner, bearing in mind where it comes from, its benefits and disbenefits.

Unfortunately there are long tails of issues attached on our food system that need to be addressed such as food supply infrastructure and food waste (one third of the food produced for our consumption still never gets to reach our stomach). The quality of our soil is not the same as 50 years ago, leaving harvest poor in nutrition. What’s the actual content of the food we eat? Apple is not apple. Does it provide enough vitamins? When do I know I take too little of a certain vitamin? Is supplementation the solution? Concerned about your health, the planet, or both – don’t stop questioning and analyzing the food on your plate. My personal answer is variation and moderation and being open-minded for different approaches to a healthy body and soul. Most of the times it happens to be the best option for the planet too.

Missed the Nobel Week Dialogue about the Future of Food? Watch it here.

Gluten-free for Dummies

bread-breakfast-gluten-intoleranceDamned, cursed, the evil in one word: Gluten. Before even knowing what it is and where it comes from everyone understood pretty fast, you’re better off without it. (Could you imagine) the food industry got it even faster! All of a sudden gluten-free products were all over the place and to find in the average pantry. Also foods naturally free of gluten suddenly couldn’t hold themselves back from marketing their (new) benefit. Passing the dairy- and lactose-free segment, gluten-free has in the recent years rapidly increased its share on the market and yet not exhausted its full growth potential. Is it really healthier than the “conventional” choice?

Gluten is a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye. In fact, its main purpose in the grain is to nourish the plant during the seed germination – it’s needed to make the plant grow (up to that point a rather charitable guy, no?) Furthermore, and maybe more interesting to us: It’s sexy! Gluten gives bakery products, pizza and pasta their elastic and chewy texture… mhhhhmm… an entire food culture living on gluten! However, coming from what must be heaven to some people at least (yes, pastry does appear in my dreams) now back to what was indicated before: There is a dark side in the life cycle of gluten: when it enters the gut.

Gluten is the only dietary protein that is indigestible for our stomachs. You might think: Fair enough, there are other food components (like fibre) that we cannot digest… however, being a protein it is more likely to interfere with the autoimmune system causing more or less severe reactions. With a prevalence of 1-2 % a rather small proportion of the European population suffer from celiac disease – an inherited autoimmune disease where gluten becomes life-threatening by strongly damaging the intestinal wall. People affected often show stomach pain, diarrhoea, anemia and weight loss because the inflamed gut cannot absorb nutrients well. Still incurable there is only one treatment: A life-long strict gluten-free diet.

Apart from celiac disease more and more people claim to have stomach ache and digestion problems due to not tolerating gluten. However, while celiac disease can be diagnosed by anti-bodies or biopsy tests there are no reliable tests for other related intolerances. Moreover, it became clear that the intestinal discomfort some people develop when they eat wheat and other grains does not necessarily need be due to gluten exclusively and therefore it should be rather referred to as wheat intolerance. In any case, the only way to know if you might be sensitive to gluten or wheat in general is to undergo an elimination diet (means excluding the respective from your diet over a given time frame) – bearing in mind that a wide range of processed foods and drinks such as instant food (and, sorry guys, beer too!) may contain gluten as well.

Even though the gluten-free hype has already shown to be able to cause a placebo effect in part of the healthy population – some people argue they feel healthier as they believe they do good by avoiding gluten. However, there is no scientific evidence on beneficial health outcomes resulting from a gluten-free diet in the broad (“healthy”) population. On the contrary, merely celiac disease patients and people with gluten sensitivity are recommended to follow a strictly gluten-free diet. For all others there is to consider:

  • Don’t underestimate whole grain products. It’s a shame that products that have served us as staple foods (especially not to neglect during winter and war periods) over thousands of years lose their dignity within not even a decade. Whole grain products are a good source for fibre, iron, folic acid, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. By eliminating wheat and co. you should make sure to replace their nutritional profile by varying your choice among other nutrient-dense foods.
  • Not feeling bloated? Concerns arise that a diet low in gluten may actually “cover” wheat intolerances or even celiac disease and increase the risk for not being diagnosed. Symptoms may just not occur strong or frequent enough and remain disregarded. If you are concerned about gluten intolerance you may go on a medically supervised elimination diet.
  • Think Paleo. Processed gluten-free foods often contain more fat, sugar or other additives compensating for the texture and therefore can result in undesirable weight gain. The Paleo or “stone age” diet excludes gluten as well but so does it with highly processed products. “Allowed” as carbohydrate source in Paleo are root vegetables and fruits, however, if your aim is to go gluten-free only, you could of course include unprocessed carb sources such as pseudocereals as buckwheat or quinoa, and legumes which are rich in protein and fibre.

As for everything else, the dose makes the poison and gluten doesn’t come on it’s own but in foods that contain much more than this one substance. Even researchers want to often ignore the fact (it would make their life a lot easier indeed) that finding a significant cause-effect-relationship between a single ingredient and a health outcome is a long way to go and can be biased by many factors. I see it as important to listen to your body. Eat consciously and you’ll be the one who knows what works best for you.

The truth about your cup of coffee.

love-beans-caffeine-coffeeBlack or white? I’m sure you know how you like your coffee and have not changed your preference as many times as you changed your attitude towards it – Meaning that even though many people simply cannot live without their daily dose of coffee it seems like science couldn’t make up its mind yet about whether it is good or bad for you. Is it a relish or an addiction? Living in Sweden I can for sure tell you it’s almost impossible to live without coffee. A phenomenon also called “fika”. Simply translated “coffee break” fika provides the opportunity to catch up, get together or mingle in the frame of a small refreshment any time for any occasion. A tradition that makes the Nordic country one of the nations with the largest coffee consumption worldwide. Apart from the social aspect – what are the pros and cons for drinking coffee?

One of the most frequent claims you might have heard is that “coffee dehydrates you”. Well, the caffeine contained in coffee does have diuretic effects which may make you run to the toilet faster – but only in the short term. Scientific research has shown that the effect is balanced out over the course of the day and people regularly consuming the beverage even become tolerant to it (ok, not to exclude the possibility of “placebo pee”). Interestingly in some countries it is common to get a glass of water served with your espresso. Adaptation on the dehydration hypothesis? Not necessarily – or I would wonder why tea isn’t served with extra water too (cause yes, black and green tea contains caffeine as well – often pampered calling it theine but chemically we’re talking about one and the same substance). Besides historical reasons a glass of water makes the consumption of espresso more gentle to your stomach, neutralizing the increased secretion of stomach acids promoted by the coffee. However, what sensitive tummies would call irritating could be one part of the explanation how coffee can help you with digestion…

Other earlier studies made the coffee’s reputation suffer when the beloved drink got associated with increased risk for heart disease or cancer but more recently health organizations relieved coffee from this burden. (Sigh…) Drawing general conclusions became too complicated since people react and break down caffeine differently. Furthermore, there are lifestyle confounders that make cause-relationship assumptions even more difficult – people with high coffee consumption in many cases are smokers which could bias the study results considerably. And coffee is not all the same. The sort of bean, the roasting and the brewing method has impact on the caffeine content – not making it any easier for the ambitious scientist to find a significant relationship to health outcomes. Indeed other studies have shown positive effects on heart health, type 2 diabetes and mental diseases. Caffeine works as a stimulant, binding to receptors in the nervous system preventing from fatigue and in turn promoting concentration – perceived as energy boost. Moreover, some studies showed that caffeine has positive effects on the increase of muscle mass when working out, and promoting fatty acids to be released for energy supply… a reason why the substance is often used in so called “fat burners”, weight loss supplements – however, as a stimulant it is solely contributing and only has minor effects to the actual aim of weight reduction (not to mention the side effects of these kind of supplements… that however is another topic).

Talking about the beverage’s content people often start and end with caffeine. Poor coffee, not fair. There is a lot more to acknowledge about our favourite drink. Coffee does provide considerably high levels of the B vitamin niacin, magnesium, potassium and many many antioxidants (someone did make the effort and counted them… it’s over 1000 substances, pretty impressive right?). For coffee lovers the stimulating drink is actually one of the key sources for antioxidant intake – which is supposed to contribute to coffee’s positive health outcomes.

As you might have noticed from my argumentation: I just love my cup of coffee – which doesn’t mean that also here you have to bare some things in mind:

  • 300 mg / day is “safe” as part of a healthy diet. Awesome news! You’re good with even 4-6 cups of coffee per day – and filter coffee is one of the brewing methods that results in the highest caffeine content. However, with the abundance of sport and energy drinks on the market the daily dose adds up pretty easily. Some of them even cover the full maximum recommended dose of 300 mg. So check out the label and skip the one or the other cup of coffee…
  • Black coffee has close to 0 calories. Black coffee. If you have a sweet tooth and add milk or sugar (or you do both), guess what adds up! Right, the calories. A café latte may contain 200 cal… not to talk about the Frappuccino or iced coffee that could replace a whole meal calorie-wise. And coming back to the energy drinks, yet calorie-free you’ll find a long list of sweeteners, preservatives and other additives tagged. Mmmh. Sometimes you might just want to stay with the black version of caffeine.
  • Caffeine vs. the other good stuff. Yes, there are some sad news, too. Caffeine decreases the uptake of other vitamins and minerals in your guts. As much as we love to combine our cup of joe with breakfast or dessert they interfere with many necessary nutrients (we might already get too little of). That’s why you should neither binge drink your coffee for its benefits. You maybe don’t want to do your müsli without the obligatory hot drink (remember tea has the same drawback) but maybe leave 1 hour distance between coffee and your meals for the rest of the day.

Not eating is Not the answer.

pexels-photo-95212To many people it happens more than once per day: They stop eating. (Not sure, if you got me? You did.) After the last meal minutes become hours, and soon half a day has passed without facing a bite. The body goes towards the fasting state. Many of us do it without even knowing yet some get there on purpose: The breakfast skipping. The non-snacking. The sleeping. Fasting has many faces but what’s the deal with it? Hungry as you are, I’ll explain to you.

To begin with, fasting is since ancient times a healing practice of willing abstinence or reduction from food or drinks (sometimes both) for a defined period, and can be put into spiritual, religious or medical context. It might however be all traced back to the observation that our bodies naturally tend to fast during times of stress or illness – targeting the energy spent for digestion to the “weak spot” (mechanisms a trendsetter once started calling “detox”). People who go on a fast usually don’t consume more than a maximum of 500 calories per day and for preparation of a longer period without food it is often combined with a (rather shitty business) of bowel rinsing. Well, this just to touch upon the vast scope of fasting… I don’t want to go too deep into the origin or application of it as healing practice. The severe energy restriction linked to these methods artificially introduce a starvation mode, not uncommonly used for the sake of weight loss. However, applied as dieting you may want to discuss the aim or approach of your fasting with a doctor or dietitian (…or nutritionist, yes we exist out there) in order to understand it properly or even avoid unappreciated side effects.

So, the organism’s first fuel for energy is glucose. Simple. I mean simple sugar. Carbohydrates to be more fancy. Glucose can be directly sourced from food delivered to our cells but the sooner or later after our last meal low blood sugar levels call for action. By this time we often feel hungry – maybe a primitive signal and not impressive yet – but it’s at this stage we can say the body begins to “fast” (when it starts living on its own energy sources). The easiest way to replenish blood sugar levels thereby is the release of glucose primarily from the liver, however, as this storage is limited soon fat is converted into glucose: Fat is burnt for energy. And BAM, there’s all eyes on fasting. Well, it’s true that the fasting mechanism can be used in favour for weight loss.

However (and for this reason I many times reconsidered squeezing it all into one article) weight loss is complex. You might argue: Wait, you many times mentioned the equation “Calories in versus calories out.” Fair enough. Ok, let me rephrase then: Sustainable weight loss is complex. As long as you consume less calories as your body needs you will lose weight but any temporary diet even though initially successful will fail at the time you go back to “eating normal”. And no, I’m not talking about the “yo yo effect” as it is often told to be linked to the loss of muscle mass slowing down our metabolism. Rather a myth than a fact. Even for fasting over several days muscle protein is the last substrate used for energy. Its mobilization from body tissues simply takes too long and it carries little energy per unit thus other substances are prefered: After glucose and fatty acids themselves ketone bodies (converted from fatty acids) are the magical fuel your body can effectively use for energy. Or: Damn, we are bloody efficient! Anyways, assuming you are disciplined but not gonna go for the 5 days without eating straight you probably don’t care. What seems more interesting to you on a rather daily application is the looong breaks in between your meals. I can understand you must be already confused around the ever-changing recommendations regarding 3 or 5 meals per day. And I feel you, I’ve been there. Insulin levels back and forth, up and down etc… in the end science is still controversial about how many meals per day are good for you – from where we could conclude: Whatever works best for you! While 5 hours without food already get you “starving” or craving for more and junk food you may just need a snack between your meals to avoid the binge eating after being hungry.

And back to talking about protein – everyone’s favorite topic! Even if your body won’t “eat” your muscle for energy as quickly as some literature scares the sh*t out of you protein turnover is a true story: There is a certain demand of protein that needs to be covered by our daily diet which is needed for the production of enzymes and reparation of body tissues. Our bodies are under continuous reconstruction and proteins are one of the major type of building blocks.

However, in the end many studies show that not even after days of fasting people significantly decreased in muscle mass. On the downside of it, muscle mass cannot be increased either when we have a negative energy balance. – And another factor to sustainable weight loss is? Yes, muscle mass for increase of total energy demand. Again, I’m not talking about bodybuilders here who do the diet cycling and at times consume 4000 calories to bulk their muscles and have a much higher energy demand to maintain them – and believe me, for these athletes every gram of mass less hurts!

Anyways, I know there are still many question marks left that just YOU wanted to know about achieving your weight goals but I decided to leave you hungry for more (…maybe cause that was the theme of this article hehe). Don’t worry, you just got me started. What’s however the message I wanted to put across is: For some people any form of fasting may work as a part of their lifestyle but as a temporary solution aiming rapid weight loss it may just lead to the same effect as coming from any other diet. And here we actually talk yo yo effect! After diet cycling many people get back to the same lifestyle as before. Instead of just focusing on calories you may want to consider that eating on a more frequent basis throughout the day gives you a higher chance to vary your food and increase your intake of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals as well. Overthink your diet habits and sustainably replace with healthier choices instead.

Don’t diet – Sleep!

diet-sleepSounds strange, right? (… or like a very promising approach) but when it comes to dieting we thought everything is based on the balance of calorie intake and the energy we spend. Well, that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. It is becoming clearer and clearer that another factor is involved in the equation for weight balance: Our biological rhythm. When do we eat and how often over the course of the day? And even more interestingly, sleep habits seem to play an important role in weight control.

In fact, several body functions are adjusted to the biological rhythm. The production of stomach acid, for instance, is characterized with low levels during the morning hours and high levels in the late evening. Intestinal movements have been shown to have time-dependent peaks and seem to easily adapt to individual habits or rituals (I’m sure the majority of us knows what time of the day they need to keep themselves close to a restroom…). All seems to be perfectly organized by Mother Nature, as always. But how come our bodies know what time it is? The most important control centre of several loop systems in our bodies is located in the bottom part of the brain, the hypophysis. It’s actually a gland releasing a variety of hormones regulating a wide range of essential functions, among others our food intake, by adapting to environmental factors. Primarily, the light-dark cycle stimulates this “master clock”, but also factors such as temperature, social habits and food are adjusting. These impulses are processed in the brain and transmitted to other body tissues, turning on so-called “clock genes”. As you might know, genes are located in every cell in our bodies and encode information for certain functions, such as these “clock genes” are involved in metabolic mechanisms like activating the break down and transport of dietary fats or other nutrients.

Sleep habits are highly involved in regulating our daily rhythms. Over the past decades sleep duration has gone back considerably, mostly due to lifestyle factors such as work conditions …for not bringing up regular weekends, you party animals!… let’s take the example of shift workers: This part of the population has in many studies been shown to have a higher risk of obesity and poor overall  health conditions – researchers strongly suspect the link to lifestyle in this context: Has the biological rhythm gone out of order? In studies on rodents naturally active at night time reverse feeding at daylight hours resulted in significantly increased weight gain. Also manipulating the “code” of clock genes in mice could be linked to obesity. Up to now it is not known how a disbalanced bio-rhythm affects weight control, but there is rising consensus that it plays a role. Comparing different groups of workers, shift workers tend to have clear disadvantages with regard to their blood values. Whether this is due to the day-night rhythm could not be clarified yet as shift workers commonly also consume a diet high in fat… but why’s that? one might wonder. Sleep restriction has been associated with low leptin levels – a hormone that transmits the information “have had enough now” from our stomach to the brain. Too little of this hormone in turn would mean that we get hungry more often and sooner. Some studies suggest that this temporary effect might already occur after a total of 4 hours sleep restriction for 2 nights in a row.

Our lifestyles are depending on many different factors and some of them, especially the ones coming from work might be difficult to influence ourselves. However, we need to be aware of our biological rhythm and its impact on our food intake – and eventually weight control and the risk factors linked to it.

  • Rest and routines: Aim for regular light exposure. I know, I know, winter is coming up so it’s gonna be challenging but worth a try. Get out there as often as possible, engage in regular exercise, and take your meals around the same times of the day. Habits help you to improve your sleep.
  • Get your free regeneration boost! Most of the tissues and nerve cell reparation and renewal happens overnight, when we sleep – most effectively in our deep sleep phase (also essential when aiming to build muscles) Means: Sleep isn’t sleep. Try to eliminate as many sleep disturbing factors as possible. Stress, alcohol and heavy dinner may reduce the time of deep sleep thus decreases its positive effects.
  • Early bird vs. night owl: Everyone of us has their individual demand of sleep. While one would still feel tired after 7 hours of sleep, others want to jump right out of bed after 6. Sleep demand can vary between 6-9 hours from person to person. Most people know what they need naturally but still don’t listen to their demands. Sleep has become a luxury good, so pay to it the attention it deserves!