Friday, November 21, 2014

My new home

You may be wondering why I haven't posted in a while. Well, I'm happy to announce I have a new website, which will be my home for blogging from now on -

Thank you to everyone who has found my writing interesting, inspiring, and helpful. I'm very grateful. Don't worry, I will continue to write about all things health, wellness, fitness, running and triathlon on the new blog. It's just an update of functionality.

Click over to my new home and check out what I've been writing about lately. Feel free to leave me a comment or send a message with interesting topics or issues you'd like to read more about.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sorry kids, your wellness is an inconvenience

This morning I read an interesting article in the local paper about a recent school board decision about school start times. As more research on the connections between sleep, health, learning, and development surface, many school boards across the country are reassessing the feasibility of later school start times. 

The question came up at a school board meeting in a Saint Paul, Minnesota suburb called Mounds View. Last month the board even commissioned a study looking at the effect of pushing back start times. Evidence from the American Academy of Pediatrics was considered, which recommends "middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30am or later," to address chronic sleep deprivation among adolescents and better support healthy development. They also consulted researchers from the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

Armed with the latest scientific evidence demonstrating the potential health and development improvements of later start times, the board decided nothing.

One board member said, "I think there was consensus across the board that the science is there: teens would benefit from a later start time."

But in the end, the status quo prevailed because putting the wellness of children first would create too much of an inconvenience. "We're back to keeping things as it is," one board member was quoted as saying.

Yes, school start times effect other school functions. There is a "ripple effect," as many board members said. But, putting health first has never been an easy choice. If it were, we wouldn't be facing such monumental health challenges in this country. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A New Tool to Better Understand Your Food

The food on your plate is the product of a unique supply chain. Sometimes it's complex, other times more intimate between farmer and consumer. Either way, food production is not just a question of ingredients, but also how such ingredients are processed together, and ultimately the composite nutritional value of the food. 

Nothing epitomizes this more then the current debate about GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling on food products. Advocates want to know - and claim it's their right to know - what is precisely in the food they are eating. A number of state legislatures have also considered legislation on the issue. The debate rages regarding the health implications of GMOs, but either way, from a transparency perspective, I'm always in favor of having as much information as is needed to make an informed decision about the things I value.

This is why I was so excited to see a new resource available to help consumers make more informed decisions about food. The Environmental Working Group released a new comprehensive database of 80,000 foods last week, called Food Scores. It scores each food in three primary areas: ingredients, processing, and nutrition. Each individual food receives an overall score, and includes an a very useful summary page with other information about the nutrition facts, ingredients, and how that particular product compares with similar products. 

Here are a few screen shots of the interface.

But of course I'm always skeptical of these types of scoring tools. An index score is only as useful as the underlying assumptions are sound. In the case of Food Scores, I went straight to the nutrition scoring methodology to better understand those nutrients deemed "good" and which fell into the "bad" category.

A few thoughts:

1. Fewer calories prevail. I've written a bit on this, so I won't spend too much time on it. But, calories aren't necessarily something we need to be afraid of, or always cut. More importantly, it's quite easy to reduce calories while at the same time add in more unnatural ingredients and processing. A classic example I like to refer to from Rich Food, Poor Food is in comparing regular Lays potato chips and "Baked Lays," the so-called healthier alternative. Baked Lays has fewer calories, but it also has a bunch more unnatural ingredients. 

2. Saturated fat is still demonized. Though more and more research is supporting the contrary, prevailing opinions continue to claim high saturated fat intake as one of the primary causes of cardiovascular disease. Similar to calories, the Food Scores methodology takes the "less is better" approach.    

3. The methodology seems contradictory when it comes to naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit. On the one hand it puts natural sugar in the "negative factors" category, while also having fruit content as a positive factor. All fruit has sugar, some more so then others. By processing fruit, such as with juicing, it's quite easy to create a fairly concentrated source sugar, which if consumed consistently over time, has implications for insulin, cognition, energy levels, and long-term health.

4. Lastly, though some aspects of the underlying methodology can be debated, the database is extremely powerful in supplying different types of information related to a huge number of foods. However, for a usability perspective, going to a website can be a cumbersome process for many consumers. Who has time to search for everything that's going to be included on their grocery list that week? It will be interesting to see if the EWG takes additional steps, such as creating a smartphone app, to try and make the database more accessible and usable.

Take a look at the tool and let me know what you think in the comments.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Change the Stimulus

Do you do the same workouts all the time? Do you have a favorite running route you just can't break away from? Do you wear the same running shoes every day?

The beauty of the human body is its ability to adapt. In a training context, the body adapts over time to the stimuli (i.e. training) we throw at it. It's the basic "overload principle" of exercise physiology. A muscle must train at a level it isn't accustomed to in order to adapt. Over time, with the same stimuli, that's exactly what it does: adapt.
Once sufficient adaptation occurs, gains begin to slow and then plateau. So, we need to change the stimulus. 

Earlier this week I went for about a 45 minute base run. Nothing crazy, just a moderate effort with no watch running by feel. The change up came when I ditched running on the asphalt- or concrete-paved road, to running on the grass alongside it.

I spend about 95% of my time running on paved surfaces. This after about 15 years of playing soccer where I ran almost entirely on grass. Since taking up running, my leg muscles have slowly adapted to the needs of running on pavement. But, when it comes to running on a trail, grass, or some other uneven surface, the muscle demands are different (think stabilizing muscles around your ankle). By running on grass, I reintroduced a different stimulus my legs haven't felt in a while.

So, when you decide to go for your next run, bike ride, swim, or any other workout, ask yourself if you need to throw something new at your body, or if it's just the same thing over and over again with the hope of improve results. And we all know what that means. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Health Implications of Chronic Sugar Consumption Among Endurance Athletes

In endurance sports, sugar-based nutrition products reign supreme. Take a look at the ingredients of any sports drink, gel, or energy bar on the market. The chance it contains sugar as a primary ingredient is pretty high. 

It's because of demand, right?


Conventional approaches to sports nutrition do revolve around high consumption of carbohydrate, and simple sugars, especially immediately before, during and after hard training sessions and racing. Just the other day, for example, I had breakfast with a fellow triathlete and coach, whose plate was filled with pancakes slathered in maple syrup. He took down the entire thing.

From a purely performance standpoint, there is some evidence supporting a predominantly carbohydrate diet/fueling strategy, particularly at higher intensities. But, more and more research on lipolysis and "fat adaptation" among endurance athletes is showing simple sugars and carbohydrates shouldn't be the primary fuel source, it should be fat. 

Research continues to also pour in showing the long term health implications of chronic sugar consumption. The basic point is this: consuming lots of sugar accelerates the aging process, possibly just as much as smoking. (For example, read this article.)

But, back to endurance athletes. There isn't a ton of research available specifically on this population, but a few studies have emerged. One from earlier this year, I think, is indicative of the caution we, in the endurance sports community, should be taking with an over reliance on sugar-based nutrition.  

The study compared 35 triathletes with 35 non-exercising control individuals. It found an increased risk of dental erosion among triathletes, and a significant correlation between dental caries and cumulative weekly training volume. Basically, a higher prevalence of dental caries was seen among triathletes with higher training loads, presumably due to the larger amounts of mostly sugar-based exogenous fuel sources.

In trying to limit simple sugar consumption during training and racing I take three basic approaches:

1. Don't carry fuel for 90-95% of my workouts. Because I've adapted my metabolism over time to better tap into fat stores, I can easily go for a 2 hour run or a 3 hour bike ride with just water and be perfectly fine. Daily nutrition influences performance.

2.  If I'm in need of a clean fuel source, like during a marathon, I use UCAN Superstarch. It's been my go-to for almost two years, and I don't plan on changing that any time soon.

3. When possible, though, I'm a fan of using whole food sources of nutrition. This is what I did earlier this year during a 16-hour, 300k bike ride through northern New Jersey. I carried plastic bags filled with coconut flakes, coconut oil, almonds, cashews and flax seed crackers. More resources, like the Feed Zone Portables Cookbook, are available to make this approach easier too. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this in the coming year.