BOOK REVIEW: Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer & Matt Ruscigno

Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and PerformancePlant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance by D Enette Larson-Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an updated and revised edition of a book previously called “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition.” The name change not only reflects the rise of veganism and other more restrictive diets, but also an increase in “flexitarianism” — or the reduction (but not elimination) of animal-based foods that is driven by health factors, by environmental concerns, or by a combination of both. One of the things I like about this book is that it offers a balanced discussion of how to meet the nutritional needs of athletics through a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based. That is to say, it’s not trying to sell the reader on a particular dietary approach, and, therefore, doesn’t fall into the trap of pretending that the move is purely upside. Those trying to persuade readers of a given diet tend to overemphasize the studies showing the benefits of plant-based diets while neglecting to discuss the challenges to meeting dietary needs without animal-based foods – particularly if one has the substantial needs incurred by athletes. [Which isn’t to say there aren’t health benefits — and even performance benefits — to be gained, but thinking that one can make the switch without giving thought to the details is a bit naive.]

The book consists of fifteen chapters that take one from an introduction to the various forms of plant-based diets through specific dietary considerations (i.e. meeting caloric requirements, macro-nutrient needs, and micro-nutrient needs) and – finally – to practical matters of what to eat and how to prepare it. After an opening chapter that lays forth background information, chapters two and three deal in the related topics of getting adequate calories and getting enough carbs. Vegetables, after all, aren’t typically calorically dense, and so salad and steamed vegetables – while a beneficial part of a diet — aren’t going to meet the needs of an athlete.

Chapter four delves into meeting fat requirements. While carbs have come to be wrongly villainized in current fitness environment, there are some who are still working under the old “fat is the enemy” paradigm. In truth, one needs a diet that includes all three macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Those on plant-based diets who don’t (or can’t) eat nuts and legumes can run into problems with getting enough fat. Chapter five rounds out the chapters focusing on macro-nutrients by exploring protein needs. This is the chapter many readers will be prone to make a beeline toward. Athletes who are considering a plant-based diet are most likely to be concerned that they can’t get enough protein. This is a contentious topic because vegan and vegetarian athletes often want to pull their hair out over what they feel is a great misconception. They say it’s no problem hitting protein targets on a plant-based diet, and — depending upon one’s sport and one’s body — that can be true. But for some it takes planning. (e.g. It’s true that one can get a complete protein by eating rice and lentils. The challenge is that if you do go about getting the 2 gms of protein per kg of body weight that some athletes require by just eating rice and lentils you are likely to find yourself becoming obese because those high-protein foods are even higher in carbs.)

Chapters six and seven shift into critical micro-nutrient considerations. Chapter six is about bone health, which is a greater concern with respect to some forms of plant-based diet than others. Chapter seven is about iron intake and absorption. One thing that I found very important and interesting in this book is the discussion of how foods and nutrients that one might think of only in terms of their positive effect can also have a negative effect. That is, some nutrients that we need in a given quantity will block the absorption of other nutrients if taken in excess quantities. Chapters eight and ten are about eliminating the need for multivitamins or other vitamin and mineral supplements. Another thing that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on getting all of one’s nutritional needs through food. While it doesn’t take an iron-clad opposition to supplements, it suggests that one should first make great efforts to meet needs with food before considering any supplement.

Chapter nine is about timing of food and fluid intake for optimal performance. It’s one thing to know what to eat, but one must also know when to eat and when not to eat. Chapter eleven investigates common problems that are often attributed to food and fluid intake, namely cramps and inflammation. The part dealing with cramps was particularly informative, as I learned that much of what I’ve heard on the subject (and / or that is commonly believed) is either not well-established in the literature or is plain old poppycock.

Chapters twelve and thirteen are about building a meal plan to meet one’s requirements, and modifying the plan to cut or gain weight as necessary, respectively.

The last two chapters are about preparing meals to meet an athlete’s needs with plant-based foods. The penultimate chapter is more about the quick meals and snacks, and the last chapter provides a collection of recipes.

There are several appendices containing information about nutritional information and various approaches to building a balanced diet. There are also graphics including photographs, tables, and diagrams. I can’t speak to how effective these are as I read a review copy that was unformatted, but I do know they are frequent throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for athletes, trainers, or coaches who are considering moving to a plant-based diet or who work with clients or athletes who are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson, et. al.

The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain ConnectionThe Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection by Scott C. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For centuries there have been cases in which a change in diet –often accidental– led to relief from a mental illness. However, given the sporadic nature of such effects and the complete lack of understanding of microbes, the enteric nervous system (i.e. the gut’s own “brain” that communicates with — but is also autonomous of — our “first” brain,) and the complexity the symbiotic relationships involved, these anecdotal cases had limited influence on the state of medicine. However, recent years have seen an explosion of understanding in this domain. This has resulted in a vast number of books being written on the role of microbes in the gut for overall health, the role that changing diet can have on changing our microbiota, and related topics such as how the overuse of antibiotics can have a deleterious effect on health by tossing out the microbial baby with the bath water. This book touches on all those topics (and more) as it explores the role of our bacterial hangers-on on our mental health.

The book consists of nine chapters. The chapters are organized so as to first present one with the necessary background to understand how changes to one’s gut microbiota can improve one’s health —particularly one’s mental health (though many of the mental illnesses influenced by microbiota are linked to physical ailments)— before moving on to the specifics of what microbes have been shown to have a given effect and what diseases can be influenced by consumption of probiotics.

The first five chapters give the reader an introduction to the topic and an overview of information one needs to know to understand the later chapters. Chapter three gives one an overview of the changing profile of one’s microbiota over the course of one’s life. Particular emphasis is given to one’s youth and to the transfer of bacteria to infants. [Readers may be aware of the problem that c-section births result in a failure of babies to receive a dose of beneficial microbes imparted by passage through the vaginal canal.] Chapter four takes one on a quick ride through one’s alimentary canal from mouth to rectum, with particular emphasis on questions such as how bacteria survive the stomach’s acid bath, and which parts of the digestive system contain which microbes (and to what effect.)

The last four chapters dig deeper into the specifics. These chapters look at specific probiotics, how one can get them into one’s system, and what science has found out about probiotics and psychobiotics (like probiotics, but specifically ones that influence mood and mental states) effects on specific ailments. Chapter eight, which deals with major diseases, does cover physical ailments as well as mental ones because – as mentioned— these afflictions often go hand-in-hand. The last chapter (Ch. 9) looks at where this body of knowledge is going. It delves into practices that are presently well-established, such as fecal matter transplants, but also into challenging works-in-progress such as attempts to develop narrower spectrum antibiotics so that we can get the life-saving benefits of these medications without their crippling side-effects.

The book has many graphics, as one would expect from a work that investigates such a complex scientific topic. I can’t really speak to the quality of the graphics as the review copy I read didn’t have completed graphics. However, the subjects of the graphics seemed appropriate and well-placed. The book also has a glossary, annotations, and a further reading section to assist the reader in the study of this subject.

I found this book to be informative and engaging, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the role of microbiota on mental health. The text was well-organized and readable. Given the scientific nature of the material, it’s easy for such a book to become ponderous, but the authors made attempts to keep the tone light and the presentation non-intimidating.

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5 False Dietary Beliefs that Sabotage Weight Loss

 

5.) Vegetables are vegetables. If the potato is your go-to vegetable, you’ll probably have trouble shedding the pounds. That’s not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with potatoes. But, because of their high glycemic index value (i.e. they’re quickly digested and cause a sharp blood sugar spike), they should be lumped in with bread or rice when considering portions and meal make up. The same is true for sweet corn. Some people consider carrots (and carrot relatives) to be high glycemic, but one has to eat a pretty massive amount to have a problem. Most vegetables have a relatively low glycemic index score and are great foods to fill up on.

 

4.) Cola is mostly water, how bad could it be? At the right temperature, one can dissolve 2 kilograms (4.4lb.) of sugar in one liter of water. Wrap your head around that.

 

3.) I worked up a good sweat; now I can eat whatever I want. If you’re in the process of training for an ultramarathon or the Olympics, this might be true, but an hour in yoga class or run in the park doesn’t float you a free pass to kill it at Häagen-Dazs. There’s no getting around the math, the dietary half of the ledger is the 800 pound gorilla (no pun intended) of weight-loss. [That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many benefits to exercise, or that it doesn’t contribute to weight loss in more ways than one.] The Mayo Clinic has an excellent table of calories burned for a wide range of exercises and physical activities. You may be demoralized to note that the calories burned in an hour of Power Yoga are completely replenished by a medium size french fry.

 

2.) I will treat myself with sweets [or pizza.]  I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with treating oneself, but making food the treat sets a bad precedent. For many, this notion of food as reward or comfort source was introduced in one’s youth, and it can be extremely difficult to dislodge it later in life. One might try music or fun activities as alternative sources of reward.

 

1.) I shouldn’t have eaten that Snickers on Wednesday. This may seem like a contradiction of the previous item, but being doctrinaire about food creates its own problems. Specifically, sustainability may be a challenge–especially if one has had that “food as treat” story inculcated into one’s psyche. It’s not the once and while caloric splurge that kills most people, it’s creeping portion sizes.

Some people swear by a “cheat day.” Others say that that’s a bad approach because one might feel forced to cheat even when you’re really not feeling a desire for junk food. Some advocate an 80/20 rule, whereby 80% of the time one follows a strict dietary regimen, while the other 20% of the time one takes it more free and easy (though not totally insane.) Personally, I think different approaches work for different people, but I do agree that the dietary Nazi approach isn’t the way to go.

BOOK REVIEW: Nutrition: A Very Short Introduction by David A. Bender

Nutrition: A Very Short IntroductionNutrition: A Very Short Introduction by David Bender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Do you want to know what percentage of your diet should be carbohydrates because your personal trainer is telling you it’s zero? Do you know whether you need vitamin B12 supplements? How much energy does your huge human brain use? What the hell is Kwashiorkor? If these types of questions are of interest to you, you might be interested in this book.

There’s nothing particularly fancy or exciting about this book, but it’s still a useful book for a couple of reasons. First, it sticks to the science on the subject, and diet and nutrition is one of the most myth and disinformation riddled subjects around because there are so many people trying to shill their fad diets and because there are so many who desperately want to believe that they can cut pounds and still eat a case of Twinkies every week through some scientific loophole [psst, you can’t.] Here and there throughout this book, there are quick deconstructions of these myths and lies. (i.e. I should point out that some of this dietary “wisdom” will result in weight loss—but it won’t necessarily result in a net health gain. e.g. If you cut out carbs, you’ll lose weight—but your brain will also be starved of the glucose that it needs to conduct its business and will have to engage in slow and costly processes to get it from elsewhere.) Second, the book is short and to the point. If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to reading up on nutrition, this may be the book for you.

The book consists of eight chapters:

Chapter 1: Why eat? (deals with appetite and satiety, and not just the less-than-profound question of why a human body needs energy.)

Chapter 2: Energy Nutrition (gives the basics of food as an energy source—as opposed to food as building blocks.)

Chapter 3: Protein Nutrition (teaches one about food as building blocks.)

Chapter 4: Over-nutrition and Problems of Overweight and Obesity (addresses the causes of being overweight as well as explaining how to counteract those causes. One nice feature of this chapter is it gives a quick and dirty summation of the various types of diets, tells which are supported by science, and explains which have undesirable unintended consequences.)

Chapter 5: Diet and Health (explains many of the ways nutrition influences health. Contrary to popular belief, weight isn’t the only way [or, necessarily, the most critical way] in which dietary problems can adversely affect health. In other words, it’s possible to be stocky or curvy and in good overall health, or, alternatively, one can be svelte and running up on death’s door. This chapter also describes first-world ailments that are sometimes called diseases of affluence.)

Chapter 6: Under-nutrition (Marasmus, cachexia, and kwashiorkor. Don’t know what those words mean? Think they are towns in a sword and sorcery fantasy novel? You’ll know after finishing this chapter.)

Chapter 7: Vitamins and Minerals (Most of the dietary suggestions in the book up to this point are put in terms of macro-nutrients [i.e. carbohydrates, fats, and proteins], but this chapter focuses on micro-nutrients. There’s a reason micro-nutrients are addressed so late in the book, and that’s that most people who are getting sufficient macro-nutrients from actual food [as opposed to the “stuff” sold at McDonald’s or in convenience stores] get all they need of micro-nutrients. But there can be issues with micro-nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin D, and Vitamin B12 depending upon one’s unique life situation. In other words, unless your doctor tells you that you need a supplement, you probably don’t.)

Chapter 8: Functional Foods, Super Foods, and Supplements (Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, super foods, and supplements. One area that gets short shrift in this book is the importance of one’s gut bacteria—which has become a huge part of the discussion of late. There is a little mention of it in this chapter, but not much.)

There are few graphics in the book, but there are many tables. I didn’t feel anything was missing in terms of graphics. None of these “Very Short Introduction” guides offers much by way of bibliography, and the “Further Reading” section tends to favor textbooks over popular works. This book is no exception in either regard.

I’d recommend this book for anybody who wants a quick low-down on the science of nutrition. As mentioned, the one area I thought it might have delved into in greater depth was the role of gut microbes. However, overall, I think it was well-organized and provided interesting food for thought (pun recognized, but not intended.)

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BOOK REVIEWS: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated OrganGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[I recently posted a review of Mary Roach’s GULP. I mention this because that book is likely to be the primary competitor if you’re looking for a tour of the alimentary canal in book form. While I’d recommend both books and point out that the two have different thrusts, if you’re set on reading just one book on poop and farts this year, the two reviews should help you determine which work is more up your alley.]

In this highly readable and humorous book, medical student Giulia Enders teaches us how to poop, what to do when we can’t, how our bodies extract resources from the stuff we shove in our pie holes, and what the bacteria that outnumber our body’s cells by an order of magnitude do for (and against) us. The book is in part a work of popular science, but it’s also a guidebook to the digestive tract. In other words, Enders not only tells readers about the wondrous job their digestive system does, but she also offers advice as to how to keep it running efficiently.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part lays out what the gut consists of and how it does its job. The second part introduces the reader to the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that governs the digestive tract and determines when we vomit, poop, and—to some degree–experience emotional turmoil. The final part addresses the body as an ecosystem. The human body consists of 10 trillion cells and another 100 trillion microbes—cells that could theoretically live independently of your body provided the right conditions.

The strength of this book lies in Enders’s ability to put the complex physiological actions of our body into simple, understandable, and whimsical terms. This may mean anthropomorphizing a colon, but so be it—you’ll still get the drift. A prime example is the “Salmonella in Hats” section that equates antibodies with big floppy sombreros that interfere with the germ’s mobility and virulence. The author’s enthusiasm for this “under-rated” organ is infectious.

The book employs amusing, off-beat line drawings to help convey relevant ideas and to support the stories that the author uses to clarify the complex actions of the gut. The art is well matched to the tone of the text, which makes sense given they were drawn by the author’s sister.

As I mentioned in my GULP review, GUT is a very different book despite all they have in common. Enders spends the bulk of her time in the middle of the alimentary canal, where Roach spends most of her time talking about what happens at the two ends. Enders’s book is about the typical Joe’s digestive system, where Roach specializes in extreme cases and narrow (but fascinating) questions. Enders’s book is more of a tour of the digestive system rather than a series of tales of interesting things that happen in and around it. While Roach’s book deals in bizarre cases, Enders’s book is actually more light-hearted and informal in tone. (Whimsical is a good descriptor for GUT.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about how their digestive system works and what they can do to keep it working at its best. It’s funny and packed with fun facts.

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The Good and Bad News About Yoga for Weight Loss

IMG_2643The good news is that yoga can help one lose weight. The bad news is that the mechanism by which this occurs isn’t what most people expect, and it involves the mind a great deal more than the muscles.

 

While many people hope for a secret to weight loss, there’s no secret. Weight loss is a function of calories eaten being less than calories burned.  This simple formula means that one can either eat less or exercise more. Both the diet and exercise matter for good health, but the eating part is more important to cutting weight. This statement may be controversial and seemingly gratuitous—particularly for people who think exercise is going to single-handedly shed excess pounds–and so I’ll take some time to try to make my point.

 

The first thing one should know is that our voluntary activity only accounts for about one-third of calories consumed. The other two-thirds are used whether we move a muscle or not. Between 20 and 25% of our energy consumption is devoted to our brain, and much of the rest is used to keep us at 37°C (98.6°F) because we are, after all, mammals. This means that increasing the intensity or amount of exercise—while it has tremendous health benefits—will achieve only a marginal increase in calories burned. From the Mayo Clinic website, I learned that a 109kg (240lb) individual will burn about 273 calories doing a typical hata yoga class or about 436 calories with Power Yoga. (Compare this to about 327 calories / hr. for tai chi or 654 calories / hr. for hiking.) So your hour of yoga has maybe knocked off a 32oz soft drink or one medium size French fries. Most people have trouble finding more than one hour of time and energy for exercise per day. And as someone who sometimes spends more than an hour a day exercising, I can attest that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns. So while exercise is an important part of weight loss, one can’t go hog-wild in eating just because one exercises.

 

[One should also note that many yoga practitioners experience a reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR) because of the calming aspect of the practice. A lower BMR means that you burn fewer calories just living and maintaining your metabolism. All things being equal, this makes cutting weight all the more challenging—though the effect is certainly counterweighted by the stress reduction aspect of the practice that will be discussed below.]

 

To summarize: unless you’re an elite athlete in training for something like the Olympics, the idea that you can eat whatever you please and cut / maintain a healthy weight is likely to result in disappointment.  A common piece of dietary advice for elite athletes is to daily eat one gram of protein for every pound of ideal bodyweight and eight fist-sized servings of vegetables. Beyond that, they can pretty much eat what they want. But with that much slowly digesting material, they’re probably not going to go overboard—even if they weren’t already, almost by definition, very disciplined people.

 

IMG_2737So if an hour of yoga a day doesn’t even make up for having a Mars bar, what good is it?  For one thing, the yoga student has the opportunity to become more attuned to his or her body and, in doing so, to learn to differentiate physiological hunger from the many other permutations of hunger that overtime merge into a multi-headed hydra of craving. What are these other hungers? First and foremost, there’s psychological hunger, or the use of food as therapy. People use food to reward themselves, to medicate themselves, to take their minds off of their woes. Secondly, there’s sensory hunger in which we have no real need to eat but the food looks or smells too good to avoid.

 

One of the forms of hunger that often remains hidden is social hunger. That is, one eats to be part of the in-group and to bond. For example, imagine you’ve just eaten, are not hungry, and someone offers you food. Depending upon who it is and what your relationship is that person, you may feel compelled to eat even if you don’t need it. The double whammy is that eating as socializing is so deeply engrained and that we humans—contrary to popular belief—are dismal at multitasking. We can’t converse and be aware of what we are eating, and thus one may overeat because one is so engrossed in the distraction of socializing. This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with social eating. We all have to do it to some degree or another. One just needs to recognize that if it becomes a habit to be distracted from one’s food, one may have problems.

 

Relating back to the idea of psychological hunger, yoga helps one destress.  Stress can be a perfectly healthy phenomenon, but when it’s prolonged it can have many adverse consequences. One such consequence is having cortisol levels remain too high, and this has the effect of ramping up the appetite. Your body has been pressed into fight or flight mode, it expects that you’re hauling ass away from a sabretooth tiger or an angry woolly mammoth mamma, and that you’ll soon need to replenish depleted energy stores. Your endocrine system doesn’t know that you’re curled up on the couch with a pint of ice cream… yeah, let’s call it a “pint.” As a form of exercise, yoga helps reduce this problem. However, beyond exercise, yoga offers many relaxation techniques such as yoga nidra, kaya sthairyam, restorative postures, and some forms of pranayama(breathing exercises) that can help you turn off the “fight or flight” and turn on the “rest and digest”—what Herbert Benson called the “relaxation response.” Sometimes you might delve into an intense practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Power Yoga, and other times restorative yoga might be just what the doctor ordered. [Disclaimer: “What the doctor ordered” is a figure of speech. I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t even played one on TV.]

 

IMG_2633There is yet another way in which yoga can help. Yoga helps one dispassionately observe one’s drives and this way one can slowly, over time, rewire one’s attitudes toward food.  One can begin to think of hunger pangs as a sensation, rather than projecting a negative connotation onto them. In this way, one can learn to begin to watch the sensation and learn from it rather than running for the food.

 

Finally, an important benefit of yoga is in teaching one to be contented with oneself, even if one isn’t content to live with one’s present health or physical capability. Santosa is one of the niyama, and it teaches one to be content with who one is–perhaps even while one is simultaneously practicing the austerities of tapas (another niyama) in pursuit of personal development. If one isn’t contented with oneself, one can fall into a shame spiral that may create the kind of persistent stress that I warned about above. Also, if one is at a healthy weight, but has some deep-seated drive toward “perfection,” the lessons of santosa can inform you as well.

 

Best of luck in the pursuit of good health.

BOOK REVIEW: Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the LongestThe Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blue Zones are places with disproportionately large numbers of 100+ year old folks. Buettner’s book contains case studies on four of these blue zones: Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda (California), and Hojancha (Costa Rica), and provides interesting insights on living from the places that produce lots of centenarians.

Even those who aren’t particularly interested in longevity will find a great deal of valuable information in the book. Not unexpectedly, nutrition is at the fore in this book. However, there are other factors such as family and social life, sleep, and being active that correlate strongly with longevity.

A few things I picked up:
– As in Okinawa, one should say hara hachi bu before each meal as a reminder to stop when one is 80% full– rather than 100% or 180% full.
– Most nuts make a good snack even if they’re roasted in an oil that isn’t particularly healthy (the density means limited saturation.)
– Despite our species’ history, which presumably involved gorging on meat when it was available,vegetarians (and near-vegetarians) live longer.
– When you eat is as important as what you eat.

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