Holiday Weight Gain...Look Out!

So you're probably onto your upteenth holiday party, family get-together, cookie-swap, cocktail hour, winter-gorge-fest and it's only mid-December, right?  And just about now you're starting to panic.  Your sweet tooth has a death grip on your afternoons and you're looking down the barrel of another boozy evening with friends.  Forget freshman-15, you're in full-on-holiday-fat-gaining-beast-mode.  Right?  Well...maybe not.  There may in fact be hope at the of your wine funnel. While you may feel like you are gaining at least five pounds a day, it's most likely in your head (so far...the holiday social season has barely begun, after all...).  In fact, a new study shows that, while most people think they've gained weight between Thanksgiving and New years, the majority in fact, do not (phew!).

Unfortunately (major bummer alert), this new study is in some pretty serious competition with previous research that shows gains between 1-3 pounds throughout the holiday season.  Bah!


So, which study is to be believed?  Can you really stave off holiday weight, even with the endless amounts of social events that you *must* attend.  Seriously, it would simply be rude to not have a cocktail and sample the hors d'oeuvres...rude.

Well, as it turns out, the nutrition world is coming around to the idea that weight gain, like weight loss, is actually a fairly slow process.  Unless you are truly stuffing your face with 4,000 cals every 24 hours while sitting exclusively on the couch ALL day, you are most likely gaining less weight than you think.  In fact, the majority of your holiday bloat is probably water weight from excess salt intake interpreted by a fuzzy head due to lack of sleep.


Some pretty sophisticated mathematical models are actually showing that there are ebbs and flows to weight gain and loss (shocker...).  I know myself, that I weigh between 108 and 113 pounds on any given day and this fluctuates from morning till night till morning again.   (FYI: Just to give you a little perspective on that weight, I am 5'1" on a TALL day...).

Here is what a leading researcher, Kevin Hall PhD has to say about long term food intake and energy expenditure:

"Food intake is temporally variable. We eat meals that reflect the satiation that develops during a meal and satiety between meals. The energy content of a given meal is highly variable between individuals and highly variable between meals in an individual. However, the variation in total caloric intake summed across all meals over a day is far less variable. This suggests that there is meal-to-meal compensation of intake, which is confirmed by a negative correlation between successive meal energy content. If we over- or underconsume energy in one meal, we partially compensate for that intake in subsequent meals during the same day. In addition to variation in intake between meals on a given day, we also vary the amount of food eaten each day. Energy expenditure rarely shows the same degree of variation across days. Hence, we are almost perpetually in energy imbalance on the time scale of hours or days. When a given day's intake and expenditure are plotted against each other, there is little association. It is only when they are averaged over much longer periods (weeks) that there begins to be a balance struck between intake and expenditure (3).  ...this is a key point that is sometimes overlooked: energy balance as a concept depends on the time domain over which it is considered. We are always in energy imbalance, but the relative imbalance is greater over the short term than over the long term." (Hall et al, 2012)

The take-home message here is, on a daily (or even meal-to-meal) basis you may take in more or less calories than you expend in those hours of the day.  But, if you look at this intake and output over a fairly long period of time, most people tend to compensate to remain around a pretty steady set-point.



So, when do you need to worry?  Well, take me, for example.  If my own weight fluctuates between 108-113 lbs on a fairly regular basis, and I started seeing 114, 115, or 116 more often...I might start to rethink my diet and exercise routine.

But, here's the thing, I don't own a scale.  When I say that my weight fluctuates, I'm talking about weight that I see when I'm at a hotel with a scale in the bathroom or in a gym locker room (...and I don't belong to a gym, so that's pretty much never).  All-in-all, I probably weigh myself 2-3 times per month.  But, that's when you start noticing a change...longer term.   Stressing about a pound on Tuesday when you just weighed yourself on Monday is useless.  Go to the bathroom and you'll be back down a pound.

Just remember, the holidays happen once a year.  They are a time to enjoy the last 350 days that you have lived and to appreciate all the work that you have done.  If, during this festive time, you are constantly stressing about what you are putting in your mouth and dreading the cold hard stare of the electronic numbers under your feet, you're missing the point.

More Fun.  Less Stress.

If you feel stressed, go for a run.  Breath in the cold air, sweat out the anxiety.  In fact, go for a run or practice yoga or do a stadium or sweat it out in a spin class....just because it's good for you.  Even the worst case scenario studies say that you may only gain 1-3 pounds in the three weeks between holidays.  And don't forget, none of these dooms-day studies followed up with their subjects after the holidays were over.

This is the spirit, but you may want to wear more clothes...

So, should you compensate for your festivus feasts?  Of course...as you normally would.  Eat a salad for lunch.  Drink only water during the day.  Take the stairs.  Keep up your exercise routine.  When you're out, eat good food and drink quality wine.  Mindfully enjoy this time of year and then check your weight again in mid-January.  Until then, chill out.




Paleo Shmaleo

Ok, it's time to address the Paleo Diet.  It seems apropos, because I recently attended a "Paleo Dinner" hosted by my fellow Recyclista, Emily Susen of Sleep.Eat.Gym.Repeat.

First, in case you've actually been living in a cave and haven't heard of this diet, the Paleo Diet is a food regimen cooked up by Dr. Loren Cordain, PhD, an anthropologist at Colorado State University.  He touts this high protein diet as one that humans "were designed to eat".   In fact, he suggests that you can "lose weight, prevent and treat heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, [and] metabolic syndrome" by eating "all the lean meats and fish, fresh fruits, an nonstarchy vegetables you want".   It's a diet, he states, that has been built into our genes - the stuff of hunter-gatherer civilizations.  Only real food that you could have hunted yourself or gathered from the ground.  Sounds super healthy, right?

At first glance, it really does! Real food!  Yes, please!  Except...

The fatal flaw I find in this diet is that it is 100% impossible to implement in the modern era.  I'm not talking about a little difficult to cut out the carbs or even particularly challenging on a wild beer filled Saturday night. I'm saying that the food that our ancestors ate does not exist anymore.  It has been selectively engineered for massive scale consumption.  There is no exception.  My favorite example is that, not so long ago, carrots used to be purple and were inedible.  Modern science has altered them to be digestible, enormous, sweet, and orange.

This is a Wild Banana.  Notice how little fruit there actually is.

Further, our ancestors actually had to HUNT and GATHER their food, which added to the healthfulness of their lifestyle.  If they didn't hunt, or if there was a drought, they didn't eat.  In fact, the research that probably helps to explain why our paleolithic ancestors were so "healthy" (i.e. not afflicted by modern self-inflicted diseases) is because they were calorie restricted, not pumped up with protein from wild game. (Side note: A researcher from MIT can actually mathematically show that the amount of calories available in our modern society is more related to our obesity problem than the actual food we put in our mouths.)

LEFT:  The small plants cave men would eat.  RIGHT:  The large, genetically altered, plants you eat.

Ok, so the food doesn't exist anymore.  But the modern day equivalents are still good for you.  True.  But, in addition to the implausibility of this diet, the "scientifically based" exclusions of this diet are quite imbalanced, seemingly cherry-picked from non-human research, and typically contradictory. Indulge me for a minute, while I work out some pro's and con's of the Paleolithic Food Pyramid in the modern era. 

PRO:  Real Food.  The idea with Paleo is that nothing is processed.  So, essentially, nothing in a package.  No crackers, no KIND bars, no protein shakes, no deli-meat... I'm on board with this.  Check.

Evolution at its finest. Sigh...

CON:  No Dairy.  No dairy = no dietary Vitamin D, and you all know how much I love my vitamin D!  Bottom line...Vitamin D is essential.  If you don't have Vitamin D, you cannot absorb Calcium.  Perhaps this is why a common disorder amongst the ancient culture was ostearthritis.  This is a particular problem in the winter time for those of us that live in northern climates because your skin absolutely cannot make vitamin D.  This leads to supplementation with pills, which seems a little anti-Paleo to me...  (FYI:  No dairy also means NO BUTTER.  Maybe it's me...but I feel butter is so often hyped as a "good fat" by the high protein crowd. As long as it is "grass fed" it seems to be ok.  I'm not against sparing use of butter, but this just seems a little paradoxical to me.  My girl, Emily, uses almond butter and several oils to cook.  Which seems good to me, but aren't those processed?  And there is no way that Paleo Man was pressing his own EVOO...)

Straight from a Paleo Dietitian...I wonder if there's a certification for that...

CON:  No Legumes....including beans and peanuts.  Legumes are off the list because of little particles called lectins.  The Paleo's like to call these little buggers "anti-nutrients"...I can't figure out why.  Basically, lectins bind to sugar and may do damage to your intestinal wall (not proven in humans...only in petri dishes, but it's possibly why some people feel nauseous after they eat beans).   The thing is, all you have to do is COOK your beans properly in order to inactivate the lectins.  Soak your beans over-night.  Eat tofu (which is boiled, a process that denatures lectins).  Or eat sprouted beans (again, turns off lectins).  Also, there are a BAJILLION (made up number) different types of lectins that can be found in abundance in the foods that are on the "eat more list" in the Paleo Cook Book (apples, sesame and sunflower seeds, rhubarb, tomatoes, eggplant...the list goes on).  Each one reacts very differently with a variety of cells in your body.  It's not a "one-size-fits-all" protein.  Oh, and it's a protein (which is supposed to be the staple of the paleo diet, right??).  Turns out, not all proteins are created equal either...

Dolichos bean predates humans. Interesting...

PRO:  No Fatty Meat.  I love this one!  No deli-meat, pepperoni, sausage, lamb and pork chops, marbled steak, or BACON (all off the list according to Cordain himself).  This stuff is BAD for you.  Documented again and again.  From excessive amounts of saturated fat to an obscene amount of calories, everyone should cross this crap off their list.

The problem is, I don't think this message is actually getting out there.  Everyone that I know that "eats paleo" gobbles down any kind of protein they can get their carnivorous hands on.  The diet does call for "lean meat at every meal"  however, there are VERY FEW healthy lean meats at the grocery store.  Do you honestly think that "organic chicken breast" is anything like the wild bird the Paleo-man had to catch to eat?  AND...that same Paleo-man would have swallowed every last bit of edible flesh on that sucker - muscle, eyeballs, liver, heart, even siphoning the marrow from the bone. AND...he probably wouldn't have another bird for days, maybe weeks.

Nathaniel Dominy, PhD (a Dartmouth based dissenting anthropologist to Cordain) says that the idea that our cave-dwelling ancestors consumed animal flesh at every meal is simply unfathomable.  He actually says that the staples of the hunter-gatherer were more likely plant based and has coined the term "starch-ivores" to describe ancient populations.  In fact, a multitude of research, including a recent paper in the journal Nature, showed that our ancestors truly did subsist on a diet of grasses, fruit, and bark, not animal.  Scientists can figure this out by looking at food particles stuck to ancient teeth (gross).

CON:  No starchy vegetables (including the super-hot-right-now-sweet potatoes) and starchy tubers.  I find this to be a contradiction considering several other tubers like: turnips, beets, carrots, celeriac, and radishes are on the "eat more" list.   Interestingly enough, the Glycemic Index (a measure of sugar content) in a cooked sweet potato (44) is less than a carrot (49).  This seems like one of those cherry-picked ideas.  I get that we want to move away from processed potato products...but this appears a little random.  There are no reasons given in the book as to why sweet potatoes are a no-go. CON:  No Grains.  The problem with not eating whole grains is that you are essentially limiting very important sources of micronutrients (like Vitamin E) when you eliminate them from your diet.   The Paleo's are super high on the idea that gluten, from grains, is essentially a poison to your insides.  Again, like lectin, gluten is a protein.   People can most definitely have sensitivity to gluten, ranging from mild allergic symptoms to very serious and debilitating Celiac's Disease.  However, Celiac's is an autoimmune disorder, not an allergy.  More people in the US are actually allergic to shellfish than wheat.   PRO: No sweets (including honey).  I'm putting this one in the pro-category because we should all eat less sugar.  No question.  Sugar, more than any other macronutrient out there, is most likely to be blamed for a huge portion of our society's disorders.  However, exercising bodies need to replace glycogen with glucose.  Gluconeogenesis (making sugar from other things you eat) will happen, however, it cannot happen rapidly enough to recover when you are training.  No glucose, no glycogen. No glycogen, performance declines.  Even Cordain has admitted this in his book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes. So, overall, I think this diet has its heart in the right place.... -ish. However, it's still a diet.  A very exclusionary (and potentially harmfully imbalanced) diet.  A diet that, despite its authors claims that it mimics an ancient-genetically-pleasing nutritional composition, is impossible to replicate in the modern era.   I'd say it's stretching scientific truth...a lot.

My last thought on the Paleo Diet is that it has become an excuse for people that work out to eat copious amounts of protein, with a complete imbalance of fruits and vegetables (which the diet does actually call for).  Cordain says you can "Eat until you are full."  The main issue with "eating until you are full", especially if you are eating super high calorie foods in the modern era, is that you will over eat.  No question.  And you will most likely over eat the steak, not the broccoli.

I get that you want to be the hunter.  But this seems a bit literal...

So, what did we eat at our Paleo Dinner the other night?  LOTS of fruits and veggies (obvi!!).  Pineapple avocado guacamole, red-pepper dip, and an amazing brocolli/carrot/cauliflower/seed-y/raisin slaw.  The two meats we had were prosciutto (cured meat...on the bad list..oops) and a tuna ceviche (which, as my husband pointed out, is a deep water fish that would have been pretty difficult for a boat-less cave-man to catch...).  Details, shmetails.

I want this shirt.


I made a commitment to myself that I would never write a blog post in a rage.  Believe me, there are many things reported in the healthy-living-blog-o-sphere that make me want to run screaming into the nearest grocery store or personal training center while pulling the pin on my artichoke grenade, ready to blow the whole place up in a fire-y ball of roasted vegetables.   However,  as an aspiring professional, I am determined to show restraint.

It's taken me almost a week to step back from the ledge I have been standing on about a topic that came to me from several sources recently.
High. Fat. Diets.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when I read on a "Nutrition Therapist's" blog   "We focus our fats on saturated omega-3 fatty acids like those found in coconut oil and butter. "  

Ummm....Omega-3's are not only VERY UN-saturated, but they are NOT in coconut oil or butter.  This person is advising other people on what to eat??!!

In the past two weeks, I have spoken to so many people about new literature stating that increasing fat, particularly saturated fat, in the diet is beneficial for weight loss and helps to regulate blood sugar.  Typically, this pairs with the idea that carbohydrates are the anti-christ.
This craze started about decade ago with the Atkin's diet, with the newest iteration being The Paleo Diet (although, to be fair, Paleo pushes the fruit and veggies pretty hard too).
Which way do we go??
The axioms that make up this dietary proof typically go something like this:  We know that sugar comes from carbohydrate.  Sugar gets into the blood when we eat carbohydrate.  Sugar releases insulin.  I hear insulin is bad.  Fat is the opposite of sugar.  Therefore, eat saturated fat.
Huh??  Did I miss a few steps??
Look, I know we live in a world where messaging by journalists that have never stepped foot in a science lab spin the research.  We also live in a world where the research is often incomplete and sometimes even contradictory.  However, there is NO RESEARCH in human beings that state that a high saturated fat diet is good for you.  None.  Zero.  Zip.
Why does this happen with a saturated fat diet?  Is this true of all fats?  Aren't omega-3 fats good for you?Are you confused?
I can't blame you.  The truth is, there are many different types of fat.  Each is 100% necessary in your diet, but in excess they cause damage.  Just like anything else.  Too little = bad.  To much = bad.  In the research world it's called a "J-shaped curve" (or a U-shaped curve depending on the research).

J-shaped curve.  Increased risk if you are too low in intake as well as too high.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Let's start by clearing up what fats actually are:

Saturated Fatty Acid:  One long chain of carbons held together by a single bond between electrons.  These can come in several lengths, with some being more active in your body than others.
For example, palmitic acid (C:16) has 16 carbons and is most commonly found in the human body.  This is also the fat found in coconut oil.  Excess carbohydrate in the body is converted to palmitic acid.  Palmitic acid gets stored in cells (adipocytes) and has been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis by increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Stearic acid is another long chain fatty acid (C:18) that has 18 carbons in its chain.  These two little carbons make a huge difference.  Stearic acid is less likely to be incorporated into LDL, and actually may help to lower this bad cholesterol.  Stearic acid is the second most available saturated fatty acid, and can be found in animal fat.  However, the most abundant source of stearic acid in the American diet is currently "grain based desserts" (wtf?), followed by cheese, sausage, franks, bacon and ribs (again, wtf?).  Unfortunately these foods also contain a very high amount of the cholesterol raising saturated fats and are excessively high in calories (leading to overweight and obesity).  While Stearic Acid may not increase your cholesterol per se, these fatty acids will be STORED if not burned, increasing your systemic inflammation, which effects risk for oxidative stress, atherosclerosis, and diseases like cancer.There are MANY more long chain fatty acids like the ones above.  Each with its own benefits and risks.   A "new" saturated fatty acid called a "short chain fatty acid" is also being investigated.  Short chain fatty acids are made in your gut by fermenting fiber (from PLANTS that you eat).  Short chain fatty acids may be very beneficial to health outcomes by feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut as well as taking the place of the more detrimental long chain fatty acids in your body.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA):  One long chain of carbons held together by a single bond between electrons, with one lone double bond.   MUFA's are probably the least studied, but have shown that they can reduce Total Cholesterol while simultaneously lowering LDL and raising HDL.  You find MUFA's in avocados, nuts and olives.
Good fat.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids:  These polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are one long chain of 18 carbons held together by a single bond between all electrons, with two double bonds (C18:2).  They are called Omega-6 because the first double bond is on the 6th carbon.  Omega 6 fatty acid, also called linoleic acid, is converted in your body to arachidonic acid, which is important for inflammatory signaling in your body.  As I mentioned in the stress post, inflammatory signaling is essential for normal functioning - wound healing, communication in and out of the cell, recovery from exercise.  However, in excess, you end up with vasoconstriction (small blood vessels), increased blood pressure, pain, and cellular damage.  Omega-6 also competes with Omega-3 in your body for certain enzymes, so being careful about the ratio of 6:3 is important. The main sources of Omega-6 in the American diet are oils - palm, sunflower, soybean.  You can also find Omega-6 in avocados, acai berry, and eggs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:  Omega 3's are also a PUFA that start out with 18 carbons and 3 double bonds (starting at the 3rd carbon) and are also called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  With enzymes in your body they are converted to a family of fatty acids in your body that have more carbons and double bonds:  ALA (18:3) to EPA (20:5) to DHA (22:6).  You have probably seen these variations on a fish oil supplement bottle.  These are all very important in combating excessive inflammation in the body.  Contrary to popular belief, Omega-3's are not ANTI-inflammatory, they are just much LESS inflammatory than other fats.  They do have the ability to be converted to molecules called "resolvins", however, which can help to clean up excessive inflammation.
Sources of Omega-3
I think, herein lies the problem and the confusion.  As you can see,  there are several types of fat and each fat has several subtypes.  Each of these subtypes of fat has a very specific and individual role in your body.  ALL FAT IS NECESSARY.  However, excessive types of the WRONG fat (i.e long chain saturated fat and Omega-6) can lead to increases in inflammation, oxidation (free radicals), and eventually disease.
The major negative has been, when people do what they have been told for the past 50 years and take saturated fat out of their diet, they have replaced it with carbohydrate.  More often than not, we have replaced saturated fat with REFINED carbohydrate (like choosing and english muffin or a half bagel on the side of your breakfast omelet instead of sausage...in the future, go for the fruit option).   My next post will be on the differences between refined and whole grains (an entire saga unto itself), but suffice it to say, replacing the fat with refined sugar could be equally (or even more) dangerous to your system.
Not healthy, despite the clever label.
The point is, the knowledge that refined sugar shot straight into your veins via a high carbohydrate diet is bad does not justify a 180 degree turn toward high fat and protein.  If our society moves in a direction where we react to the anti-carbohydrate literature with an equally excessive response, we will find ourselves in another crisis of health in the very near future.
Are fats bad?  No.
Can you fry up hot dogs in bacon fat and then cover them in ranch dressing, hold the bun?  NO!
A note to remember:  Most of the positive research about the fats above are IN THE ABSENCE OF OBESITY.   The ranch-dressing-bacon-dog above probably has  ~8,000 calories in that one meal.  Don't forget, ALL FAT, even the better ones, have NINE CALORIES PER GRAM.  Excess calories cause weight gain, no matter the source.
So, get your fat (and protein) from healthy, lower calorie, sources.  Fish.  Lean meat.  Avocado. Nuts.
Sushi - A good blend of fats and carbohydrates.
Don't buy into the pendulum swings of the journalist-spin-doctors and fringe-screamers.  Just eat real food.  Not from a package.  Eat food that comes directly from the earth, or is nourished by food that grows from the ground.  Limit your calories.  There is no silver bullet.