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General Health

  • Weight loss, a personal journey

    According to the World Health Organization, over 67% of Australians were considered overweight in 2007 (BMI greater than 25), doubling the figure in 1995. Being overweight and obese can lead to many health-related complications later in life and is costing the government tens of billions of dollars a year. On the other hand, people are spending billions of dollars each year on weight loss/maintenance related products and services and yet, the society as a whole is still getting fatter, with many failed to lose weight and reaching their targets.

    Even though the theory of weight loss can be simply put into one little equation of balancing calorie intake and calorie expenditure, it is not that easy to achieve. I know what it feels like, being handsomely overweight back in my early undergrad years and had experienced several failed attempts of shedding any fat. I eventually lost about 20% of my body weight aided by: the desire of wanting to feel good about myself and my health; a friend Jay (the now owner of AminoZ) who suggested to me that may be I should do a 12-week challenge with him; and being a scientist to be, my own version of the 12-week challenge.

    I lost 13kgs during the first 12 weeks and my weight continued to decline for a further 10kgs in the next 3 months even after reverting back to a normal everything-rich diet from a somewhat high-carb, low-fat diet that I initially employed, which was not the best diet for losing weight as we now all know. My weight has since plateaued and remained stable and I have been enjoying the rewards of a new life since, feeling healthier, more energetic and fitter than ever. That was my third try at losing weight, both previous attempts had resulted in failure. So what did I do differently the third time around?

    I've never really thought about this question until recently, after seeing people going out of their ways practicing different diets and trying out varieties of exercise regimes in an attempt to shed fat and fail. I never bothered with what types of exercises I did nor did I care much about the contents of foods I ate, as long as they were "low fat". In fact, I was so unfit at the beginning, 10 minutes on the treadmill at the speed of 8km/h was enough to exhaust me for the rest of the day, that was pretty poor for someone who's close to 190cm in height, 8km/h almost feels like walking. I did try my best to avoid the obvious "unhealthy" food though, stuff like pizzas, KFC, creamy sauces and deserts, and tried to eat at home for as much as I could. However, one of my staple "healthy" diets at the time was to have an entire pack of pasta with an entire can of meat sauce from Coles in one meal…well, you get the idea.

    So here we go, no specialized weight loss exercises, no ultra scientific-diets, no pills and no ultrasonic fat busters (trust me, been there, done that), I became one of the privileged few who managed to lose weight effectively and stayed light. You might think I'm a special case, but I think not. There are others I know of who had also lost weight in a similar fashion and stayed there. This is not luck, as there are really no short cuts in weight loss, it is something else. What was different for me the third time around was that, this time, I took it personally.

    That's right, weight loss is a very personal journey. In order to be successful, one needs to go through the following eight stages:

    1. Recognition (wholeheartedly acknowledge the weight issue)
    2. Desire (the strong desire to lose weight)
    3. Justification (to understand the precise reasons for wanting to lose weight)
    4. Vision (to imagine yourself at where you want to be, in this case, after you achieved your weight-loss goal)
    5. Hunger (to crave about achieving the goal, enough for you to do something about it)
    6. Action (autonomous action driven by own desire)
    7. Discipline (continuously driven by stages 1-5)
    8. Reward (enjoyment of everything about yourself and life)

    As you can see, weight loss is a journey of self-acceptance, self- discipline and self-empowerment. It is all in our own psychology, and it is our own responsibility. The problem with many who tried but failed to lose weight, my old self included, is that, with so many products and assistance available to aid weight loss, we are squandering this responsibility to something/someone else. For many, this is the recipe for failure. Personal trainers, gym equipment, diets, even pills are there to assist you to lose weight according to your own personal circumstances. However, they are not the reason that you can/cannot lose weight. I've seen many complaining about certain weight loss products "doesn't work", and then the same people would move on and searching for weeks to find the next magical product that still "doesn't work". It's a vicious cycle. One cannot rely on anything else other than themselves to lose weight.

    Researchers from Cornell University conducted a simple study to investigate just how important a role phycology can play in weight loss. The study found that people who saw exercise as a chore were more likely to eat more fattening food to reward themselves post-exercise, and consequently rendered the exercise ineffective for weight loss. On the other hand, people who saw exercise as being "fun" were more likely to eat less and eat healthier. The findings of this study substantiated the notion that successful weight loss is a personal journey, and it's a difficult journey. Once the responsibility of this journey is in others' hands, you are likely to lose your focus in the face of difficulty, which would eventually lead to failure. You don't need to find exercise "fun", but you need to do it on your own terms, be proud about it and embrace stages 1-5 of weight loss as listed above.

    Please allow me to stress that it is absolutely fine if you seek help or use products, but only at your own volition. Consider helps and tools as mere assistants to your success rather than necessities. Remember, weight loss is a personal journey, and you will only succeed if you take the full responsibility yourself. One might ask if I was going to lose weight again would I employ a more scientific exercise regime accompanied by a more clinically proven diet? The answer is yes, only because I know better now and one should always make the most of their resources to maximize their success. However, following a better regime doesn't necessarily translate into getting better results. Many failed to lose weight even with all the help in the world while many others, myself included achieved our goals by following rather flawed exercise regimes and diets. I took the responsibility of my health into my own hands and did it because I wanted it and I did it on my own terms and it worked, it was personal and it is sustainable. I wouldn't want it any other way.

  • Is eating saturated fat making us fat?

    Saturated fat and trans fat have been publicly demonised as the "bad fats", which have turned many of us away from consuming traditional foods containing high levels saturated fat such as butter and bacon and opting for low-fat alternatives. While most people on the street would have trouble telling saturated fat and trans fat apart, they are actually very different. Saturated fat occurs naturally and is generally found in animal products such as red meat and full cream milk. Trans fat on the other hand, is mostly made by partial dehydrogenation of oils, a process that makes the fat easier to cook and harder to spoil than naturally occurring oils. Trans fat has been found to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase unhealthy cholesterol and can cause abdominal obesity. Saturated fat on the other hand, despite all the bad publicity from marketers, healthcare professionals and even government agencies, is not all that bad compared to many of the so called healthier alternatives.

    While saturated fat can increase both HDL and LDL cholesterols levels in the body, there is currently no concrete evidence associating saturated fat consumption with increased risk cardiovascular diseases (Siri-Tarino et al 2010, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Mente et al 2009, Archives of Internal Medicine). On the other hand, despite the findings in scientific studies showed that consuming saturated fat can make you gain weight, historic population figures painted a very different picture. In 1960, 45% of the calories came from fats and oils in an average American's diet, with 13% of the population considered obese and only fewer than 1% of the people had type 2 diabetes. Remember, that was before the invention of most of the low-fat alternatives so people were actually consuming a healthy dose of saturated fat each day. Today, Americans are eating a lot less fat, 12% less to be precise, however, 34% of the population is obese, that's 21% more than that of in 1960 and 11% of the people have diabetes. Correlation does not equal to causation, but these figures are staggering considering pretty much everyone blames the obesity epidemic on fat consumption.

    In my previous articles I mentioned that the current obesity epidemic is mainly caused by a lack of physical activities and a lack of sleep. Here may I add the third item to that list: too much carbs and sugar. That's right, many low fat alternatives contain high levels of carbohydrates and/or sugar. The increased consumption of carbohydrates and sugar will increase the risk of weight gain.

    I believe that if we all revert back to the fatty diet of the old days and perform regular exercise the current obesity epidemic would go away. The content of saturated fat in the food we eat is irrelevant as long as we eat natural, whole foods and have a good lifestyle. Replacing saturated fat with low-fat alternatives high in carbohydrates will probably make you fatter. Saturated fat consumption is not to blame for the ever-increasing waistline of the society.

  • An update on aspartame

    I've written an article about the artificial sweetener aspartame a couple of years ago published in the Australian Fit Lifestyle magazine. In the article I listed a number of scientific studies that showed the possible harmful effects of the long-term use of aspartame and encouraged the readers to reduce or avoid aspartame consumption until the results of a safety re-evaluation conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) are released. Well, three years after the EFSA launched a public call for the submission of studies concerning the use aspartame, the European organization finally released their findings in December 2013 and the verdict about aspartame remains unchanged. The EFSA recommends that the current acceptable daily intake level for aspartame at 40mg per kg of body weight per day is safe and does not cause neurological damage, pregnancy issues and cancers in healthy people. However, the acceptable daily intake level is not applicable for people who have phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder that causes the accumulation of phenylalanine in the body, one of the metabolites of aspartame, which can lead to a number of serious medical problems.

    Being an avid Coke Zero drinker, I welcomed the newest evaluation that deemed aspartame consumption safe. While there's no reason to question the the experts' ability to review literatures available to them and to process the scientific data in an unbiased fashion, it does make me wonder why only a few of the studies reviewed suggested the potential harmful effects of aspartame, with almost all of which were discounted for being scientifically insignificant.

    A quick search in www.pubmed.org (US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health) indicated that 9 papers were published and indexed in 2014 with a key word "Aspartame" at the time this article was written. Three of the articles were about the formulation of compounds/goods, one was about sewage contamination and one investigated the use of fructose instead of aspartame in very low calorie diet for obese people and found that the subjects lost an average of 8.2kg after 4 weeks of eating fructose (Noren and Forssell 2014, Nutrition Journal). The rest of the 4 studies focused on the physiological and biochemical effects of aspartame in animals: Kim et al (2014, Cardiovascular Toxicology) showed that high-dosage treatment of aspartame can negatively affect the antioxidant and anti-atherogenic activity of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in Zebra fish; Nosti-Palacios et al (2014, International Journal of Toxicology) found that the administration of aspartame and insulin may induce toxicity in the brain and liver in diabetic rats; Ashok and Sheeladevi (2014, Redox Biology) suggested that long term aspartame exposure can alter the antioxidant status of the brain and could induce apoptotic (programmed cell death) changes in rat brains; Finamor et al (2014, Neurochemical Research) stated that the chronic exposure of the human acceptable daily intake level for aspartame at 40mg per kg of body weight in rats can cause oxidative damage in the animals tested.

    I stand to be corrected but based on my brief and limited literature research, almost all relevant studies published in the first 9 months of 2014 depicted a grim picture on the long term use of aspartame in animals. The published summary of the EFSA findings on the other hand, only mentioned a few studies stating the negative effect of aspartame while the majority of the studies received and reviewed by EFSA for this re-evaluation seemed to suggest that aspartame use has no measurable effect on humans and animals. I have no doubt that 40mg per kg of body weight per day of aspartame is generally safe for human consumption, because otherwise we would all have brain damage by now. However, the real long-term effect of aspartame consumption in humans has not yet been established. Moreover, the food and beverages containing aspartame are generally not very healthy. So my advice to you about aspartame use remains the same: reduce your intake, and avoid if possible.

  • Supplements Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for Millennia may Help Improve Running Times and Performance, According to Results of a Human Study

    Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has brought some effective remedies to the West over the past century, allowing millions to benefit from them.

    The results of a new study indicate that a combination of two herbs used in TCM can help significantly improve running times, and promote subsequent recovery.

    The Supplements In Question

    The study, undertaken by researchers from Kaohsiung Medical University in Thailand, used a combination of Astragalus membranaceus and Angelica sinesis in a 5 to 1 ratio and marketed as a product known as Danggua Buxue Tang (DBT).

    The Study

    The study analyzed the data obtained from 36 men that identified as recreationally active runners, who consumed the combination DBT supplement before beginning a 13 km run, or a placebo over the course of 11 days.

    The Results

    The men that consumed DBT displayed on average, 12 minutes earlier completion of the run, equating to approximately 14% faster time when compared to the men that were given placebo. By the time the study was in its eighth day, men assigned DBT were able to run the 13 km distance at maximum intensity, whereas at the inception of the trial, this was not possible.

    The Role of DBT in the Trial

    DBT has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for well over three millennia, where it was reported to improve physical activity significantly. However, this was all anecdotal evidence until this study was undertaken.

    In particular, DBT appears to play an important role in the regulation of serum iron levels. Many athletes fall victim to the development of iron deficiency anemia as a result of rigorous training [1], even though iron's its role in physical performance is typically underestimated.

    However, ensuring post exercise serum iron levels are maintained is critical to your overall recovery. In athletes, iron levels may be compromised as a result of:

    • Hemolysis as a results of exercise, owing to oxidative stress and mechanical force placed on muscles and joints.
    • Gastrointestinal and urinary tract blood loss as a result of compromised visceral blood circulation during exercise (causing microscopic tears).
    • Reduced iron absorption due to increased levels of hepcidin post-workout (brought on by acute inflammation), and also iron sequestration in macrophage cells.

    Following a workout, hepcidin levels are elevated [2], leading to decreased iron transport and a reduction in serum levels.

    Supplementation with DBT reduces the impact of hepcidin post workout [3], allowing for increased serum iron levels and accelerated recovery.

    Other Findings

    Subjects that supplemented with DBT during the trial also displayed lower levels of the oxidative marker malondialdehyde in blood 72 hours following exercise, along with an immediate 63% increase in serum iron levels post exercise, and an average 31% elevation after three days of rest.

    Conclusion

    Even though anecdotal evidence has been pointing to improved physical performance attributed to DBT supplements for millennia, this is the first study that confirmed these findings. What this indicates is that these supplements used in TCM may find a role as an ergogenic aid in your training program.

    References

    1. Chih-Wei Chang, Chao-Yen Chen et al. (2018) Repressed Exercise-Induced Hepcidin Levels after Danggui Buxue Tang Supplementation in Male Recreational Runners. Nutrients, 10(9), 1318
    2. Marjan Wouthuyzen-Bakker, Sander van Assen (2015) Exercise-induced anemia: a forgotten cause of iron deficiency anemia in young adults. British Journal of General Practice 65(634):268–269 doi: [10.3399/bjgp15X685069]

    3.Raúl Domínguez,  Antonio Jesús Sánchez-Oliver et al. (2018) Effects of an Acute Exercise Bout on Serum Hepcidin Levels. Nutrients. 2018 Feb; 10(2): 209 doi:  [10.3390/nu10020209]

  • Post-Workout Protein Synthesis is Reduced for Obese Adults

    Obese people face a range of health problems. They include cardiovascular problems and joint issues. But there is new evidence to show that their efforts to build more muscle can be blunted as well. The amount of exercise which could be performed is also reduced for obese adults when compared to those with a regular weight.

    A 2018 study shows slower protein synthesis for obese adults

    Protein synthesis is important after a workout. Those who train consistently know the role of protein and amino acids in muscle development. A 2018 study[i] at the University of Illinois shows just how much impact obesity has on this process.

    The new perspective on post-workout protein synthesis was based on a group of young adults which were separated into an obese group and into a regular body weight group. Researches choose a leg exercise to get answers. But interestingly, the subjects were not told to exercise both legs. Due to scientific data comparison, subjects were told to exercise a single leg. Doing 10-12 repetitions on a single leg allowed the scientists to relate protein synthesis in the trained leg, compared to the untrained leg.

    The subjects were given 170 grams of pork after each workout. This equated to 36 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat. In comparison, a scoop of soy protein comes with 23g of protein. But the results of the study were not surprising to the researchers. While protein synthesis increased in both legs, the differences between the obese group and the non-obese group were considerable. Myofibrillar protein, responsible with muscle growth, was blunted in the obese group. Even if obese adults have more muscles, their metabolic rate is lower, especially compared to non-obese adults.

    It is an important discovery for long-term health. Researchers underlined that muscle building and muscle repair, specifically after workouts, has implications in metabolic health. Physical performance can suffer as well.

    The study also showed that the group of young adults considered obese was showing a reduced physical performance when compared to non-obese subjects. So what can be done in this situation for obese adults today?

    It is important to understand that the study also makes a few recommendations which give hope to obese people. Lifestyle modifications are recommended. Regular exercise is a good place to start. This exercise routine could improve the synthesis of postprandial myofibrillar protein synthesis. Researchers also suggest further investigation for obese adults for an optimized protein synthesis post-exercise.

    Conclusion

    The new evidence on the reduced stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis after feeding and resistance exercise shows the impact obesity can have on obese people. With reduced protein synthesis, the physical performance of obese adults can suffer as well. A fast absorbing protein such as whey protein can be recommended after a workout.

    However, obesity can actually reduce the effects of resistance exercises. In these conditions, the benefits of resistance training can be blunted for obese adults. The effects are considerably better for normal weight adults. It's also important to know that all the subjects recruited for the purpose of the study were not following a routine of physical exercise and they represent a selected group of people insufficiently active.

    [i] J. Beals, S. Skineer, C. McKenna et a. (2018), Altered anabolic signalling and reduced stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis after feeding and resistance exercise in people with obesity, The Journal of Physiology. Available at:

    https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1113/JP276210

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