Putting a Fork in Forks Over Knives

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The war over good food, bad food grew larger when Forks Over Knives hit the movie theaters in 2011. Forks Over Knives, which means “use a dinner fork instead of going under the knife (surgery for chronic diseases)” contained some good information, some misleading information and left a lot of gaps in the research. So here are my good and bad impressions of this documentary.

The entire film was devoted to the supposed evils of animal based proteins. That’s right, all animal protein is bad. They didn’t distinguish between fish, red meat, packaged meats, turkey breast, free-range eggs, low fat dairy or any other type of animal protein. Instead, they lumped them into one large category of food you should avoid at all costs while adopting a plant-based diet. Go Vegan or Go Home!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of a diet loaded with fruits and vegetables but I’m first and foremost realistic and research-based. In the words of my friend and amazing colleague Sally Hara, I can work within almost anyone’s food religion unless it is absurd and harmful to them. But, I will move clients in the right direction based their lifestyle, goals, medical history and training program.

That being said here are the gaping holes I found in this documentary:

China study – this study and others like it cannot prove cause and effect. Being longitudinal studies, they cannot answer the question “ does eating meat cause disease.” The film also failed to talk about any confounding variables. Were any other factors tied to disease – such as, obesity?

All animal proteins are bad. There are so many things wrong with this statement that I’m not sure where to begin. But, first and foremost, since I’m a fan of people being functional into old age, preventing osteoporosis and sarcopenia (the gradual loss of muscle mass with age), I know the power of protein and high quality protein – the kind that is easy to digest and gives muscle tissue the amino acids it needs. Which proteins are on the top the list? Dairy, whey, casein (both are dairy proteins), eggs and soy. In fact, if you are an athlete, mix and match these and you may get even better results according to ground-breaking research presented last month (pick up the June 2012 copy of Physique 3D for my article on this study).

Protein also keeps you satiated so you eat less – add protein to every meal and you may find over time that weight management is easier. Sure, they talked about stretch receptors in your stomach, but there’s more to satiety than just how full your stomach is (ask anyone on a fruit and vegetable fast, because the people who have done this tell me they are hungry all the time!). You will stay full for a longer period if you add a good quantity of protein to that veggie rich meal. And I’m not talking a measly 12 grams. Aim for 30 grams at each main meal (unless you are on a protein restricted diet for some reason).

What about colon cancer and meat? Valid point. But, it’s red meat, and possibly just the way you cook it that is the issue.

You Can Build a Strong Body on a Vegetarian Diet

In an attempt to tell us you can build a healthy, strong body on a vegan diet, the filmmakers gave us two examples, one was the firefighter son of one of the featured physicians. The other, UFC fighter Mac Danzig. I’ve worked with vegetarian athletes, including one who is at the top of his sport but he includes BCAA supplements, whey and eggs in his diet and I’m willing to bet that Mac adds BCAAs at a minimum. Can you perform well and get all the nutrients you need on a vegan diet? Possibly but, it depends on your sport, your body and your training. Check out Tony Gonzalez’s trial of veganism here.

Last I’ll leave you with the reaction of one of my friends after seeing this movie “those two physicians look emaciated. Do you think if they actually consumed some animal protein they may look healthier and have more muscle on their bodies?” Yep, I sure do.

In summary, I’m all in favor of adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Most of us do not get enough of these every day. I also think a vegetarian diet can be healthy if done correctly. However, this movie left glossed over the science (but, pay attention to what Connie Diekman says in it) and left many some very important points.

If you’ve watched Forks Over Knives, I’d love to hear your impression of this documentary!

Effective Strategies for Weight Loss

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Last Friday I spoke at the NSCA’s Personal Trainers meeting in Las, Vegas. They put on one heck of a meeting and I love meeting NSCA members and learning from them as well as the speakers. And one thing I really liked about this meeting was the fact that several speakers challenged commonly held beliefs about nutrition and exercise. Here’s a condensed overview (not all points included) of my talk on Effective Strategies for Weight Loss:

1) Lift Weights or engage in some other type of resistance training, regularly. Muscle tissue doesn’t burn many more calories than fat (despite what people say) – about 4 calories more per day per pound. But, those calories add up over time and more importantly, adults start a gradual slow progression of losing muscle around age 40 (sarcopenia). Less muscle means you can’t exercise as hard which means you won’t burn as many calories while working out (and those activities of daily living like washing your car or lifting groceries will seem tough at some point).

2) Calories Matter. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble who thinks you can eat as much as you want as long as you slash so called “bad calories,” but calories count. If you don’t believe me, check out how nutrition professor Mark Haub lost 27 lbs and significantly improved his blood lipids on a 10-week diet of Twinkies, Doritos, sugary cereals and Hostess cupcakes. Want more evidence published in research journals? Okay, check out the POUNDS LOST trial which found that how much you eat matters more than the proportion of fat, carbohydrate and protein. And, that adherence to a diet determines success (and sticking with extreme diets that cut out food groups sucks so many people don’t last long on them).

3) Calories Matter but Protein is Crucial. Protein preserves muscle during weight loss and the lower your diet is in calories, the more you need protein. How important is protein for preserving muscle? Well, I love the overfeeding study published in JAMA earlier this year in which the study authors overfed participants by 40% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight. The participants were randomized to receive either 5%, 15% or 25% of their calories from protein. Now, 5% may seem low but because of their total daily caloric intake that 5% meant 47 grams per day – that’s 1 gram more than the protein RDA set by our government for women! All groups gained a similar amount of fat and the 15% and 25% group also gained muscle (and therefore more total weight) but, the group consuming 1 gram of protein more than the RDA set for women LOST 0.70 kg lean body mass! Take home points: over consume calories and you’ll gain fat. Make protein a greater proportion of the calories you over consume and you’ll also gain muscle. Follow the RDA and you may lose lean body mass.

4) Change your Environment for Success. Eat off smaller plates and bowls, choose smaller packages, get the food you don’t want to eat out of your house (if it is there, you will eat it at some point). Put healthy food within your line of vision. Avoid constant refills (chip basket at restaurants, bread basket, that never ending tub of beer bottles). And, surround yourself with people who encourage your success vs. those who will get in the way.

5) Keep your stress levels down. For more information on how stress impacts weight, click here.

6) Figure out WHY you are eating. You can have all the nutrition knowledge in the world and weight loss strategies but if you don’t delve into what is making you eat vs. using other coping mechanisms, long term success will elude you.

Now, you are probably wondering “well what about Forks Over Knives, the documentary that covered the supposed evils of animal protein?” I promise I’ll give my uncensored opinion (slashing) of that documentary in my next post in addition to more about protein 🙂

For a hilarious and insightful overview of this conference, check out fitness and nutrition expert Alan Aragon’s post. And, here’s a post from another one of my favorite writers, renowned fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld.