I recently went back to the city law firm where I gave my first ever talk here on nutrition and training, almost ten years ago and while the faces are different the questions tend to remain the same.
The public now seem more confused than ever, and it isn’t just them – the over-sciencing of nutrition by those seeking to become gatekeepers of information on this topic is making the waters more muddied instead of less. Meanwhile, the obesity bandwagon marches on, with British women on target to be fatter than American men by 2030.
As with most things Occams Razor can be applied to 99% of nutritional and weight loss cases. Very rarely is their problem down to some kind of spurious ‘imbalance’ or a deficiency in some sort of magical amino acid. In fact, all too often it is their psychology that we need to consider ahead of their physiology in all but the more extreme clinical cases involving specific and diagnosed pathology.
Looking at the folks I’ve worked with here in the City for over a decade now I’ve come to a few fairly solid conclusions. These have been borne out by practical experience rather than studying the books, although I’m reasonably confident that current research into the psychology of behaviour change will back most, if not all of them up.
- Compliance is everything. Consider this first. The likelihood of someone’s ability to change their behaviour to your recommendations is directly related to their perceived ability to do it. If it all sounds too much like hard work then it isn’t likely to happen at all. Personality type is rarely ever considered, but for example, entrepreneurial and very creative people struggle with organised routines requiring high levels of self control, whereas a highly organised lawyer or trader may seek that exact approach.
- Where and how people eat is as important as what and why. The first two tell you a lot about the reasons behind the latter two. Changing diet is about changing habits, eating in front of the TV and social eating are two environments prone to overindulgence, irrespective of actual hunger. Look at where and how people eat first.
- Sleep and recovery drive the ability to train and eat well. Without good sleep both our food and training suffer. It builds reliance on sugar and stimulants, reduces work capacity, impairs how we feel and function, and generally makes us feel crap. It is the first and easiest way to break people down by depriving them of sleep. If sleep is poor then fix it first and if prone to long days travelling then build in strategies to help deal with it.
- Temptation is the hardest thing to avoid and all too often clients are faced with the temptation to drink and eat when if left to their own devices they probably wouldn’t. Try to build in some solid plans of action for when these scenarios come up “If we go for drinks I”ll keep to non-alcoholic till I’ve eaten” or “I’lll ask for a vegetable option instead of chips or pasta”. Keep away from the unhealthy choices, if there is cake in the office, keep it in the kitchen rather than next to your desk where you are more likely to succumb to a piece (and if you are breaking a diet, you’ll probably go right off the rails and have several).
- ‘Dieting’ requires almost constant conscious thought and willpower to maintain, only those with the highest motivation and strictest level of self control are likely to stick to them. Those who fail tend to gain back more weight than they started with. Instead look at simple habits that over the course of a longer period of time (think in terms of months and years rather than weeks) that can be more beneficial. For example, trying to just give up bread consumption can often be achieved and often can bring great results. Once ‘not eating’ something becomes a habit it is much easier to maintain.
- Use simple and easy methods of tracking weight and body. No need for complex measurement systems, regularly measure weight and waistline and you won’t go far wrong. Unless you are preparing for a competition – and even then, how you look will be more important than any numbers on a chart. For my clients in the city I am more interested in their blood lipids, resting heart rate, and blood pressure as a guide to their health.
- Seek out habits that bring happiness. Dieting is miserable, just ask any pre-comp figure athlete or bodybuilder. Instead look for habits that make you happy and your capacity for improving your food and lifestyle will raise too. Dancing, walking the dog, playing sport, or simply taking a stroll with a friend – they may not burn the same calories as an hour of interval training but they bring many other far more wider ranging benefits (and are a lot more fun too!).
- Give yourself a break, you don’t have to eat cake every day but you’re far more likely to stick to your habits if you know that in a couple of days you are out with friends and able to relax and enjoy a piece of cake with them then. This has been proven time and again to be a more effective strategy than total abstinence. It is naive of any trainer working with the population that I do to think that they will live saintly in your absence. They will more likely just hide this information from you, especially if it is received with condescension and a telling-off. Work with what you have got, find solutions WITH the clients that they feel confident and happy to try and over the longer-term you’ll see a progressive improvement in health, fitness, and happiness.
We’ve been working with these approaches for years now at The Foundry, and while we may not specialise in putting people on stage in their swimwear, we do know how to ensure that our clients go to their medicals and achieve results that would look good for people half their age. As with anything, there are universal truths about training and nutrition, but how you communicate these will often need to be measured and delivered differently.
There is no one right-way, though there are many wrong ways. As a trainer, I look for every little win and I am sure to do my best to highlight it and focus on it with the intention of creating a habit. I am also realistic about the lifestyles my clients lead and believe that the first stage to achieving better health is an honest appraisal of current health and a desire to want to improve that, without that well-intended advice is too often wasted.
Foundry Director Graeme Marsh was recently asked to put together his top tips for training in-season by the excellent rugby resource website FindRugbyNow. For the original article, please go to and please find a copy of this article syndicated below.
I was recently asked by a new member at our East London training centre, Foundry:east, to take a look at his current training programme, which he had downloaded from the internet.
I was curious as it was the very definition of high volume with over 30 sets of work per workout, but ever the diplomat I asked, “How are you getting on with this?”. He replied, “Man, it is wiping me out. I can’t do anything after it and I’m knackered before the game even starts”.
It wasn’t that it was necessarily a bad training programme. In fact, if he had been a 22-year-old bodybuilder on anabolic steroids looking to add serious mass, then he probably would have seen some good progress on it.
What it did, however, was illustrate perfectly how you need to adjust training programmes during the season to reflect the demands that field training, games, and life in general can have on the body.
- Do less to get more: It is unrealistic to expect to be able to sustain a high-volume programme during the competitive season. Game and practice time will make recovery from long, high volume training sessions near on impossible for all but the most hormonally blessed players. The actual amount of work needed to develop strength and power is lower than many think, but the intensity is key.
- Put your effort where it brings the best returns: To develop or maintain strength concentrate on the intensity of your lifts. The bulk of your time should be spent on movements that target the high-threshold motor units (key for strength and speed) and recruit the most muscle. To do this incorporate a mixture of plyometric movements (jumps, bounds etc), olympic style movements (clean pulls, Snatch pulls etc) with high-intensity loads in the big lifts (below 6 reps per set) as the mainstay of your training. Game and training time should keep pre-season fitness, but if not, keep CV work low in volume and energy system specific.
- Let your recovery dictate your training: If you had a hard game, took a lot of hits and played a full 80 minutes then you may need longer recovery before hitting the weights. Similarly if you only had a run out for the last 15 minutes then you may be able to hit the gym monday morning feeling fresh. Be flexible in your week to week planning and adjust what you do to match your ability from week to week. If you feel tired and beat up, take a sauna and then stretch, you’ll feel the benefit and come back fitter and stronger. Too many guys are emotionally attached to their training and determined to keep lifting like a full-time bodybuilder through the competitive season.
- Listen to your body and watch for signs of overtraining: Too much work with inadequate recovery will eventually lead to overtraining, which can take a long time to fully recover from. If you start to see weights going down from week to week, every weight (even the empty bar) starts to feel heavy, if sleep is poor and you wake up feeling heavy and tired after a full 8 hours, and you feel performance during the games suffering then you need to check that your training isn’t contributing to this. Don’t be afraid to build recovery weeks in to your training, so few people actually do this for fear of suddenly getting weaker or smaller, where the opposite is more likely to happen as the body gets time to rest and adapt.
- Keep things simple: The aim of your gym session is not to try to spend a load of time and effort on pointless ‘sport-specific’ exercises that are currently popular in the fitness media. Wobbling about on Bosu balls or doing the latest ‘functional’ craze is merely a waste of time that could be spent actually getting stronger or stretching and recovering from the weekend’s game. Stick to the fundamental movements of deadlifting, squats, presses, pulls, and rows and you won’t go far wrong.
- Put recovery methods in your training: Stretching is practically impossible to do too much of, but it is the most neglected aspect of most people’s training. A lack of adequate flexibility will lead to increased risk of injury, muscle imbalances, and a lack of any real progress in training. Being big and strong is pointless if your hips are so tight that your speed is impacted negatively and your lower back exposed to increased injury risk. The current trend is to only stretch after having done the rest of your training, but this means that stretching is generally done poorly, with minimal focus and therefore negligible results. Ideally dedicate separate time to stretching work as it can be done anywhere, but if time is an issue (which for most it is) we tend to do it first.
- Work with a trainer who knows their stuff: If you can then invest in some time with a professional coach who understands how to design training programmes for you that will address the above points. It isn’t rocket science, in fact it is largely common sense. Having a good coach will give you accountability, external feedback, guidance on correct technique, and someone who can monitor your training performance allowing you to concentrate on simply training hard and recovering effectively. Our team at Foundry:east specialise in working with active busy professionals on this, you can find out more at www.foundryfit.co.uk.
Many factors can impact on finding the right routine that works best for you. These include: age, nutrition, sleep, stress, work, relationships, hormonal status, training age, playing position, level of competition, etc. All of these factors can all have an influence and should be considered when designing a training plan.
Dieting dominates the popular media and it seems like every month the glossy magazines find another celebrity diet fad to report on. From Maple syrup to cabbage soup these are mostly ridiculous, unhealthy, impractical, and almost impossible for anyone with a normal life to follow.
Still, people do try, and they hop from diet to diet like a gym room newbie will hop from training plan to training pan in the hope of finding that magic solution. Most people end up depressed, with digestive and metabolic issues, and often worse than they were when they started out. However, in August, the BBC’s Horizon programme covered an approach to weight loss that is regaining popularity, and not without good reason. The presenter, Dr Michael Mosley, who seemed in a rather poor state of health for a doctor at the outset, put himself forward as a human guinea pig to trial intermittent fasting (IF) with some remarkable results.
What Makes A Successful Diet?
Quality Over Quantity?
What’s The Role Of Psychology?
So How Does Intermittent Fasting Differ?
More Importantly, What Does The Research Say?
The results of this review support the use of exercise as a weight loss intervention, particularly when combined with dietary change. Exercise is associated with improved cardiovascular disease risk factors even if no weight is lost.
The study’s authors go on to discuss some interesting theories and findings. One finding in particular was that those Non-compensators (those who tended not to increase energy intake in response to energy expenditure) tended to be heavier and fatter at the outset compared to the compensators (those who lost less weight than expected and tended to increase energy intake). One theory being that when exercise threatens lean mass (as it does in those only carrying a few extra pounds…) it drives the need to increase energy intake more than in those with an abundance of excess calories in body fat.
While this notion is an appealing explanation I am not sure it is only the mechanism behind this, although it does make intuitive sense. We do also know that in some people there is a tendency to ‘reward’ exercise by being less active throughout the rest of the day, which can reduce potential weight loss results. This reward mentality does seem prevalent and is a strong driver for the argument that psychology is a prime factor in obesity. Studies looking at eating behaviour, such as those by Jane Ogden at Surrey University have shown how certain environments and situations can influence eating, often unrelated to our actual hunger. Simply eating in front of the television has been demonstrated to increase overeating irrespective of actual reported hunger levels.
Only 19% of interventionist studies report an increase in energy intake after exercise; 65% show no change and 16% show a decrease in appetite. Of the correlational studies, approximately half show no relationship between energy expenditure and intake. These data indicate a rather loose coupling between energy expenditure and intake. A common sense view is that exercise is futile as a form of weight control because the energy deficit drives a compensatory increase in food intake. However, evidence shows that this is not generally true.
In the first part of this series of articles, we took a look at the real extent of the obesity crisis and its worrying implications on the healthcare system. Even as I sat discussing this in my favourite Shoreditch eatery the other night it boggled my brain at the complexity and difficulty in finding a starting point for dealing with it. If nothing else you should hopefully have realised that the expanding waistlines of the UK population are not going to be fixed by any facile advice, no matter how well intended, to ‘eat less’ or ‘take more exercise’. You should also have realised that the standard (they might not like you to think they are standard, but they really are) mantras of the fitness industry probably aren’t going to do a whole lot of good either, again despite their generally good intentions.
If you had the time or the inclination to read the Foresight report you’ll also now have an appreciation of how this topic is at best vastly oversimplified, or at its worst how aspects of it are ignored. So many factors (Foresight identified 108 of them) can contribute to obesity in any given population and can often be entirely different across nations.
One of the paradoxes that we can see globally with obesity is its relationship to income. In developed countries like the UK and the US, obesity still remains highest in the lower socio-economic groups. However, in developing countries such as Brazil obesity is seen to rise as people can start to afford to increase food consumption, particularly of sugary, fatty, processed foods. This is particularly prevalent in kids as shown below, but it isn’t exclusive to them. As Brazil’s GDP increased the poorest women went from being the thinnest to the fattest in just 20 years. The speed of that transition is frightening. This has definite implications for strategies to try and prevent the increase of obesity, which I’ll expand on later.
Even the researching of these issues across populations is difficult. Meaningful numbers requires the use of large self-reporting surveys and it is widely acknowledged that people have a habit of overstating things like activity habits while understating nutritional ones. However, in one European country it does seem they are having some success in at least slowing the seemingly inevitable increase in obesity. If you read my first piece thoroughly then you may have noticed that while every country started moving inexorably upwards in the early 90‘s, Finland didn’t and their success with the North Karelia Project, which was actually aimed at reducing heart disease, shows that there is some hope. So, the question now is how we actually go about dealing with it.
What can we do about junk food?
McDonalds largest restaurant in the world was recently built on the site of the 2012 Olympics, right here in London and the signature golden arches of this global food giant have become a common feature on every high street in the UK. The spread of McDonalds into developing markets may well signal the beginning of a shift in those countries own obesity levels as the convenience, speed, and marketing of fast food becomes within economic reach of the poorer parts of the population.
There is even a ‘Big Mac’ index that can correlate the amount of labour hours required to be able to buy a Big Mac with the levels of obesity in that country. The less work required, the fatter the population. It is an indictment on the brand that only a few years ago attempted to introduce ‘healthier’ options onto its menu and whose latest ‘healthy’ addition is somehow classified as one of your ‘five a day’, despite the fact that a 500ml cup contains almost 50g of sugar. Needless to say, as the convenience food becomes even cheaper and even more convenient, less and less people are eating at home. The concept of a family meal now all too often revolves around a trip to the nearest fast food outlet.
Of course, it isn’t just McDonalds who are producing low-cost, high-margin, energy dense, nutrient poor, food for the population. As global demand for food has grown and consumer competition increased, the giant corporates behind food production and retail have striven to increase margins on their foodstuffs, robbing them of nutrients, driving intensive and non-sustainable agriculture practices, and indulging in all manor of nefarious practices. From loss-leading on known-products to blocking food labelling, the interests of these organisations currently sits at odds with the nations health. The brilliant journalist Felicity Lawrence has written about this in her excellent book Not On The Label; I’d urge you to read it.
The question is though, what can we actually do about it? Well, various options have been raised from increasing taxation on ‘junk’ food to restricting marketing and advertising. The latter is a major challenge, given that the food industry spends a voluminous amount on the marketing and brand positioning of their product. The recent Olympic games was a great example with some even suggesting that the games couldn’t run without the support of McDonalds and Coca Cola (both who contributed around £64m), Cadbury (good for £20m) and Heineken (another £10m) to name but a few.
Compared to the government budget on public food education, who in 2004 spent a grand sum of £7m, it is no wonder that the message of the fast food providers is taking precedent. However, this marketing is insidious and in places many of you may not even know exist. Take for example this website http://www.happymeal.com/en_US/index.html#/Games a blatant advertising site (you can tell by the trite warning to ‘kids’ in the top left corner) that is capturing children at an early age to identify with the fast food brand. This site for the nutritional powerhouse that is Reeses Puffs (http://www.reesespuffs.com) is even worse. Hit Mixer and get audibly assaulted with an incessant rap of ‘Reeses puffs, Reeses puffs..’ all set to a hip hop beat….catchy isn’t it? One area the government could target is junk food marketing aimed at children, yet they remain reluctant to do so.
The government did step up in 2009 launching the Change4Life campaign with a budget of £75m (still only 10% of what the food industry spent in 2004 marketing their products) only to pull the plug on it just a year later, rejecting the notion that children needed education and that instead it was the over-40’s men that was a better target. Originally slated to run through to the 2012 Olympics, the Change4Life campaign only made it a year. It is clear that the politicians prefer to see obesity as a social problem and not a government one that can be solved through legislation or regulation. Even the use of a watershed time for junk food advertising is an unpopular strategy with OFCOM highlighting the lost revenues to the broadcaster from imposing such restrictions.
There is little doubt though that the marketing and advertising of these junk food products to kids is at the heart of our obesity problem. Alvin F. Poussaint, MD of Harvard Medical School gives us a stark warning:
“Egregious advertising to children using toys to lure them to McDonald’s for low-nutrient, high-calorie Happy Meals is damaging to the well-being of children and their families. No doubt, it is one major contributing factor in the current obesity epidemic in the United States.”
Introducing taxes and regulations is one of the first arguments from the health and fitness industry but it is a solution fraught with problems and fundamentally it sits uneasily with me. San Francisco tried it, introducing a city-wide ban on giving away toys with Happy Meals. It attracted criticism from the libertarians who dislike this type of ‘nanny-state’ legislation (even the Mayor declared his desire to veto it) and McDonalds sidestepped it easily anyway, charging a token 10 cents for the toy in the price, an amount they then gave to charity. Clever.
Legislating how we buy our food is though a thorny area and I feel that top-down population wide legislative measures are likely to be as unpopular amongst the public as they would be with the food companies themselves. Handing over responsibility for choice in how we eat seems a radical and rather fascist solution and not one I am comfortable with. That said, some regulation over how such nutritionally poor food is marketed and advertised would seem a good step, still allowing free choice, but with limits on how it can be advertised, to children in particular. Obesity is ingrained into our culture, as are the fast food shops on every high street in the UK. If we are to truly reverse the current growing trend of obesity then we need to work out how we can encourage people to make better choices themselves, starting with our educational system.
Organisations like the School Food Trust http://www.schoolfoodtrust.org are trying to make inroads and in pockets of the UK there is certainly some green shoots, but against the might of the food industry it will be a tough task without some stronger support from the government.
Junk food will not disappear from the UK high street anytime soon; it will likely always be popular and some will always exercise their right to eat at these establishments. We have to tackle it from the bottom up, increasing customer awareness of the true ‘health value’ of something with clear disclosure on nutrient and calorie levels, improving food education so that young people can see what goes into these foods and learn how to cook properly, and we must work on offering alternatives that are as easily accessible and affordable, as the low-cost availability of junk food is one of it’s most alluring features.
Consumers do have the power to change it, simply by not eating there; however without the compelling desire not to, combined with the marketing efforts of these major corporations it is a big ask. More money needs to be spent countering the powerful marketing methods these companies use both through popular media avenues as well as front-line healthcare practices.
The report itself is captivating reading, for example the fact that of the €38 billion (yes, billion) that is directed through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy the biggest amount, in relation to market value, is awarded to the tobacco industry. If that doesn’t worry you then let’s look at one of the report’s positive recommendations: that school sports fields be preserved and made accessible for communities. This idea was clearly rejected by that annoyingly smug-faced Michael Gove who has driven the recent sell-off of them across the UK, despite coalition ‘promises’ to the opposite. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/aug/17/michael-gove-school-playing-fields).
However, before I get stuck into this blog post, which admittedly could go on a bit, here is a direct link to the report so you can read it for yourself.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to two of the UK’s leading experts in tackling obesity: Professor David Haslam and Professor Jane Ogden, both who presented very differing viewpoints on the whole calamitous issue. Dr Haslam is a GP and Chair of the National Obesity Forum, while Dr Ogden heads up Health Psychology at the University of Surrey.
It got me thinking that it is worth revisiting this topic with at least the hope of providing some kind of dim light at the end of what is looking to be a very deep, dark, and long tunnel.
Granted, you may well be thinking, why should I care? But you should because the financial impact of this alone was described by Prof. Haslam as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that will take up an estimated 17% of the NHS budget in 20 years time (http://www.diabetes.org.uk/About_us/News_Landing_Page/NHS-spending-on-diabetes-to-reach-169-billion-by-2035/).
Obesity is a one-way ticket to serious illness and disease and yet still we are a country in denial about the true extent of the problem. Short-term politics will never address long-term problems that can only be addressed through policies that will surely lead to the rapid ejection of any incumbent government. This is before we even get into whose responsibility it really is to deal with this. Should we even be relying on the government to tell us how and what we should be eating? I’m not so sure, but more on that later.
The fact is that despite all the wisdom and good intentions of the fitness industry, we are getting fatter. The UK is now the fattest country in Europe, with obesity growing here at a rate that will see UK females fatter than American males by the year 2030. Despite this the fitness industry and sadly most the trainers out there writing their sage wisdom on the topic fail to really understand this problem, what is causing it, and how we can deal with it. In fact, all too often those writing on ‘health and fitness’ seem to be creating more problems than they are solving in their ignorance.
The arguments, articles, books, movies, and musings over the drivers behind these rises though are plentiful and far too many to discuss in this post. They range from the most popular: over-consumption of foods (in particular refined carbohydrates), decreases in physical activity, and economic issues to those less discussed: environmental chemicals that can play havoc with our hormones, poorer sleep habits, and pharmaceutical obesogens. Gary Taubes recent book Diet Delusion did a commendable job in making the argument for refined carbohydrates as being the primary cause of the current obesity epidemic, although I can’t help but feel that it is as much effect as it is cause and that the drivers for this are what we need to understand if we are to effectively deal with it.
As part of the Foresight Report, an interactive map of 108 factors was created (of which only 16 are directly related to food consumption), which attempted to do exactly that. If nothing else, this map shows the total complexity of the problem. Check it out in an interactive format here http://www.shiftn.com/obesity/Full-Map.html.
Still with me? If you are then you will probably by now be realising that the advice we give to relatively lean athletes or exercisers looking to enter contests or sporting events is not the same advice we should be prescribing en masse to the overweight and obese population. Simply telling these folks to ‘eat green vegetables and lean meat’, ‘cut out the carbs’ or ‘have a high protein breakfast’ is not going to work. Atkins was giving that advice decades ago in what has become the world’s highest selling diet book and thousands more since have written books on it (including myself).
Just about every diet strategy has been tried, from low-carb to low-fat, points, blood types, food rotation, carb curfews, cabbage soup, maple syrup, and many many more. Still the obesity line climbs on the charts and graphs.
So what can we do? In the next part of this little series I’ll attempt to provide some solutions, along with the complex ethical and moral challenges each of those presents.