The Improbable Eating Habits Of Olympic Champions.

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By Raymond Onyango.

Fitness is a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide. According to the international current affairs magazine, TIME; Americans alone spend an estimated 19 billion dollars a year on gym memberships. In an article titled, ‘Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin’, author John Cloud, notes that in spite of this colossal amount of money being poured into health club memberships, obesity rates in the United States Of America have continued on a seemingly uncontrollable upward spiral, with an estimated one-third of the entire American population now considered obese under the definition offered by the federal government.

The author’s argument against exercise is based on an interesting piece of logic. He reckons that the problem with exercise, is that it makes you hungry, and the more you exercise, the more hungry you get and thus the more you want to eat. As he puts it, a hard workout will burn maybe 200 to 300 calories, which you could put back with a single muffin, and so when you exit the gym and settle down to a sugary snack right after that hard workout, you are probably working against your very own weight-loss efforts.

His solution – and he quotes several experts to back it up – is that you should watch what you eat as the central core of your weight loss efforts, and he proceeds to caution the reader that ‘fiery spurts of vigorous exercise can lead to weight gain.

Predictably, this article caused a huge controversy, when it was first published in August 2009, attracting widespread condemnation from Fitness professionals all around the world, and triggering a raging debate in the global wellness community, dwelling on what the New York Times described as one of the most intriguing and vexing issue in physiology – Can Exercise Make You Thin?

Above the blaring cacophony of competing ‘expert’ opinions, a plausible answer to this question is to be found in the most befitting arena of all – the London 2012 Olympics.  Thanks to the British love for tabloid news, the media has been a buzz with the most trivial details of the games as well as the athletes themselves.  For instance, we got to learn about the dietary habits of some of the world’s most illustrious athletes, and boy! They are not exactly what you would expect from athletes of this caliber!

Michael Phelps the American swimming sensation, who made history at the London Games, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals, 18 of them gold, not surprisingly eats like a horse. What is surprising is the amount of junk food the guy packs away on a daily basis – 3 fried egg sandwiches, choc chip pancakes, a 5- egg omelet, French toast and grits – just for breakfast. Phelps also consumes a whole kilogram (yes, a whole Kg!) of pasta everyday, plus ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza all chased down by a couple of liters of soda…and the guy is still as lean as a cheetah!

At a whooping 8,000 calories a day, Michael Phelps is taking in almost 4 times the recommended average calories for a male adult and yet he is still as lean as they come. There couldn’t be a better answer than this to the question – Can Exercise Make You Thin? Michael Phelps is living proof that Exercise Can Make You Thin, even if you must, like he does, train for up to 5 hours a day. Now that he is retired, one thing that is certain from this point forward is that even the great Michael Phelps, can gain weight, if he continues to eat like this, without a maintaining a commensurate level of exercise.

The fact of the matter is that neither extreme is sustainable. When you lose weight exclusively though calorie restrictive diets, the weight loss is indiscriminate and your body readily cannibalizes it own muscle tissue to bridge the calorie deficit. The result therefore is that as you lose weight, you also muscle mass which as you well know is the metabolic engine of the body and you further weaken key bodily organs and structures including your heart as well as your bones. Constant dieting for her demanding movie roles is believed to be one of the reasons why actress Gwyneth Paltrow was diagnosed with the degenerative bone disease osteopenia, a precursor to osteoarthritis – at the age of just 37!  Not to mention that the very moment you begin to eat normally again, you will rapidly gain back all the weight you have lost.

On the flip side, even if you exercise plenty, but eat too much junk; you are still not immune to the effects of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, or the cumulative effects of over consumption of highly processed food, which while high in calorie value is utterly devoid of any real nutritional value. In the long run you will end up malnourished and probably obese, when work or family gets in the way of your exercise habit.

In my book, the most effective and sustainable approach to weight loss lies in finding balance between the two. You don’t have to subsist exclusively on vegetables and mineral water in order to lose weight and be healthy, but you mustn’t imagine that a single hours worth of gym 3 times a week gives you the carte blanche to eat anything you please – because it doesn’t! You have got to ‘eat better and move more’ if you hope to get thin and stay that way for a lifetime!

Have a balanced week will you!

Do You Have A Healthy Relationship With Your Food?

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Your attitude towards food, affects you more than you realize. 

By Raymond Onyango.

That the vast majority of us understand the connection between good heath and nutrition, is not in doubt! Almost every one of my clients invariably asks for nutritional advice. What should I eat? What should I not eat? How much food should I eat?

Usually what they expect from me is a definitive formula, a few ancient words of wisdom perhaps, “Eat this, in this quantity, cut that out, drink that, and you will certainly loose 5 kilograms by the end of next month!” But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. There is no secret formula. No one – size – fits – all, healthy eating prescription that will guarantee weight loss or magical relief from disease.

What there is instead, is a virtual avalanche of information. Millions of diet formulas – The Hollywood diet, The Atkins Diet, The Raw Food Diet, The Juice Diet…Diets that have you eating only before 6 pm in the evening and others that have you color coordinating your food!

So how do you sort the wheat from the chafe? How do you know what works and what doesn’t. How do you separate scientific fact from old wives myths? Where do you begin?

You begin by changing your attitude towards food. The vast majority of us have a very ‘transactional’ attitude towards food. We see food as something external to ourselves, a means to an end. Food is something we eat simply to obtain nourishment. Some foods are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad. In our minds, healthy eating involves cutting out the ‘bad’ foods and eating more of the ‘good’ foods. Against this backdrop, we easily begin to perceive food as the enemy and though we may make huge efforts to control our eating habits, resist temptation and walk the narrow path  – inevitably we fail spectacularly; diets fall by the wayside, weight loss targets go unmet and despite our best efforts, our waist lines remain unchanged.

 Self-Denial Does Not Work!

It is said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Despite our best intentions diets inevitably fail, because nothing can stand up to the inherently rebellious nature of the human spirit. Tell a person that they are forbidden from eating chocolate and those very words will set off a latent craving, which slowly grows and grows and until they can take it no more, and they are compelled to succumb and surrender to an all out chocolate binge – and then the craving is gone!

The lesson to be learned here is that craving is as much about your attitude towards food as it is about your taste buds. We always want what we can’t have. The moment we set out to correct our eating habits, by denying ourselves certain kinds of food, is the moment; we go to civil war against ourselves. Mind against body. Body against mind. Body craving, mind resisting in a tumultuous tug-of-war, where one side is bound to loose!

This kind of transactional attitude towards food, seldom works because it tries to deny the fact that food is much more than just nutrition. Our most basic human needs are food and shelter, and so we have a very strong relationship with food that is set in motion, from the very moment we reach for our mother’s breasts as infants, to the day we breath our last. Throughout our lives, food takes us places; invokes memories, provides comfort and affects our emotions in ways that run much deeper than we may immediately comprehend. For instance I love chapatti and dengu, a local Kenyan delicacy, because it invokes fond memories of sitting around the Jiko (charcoal stove) with my siblings waiting for my mum to feed us hot chapattis straight from the frying pan. Even now, decades after I moved out of my parents house and became a parent myself. I still love chapatti just as much as I did in my childhood.It does not matter that my professional training, has since taught me that there are a few thousand calories worth of cooking oil in every chapatti! This is still the once place where my head always defers to my heart, where reason always yields to emotion – it’s a battle I cant win and I am sure each one of us has similar experiences, where food and emotion are so intangibly intertwined!

Learn To Love Your Food!

So, if self-denial does not work, then what does? What works is to establish a relationship with your food. A ‘relationship’ is different from a ‘transaction’ in the same way that shopping in a big supermarket chain is different from shopping at your neighborhood grocers’. In the big supermarket, the experience is highly impersonal; the teller does not know you. He will never extend a line of credit or honor your personal cheque. By contrast your neighborhood grocer knows you by name and maybe your children too. You can call in advance and get your order packed and ready because they know exactly what you like; and on those occasions when you happen to forget your wallet at home – no problem! You can always pay at your next visit! That is a relationship!

When you have a relationship with your food, it stops being your enemy. It stops being something you try to control. It starts being something you enjoy and engage with, something that picks you up when you are down, energizes you in the morning, calms you down in the evening and powers you up for those long weekend runs. Healthy eating becomes less about ‘”cutting this out and cutting that out” and more about achieving a broad balance in your eating habits in real time, from one meal to the next.

There is really no such thing as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’, what really matters are your eating habits themselves. I believe in eating anything I like under the sun – provided that I exercise moderation. If I have a glass wine at lunch, I wont have another one at dinner. If I eat out one night I will eat at home for the next several days. When I go to party and indulge one evening, I go out for a run the next morning. That is how I have successfully kept myself together for well over a decade since I got into the fitness business. I have never in my life sat down to contemplate how many calories are in the ice cream cone I am about to have for desert, because I have always maintained balance in my lifestyle habits– the balance between eating and moving.

Healthy eating Rules To Live Your Life By!

Rule number one. What goes in must come out! Food is energy. If you eat and you don’t move, your body stores that excess energy as fat. One of the first things you want to do in your quest to eat better; is to move more.  For me, regular exercise does two important things – it frees me from the guilt of eating the foods I love, such as chapatti, and it provides me with an outlet for the calories I take in from those chapattis – and that is what keeps my waistline in check.

Now, I am not saying that you should go out there and gorge yourself silly on junk, just because you exercise everyday. What I am saying is that because you exercise everyday, you can afford yourself a glass or wine here or a plate of fries there, provided that on the whole, you don’t over indulge. I call this the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time I will eat healthy, wholesome nutritional food, and twenty percent of the time I will indulge in the foods I eat for comfort and taste rather than nutrition. It’s a win – win situation for both my body and my mind!

The second rule is to go easy on processed food. Obesity was never been widespread health challenge for the human race, until the advent of Urbanization and Food processing. For instance, Fresh tomatoes are just that – tomatoes.

Processed Tomato Sauce (ketchup) on the other hand, contains the following ingredients – Tomato Paste, Cane Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Vinegar, Salt, Spices, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate as preservatives! The difference between the two is clear for all to see. It is a prime example of how most food processing generally strips away nutritional value, and adds calorie value, not to mention chemical preservatives designed to prolong shelf life.

The more processed food you consume the more likely you are to be obese, malnourished and slowly poisoned by the chemical preservatives. The evidence is to be found in the astounding rates of both obesity and cancer in developed nations such as the United States of America, versus those in less developed countries like Gambia or Burkina Faso.  Here in Kenya, medical professionals have already raised the alarm with regards to the growing prevalence of lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, especially amongst Kenyans newly affluent and growing middle class. It is clear sign that over consumption of processed food makes us both fat and sick!

Perhaps I should leave you by pointing out that, when it comes to healthy eating, the simplest solution is often the most effective. No need for complex calorie calculations. No need for fancy color coordinated or carbohydrate free diets. Humanity has thrived for eons without any of that!   You must remember that you are in a slow race here, one that will last a lifetime. Don’t make war with your food; instead seek to modify your lifestyle habits. Walk more when you can. Eat more fresh wholesome food and less stuff out of cans and bottles. Schedule the time to work out as a priority and exercise moderation in your alcohol intake. Good words of advice indeed but for heaven sake, remember also to live a little! Life is simply too short to do any less!

Have a brilliant week will you!

Absolutely Flat Abs!

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3 Things You Can Do To Get There!

By Raymond Onyango.

Flat Abs

A flat, toned abdomen probably ranks first, as one of the most desirable outcomes of engaging in a regular exercise regimen, and one of the most elusive, to say the least!  And yet whenever I go down to the coast, or my hometown of Kisumu, every single fisherman on the lake, has a perfect set of six – pack abdominal muscles worthy of a fitness magazine cover!  They are the living proof that you don’t need to pop pills, or accumulate silly gadgets in the pursuit of a flat abdomen, you just need to modify your approach to abdominal exercise. Here is how.

Improve Your Posture

The Major Abdominal Muscle Groups

Your body has three main weights – the head, the chest and the hips. Keeping these weights in alignment, is a function that is mostly executed by four main abdominal muscle groups namely:

Transversus abdominus: The deepest muscle layer. Its main roles are to stabilize the trunk and maintain internal abdominal pressure.

Rectus abdominus: Slung between the ribs and the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis. This muscle has the characteristic bumps or bulges, when contracting, that are commonly called ‘the six pack’. The main function of the rectus abdominus is to move the body between the ribcage and the pelvis.

Six Pack Abs

External oblique muscles: These are on each side of the rectus abdominus. The external oblique muscles allow the trunk to twist, but to the opposite side of whichever external oblique is contracting. For example, the right external oblique contracts to turn the body to the left.

Internal oblique muscles:These flank the rectus abdominus and are located just inside the hipbones. They operate in the opposite way to the external oblique muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together.

Sit Tall

Sitting for too much of the day, often with poor posture as is the case with the great majority of us, has everything to do with weak abdominal muscles and strained lower backs. Most of the work our abdominal muscles do on a day to day basis is low in intensity, but long in duration, such as simply holding the upper body upright for hours every day. If you can consciously begin to improve your workout by sitting and standing tall, you will have laid a firm foundation upon which to build that flat abdomen you desire.

Think Whole Body

Think whole body

A common misconception is perpetuated by several health and fitness magazines is that getting flat abs is all about, doing tons and tons of crunches, sit ups and other abdominal exercises. Not only does this approach not work, even worse it encourages muscle imbalances in the body that can lead to host of expensive and draining medical conditions. The Human Body is a study in balance, and the abdomen is no different.

Remember our fishermen in Kisumu and Mombasa. I can bet you my last shilling that they have never done a sit up or an abdominal crunch in their lives and they certainly don’t posses gym memberships. On the other hand, they spend all day Rowing boats, Hauling In laden nets and hauling heavy baskets of fish ashore. In a nutshell, they use their bodies, and that in turn is what gives them such incredible muscle tone.

To get a flat abdomen, you have to train, you legs, arms and all other parts of the body in equal measure, The more muscle groups you call upon, the more you rev your metabolism and the more the pounds will drop off…even around the waistline! Huge compound exercises such as Squats, Lunges, Pull Ups, Push Ups, The Plank And the Bridge should form the core of your strength-training program. Your abdomen will benefit from it!

Eat Better

Fresh Produce

As you well know by now, all your efforts in the gym will come to naught if you don’t follow though with some sensible eating habits. Counting calories is a grand waste of time and you don’t have to subscribe to any complicated sounding diet plan either. Generations upon generation of our ancestors were able to feed themselves competently without professional help. They did it by eating wholesome, fresh, unprocessed food, devoid of any preservatives of flavor enhancing additives. They did it by approaching food as a source of nutrition and sustenance, rather than today where we are guided by taste and convenience as opposed to nutritional value.

Unprocessed food is the way to go

Most importantly however, they did it by being simple. The most successful approach to healthy eating, is that which is simple and easy to maintain for life. If you go in for an expensive diet plan, or one that is overly restrictive in its scope, you will fail primarily because you will not be able to maintain it for a meaningful period of time. Simply cut out as much of the processed stuff as you can, and go back to eating the way our grand parents and their parents before them did. It might take you a little longer to prepare a meal from scratch with fresh ingredients, but it will also help you live longer!

Have a great week will you!

The Healthy Eater’s Guide To Cooking Oils

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Which Cooking Oils Are Healthiest?

By Raymond Onyango.

Like most men on the planet, my cooking knowledge and abilities have largely been confined to the basics. I know how to put together a simple meal, Ugali, Pasta, Rice, Meat Stew, Chicken or maybe Sukuma Wiki, but I had never really learned the finer points of haute cuisine. For instance I am only just beginning to appreciate how various flavors and spices combine together to make a balanced meal. I have recently learned to incorporate various textures into a dish to make it complete, and most surprisingly, I have most interestingly come to learn that you need different types of cooking oils for different purposes.

Now the great majority of us have been primed to think of oil as essentially unhealthy and something to be largely avoided, but as any knowledgeable chef will tell you; the flavor is in the oil. Contrary to popular assumptions, the human body actually derives several benefits from the oils we consume in our foods. For example, Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids; necessary for human health but which the body cannot produce on its own. Omega -3 oils are known to play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development especially in children. These oils found mainly in fish, and certain plant or nut derived cooking oils, have also been demonstrated to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis owing to their unique anti inflammatory properties.

The question is, which kind of oil is healthy? The answer to this will depend on what you intend to do with the oil in the first place.  There are three basic types of cooking oils, namely -Polyunsaturated Oils, Monosaturated Oils and Saturated Oils. All three behave very differently when subjected to heat during the cooking process.

Polyunsaturated oils

These are some of the most common oils in the market, and the one’s that a great majority of Kenyans use to cook. Polyunsaturated oils come mainly from plant sources such as Corn.

These kinds of oils are best for cooking at low to medium temperatures, such as when you need to lightly sauté a fish fillet or some vegetables. However most polyunsaturated fats contain toxic substances that are released when they are heated and therefore you should never use vegetable oil to deep fry your potato chips, chicken or any other food.  Scientific research has shown that polyunsaturated oils tend to form unhealthy trans fats when subjected to high heat. Trans fats are also created when hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil changing it from a liquid to a more solid form such as margarine. These trans fats have been credibly proved to increase the levels of LDL – the bad cholesterol and reduce levels of HDL – the good cholesterol, making them a leading cause of heart diseases. Solid forms of Vegetable oil, such as margarine and Shortening Fats are particularly considered very dangerous for your health.

Monosaturated Oil

Monounsaturated oils are very rich in antioxidants, such as Vitamin E and other important nutrients such as Oleic acids and Omega 3 fatty acids, making them much healthier for your heart. The best monounsaturated oils are cold pressed meaning that the oil is extracted without heat, and good examples of this are –

  1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – the highest quality of olive oil, which preserves the naturally occurring antioxidants found in olives. This is the purest olive oil and also the most expensive, which makes it a luxury for most of us. It is excellent for salad dressings, but should not be used for cooking, because it has a low smoke point and disintegrates easily.
  2. Sunflower oil, Peanut oil, Avocado Oil – These contain high levels of Vitamin E and monosaturated fatty acids similar to olive oil. They are a great choice for stovetop cooking and stir-frying, but should not be used for deep-frying.

Saturated Oils

Saturated oils have taken a bashing from health professional for years, and have often been singled out as one of the more dangerous kinds of oil. Strictly speaking this is not true, because research has shown that Saturated fats raise both the levels of good and bad cholesterol, and whiles some studies may suggest that their consumption increases the risk of colon and prostate cancers, other studies suggest that lauric acid, a compound occurring in saturated oils such as Coconut and Palm Oil actually strengthens your immune system.

The jury may still out on this one, but the fact is you cannot always choose the healthiest oil for cooking because the suitability of any cooking oil, depends on its smoke point or the point at which heated oil begins to emit smoke, and flavor altering odors. As a general rule of thumb, the higher an oils smoke point, the better it is for high heat cooking such as deep-frying.

Saturated oils such as Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Butter and Ghee are the most heat stable oils you can find your kitchen, meaning they can be used at very high temperatures without breaking down and creating toxic elements. This fact alone might negate some of their more negative side effects.

As we have seen the correct use of cooking oils, for the right purpose will aid your overall health, reduce inflammation and protect your heart. Three points to take home with you are to steer clear of Hydrogenated Oils at all costs. Choose Cold –Pressed Unrefined oils whenever possible and avoid heating oils to very high temperatures. You will be healthier for it.

Have a health conscious week will you!

Sugar

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Suicide In A Spoon

By Raymond Onyango.

 The ongoing sugar shortage and its looming absence from supermarket shelves countrywide, continues to be a huge source of concern for the great majority of Kenyans. The resulting fear over the potential lack of the commodity has led to panic buying and many retail outlets have resorted to instituting limits on the amount of sugar a single customer can buy, if only to help guarantee supply. This is hardly surprising when you consider that according to the World Health Organization, the average Kenyan consumes 21 kilograms of sugar in a year. Break that down into 52 weeks in a year and you have an average consumption of about half a kilogram per Kenyan, per week – more than twice the average of the neighboring countries ofUganda and Tanzania.

Is Too Much Sugar Making Us Sick? 

It would seem that this elevated consumption of sugar is steadily beginning to affect our collective health as a nation. In fact at an international conference in Russia, in May this year, the minister for Medical Services, Professor Anyang’ Nyongo’ was quoted saying that almost half of all the hospital beds in this country are occupied by people suffering from lifestyle diseases – including high blood pressure and diabetes. Within the next decade, he estimates that the number of people seeking medical care for such lifestyle induced conditions will far outstrip all other ailments in the country’s health care system – a truly dire prognosis.In fitness circles sugar has been variously described as the biggest dietary scrooge of our time – quite literally suicide in a spoon – resulting from the numerous health conditions precipitated by uncontrolled sugar intake.  Refined sugar does not actually qualify to be called food – it is a chemical. During the production process, all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and virtually every aspect of nutritional value is removed – all that is left is empty calories!

The Relationship Between Sugar, Insulin & Mood Disorders

It is with these empty calories that the real trouble begins. The Glycemic Index is a measure used to describe the effect of various foods on the body’s blood sugar levels. Each food is given a specific rating. The lower the rating, the slower the digestion process and the release of sugar into the blood stream. Any food with a higher rating will cause your Pancreas to release a hormone known as Insulin into the blood, to help combat the higher glucose levels and lower them. More sugar, means more insulin, which in turn promotes fat storage and obesity. Obesity as you well know by now, is closely associated with increased incidence of several lifestyle related diseases – especially high blood pressure and adult onset diabetes.Beyond just making you fat however, sugar also has a much immediate effect on your energy levels and overall productivity as an individual. Refined sugar intake usually leads to an energy rush, also known as a sugar high, but this is eventually followed by a virtual crash in energy levels as your body releases insulin into the blood stream to balance out your sugar levels. There is also increasing evidence that sugar also makes your blood thicker and stickier, inhibiting oxygen transport to the brain and working muscles and actually diminishing athletic performance. Perhaps the biggest questions regarding the effect of sugar on our health arise when discussing mood behavior in children and sugar. Many parents are aware that sugar can dramatically affect the behavior of a child, and in recent times there has been a lot of research that would seem to corroborate the incidence of conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) to the excessive consumption of sugar by underage children.  You only need to attend a birthday party for a group of 5 year olds, where they are serving cake, ice cream and soda. Take note of what you see there and then come back and disagree with me if you choose!

Healthy Eating? Think Again!

Ironically one of the things that is driving this huge increase in our sugar intake is the growing obsession with ‘ healthy eating’. Sugar appears in the places where you least expect it.  Over the last decade or so, many food manufactures are moving away from traditional cane sugar and transitioning into high fructose corn syrup.  This change has occurred mostly because in the attempt to stay health conscious and reduce the levels of saturated fat in our food, producers are now replacing the fat with sugar. You will find sugar in everything from tomato sauce, baked beans, potato chips and even fruit juice. For this reason it is prudent to read food labels carefully if only to educate yourself on what it is that you are actually consuming.One last thing to bear in mind, the next time you’re craving a candy bar or a soda is that your immune systems rely on our white blood cells to remove invaders from our bloodstream though a process known as phagocytosis.  Sugar has been demonstrated to lower this activity significantly – depressing your immune system and leaving you more susceptible to disease. So there you have it, sugar does not only make you fat, slow and unfit, it also makes you sick and cranky.  Reason enough perhaps, that you should use this ongoing shortage as the perfect excuse to review your sugar consumption habits.

Have a sugar free weekend will you!