10 Nutrition Tips for December

Happy holidays! This month, I take a look at which foods to buy organic, the benefits of BCAA, how to eat to gain muscle, another reason to drink coffee, and more.

1. What foods should you buy organic? There has been a rise in the availability of organic products in recent years, as consumers have become more aware of how products are treated (pesticides, genetic modification, and so on). That being said, there is such as thing as too much of an organic focus. There are some foods that you should spend some extra money on to ensure quality and taste, and here they are.

Beef.

Organic meat cows must meet the same guidelines as organic dairy cows – pasture access during grazing season, 30% of calories from said pasture, etc. – so their meat is going to have at least a portion of the same benefits as full-on grass-fed meat, like improved CLA content, greater micronutrient status, and better flavor (if you like the actual taste of beef, that is). They’re far from fully grass-fed, true, but far better than conventional meat. Although organic meat from grocery stores will likely be raised on soy and corn, the feed will be neither genetically modified nor rich in pesticides. And organic animals aren’t allowed to receive antibiotics, nor are they pumped full of hormones. Most pesticides and contaminants preferentially accumulate in the adipose tissue, too, so especially make sure the fatty meat you eat is organic.

I notice a huge difference in appearance and taste with organic beef. It is worth the extra money.

Eggs. 

I’ll always say that eggs from pastured chickens – organic or not – are the best, but when comparing normal grocery store eggs to organic grocery store eggs, I’d strongly suggest organic. For one, the fat-soluble pesticides in chicken feed transfer to the egg yolks as well as the chicken tissues. Two, you always want to minimize the chickens’ exposure to pesticides. When your chickens are pastured, they’re getting a lot of their nutrition from bugs, grasses, scraps, and other sources, rather than just from grains. You can afford to skip organic in that case because the portion of feed with pesticides is relatively minor. If you’re dealing with primarily grain-fed poultry, though, going organic is the best way to minimize pesticide exposure.

With eggs, there is generally a huge difference in appearance between organic and regular eggs (organic eggs typically have more vibrant yolks). That being said, I have done a blind taste test with many different kinds of eggs and didn’t really notice a difference in taste. Still, all of the research on the subject is enough for me to spend a few extra bucks on a dozen eggs every few days (yes, I go through that many).

2. On the same subject as above – what foods can you buy without having to worry about whether it is organic or not? Many people overpay for produce and other food products with an organic tag attached to it. Two examples:

Avocado.

Avocados are another safe food that ends up with some of the lowest pesticide residues around. Maybe it’s the scaly skin and the way they just kinda “lurk” there up in tree tricking pests into thinking they’re up against alligators. Maybe it’s the fact that a bug got burned one too many times with a beautiful looking avocado that turned out to be stringy and brown on the inside. Maybe pests just hate waiting for an avocado to ripen (who doesn’t?) and give up. Actually, even though a somewhat significant amount of chemicals can be used on avocado orchards, they just don’t make it into the fatty, delicious flesh we crave and consume.

Sweet Potato.

Sweet potatoes are a hardy bunch, and the hardy among us – the athletes, the lifters, the highly active – sometimes need a bit of dietary starch to fuel their efforts. Conventional sweet potatoes are a fine choice. Their leaves sometimes get eaten by bugs, but since that rarely affects the viability of the underground tubers that people actually eat, farmers generally don’t feel the need to protect the leaves with agrochemicals.

3. For those of you with sleeping problems, it may be worth giving Valerian a try. Valerian is an herb that seems to be effective in curing sleeping problems over the short term. As always, consult a doctor before using first.

4. I have made this point a few times before – a great way to get your daily intake of vegetables is to sneak them into your smoothies.Blended spinach/lettuce has no taste, especially when mixed in with fresh/frozen fruits, yogurt, and whatever other ingredients you include in your smoothies. You can also blend vegetables into dips/spreads that can be used for crackers (or other vegetables). 

5. If you eat the same thing over and over again, chances are you will suffer from food fatigue at some point. There is nothing wrong with eating a consistent diet of healthy food, but it may result in boredom, and that may lead into temptation with unhealthy alternatives. I eat a ton of eggs, and thanks to their versatility, I don’t really get sick of them. My favourite ways to prepare them – poached, hard-boiled, or as an omelette.

6. More reasons why coffee (in moderation) is good for you.

On top of all of the other wonderful benefits coffee has to offer, several studies have also found that people who drink about three cups per day had a marked reduction in cognitive impairment compared to those non-drinkers. Once you got up to four or more cups per day, though, the associated protection disappeared. This protection was not seen with tea or decaf coffee, so the benefit seems to be from the combination of the caffeine and some of coffee’s bioactive compounds.

7. One of the most frequent questions I get asked – “how can I gain muscle?” I immediately begin with discussing the importance of nutrition relative to training (nutrition is at least 80% of the fitness puzzle), and often times people will respond with “yea, I eat well.”

There are probably two reasons you aren’t gaining muscle as fast as you would like:

1) You aren’t eating enough. Seriously. I did an experiment in October and November to see how much weight I could gain. I cut out all cardio and upped my caloric intake significantly (I probably added 1000-1500 calories a day on top of what I usually ate). I gained close to 16 pounds in eight weeks, which is a lot, and probably not sustainable (since I like high intensity training and I don’t like stuffing my face 24/7). I typically don’t eat a lot of carbohydrates, but I upped my carb intake significantly during this time. This came from sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and shakes, primarily.

What I wanted to do was to prove it could be done. I don’t gain weight easily, but it is possible. You just have to eat a lot.

2. You are doing too much cardio. Calories in and calories out – doesn’t get much simpler. If you want to gain muscle quickly, drop the cardio (at least for a short period of time). You may gain some fat along with muscle, but if you are eating pretty clean, it won’t be a noticeable amount.

8. My stance on pre-workout supplements – they are, for the most part, a waste of money. The ones that do work are both expensive and ineffective after only a few uses (your body quickly adapts). Not only that, but they can negatively affect your sleep pattern and make it a lot harder to “come down” after a workout.

The problem with stimulants, which are found in many pre-workout supplements, is that you’re trading off a temporary high for the inevitable low that comes later, overworking your adrenal glands in the process. High doses of caffeine and stimulants such as 1,3 dimethylamylamine prevent your adrenal glands from ever truly getting a break, to the point where your mood, energy levels and sports performance suffer.

If you are feeling lethargic before going to the gym, make some coffee or green tea, eat some dark chocolate, or eat a banana. You may not get the intense focus for 15-20 minutes that the supplements give you, but you won’t suffer from any of the side-effects, either.

9. There have been some interesting studies coming out regarding the detrimental effect of ibuprofin (Advil) on training. What does this mean for you?

But a valuable new study joins growing evidence that ibuprofen and similar anti-inflammatory painkillers taken before a workout do not offer any benefit and may be causing disagreeable physical damage instead, particularly to the intestines.

Doesn’t sound good, does it? I used to live on Advil when I had a back injury about five years ago – I was taking upwards of 6-8 per day. I rarely take any now, as I have a much better idea of how to rehab sore muscles and aches and pains (working for a few years as a personal trainer will help in the knowledge department).

The health implications of this finding are not yet clear, although they are worrisome, Dr. van Wijck said. It may be that if someone uses ibuprofen before every exercise session for a year or more, she said, “intestinal integrity might be compromised.” In that case, small amounts of bacteria and digestive enzymes could leak regularly into the bloodstream.

This study is relatively new, and as it says the implications aren’t crystal clear. However, I found it really interesting and it’s something to keep an eye on.

10. I am not a huge supplements guy – I tend to stick to protein powder for its ease of use, creatine for its many benefits, and the odd mass gainer when I am trying to pack on the pounds. I haven’t experimented with BCAA’s before, but I think I am going to give them a try. What do BCAAs do, and more importantly, what are they?

The BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The name “branched-chain amino acids” is derived from the structure of these compounds. Each one has a forked outcropping that looks a bit like a branch, hence the name branched chain amino acids..The three BCAAs are incredibly essential and actually fall into the category of essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own and therefore must get adequate amounts through dietary sources. In fact, even though there are about 20 amino acids that the muscles use for growth, the BCAAs comprise roughly a third of the aminos within muscle tissue. So if muscle growth is your goal BCAAs are a must.

Supplements should never replace real food – ideally you don’t have to take any supplements because your diet covers all of the bases, but it is tough to have protein sources as readily available as a quick shake. And it is a lot easier to drop a scoop of creatine into a shake than it is to carry a steak around to eat (meat is high in creatine). 

Here’s a recommendation on how to take BCAAs:

 

15 minutes before training: Take 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids.

Immediately after training: Take 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids, wait 10-15 minutes, then drink a protein shake mixed with five grams of creatine powder.

Happy holidays!

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