We all know that building long-term health requires that we build our lifestyle around healthy habits. And while that sounds simple–and it should be, really–once you start reading up on what is and isn’t (currently) considered healthy, it can get really confusing really fast.
Grains or no grains? Carbs or no carbs? High-protein or low-protein, and plant or animal sources? Supplements or no supplements? Resistance training and cardio or one or the other?
The list of questions goes on and on and chances are this year’s “expert opinions” will be quite different than next year’s, with both sounding equally convincing (and unless you’re willing to spend a considerable amount of time reviewing the actual research behind the many claims made, it’s very hard to know who to listen to).
Well, in this article I want to talk about 7 currently in-vogue “healthy habits” that just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and why.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that we get about a gallon of water per day, and while we do get a fair amount from food, this requires drinking at least a couple liters of water every day.
While some people assume that tap water is totally fine to drink, research has shown that it is becoming more and more contaminated with all kinds of pollutants–bacteria, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and various types of poisonous chemicals.
Many of us are aware of this already, and thus mainly drink bottled water. This is not just exorbitantly expensive–it comes with other problems: research has shown that bottled water is chock full of chemicals.
One study examined 18 different bottled waters from 13 different companies and found over 24,000 chemicals present including endocrine disruptors. Martin Wagner, a scientist at Goethe University Frankfurt’s Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology, had this to say:
“Bottled water had a higher contamination of chemicals than glass bottles. There are many compounds in bottled water that we don’t want to have there. Part is leaching from the plastic bottles, lids or contamination of the well.”
Keep in mind that what you want to achieve with water filtration is very low levels of dissolved solids in the water, as measured in “parts per million.” The closer to 0, the better. (Tap water generally tests at anywhere from 200 – 700 PPM of dissolved solids.)
You can measure the levels of dissolved solids in your water using an electronic water tester like this one from ZeroWater. This is useful for keeping an eye on your water quality, so you know when filters need to be changed.
“Gluten-free” is quickly becoming synonymous with “healthy,” and this is simply marketing bullshit.
When you can buy gluten-free cupcakes, cookies, and even beer, and when just about every mainstream health and fitness magazine is telling us to avoid gluten as if our lives depended on it (in fact that’s what we’re told, in many cases), skepticism is warranted.
The reality is a gluten-free diet offers no special health benefits, and ironically, many gluten-free foods are less nutritious, tend to be higher in carbohydrates and fat and lower in protein, and lower in fiber than their gluten-containing counterparts.
This is part of the reason why research has found that people with celiac disease following a gluten-free diet often have micronutrient deficiencies–like a vegan or vegetarian diet, the gluten-free diet just comes with nutritional “blind spots” that must be knowingly compensated for.
Oh and another fun tidbit? Gluten-free foods are, on average, about 242% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Being unhealthy has never been so pricey!
In my experience, many people turn to gluten-free eating to lose weight, but here’s the bottom line: Gluten-free dieting does not exempt you from the laws of energy balance, which dictate weight loss and gain.
You can get plenty fat on a gluten-free diet, and ironically, the lower fiber content can make it even easier to overeat (fiber induces satiety).
In fact, one study found that after 2 years of gluten-free dieting, 81% of celiac disease patients had gained weight and 82% that were already overweight gained additional weight (which is important because these weren’t underweight people coming into a healthy weight).
Another similarly designed study found that 27% of initially overweight celiac disease patients gained weight on a gluten-free diet.
The bottom line is you want to lose weight efficiently and effortlessly, you’re going to have to plan or count calories correctly. Simply eliminating gluten or carbohydrates or any other nutritional bogeyman won’t cut it.
Remember when low-fat dieting was all the rage? When fat-free products flooded the supermarkets and “gurus” used to tell us that dietary fats were the reason why people are fat?
Well, that pendulum has swung hard in the other direction. Now we’re told that carbohydrates are the real enemy and that we should be eating copious amounts of dietary fat every day if we want to be healthy, lean, and strong.
Well, the truth is dietary fats play a vital role in the body. They’re used in processes related to cell maintenance, hormone production, insulin sensitivity, and more. If fat intake is too low, these functions can become compromised, which is why the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults should get 20 to 35% of their daily calories from dietary fat.
That said, those percentages were worked out for the average sedentary person, who often eats quite a bit less than someone that exercises regularly.
For example, I weigh about 190 pounds, and if I were the average, sedentary type, my body would burn about 2,000 calories per day (which is what I would be advised to eat so as to not gain or lose weight). Based on that, the IoM’s research says my body would need 45 to 80 grams of fat per day. That makes sense.
But I exercise 6 days per week and have quite a bit of muscle. My body burns about 3,000 calories per day, and if we were to blindly apply the IoM’s research to that number, my recommended fat intake would skyrocket to 65 to 115 grams per day. But does my body really need that much more dietary fat simply because I’m muscular and exercise regularly?
No, it doesn’t.
The bottom line is your body only needs so many grams of fats per day, and based on the research I’ve seen, if you exercise regularly, dietary fat can comprise 20 – 35% of your basal metabolic rate (measured in calories) and you’ll be fine. Calculating this way, instead of based on your actual calorie intake, is more in line with the IoM’s research.
So, with that under our belt, let’s now look at high-fat diets, which are diets that have you getting 30% or more of your daily calories from dietary fat.
Marketers are jumping all over high-fat dieting at the moment, and one of the big alleged benefits is related to anabolic hormones. The claim is that a high-fat diet will increase testosterone levels and thus help you build muscle and strength.
As with most hormone-related claims, that’s not the whole story.
Yes, it’s well known that switching from a low-fat to a high-fat diet can increase free testosterone levels…but not by much. Not nearly enough to help you build more muscle.
For example, one study showed that men getting 41% of daily calories from fat had 13% more free testosterone than man getting just 18% of daily calories from fat. The findings were similar to those of another study conducted a decade earlier.
While that sounds nice, there’s a problem: small fluctuations in free testosterone, up or down, don’t help or hinder muscle growth. This isn’t just theory—it’s been demonstrated in clinical research.
A study conducted by McMaster University with young, resistance trained men had them lift weights 5 times per week for 12 weeks and follow a normal, high-protein diet. The primary finding of the study was that the exercise-induced spikes in anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, which all remained within physiological normal ranges, had no effect on overall muscle growth and strength gains.
All subjects built muscle and strength, but the natural variations in anabolic hormone levels had no effects.
Research conducted by Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science also lends insight. Researchers administered varying levels of anabolic steroids and a drug to inhibit natural testosterone production to 61 young, healthy men for 20 weeks, and tested their leg strength and power on the Leg Press machine.
What researchers found was that muscle growth wasn’t significantly affected until testosterone levels moved below or above the physiological normal range, which is between 300-1,000 ng/dl.
In terms of total lean mass, subjects on the low end of that range weren’t far behind subjects on the high end. A significant increase in muscle growth wasn’t seen until testosterone levels surpassed the top of “normal” by about 20 to 30% (until they reached the 1,200 to 1,300 ng/dl range).
So, with all that considered, let’s now turn our attention back to high-fat dieting, and particular to gains versus benefits.
When you increase fat intake to 30%+ of your daily calories, you ultimately have to decrease carbohydrate intake to balance your total calorie intake (to make room for all the fat). And you have to reduce it quite a bit because, as you probably know, a gram of fat contains over double the calories of a gram of carbohydrate.
For example, if you’re eating 2,500 calories per day with 30% of calories from protein, 50% from carbohydrate, and 20% from fat, that looks like this (approximately):
If you switched to 30% of calories from protein, 40% from fat, and 30% from carbohydrate, it would look like this:
By reducing carbohydrate intake this much, you will be impairing your performance in the gym as well as your body’s ability to build muscle. And what are you gaining by adding the fats? Nothing but an insignificant increase in testosterone levels, which will have no direct benefit in terms of building muscle.
It’s a double-whammy of fail, and it can be particularly troublesome when you’re dieting to lose weight, because, as you know, this primes your body for muscle loss.
An easy way for many people to reduce caloric intake is to simply switch from sugar-sweetened beverages to artificially sweetened ones, like diet soda. While this is an effective way to reduce the amount of sugar and calories one eats, it can cause other problems.
The last thing we need when we’re dieting to lose weight is an appetite stimulant, so leave the diet soda out. Instead, stick to water and if you have a sweet tooth, indulge it my favorite choice: naturally sweetened green tea.
Many people perceive fruit juice to be healthy because they assume it comes from fruit. Well, in many cases it’s little more than flavored sugar water. No fruit, just chemicals that taste like it.
Even if you choose 100% fruit juice, it’s still not a great choice of beverage for a few reasons:
Drinking calories is never a good idea when you’re trying to lose weight.
Weight loss requires that you restrict your calories, and if you want to avoid hunger issues, you need to get as much satiation from those calories as possible. And drinking calories simply doesn’t make you feel full.
Instead, you want to be eating plenty of protein, low-gyclemic carbohydrates, and fibrous foods, all of which keep you satiated and less likely to overeat.
The natural sugars found in fruit are different than those found in the juice.
This is because the sugars in whole fruit are bound to the fibrous flesh, which fills you up and slows down their absorption in the body. The bottom line is the sugars in fruit don’t pose a problem unless you’re eating ridiculous amounts of fruit every day.
Fruit juice is different, though–it allows you to consume much larger quantities of sugar, and it lacks the fibrous matter to slow down the absorption. For example, one cup of orange juice contains the sugar content of about two whole oranges, or a can of Coke, with none of the fiber mass.
So, enjoy a few servings of fruit every day, but stay away from fruit juice.
For many that are trying to be health conscious, it also means avoiding the sun’s rays as if we were vampires, slathering on copious amounts of sunscreen lotion until we have a pale, white shine.
We all know why people do this: according to “experts,” the more we’re in the sun, the more we damage our skin and the greater our chances of developing skin cancer are.
The first red flag with such a correlation is the simple fact that our ancestors spent much more time in the sun than we do, yet our skin cancer rates are exponentially higher.
Some researchers claim that ozone depletion accounts for this, but they fail to address the fact that the depletion and replenishment are seasonal and occur primarily in the Arctic, Antarctic, and equatorial regions of the planet, yet we don’t see higher cancer rates in those areas. Cancer is just exploding all over the place.
Well, while that scientific debate rages on, let’s look at what is currently known about sun exposure and skin cancer.
According to research conducted by the University of Texas, only 5-10% of cancer cases can be attributed to radiation, of which sun exposure is a small part. 5-10% of cases can be attributed to genetic defects, and the remaining percentage can be attributed to poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, diet (high intake of unhealthy fats, processed red meats, etc.), obesity, alcohol, and physical inactivity; as well as other factors like pollutants, infections, and stress.
The relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer was the subject of a meta-analysis of 57 skin cancer studies conducted by the European Institute of Oncology. Researchers found is that lifetime routine sun exposure was not associated with skin cancer. In fact, they found it had an inverse relationship–it reduced the risk of developing skin cancer.
Two things were associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, however: intermittent sun exposure and sunburn. It’s also noteworthy that those often go hand-in-hand: people that only go in the sun occasionally are most likely to burn.
A pooled analysis of 5700 cases of melanoma conducted by the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine reported similar findings. Recreational sun exposure and sunburns go hand-in-hand, and are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.
If we’re talking about how the sun affects our bodies, then we have to talk about vitamin D as well.
As you may know, our body can’t produce vitamin D without sun exposure, and this molecule plays a much larger role in fighting disease than we once thought. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of developing a wide variety of diseases, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis and even the flu.
Well, according to research published by the Center for Disease Control in 2011, 8% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and 25% are considered “at risk” of a deficiency.
Other research published in 2010 showed that nearly 70% of breast-fed babies were vitamin D deficient at one month, which can be particularly harmful considering how important this vitamin is in overall health and development.
Now, when our skin is exposed to UVB rays, they interact with a form of cholesterol in the body to produce vitamin D. The more skin that is exposed to the sun, and the stronger its rays, the more vitamin D you produce.
Research has shown that, with 25% of our skin exposed, our bodies can produce upwards of 400 IUs of vitamin D in just 3-6 minutes of exposure to the 12 PM Florida sun.
How much vitamin D should we be getting every day, though?
According to the Institute of Medicine, 600 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-70 (and 800 IU per day for 71+), but these numbers have been severely criticized by scientists that specialized in vitamin D research. They call attention to the over 125 peer-reviewed studies that indicate such recommendations are too low, and are likely to lead to vitamin D deficiencies.
A committee of the U.S. Endocrine Society recently convened to review the evidence, and concluded that 600-1,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-18, and 1,500-2,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 19+.
Considering the fact that overdosing isn’t likely to occur until intake skyrockets to 40,000 IU per day for several months, or 300,000 IU in a 24-hour period, these are very safe recommendations.
So, as you can see, with just 15-20 minutes of exposure to the sun each day, your body can produce most, if not all, of the vitamin D it needs. But not if you’re wearing sunscreen.
Because sunscreen significantly reduces your body’s vitamin D production while you’re in the sun. So, it not only presents health risks, it basically negates a huge health benefit we derive from sun exposure.
If your diet is low in vitamin D, if you don’t supplement with it, and if you religiously wear sunscreen when you’re in the sun, there’s a very good chance you’re deficient, and will benefit from raising your levels.
You can raise them by going in the sun a bit every day if possible, or by supplementing–there’s no evidence that one is ultimately “better” than the other in this regard.
The common reasons for doing stretches that involve holding stretched positions for various lengths of time, or static stretches, before exercise are the beliefs that they help prevent injury, make you stronger and faster, reduce muscle soreness, and accelerate recovery.
While anecdotal evidence would seem to support these claims–everyone from peewee soccer players to professional athletes stretch before or after training–research says otherwise:
It does have its uses. If you’re going to engage in a sport or activity that requires a high amount of flexibility, then static stretching can help. It’s also best to do static stretches when your muscles are warm (like after exercise, for instance).
There is one form of stretching, however, that has actually been shown to improve strength, power, muscular endurance, anaerobic capacity, speed, and agility: dynamic or active stretching.
Unlike static stretching, active stretching involves movements that repeatedly put muscles through the expected ranges of motion, such as air squats, leg kicks, side lunges, arm circles, and so forth.
Active stretching accomplishes several things that improve performance: it increases the suppleness of and blood flow to the muscles, raises body temperature, and enhances free, coordinated movement.
It can and should be done before any type of exercise, and this is why I recommend several warm-up sets when weightlifting that progressively increase blood flow to the muscles that will be trained, before you load your working weight.