Sunday, June 26, 2016

The amounts of water, carbohydrates, fat, and protein lost during a 30-day fast

When it comes to losing fat and maintaining muscle, at the same time, there are no shortcuts. The process generally has to be slow to be healthy. When one loses a lot of weight in a few days, most of what is being lost is water, followed by carbohydrates. (Carbohydrates are stored as liver and muscle glycogen.) Smaller amounts of fat and protein are also lost. The figure below (see reference at the end of post) shows the weights in grams of stored water, carbohydrates (glycogen), fat, and protein lost during a 30-day water fast.


On the first few days of the fast a massive amount of water is lost, even though drinking water is allowed in this type of fast. A significant amount of glycogen is lost as well. This is no surprise. About 2.6 g of water are lost for each 1 g of glycogen lost. That is, water is stored by the body proportionally to the amount of glycogen stored. People who do strength training on a regular basis tend to store more glycogen, particular in muscle tissue; this is a compensatory adaptation. Those folks also tend to store more water.

Not many people will try a 30-day fast. Still, the figure above has implications for almost everybody.

One implication is that if you use a bioimpedance scale to measure your body fat, you can bet that it will give you fairly misleading results if your glycogen stores are depleted. Your body fat percentage will be overestimated, because water and glycogen are lean body mass. This will happen with low carbohydrate dieters who regularly engage in intense physical exercise, aerobic or anaerobic. The physical exercise will deplete glycogen stores, which will typically not be fully replenished due to the low intake of carbohydrates.

Light endurance exercise (e.g., walking) is normally easier to maintain with a depleted “glycogen tank” than strength training, because light endurance exercise relies heavily on fat oxidation. It uses glycogen, but more slowly. Strength training, on the other hand, relies much more heavily on glycogen while it is being conducted (significant fat oxidation occurs after the exercise session), and is difficult to do effectively with a depleted “glycogen tank”.

Strength training practitioners often will feel fatigued, and will probably be unable to generate supercompensation, if their “glycogen tank” is constantly depleted. Still, compensatory adaptation can work its “magic” if one persists, and lead to long term adaptations that make athletes rely much more heavily on fat than the average person as a fuel for strength training and other types of anaerobic exercise. Some people seem to be naturally more likely to achieve this type of compensatory adaptation; others may never do so, no matter how hard they try.

Another implication is that you should not worry about short-term weight variations if your focus is on losing body fat. Losing stored water and glycogen may give you an illusion of body fat loss, but it will be only that – an illusion. You may recall this post, where body fat loss coupled with muscle gain led to some weight gain and yet to a much improved body composition. That is, the participants ended up leaner, even though they also weighed more.

The figure above also gives us some hints as to what happens with very low carbohydrate dieting (i.e., daily consumption of less than 20 grams of carbohydrates); at least at the beginning, before long term compensatory adaptation. This type of dieting mimics fasting as far as glycogen depletion is concerned, especially if protein intake is low, and has many positive short term health benefits. The depletion is not as quick as in a fast because a high fat and/or protein diet promotes higher rates of fat/protein oxidation and ketosis than fasting, which spare glycogen. (Yes, dietary fat spares glycogen. It also spares muscle tissue.) Still, the related loss of stored water is analogous to that of fasting, over a slightly longer period. The result is a marked weight loss at the beginning of the diet. This is an illusion as far as body fat loss is concerned.

Dietary protein cannot be used directly for glycogenesis; i.e., for replenishing glycogen stores. Dietary protein must first be used to generate glucose, through a process called gluconeogenesis. The glucose is then used for liver and muscle glycogenesis, among other things. This process is less efficient than glycogenesis based on carbohydrate sources (particularly carbohydrate sources that combine fructose and glucose), which is why for quite a few people (but not all) it is difficult to replenish glycogen stores and stimulate muscle growth on very low carbohydrate diets.

Glycogen depletion appears to be very healthy, but most of the empirical evidence seems to suggest that it is the depletion that creates a hormonal mix that is particularly health-promoting, not being permanently in the depleted state. In this sense, the extent of the glycogen depletion that is happening should be positively associated with the health benefits. And significant glycogen depletion can only happen if glycogen stores are at least half full to start with.

Reference

Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L., & Kenney, W.L. (2007). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. [Note: the figure may be found in a different edition.]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Insulin responses to foods rich in carbohydrates and protein

Insulin is often presented as a hormone that is at the core of the diseases of civilization, particularly because of the insulin response elicited by foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars. What is often not mentioned is that protein also elicits an insulin response and so do foods where carbohydrates are mixed with fat. Sometimes the insulin responses are way more than one would expect based on the macronutrient compositions of the foods.

Holt et al. (1997; full reference at the end of this post) conducted a classic study of insulin responses. This study has been widely cited, and paints an interesting picture of differences in insulin responses to various foods. But you have to be careful where you look. There has been some confusion about the results because of the way they are often reported in places like Wikipedia and on various Internet sites that refer to the study.

The key thing to bear in mind when reviewing this study is that the amounts of food used were designed to have the same calorie content: 1000 kJ or 240 kcal (i.e., 240 calories). This led to wild variations in the size of the portions that are compared and their weight in grams. Also, some of the food portions are probably not what people usually eat in one sitting.

In Holt et al.’s (1997) study the participants were 41 lean and healthy university students. They were fed 1000 kJ (240 kcal) portions of the test foods on separate mornings after a 10-hour fast overnight. Blood insulin levels were measured at different times within a 120-minute period after each meal. An insulin score was then calculated from the area under the insulin response curve for each food; white bread was used as the reference food.

Part of Table 2 on page 1267 is shown below (the full text version of the paper is linked at the end of this post), just to illustrate the types and amounts of food served, and the macronutrient breakdown for each food. I hope you can see what I meant when I said that some of the food portions are probably not what people usually eat in one sitting. I don’t think it would be hard to find someone who would eat 158 g of beef steak in one sitting, but 333 g of fish is a little more difficult. Fish has a higher proportion of protein than beef steak, and thus is more satiating. The same goes for 625 g of orange, about 6 oranges. Foods that have more fat have more calories per gram; hence the smaller portions served for high-fat foods.


Table 4 of the article is a bit long, so I am providing it in two parts below. AUC stands for “area under the curve”. As you can see, for isocaloric portions of different foods (i.e., with the same amount of calories), there is a huge variation in insulin response. The insulin AUCs are shown on the second numeric column from the left. Also note that the insulin responses (AUC) for white bread varied in different meals. This complicates things a bit, but at least provides a more realistic view of the responses since each participant served as his or her own control.



Look at the third column from the right, which shows the insulin responses per gram of each food, compared with the response to white bread, always shown at the top for each group of related foods (e.g., protein-rich foods). The gram-adjusted response for whole-meal bread is rather high, and so is the glucose response. The gram-adjusted insulin response to potatoes is less than one-third of the response to white bread, even though the non-gram-adjusted glucose response is higher. The insulin response to beef is also less than one-third of the response to white bread, gram-for-gram. Even cheese leads to a gram-adjusted response that is about half the one for white bread, and I don’t think many people will eat the same amount of cheese in one sitting as they would do with white bread.

In summary, insulin responses to protein-rich foods are often 50 to 70 percent lower than responses to equivalent amounts of refined carbohydrate-rich foods. Also, insulin responses to unrefined carbohydrate-rich foods (e.g., potato, fruits) are often 70 to 90 percent lower than responses to equivalent amounts of refined carbohydrate-rich foods.

Why do insulin levels go up in response to dietary protein?

One of the reasons is that insulin is needed for tissue protein synthesis. That is, increased circulating protein (as amino acids) and insulin have a net anabolic effect, promoting muscle growth and inhibiting muscle breakdown. (Muscle protein synthesis and breakdown happen all the time; the net effect defines whether muscle grows or shrinks.) In this respect, insulin acts in conjunction with other hormones, such as growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1.

Reference:

Holt, S.H., Miller, J.C., & Petocz, P. (1997). An insulin index of foods: The insulin demand generated by 1000-kJ portions of common foods. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66, 1264-1276.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The impressive nutrition value of whole dried small fish

When I visited Japan several years ago I noticed a variety of dried small fish for sale in grocery stores and supermarkets. They came in what seemed to be vacuum-packed flat plastic bags, often dried. The packing was a bit like that of beef jerky in the USA. Since I could not read the labels, I could not tell if preservatives or things like sugar were added. Beef jerky often has sugar added to it; at least the popular brands.

I have since incorporated dried or almost dried small fish, eaten whole, into my diet. My family eats it, but they don’t seem to like it as much as I do. The easiest small fish to find for sale where I live are smelts. A previous post has a recipe (). I can easily eat 200 g of smelts, about twice as much as on the plate below; not quite dried, but almost so. The veggies are a mix of lettuce and cabbage.


As you can see from the macronutrient composition below (from Nutritiondata.com, for a 100 g portion), 200 g of smelts have about 112 g of protein, and 36 g of fat. No carbohydrates; or a very small amount of them.


Unless you misguidedly think that they will “give you cholesterol”, the macronutrient to calorie ratio of a plate with 200 g of dried (or almost dried) smelts is very good. Let us take a look at the fat content, below (from Nutritiondata.com as well), which is for 100 g of dried smelts.


The “net” omega-3 content of 200 g of dried smelts, after subtracting the omega-6 content, is approximately 4.4 g. The concept of “net” omega-3 content was discussed in a previous post ().

So, the net omega-3 content of 200 g of dried smelts is the equivalent to the net omega-3 content of about 20 fish oil softgels. (Yes, you read it right!) And you would get a lot more omega-6 from the softgels.

Not to mention the fact that isolated omega-3 and omega-6 fats tend to become oxidized much more easily than when they come in “nature’s package”.

Below is the mineral content (also from Nutritiondata.com) of a 100 g portion. Dried smelts are clearly a very good source of selenium. The significant amount of calcium comes mostly from the bones, as with many varieties of small fish that are eaten whole. Combined with the above, we could say that, overall, the nutrient content is high up there next to beef liver as a super food; a natural multivitamin, if you will.


Smelts, like many small non-predatory fish, are not a significant source of toxic metals. Many people avoid seafood because of concerns about toxic metal contamination, particularly mercury. The infamous incident that led to a major scare in that respect – in Minamata, Japan – did involve consumption of small marine animals. But it also involved years of direct and indirect exposure to very high levels of methylmercury from untreated industrial waste.

Other cases have been reported among populations consuming large amounts of whale, shark, dogfish and other relatively large marine animals with tissues compromised via biomagnification. Generally speaking, large predatory fish and predatory aquatic mammals are best avoided as food. If they are consumed, they should be consumed very sporadically.

Many people would say that a plate like the one above, with smelts and veggies, is not very appetizing. But I can really devour it quickly and go for seconds. How come? I use a special spice that enhances the natural flavor or almost any combination of “natural” foods – foods that are not engineered by humans – making them taste delicious.

This special spice is “hunger”. This spice can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Subcutaneous versus visceral fat: How to tell the difference?

The photos below, from Wikipedia, show two patterns of abdominal fat deposition. The one on the left is predominantly of subcutaneous abdominal fat deposition. The one on the right is an example of visceral abdominal fat deposition, around internal organs, together with a significant amount of subcutaneous fat deposition as well.


Body fat is not an inert mass used only to store energy. Body fat can be seen as a “distributed organ”, as it secretes a number of hormones into the bloodstream. For example, it secretes leptin, which regulates hunger. It secretes adiponectin, which has many health-promoting properties. It also secretes tumor necrosis factor-alpha (more recently referred to as simply “tumor necrosis factor” in the medical literature), which promotes inflammation. Inflammation is necessary to repair damaged tissue and deal with pathogens, but too much of it does more harm than good.

How does one differentiate subcutaneous from visceral abdominal fat?

Subcutaneous abdominal fat shifts position more easily as one’s body moves. When one is standing, subcutaneous fat often tends to fold around the navel, creating a “mouth” shape. Subcutaneous fat is easier to hold in one’s hand, as shown on the left photo above. Because subcutaneous fat tends to “shift” more easily as one changes the position of the body, if you measure your waist circumference lying down and standing up, and the difference is large (a one-inch difference can be considered large), you probably have a significant amount of subcutaneous fat.

Waist circumference is a variable that reflects individual changes in body fat percentage fairly well. This is especially true as one becomes lean (e.g., around 14-17 percent or less of body fat for men, and 21-24 for women), because as that happens abdominal fat contributes to an increasingly higher proportion of total body fat. For people who are lean, a 1-inch reduction in waist circumference will frequently translate into a 2-3 percent reduction in body fat percentage. Having said that, waist circumference comparisons between individuals are often misleading. Waist-to-fat ratios tend to vary a lot among different individuals (like almost any trait). This means that someone with a 34-inch waist (measured at the navel) may have a lower body fat percentage than someone with a 33-inch waist.

Subcutaneous abdominal fat is hard to mobilize; that is, it is hard to burn through diet and exercise. This is why it is often called the “stubborn” abdominal fat. One reason for the difficulty in mobilizing subcutaneous abdominal fat is that the network of blood vessels is not as dense in the area where this type of fat occurs, as it is with visceral fat. Another reason, which is related to degree of vascularization, is that subcutaneous fat is farther away from the portal vein than visceral fat. As such, it has to travel a longer distance to reach the main “highway” that will take it to other tissues (e.g., muscle) for use as energy.

In terms of health, excess subcutaneous fat is not nearly as detrimental as excess visceral fat. Excess visceral fat typically happens together with excess subcutaneous fat; but not necessarily the other way around. For instance, sumo wrestlers frequently have excess subcutaneous fat, but little or no visceral fat. The more health-detrimental effect of excess visceral fat is probably related to its proximity to the portal vein, which amplifies the negative health effects of excessive pro-inflammatory hormone secretion. Those hormones reach a major transport “highway” rather quickly.

Even though excess subcutaneous body fat is more benign than excess visceral fat, excess body fat of any kind is unlikely to be health-promoting. From an evolutionary perspective, excess body fat impaired agile movement and decreased circulating adiponectin levels; the latter leading to a host of negative health effects. In modern humans, negative health effects may be much less pronounced with subcutaneous than visceral fat, but they will still occur.

Based on studies of isolated hunger-gatherers, it is reasonable to estimate “natural” body fat levels among our Stone Age ancestors, and thus optimal body fat levels in modern humans, to be around 6-13 percent in men and 14–20 percent in women.

If you think that being overweight probably protected some of our Stone Age ancestors during times of famine, here is one interesting factoid to consider. It will take over a month for a man weighing 150 lbs and with 10 percent body fat to die from starvation, and death will not be typically caused by too little body fat being left for use as a source of energy. In starvation, normally death will be caused by heart failure, as the body slowly breaks down muscle tissue (including heart muscle) to maintain blood glucose levels.

References:

Arner, P. (2005). Site differences in human subcutaneous adipose tissue metabolism in obesity. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 8(1), 13-17.

Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Fleck, S.J., & Kraemer, W.J. (2004). Designing resistance training programs. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories: Challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control, and disease. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: The Eclipse of a Mind


The Eclipse of a Mind () is a 722-page book published in 1942 that describes the life of Alonzo Graves. Alonzo is also listed as the author of the book, even though the narrative is not that of a typical autobiography.

The book is an in-depth study of manic depression. Alonzo is the sufferer. He is a very intelligent college dropout journalist who narrates his lifelong struggle for mental balance. We are taken through World War I, the great Great Depression (iconic photo below: ), the various treatments of bacterial diseases prior to antibiotics, among a variety of other topics; all through Alonzo’s eyes.



This book is rather “dense”, and not very easy to read in a linear fashion – i.e., from beginning to end. Since it is annotated, with comments by various psychiatrists and medical doctors who examined and treated Alonzo, the book is fairly repetitive at points. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read.

Alonzo delves into important historical events that many today are likely unaware of, such as the Bonus Expeditionary Force movement in the 1930s. World War I veterans had been issued paper money that they could not exchange for real money until 1945. Out-of-work veterans revolted during the Great Depression, demanding early payment. Alonzo was right in the middle of this movement, acting as a journalist and taking the side of the veterans. The ensuing stress caused a manic episode that eventually led to Alonzo's hospitalization.

Manic episodes are characterized by euphoric states and increased levels of activity. The episodes are often triggered by stress. Some people become creative and highly productive during manic states, whereas others become irritable and prone to engaging in risky behavior. Frequently manic episodes are followed by debilitating depression ().

Alonzo’s falls into manic states usually started with benign increases in work-related activity. However, as that high-energy state was maintained for various consecutive days, causing periods of very poor sleep, it often led to psychotic or near-psychotic episodes. This produced a total of five hospitalizations, all of which are described in detail in the book. The book ends with Alonzo moving to Russia, whose government ideology he admired, and never being heard of again.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Alonzo’s insights into other people’s mental illnesses, some of whom were manic depressive, combined with his inability to recognize the signs of his own illness. Notably, Alonzo was unable to recognize early signs, or “prodomes” (), which made it difficult for him to avoid entering manic states.

As noted earlier, this book is not an easy read. And it is an old book, copies of which are probably difficult to find today. Nevertheless, it is unique in its tell-it-all style, with detailed narratives from both the patient and doctors about a mental illness that is widespread today. Manic depression is an eminently treatable condition that tends to be highly correlated with creating intelligence ().

A frequently unrecognized reality is put forth by this book. Manic depression is not a “new” condition, even though it may be a “disease of civilization”. The levels of sustained stress found in urban societies are probably much higher than those experienced by our ancestors during most of our evolutionary history, and stress is a trigger of manic depression symptoms. The Eclipse of a Mind is a goldmine of insights into this condition.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How much dietary protein can you store in muscle? About 15 g/d if you are a gifted bodybuilder

Let us say you are one of the gifted few who are able to put on 1 lb of pure muscle per month, or 12 lbs per year, by combining strength training with a reasonable protein intake. Let us go even further and assume that the 1 lb of muscle that we are talking about is due to muscle protein gain, not glycogen or water. This is very uncommon; one has to really be genetically gifted to achieve that.

And you do that by eating a measly 80 g of protein per day. That is little more than 0.5 g of protein per lb of body weight if you weigh 155 lbs; or 0.4 per lb if you weigh 200 lbs. At the end of the year you are much more muscular. People even think that you’ve been taking steroids; but that just came naturally. The figure below shows what happened with the 80 g of protein you consumed every day. About 15 g became muscle (that is 1 lb divided by 30) … and 65 g “disappeared”!


Is that an amazing feat? Yes, it is an amazing feat of waste, if you think that the primary role of protein is to build muscle. More than 80 percent of the protein consumed was used for something else, notably to keep your metabolic engine running.

A significant proportion of dietary protein also goes into the synthesis of albumin, to which free fatty acids bind in the blood. (Albumin is necessary for the proper use of fat as fuel.) Dietary protein is also used in the synthesis of various body tissues and hormones.

Dietary protein does not normally become body fat, but can be used in place of fat as fuel and thus allow more dietary fat to be stored. It leads to an insulin response, which causes less body fat to be released. In this sense, dietary protein has a fat-sparing effect, preventing it from being used to supply the energy needs of the body.

Nevertheless, the fat-sparing effect of protein is lower than that of another "macronutrient" – alcohol. That is, alcohol takes precedence over protein and carbohydrates for use as fuel. Protein takes precedence over carbohydrates. Neither alcohol nor protein typically becomes body fat. Carbohydrates can become body fat, but only when glycogen stores are full.

What does this mean?

As it turns out, a reasonably high protein intake seems to be quite healthy, and there is nothing wrong with the body using protein to feed its metabolism.

Having said that, one does not need enormous amounts of protein to keep or even build muscle if one is getting enough calories from other sources.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Wheat flour, rice and vascular diseases in the China Study II data: Article on Cliodynamics


My article on volume 6, number 2, of the journal Cliodynamics has recently been published; it is titled “Wheat flour versus rice consumption and vascular diseases: Evidence from the China Study II data” (). While this is an academic article, I think that the main body of the article is fairly easy to read. More technical readers may want to check under “Supporting material”, which is one of the links on the left, where they will find a detailed description of the data used and the results of some specialized statistical tests.

In the past I have discussed in this blog the associations with vascular diseases, in the China Study dataset, of wheat flour and rice consumption. The interest in the possible effects of wheat flour AND rice consumption comes from the fact that these foods are similar in some important respects – e.g., they tend to raise insulin levels in similar ways. But as you will see in the article, their associations with vascular diseases are clearly different, particularly when we conduct nonlinear analyses.

While I do not think that wheat flour consumption per se is particularly healthy, the results of the analysis go somewhat against the idea that wheat flour intake is the primary culprit with respect to vascular diseases. The results also go somewhat against the “insulin theory of obesity”, at least in a narrow sense, and call for a broader explanation that includes cultural elements. These points are further elaborated in the article. There is speculation in the article, and also a discussion of possible limitations.

Enjoy!