Category Archives: Nutrition

The best kept secrets to muscle building!

 The word “muscle” to men is as exciting as chocolate to kids. We can’t enough of it. We love muscle and everything that is associated with it. Gaining muscle, working muscles, looking muscular, sore muscles and being muscle bound are all terms that will make any guy take a second look.  But not everyone is able to gain muscle and very few men actually end up looking muscular. Why? What are the secrets behind building slabs of muscle? What is that special training program one needs? What supplements should you take? Let’s find out.

JasonStatham1

You see, building muscle is a very slow and painful physiological process. In all honesty, losing 5 kilos of fat is so much more easy than gaining 5 kilos of muscle. To be specific, it is very possible to lose 5 kilos is 5 weeks for most people but gaining 5 kilos of muscle  is a task that could take anywhere from 5 months to 3 years depending on the trainees current status, genetic make-up, training intensity, nutrition and other lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress. 

Though incredibly hard, muscle gain is a simple process and the “lift heavy, eat big and sleep plenty” is a mantra that always works. To be more specific, in order to gain muscle you will need to lift heavy loads and there is no way around it. Now, the load you lift could be barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, your own bodyweight or even unconventional objects like stones and rice sacks. The tools don’t matter much, at least not as much as the resistance they provide and the intensity you lift with do. Irrespective of what tools you use, you will need to work in the 6 to 12 repetition range and you will need to work the right movements. More on that later, but let’s get to the point here.

How fast you grow and how much muscle you build will depend on many aspects of yourself and your training self. 

Your training age 

Beginners tend to gain muscle much faster than advanced athletes who already have a significant amount of muscle on their frame. As a complete beginner one can expect to gain a good 10-12 kilos of muscle, albeit along with a very noticeable amount of fat, with a year a consistent, diligent, linear progression based training. But if you’ve been training consistently and legitimately for 2 years or more, expect to gain 1 to 3 kilos of muscle per year and not much more. As your training age increases, the rate of muscle gain will decrease and there’s nothing (natural) you can do about that. So be smart and work on getting stronger and gaining muscle right from the early days of your fitness journey.

Your training program 

Big lifts are critical for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) mainly because they activate the most muscle fibers and hence cause the greatest testosterone and growth hormone secretion. So make sure your training program is dominated by squats, pushups, bench presses, overhead military presses, pullups, rows, deadlifts and/or heavy kettlebell swings. Biceps and tricep exercises can be included as supplementary moves but they have very little benefit since every pull you do (pullups, rows etc.,) work your biceps more than any curl can and every push (pushups, presses, bench presses etc.,) burns your triceps more than any isolation exercise (tricep extensions, for example) will.

Your lifestyle 

When gaining muscle and size is the main goal, you’ll need to make some changes to your lifestyle. In general, you will need to sleep more, stress less and move less. To be more specific, get at least 49 hours of sleep per week, keep a log to check how often you get stressed or lose your temper and limit that to twice a week and remove all forms unnecessary movement that causes energy (calorie) usage. Sports, cardio, running, cycling, swimming etc., need to be restricted to 30 to 40 minutes a week and strictly only at an enjoyable intensity. The higher the intensity in such activities, the more calories you’ll burn and that, in your case, will mean wasting calories that could potentially be used to help you recover from you previous strength training session and to promote hypertrophy.

Your nutrition 

The most important rule for gaining muscle is to eat above satiety i.e. you will need to eat more food that your body needs. Let’s say you need 2000 calories per day in order to maintain your current body composition. You will then need to eat anywhere from 2200 to 2700 calories per day in order to even expect muscle growth. Now this doesn’t mean you go about counting every morsel you eat. Generally, if you (60 to 80 kilos) eat wholesome real food which is partitioned fairly well with enough protein (~ 100 to 150 grams), good fat (~ 80 to 120 grams) and starch (200 to 300 grams) along with a reasonably well planned and intense strength training routine, you will grow and there is no denying that. But to hit these numbers without counting you will need to eat wholesome protein rich foods above satiation i.e. till you feel full and also add a handful of nuts and dried fruit as an extra snack. And just so we’re clear, junk food is a NO. Though your goal is to gain weight, junk food and gluttony will not help one bit and only result in gaining fat.

 Your supplements 

Now realize that there is absolutely no supplement that will help you if you bypass the steps mentioned above. Supplements are meant to supplement your training and nutrition and nothing more. For the common man looking to gain some muscle and look awesome, a multi-vitamin pill, some whey protein, ZMA (zinc + magnesium) and maybe, creatine is all you need.

There you have it. The most well kept secrets of muscle building are not complicated and new but simple and archaic. Drop the mass gainers and steroids and pick up a fork and some heavy iron.

Peace out.

PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife health magazine. This is the unedited version.

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All about daal

And by daal I mean lentils, legumes and beans. We love ‘em, don’t we? They’re such a significant part of the Indian cuisine that you can’t ever find someone who isn’t fond of them. And rightly so, from the nutritional standpoint. Wonderful micronutrient balance, extremely rich in folate and molybdenum, scarily high in fiber, excellent source of low GI carbs and a decent source of vegetarian protein! What’s not to love for a carb loving vegetarian society?

chana-pindi-recipe

(This amazing photo was shot by the author of this really cool recipe –  www.vegrecipesofindia.com/pindi-chana/)

Anyways. Let’s keep the love and pride going but let’s be careful to not get carried away because these little pods of nutrition aren’t entirely harmless.

Phytate alert 

Now, lentils contain something known as ‘phytates’. We wouldn’t worry much about these little guys if they behaved well. But they don’t. They inhibit and/or slow down absorption of nutrients from healthful foods that work so hard to consume. So in order to reduce phytate content, our ancestors traditionally soaked all lentils, legumes and beans before cooking and consuming them. If anything that changed since then, it is the fact that we consume much lesser nutrients today and it becomes even more important to ensure their absorption is not inhibited.

Carb alert 

Also, remember that lentils are only a decent source of protein but they are a great source of carbohydrates. Depending on the type, each cooked cup will contains 12-20 grams of protein and 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrates. So the ratio between protein and carbohydrates will be ~ 1:3. Now that’s not too bad for most of us.

But the problem is when we combine it with a starch like rice or roti. Since the rice or roti is basically all carbohydrate, the ratio drifts more towards carbohydrates and ends up at ~ 1:6. Which is, well, bad especially considering most of us eat way too much carbohydrate rich foods all day everyday.

Fat alert 

And who eats a plate of lentils just steamed or cooked? We like some tadka on it or we like to maakhni it up or just add some all powerful ghee to it. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating fat, be sure to not overdo it. You don’t want too much tadka or ghee on your daal or beans. And if you’re eating daal maakhni or any preparation of lentils that is rich, you want to remember that it’s not just a harmless bowl of lentils but a dish is dominated by fat and carbohydrates.

Stupid alert 

1 cup means 1 standard cup which is 240 ml. Yes, that coffee tumbler you have at home. No, not the rice bowl you’re pointing at.

Enough alerts. Time for fixes.  

But it’s OK. Not everything is lost. I have some fixes that will help you continue the lentil love saga without having to loosen your trousers.

  1. Soak lentils, legumes, beans and even grains for a few hours before cooking.
  2. Keep the starchy foods to a minimum when you’re going lentil crazy. Yup. No roti or rice. Sucks. But you got yourself into this mess.
  3. Save the rich and creamy lentil dishes for a day of indulgence, which, I’m sure we’ll all agree, isn’t too rare these days.

Cool? Now, if you’d like to understand more, here are some links for further reading.

  1. Stephan Guyenet explains why lentils are real food and how to prepare and consume them for optimal nutrient absorption.
  2.  The fine folks at the Weston A. Price Foundation take it a step further and discuss phytates in detail.
  3. And finally, the in-depth nutritional profile of lentils on WHFoods.com.

Now, you tell me. Was this helpful? Did you learn a thing or two you could use in daily life? Do you have related questions? The more you talk, the more I talk. So share your thoughts here and share the knowledge for your health conscious friends on social media.

Always remember – when in doubt,  keep it simple.

Does calorie counting really count?

During my initial fat-loss days, I cooked plenty but I knew exactly what went into every meal of mine. I would mentally split each dish I cooked and come up with caloric calculations so I worked towards eating a particular number of calories, protein, fat and carbs. The numbers were important. Very important. If my spreadsheet had numbers higher than required, I’d feel like I screwed up.

Anytime and every time my wife (then girlfriend) cooked for me, we’d get into an argument ‘cos my first reaction was “Tastes great but can you tell me exactly what all you put in it… and in what quantities?” or “Wow! This is awesome! But it looks like you’ve added a little too much cream” or “I’ll just take a bite”. God bless her for marrying me.

Whenever we went out to eat, I’d either order the blandest most uninteresting dish on the menu or I’d eat beforehand and come up with an excuse for not eating or, even worse, cancel plans after knowing that the chosen restaurant had no healthful options. If I did go out to eat, I was always confused. How many calories does 3 tablespoons of daal makhani contain? How about that roti? Or that burrito?

Basically, I was a slave to numbers, a stalker to tasty food, a pain to friends, a fool to myself and a stranger to real nutrition.

Calories

If you think counting calories is way to go then you might as well believe this too

Hello there. We haven’t met, but, if you’re reading this, I’m pretty darn sure you are or were like I was. And today I hope to help you learn from my mistakes. I hope to teach you nutrition. I hope to break your shackles and let you live free as you continue to lose fat and gain health.

Why calorie counting doesn’t really count

1. Body smart. You dumb.

Realize that the human body is a product of 4 million years of evolution. It is a machine that has been continually improved. This machine is equipped with some stunning organs and millions of cells, all working to keep you alive and well. So, in spite of whatever you do to your body, it will do everything it can to make the best out of the situation and keep you alive and kicking for as long as possible.

As shocking as this might be for many of you, this machine regulates hunger, appetite, excess energy (fat) storage, fat oxidation and energy production magnificently well. That being the case,  it should be obvious that the super computer that is your body is much more capable of “counting”, monitoring and regulating calories and other nutrients than you ever can.

2. All calories are not the same

A calorie is not a calorie. In other words, calories you get from carbs are not the same as the ones you get from protein. They serve different purposes and they serve different individuals differently. Based on your genetic make-up, athletic history, current level of physical activity, hormonal (dys)regulation etc., the effect of a calorie from different foods is different on you than it is on someone else. So, setting a caloric budget and living under that, might make you skinny and weak but it ain’t making you healthy. 

3. Consumption isn’t absorption 

When counting calories, you count the calories you eat. But what is consumed is not what you absorb! Say you eat, 3000 calories/day. Depending on your gut health, chances are you won’t be absorbing all these calories. The calories in vs calories out equation holds true, but only at the gut and not at the mouth. You will need to take into account how many of your ‘consumed calories’ are converted into ‘absorbed calories’ in order to use the equation. Your simple equation just got uber-complicated. And considering there is no easy way to find out the conversion percentage, well, your equation just became worthless.

4. Health is more than calories 

Fat loss is a side effect of good health. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. While total calories matter, providing your body with enough nutrients (protein, fat, carb, vitamins and minerals) matters more. Focussing only on calories while dropping the ball with nutrients is being penny-wise, pound-foolish.

5. It is simple math. But you will get it wrong almost every time.

A banana has 80 calories. Say you eat 20 bananas in the next 10 days. So that is 1600 calories? But what if the banana was bigger or riper than the one used to make the calorie calculation? What if the banana actually had 98 calories instead of 80? That works out to be another 22.5% calories you didn’t account for. If this is the case with something as basic and unprocessed as a banana, what about cooked foods and dishes? How many calories are you really off by when you eat that avial or Korean charbroiled chicken? Is your calorie counting software telling you the truth or just spitting out a random number?

6. Life is too beautiful to be spent counting.

The only way you’re going to stay in shape is to continue counting calories for every morsel you eat for the rest of your life? Really? Definitely not what I call healthy living.

How to lose fat and gain health without ever worrying about calories

Step 1: Eat real food

Real food is any food that we humans can eat without any allergic reactions. Now this changes from person to person and most people today don’t really know what they are allergic to. But enough studies have been conducted to prove that for most people the safest non-allergenic foods that contain an abundance of nutrients are organic vegetables and fruits, farm fresh dairy, high quality meat/seafood/eggs, pre-soaked lentils/beans and cooked white rice. As a first step, build MOST of your meals around these foods and eat others sparingly.

Step 2: Prioritize the right foods 

In addition to eating real food, it is absolutely critical that you prioritize the foods that help you walk towards your goals. If fat loss is your primary goal, then prioritizing produce, dairy, meat, seafood and eggs is your fastest, healthiest and most sustainable approach. In other words, fill your plate with plenty of these and have starches (rice, other grains, beans etc.) as a side.

Step 3: Eat only when hungry 

I know you’ve been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that 6 small meals a day keep your blood sugar under control yada yada. But unfortunately none of that is true. You see, we humans are adapted to the ‘feast & fast’ method of eating. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we hunted and when there was food we ate like there was no tomorrow. Following that, we fasted till we found more food. The people may have changed but our genetic make up has hardly changed in the last 4 million years. So stop listening to corporations and experts trying to make a buck out of you and listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry.

And if it isn’t clear already, it is absolutely healthful to skip a meal every now and then, not because you’re trying to eat lesser calories, but because you’re just not hungry.

Step 4: Eat to satiety 

What makes sense – eating until you reach a certain number that, as explained above, has no physiological significance for a multitude of reasons, or eating to satiety? Numbers are new. So is the science of determining how many calories are present in different foods and the pseudo-science of restricting a certain number of calories to lose fat. What is old and flawless (for a generally healthy person) is the body’s ability to regulate hunger and appetite and signal satiety. So, as far as quantities are concerned, the only thing you need to do is to eat till your satiated but never till you’re full.

Spelling it out

Here is how I like to deal with nutrition. No plans. No time-tables. No nonsense. Just a simple sensible list of everything one can eat in a day. It is then up to the consumer to figure out what he/she would eat when or how based on his/her lifestyle, likes/dislikes, cuisine/recipes, food choices, availability etc.

Here is what a moderately active 70kg adult needs to eat per day in order to lose fat at an optimal rate. Eat more/less based on bodyweight and activity.

  • Organic vegetables – 300-500g
  • Organic fruits – 1-2 medium
  • Meat/seafood – 100-200g lean meat/white fish
  • Whole eggs – 2-3
  • Starch – 1-1.5 cups cooked rice or equivalent
  • Lentils/beans – 1-2 cups cooked
  • Oil – 1-2 tablespoons ghee/butter/olive oil/coconut oil
  • Farm fresh dairy – 1-3 cups whole milk/yogurt
  • Natural cheese (in place of meat) – 40-50g of paneer or other cheese

So leave the counting to blackjack and just eat real food.

Peace out.

– – –

PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife and it was published in their November ’12 edition. 

Image credit: http://www.juxtapost.com/

Festivals – To feast or not to feast?

I wrote this article for a magazine called Chateratti sometime in November ’12 just before the festival season in India started but since this is super relavent today (Pongal), I’m posting it here. Enjoy.

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This year, feast your way to fitness!

It is that time of the year again. The time crowded with festivals. The time when everything from kozhakattai to eggnog appear from nowhere and end up as flab. The time when sugar and fat fight for dominance in the war towards obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. This is also the time when we see a gazillion articles about what to eat, what not to eat, how to control your fingers from reaching for those sinful pieces of awesomeness and what weird concoctions you can drink to minimize the ill effects of all the feasting.

Sure, this is another such article, but I, on the other hand, am going to recommend that you feast! I’m going to ask you to stop worrying about your waistline and think about enjoying the moment. I’m going to tell you that you’re better off eating them treats than staying away and eventually crying yourself to sleep.

Firstly, let’s take a quick minute to understand festivals. ‘A festival is a special occasion of feasting or celebration that is marked by special observances, that is usually religious’. Festivals have been around for as long as religion has been around but the term ‘festival’ was first recorded as a noun in 1589 and not surprisingly, the etymology of ‘feast’ is very similar to that of ‘festival’.

Talking about the word ‘feast’, humans are very well acquainted to feasting. We have been feasting (and by that I mean consuming food to a point of physical discomfort) for tens of thousands of years, and, thanks to evolution, our bodies are perfectly well equipped to deal with the effects of such behavior.

Back in the paleolithic era, before Ruffles, refrigerators and religion came into existence, feasting was a regular part of a human’s life. Food storage not being an option, food (which was perishable) either had to be consumed or wasted and, of course, wasting was not an option. We, as hunter-gatherers, spent the day hunting-gathering food for the family/group/clan and spent the night feasting on the days “work”. There were days we ate modest quantities of food and then there were days when gluttony was the theme of the night.

This practice of feasting and fasting, lasts till today. Every religion and culture in the world, be it the Muslims during Ramadan or the Massas during Guru Walla, have festivals and religious observances which circle around fasting and feasting.

Feasting being such an integral part of festivals and human evolution in general, it is absolutely unacceptable that we don’t partake in it. Wouldn’t you agree?

The point is to remember that festivals are awesome. Festivals are about food and family and feasting and laughter and memories and everything else that is good about life! They are special… very special and that’s why they appear only once on your calendar. And the best advice I can give you about staying in shape during the festive season is… keep special occasions special.

Realize that a special occasion is only special if it happens occasionally. Be it spending time with your giant family or munching on goodies, if it happens a little too frequently you’re in for trouble.

Think about it.

If you went around bursting crackers everyday, how enjoyable is that really and why would you look forward to Diwali? If we threw Ganpath idols into the well every morning, why would every kid anxiously wait for that yearly moment to hear the “plop” when the idol hits the water? If you could throw colors at people every morning, how many happy faces are you going to see and why would the early morning scare on Holi be anything to look forward to?

Similarly, if sweets and other festive foods are things you eat everyday, how much do you think that is helping you with respect to health and why would any festival be special?

Listen, I know eating junk during festivals sounds sinful and dangerous and I’ll probably be given the ‘worst coach of the year’ award for asking you to forget about your waistline and go at it this year. But, trust me, it isn’t during festivals that people become fat or unhealthy. It is during the rest of the year and due to their actions during the rest of the year. Get your mind right…

  • Eating a whole sugarcane once a year isn’t killing you. Your daily dose of sugar laden processed junk and pseudo health foods are.
  • Enjoying fresh homemade sweets three to four times a year isn’t making you fat. Your habit of eating sugary snacks between meals and dessert after every meal is.
  • Devouring that festive meal with vadai and paayasam isn’t pushing you up a dress/waist size. Considering vadai as an acceptable everyday breakfast item is.

And finally, feasting on awesomeness and overdosing on happiness a few times a year isn’t dangerous by any stretch of imagination. Turning everything special into something mundane by making it a part of your daily life is.

So if you truly want good health, stop looking for temporary fixes and crash diets. Think long term. Understand that health, well being, fitness and (true unphotoshopped) good looks are a result of consistently and cumulatively making good life and food choices. Nothing more and definitely nothing less.

Adios.

Grains: Solving a problem that doesn’t exist anymore

A few hundred years ago in a village there was a school. One day when the teacher was taking class, a cat sat right out the door and cried for food. He stopped class to feed the cat and then continued on. Slowly, the cat got into the habit of crying for food everyday and they got into the habit of feeding him everyday before class. Many decades passed and there was a new teacher with a new set of students. When he was just about to start class, one of the observers stopped him and announced that the cat needs to be fed before commencing class. But there was no cat. So, they found a cat, fed him and then commenced class.

Similarly, a grain based diet is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore.

Back in the day, when grain dominance came about, high activity levels demanded high calorie consumption and the excellent quality of ingredients available back then meant we only needed to eat enough vegetables, fruits, dairy etc to get all the required micro and macro nutrients.

Today, very low activity levels demand low calorie consumption and the horrendous quality of ingredients available mean we need to eat plenty more vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs and other real foods in order the get the required micro and macro nutrients.

So how about we work on solving the problem that does exist today?

And the way to do that – kill the starch (rice, bread, roti, oats, corn flakes, ragi etc) and other empty calories (junk, fruit juice, flavored dairy etc.) and fill up on organic real foods (produce, dairy, eggs, seafood and meat). Or, as Arvind recommends, just turn your plate around, increase the side dishes and reduce the starch.

Here are some resources to help you along the way.

Adios!

PS: The story about the school is from one of my reader’s blog (not related to nutrition). I’m not able to say where exactly I read it and I apologize for that. But if you’re reading this, do drop in a comment and I’ll link to your blog and credit you. Thanks much. 

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