Cut Salt from your Diet! Salt is dangerous! Salt causes heart attacks!
Healthy living advocates have spent decades waging the war on salt. Saying “Get the salt!” has become the equivalent of “pass the blood pressure cuff” (unless you are battling ghosts with Sam and Dean in Supernatural). But where did this fear come from, and is salt really THAT bad for you?
The American Journal of Hypertension released a meta-analysis of over 6000 subjects which came to a surprising conclusion – there is no conclusive evidence showing that a reduction in salt reduces risk of heart attacks or stroke (Taylor, et al, 2011). So how did this idea come about? There were studies that correlated countries with higher salt intakes to higher incidents of cardiovascular disease. Mixed with the fact that salt causes an increase in blood volume, and a “cause-and-effect” system was assumed. However, these studies did not look at any other dietary, genetic or cultural factors in these populations. Furthermore there was no “dose response” within these populations. An individual that consumed more salt, did not have a proportional increase in cardiovascular disease compared to a person that consumed slightly less salt (Kuller, 1997).
To make it even more confusing, people are VERY DIFFERENT in their reactions to salt. Salt does retain fluid and temporarily increase blood volume. This increases blood pressure - but in a healthy individual these effects are temporary and do not mean you'll get a heart attack! If you already have hypertension, it is undue stress on the system, so there is logic to avoiding it. BUT, it is a measure to help manage cardiovascular disease, NOT prevent it. Furthermore, chronic under-consumption of salt leads to an increase in aldosterone – the hormone that increases blood pressure. So in a study by the Journal of Chornic Diseases, researchers found that with a decrease in salt half the participants had an increase in blood pressure (Moore, 2017)! Furthermore, Moore found that it is the overall electrolyte balance – meaning having healthy levels of Sodium, Potassium and other minerals is what dictated a healthier blood pressure. Having adequate potassium, stabilizes the effects of having excess sodium. To make matters worse for salt reduction, a chronic diet of low sodium increases insulin resistance, setting up precursors for diabetes (Moyer, 2012).
The best way to improve cardiovascular health is reaching a healthy weight. The anti-salt studies are frequently confounded by the fact that the highest salt intakes occur among obese individuals. High intakes of processed foods, excessive calories and a higher body fat% are all known culprits to increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, deteriorating joint health, diabetes and several types of cancer (Arch Int Med, 1997).
So before throwing out your salt shaker, take a more in depth look at your diet. Are there obvious things you need to change? Do you give preferential treatment to highly palatable processed foods? Are you struggling maintaining a healthy weight? If that is the case, you should focus your energy on improving your overall health and nutrition, instead of demonizing one small part of it.
Not to mention, vegetables without salt are just not edible.
Now that we have established that salt is a green light, what TYPE of salt should we be using? Is it all just Sodium Chloride (NaCl), or are there any benefits to dishing out the dollars to buy the fancy pink Himalayan stuff? Food grade table salt is highly processed and has most impurities taken out. The issue is that it also has a high amount of anti-caking agents, because the crystals clump together. It also has the addition of iodine to promote thyroid health. Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water. It contains a much higher amount of minerals. The downside is that as the oceans become progressively more polluted, there also might be trace amounts of toxic chemicals (not enough to cause any health damage). Himalayan Pink Salt – apart from the fact that it is beautiful, this is the salt harvested from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan. It has slightly lower amounts of sodium but higher calcium. It makes very little difference from the nutritional standpoint, though many people swear the taste is superior. Kosher salt has a different texture – it has reduced caking agents and is a flakier cut, making it easier to pick up. It also tends to not have the added iodine.
Takeaway – once the salt is dissolved, it makes no difference. However, if you are a foodie and believe there are significant flavour differences, absolutely pick your favourite kind. There are just no documented conclusive health benefits of any particular type (Gunnars, 2017).
Arch Intern Med. (1997) Mar 24;157(6):657-67. Effects of weight loss and sodium reduction intervention on blood pressure and hypertension incidence in overweight people with high-normal blood pressure. The Trials of Hypertension Prevention, phase II. The Trials of Hypertension Prevention Collaborative Research Group.
Gunnars, K. (2017). Types of Salt: Himalayan vs. Kosher vs. Table Salt. HealthLine. Available at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/different-types-of-salt
Lewis H. Kuller; Salt and Blood Pressure: Population and Individual Perspectives, American Journal of Hypertension, Volume 10, Issue S4, 1 May 1997, Pages 29S–36S, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0895-7061(97)00071-X
Lynn L. Moore, L. Singer, M. Bradlee, M.L. (2017). Low Sodium Intakes are Not Associated with Lower Blood Pressure Levels among Framingham Offspring Study Adults. FASEB BioAdvances. Available Online https://www.fasebj.org/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.446.6
Moyer, L. (2012). Open Season on Salt: What the Science on Hypertension Really Shows. Scientific American. Available Online at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-science-on-hypertension-really-shows/
Taylor RS, Ashton KE, Moxham T, Hooper L, Ebrahim S. Reduced dietary salt for the prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (Cochrane review). Am J Hypertens. 2011 Aug;24(8):843-53. doi: 10.1038/ajh.2011.115. Epub 2011 Jul 6.
Is Breakfast Really the MOST Important Meal of the Day?
Everyone "knows" that to start your day right you must start with a big breakfast. Cereal commercials, popular media, even our favourite cartoons harp on us to wake up and start eating. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! If you skip breakfast your body will eat itself into starvation...and stall fat loss and your metabolism will crash and blah blah blah."
This is a MYTH. Skipping breakfast will not ruin anything. How did this start? There IS a CORRELATION between skipped breakfasts (and fewer meals overall) and a higher body weight. But CORRELATION does not mean CAUSATION. There was a time coffee was CORRELATED to lung cancer - but what was missed was that most people puffed a cigarette with their morning brew. When it came to the breakfast study - the researchers' conclusion was that this population was "on the run and more likely to consume candy bars and soda throughout the day" - meaning because their meals were not structured or regulated, OVERALL they tended to overeat. Breakfast does not do anything unique to your metabolism!
Where do we run into a problem?
A lot of us have extremely busy lives and we are always on the go... especially in the morning. We don't have time to sit down and have a proper mindful meal. This type of mindless eating frequently is a cause of overeating behaviours. That and the morning stress, and it turns into a pattern of "2 waffles too many". Speaking of waffles.
Breakfast Foods are not satiating.
Cereals, waffles, pancakes, donuts, croissants... all staple breakfast foods. Easily digestible carbs - this makes sense because most people don't have the stomach for the big bacon +eggs plate when they just wake up. We want a snack... a "light breakfast". SO breakfast ends up being coffee and a donut/muffin/some concoction of simple carbs and sugars. This high calorie meal leaves us completely unsatisfied and ravenous.... resulting in empty calories that do nothing for satiety.
Do I Eat Breakfast?
I work out early in the morning. I train fasted, and after my workout I am STARVING. So I have breakfast. My breakfast is usually a combination of chicken breast, avocado and ezekiel bread. Sometimes it is a salad, but it always looks more like a "lunch" than a "breakfast". Does it change ANYTHING? No. It's just convenient for me with my lifestyle. My overall macros and calories are the same so things are progressing as per usual. When I worked out in the evenings, I fasted in the mornings and it was great.
Do what works for you, keep your calories in check.... and put the pancakes away - unless they are my protein pancake recipe ;)
Image Credit: freepik
Daily %, grams of protein, simple carbs, complex carbs, macros, timings... Ahhh! When I first started to try to keep track of all of this stuff I thought my brain was going to explode.
FIRST OF ALL - let's talk about the relationship between calories and macronutrients.
Calories you eat come from food - more specifically from the macronutrients in that food.
Fat has 9 calories/gram, carbs and proteins are 4 calories/gram (most of the time) - and if you occasionally throw in alcohol, alcohol is 7 calories/gram (though there is some debate about this. We will discuss this in a separate post).
SO the calories you eat are a SUM of all the calories that come from the macronutrients.
For example, you can say "I eat 120g protein + 200g carb + 50g fat / day".
This CAN be converted into
"I eat (120x4=480 calories) + (200x4=800 calories) + (50x9=450calories) = 1730 calories/day."
One is a function of the other. When you tweak your macros your calories will change with that. SO if you want to (as in the example before), increase the protein from 120g to 150g... the 30g increase will be (30x=120) a 120 calorie increase of your daily calories. If you want to keep the calories the same, you will need to reduce the fat and/or carbohydrate to accommodate for that increase.
"AHA WAIT! LIES!!! You say. I looked at my favourite food's nutrition label and I did the multiplication and the addition and the calories DID NOT MATCH. Calories are garbage boooooo to you and to all." This is true. A lot of times the calories on a label DO NOT match the macros. There is usually some leeway with labeling guidelines but it is not that much.The biggest culprit is the carbohydrate. For once carbohydrate DID do something wrong haha. Not ALL carbohydrate is 4 cal/gram - fiber is extremely important and is 2 cal/gram, sugar alcohols vary significantly based on the actual type of sugar alcohol used. THIS is where the inconsistency comes from. So what do you do?
You CAN go by calories OR by macros - whichever makes you more comfortable, but if you go by macros only... you WILL tend to eat a little less because you will just assume ALL carbs you eat are 4 calories/gram even if some are less.
With me so far? I tend to complicate basic concepts sometimes...
Now in terms of the actual macronutrients... when it comes to tracking macronutrients I find that people fall into 2
1. The people that think counting calories is enough of a pain in the butt and refuse to look at macros...
2. Those who figure if they count calories they must count everything! And watch their macros like a hawk! If you fall into this category and want to know a good way to figure out your grams/percentages there is an excellent calculator available here:
I fall somewhere between the two. Based on personal experience I absolutely believe calories are king... AND that macros are VERY important. Especially protein. So I just count calories and protein. That's it. Before the low carb/high carb police comes after me, the research is there. The ratio of carb and fat is clinically insignificant as long as calories and protein are accounted for. The only thing they influence is adherence. Some people do BETTER on high carb, some people are HAPPIER on high fat. it is what about works for YOU. I have days when I want more carbs and other days I want more fats - so I don't stress about that and go by feel as long as protein and calories are met.
But eating fat makes me fat... eating carbs spikes my insulin and I pull fat cells from the air and put them on my thighs!! Understanding the function of each macronutrient is a good way to understand how to partition it properly into your diet... and the silliness of demonizing the "what's a trendy scapegoat today" macronutrient.
I know this is a very dumbed down version of what actually happens on a biochemical level, but I like keeping it basic - reduces the stress levels and focuses more on using common sense to guide your eating patterns.
So *drumroll* I give you the macronutrients:
What's it for? You've probably heard this a million times but protein is the "building blocks" of your body. All cells have protein components and it is absolutely essential for building and repair. Protein is needed to build/retain lean muscle mass. Go on an ultra low, protein deficient diet, it is much more difficult to do it. What else is special about it: protein has a high "thermic effect" (TEF), which means it is petty energy costly to break it down. It takes some extra calories to make sure protein is broken down properly - now this is NOT a reason to eat more calories, and negative calories do NOT exist, but it is a nice bonus nonetheless.
How much of it do I need? Researchers from McMaster (woot woot GO MAC!! Alma Mater pride) - have recently concluded a study which talked about minimal protein requirements. A good guideline is 1g protein/1lb lean body mass/day. Some people go by just "gram/pound" but in the heavier, overweight individuals this does not work - there is no need to consume 300g protein/day if you are 300lbs aiming to drop weight to 180lbs.
Great you say! So eat ALL the protein? The study showed that after 3.5g/lb/day there is no further benefit AND that protein supplementation was less effective with age. This means that after 40 people need to eat MORE protein to achieve the same effect (yay BBQs). The danger of making your diet too protein dominant is that other macros are VERY important and since your total calorie number is limited... if you want to keep calories consistent, raising a macro happens at the expense of dropping another macro.
When to eat it: the body is growing and adapting constantly, so really, any time is good protein time. The anabolic window is a LIE. Pre-workout... post work-out... all of those things are clever marketing gimmicks to buy a dozen supplements you don't need. There are multiple studies showing strength gains are the same as long as DAILY requirement for protein is met. The nitty gritty timing is POINTLESS.
Protein sources I eat: meat and egg products mostly. I incorporate some dairy and protein powders on lazy days. Always check labels, many products say "great source of protein" as a marketing trick only for you to check the grams per serving and find out that it's 4g protein 18 grams sugar.
What it's for: your PRIMARY, long-term source of energy, stockpile of fat-soluble nutrients, building blocks of cellular membranes and of course insulation and protection of vital organs. With keto being very popular these days I will not go into the discussion of "fat doesn't make you fat" as that doesn't seem to be the general fear anymore. In case you were wondering, it is for the same reason as "carbs don't make you fat" - eat fat within your calorie limits and you are FINE. Not to mention fat is filling and satiating so enjoy the skin of your rotisserie chicken with a big smile on your face.
When to eat it? Whenever you want. Have an avocado in bed. It makes no difference.
How much do I need? Fat has multiple crucial functions in the body. Most dietary guidelines advise to aim for a minimum of 20-25% of your daily calories. Once you figure out your protein minimum and your fat minimum, carbs make up "the rest" of your macro calculation, so some math is required which is why the online macro calculator I mentioned is convenient to do this for you.
Fats I eat: I will confess, hitting my fat macro is a big challenge for me. I PREFER lean proteins - I PREFER chicken over pork... I LIKE Greek Yogurts vs. the regular stuff. I have despised creamy foods since childhood. We all have a macro we struggle to hit. In the recipe section I tag recipes by macros so if you are short on one you can see which recipes include it. I get my fat from coconut... and guacamole and the skin of my chicken. It isn't perfect or heavily varied but it works.
What they're for: QUICK boosts of energy. Simple carbohydrates are fairly basic molecules (mono/disaccharides) that your body can break apart fast and use up fast. They give a sudden burst of energy. YES and also cause a spike in insulin. That is OK. If you do not have any underlying medical conditions your insulin spiking as you eat is OKAY. That is how the body functions. If you do not go in excess of your calories, thus overall eating a reasonable amount of carbohydrate, nothing will happen in terms of weight gain. The laws of thermodynamics will not be broken because of a macronutrient you eat. However, if you are quite overweight and are consuming tons of simple processed carbohydrate, it IS an issue that could be causing damage to your overall health, now not overall weight (that is because there is a calorie excess), but overall health.
When to eat them: these can be very effective before a high-intensity workout that will get your heart-rate way up! Or as a little boost before a heavy lifting session. I used to eat them before lifting... but now I train fasted and it honestly feels like it makes no difference. But some people love them some carb before training. And if it makes you feel good and gives you gas in the tank to train harder? DO IT.
Simple carbs I eat: FRUIT. Fruit will not make you fat! If someone tells you this just raise your eyebrows and walk away from that conversation. I LOVE fruit. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Just account for it in your calories and enjoy it. I am a fiend for mango, banana, papaya, guava.... all the vacation stuff. These ARE more calorie dense than your strawberries and apples... so just count them, eat them and be jolly.
What they're for: Slightly less sudden burst of energy. Complex carbohydrates are composed of longer chains of sugars than simple carbohydrates. They take longer to break apart and don't cause such a sudden spike in your energy levels.
When to eat them: Complex carbohydrates are what you want along with protein for optimal training recovery. They are satiating and make great sides for your meals.
Complex carbs I eat: oatmeal, rice, sweet potato, all the delish sides to my protein.
Extremely important for your digestive health and helps your food "move along" your system. In a nutshell there are 2 types of fiber:
Insoluble fiber is roughage that pushes things along, soluble fiber is the gelling agent that pulls things together.
How much of it do I need? If you are tracking fiber, 10g/1000 calories eaten is a popular standard (my keyboard twice put in popular as poopular, which is fantastic for a fiber description... yes I am an actual 5 year old)
Messing with your fiber can cause some dramatic weight fluctuations: if you don't eat enough and things aren't "moving out" you WILL be heavier as your intestine is filled with more food. If you eat TOO MUCH - you can clog yourself up with fiber causing the same issue. So you can either track your fiber or just go by your overall gut feel.
Xylitol... mannitol....sorbatol... etc... artificial sweeteners. More about these in a separate post but in terms of calories - they VARY. Look at a few packs of sugar-free gum, some are 10cal/piece, some are 5... there is rounding involved but it is also the actual type of sugar alcohol used. Sugar alcohols cause a negligible effect on insulin levels. So if anyone tells you that having xylitol will give you diabetes... again raise your eyebrows and move on. Not to mention xylitol is great for your dental health (bonus item).
Now before you run off and eat a bag of xylitol candy, be careful. Sugar alcohols DO tend to cause some gastrointestinal distress when consumed in large quantities. "What is a large quantity" you might ask? I would go by personal feel and start with 1 serving of it... and go from there. Sensitivity to this stuff is different from person to person. Also if you have a dog, don't buy xylitol - it is highly toxic to your canine bestie.
So what does all of this come down to on a day-to-day basis?
This does not need to be overly complicated! Just think about your plans during the day and what your body will need to work effectively! Training hard today? Have some sweet potatoes! Having trouble hitting your protein? Track it and put in a little extra effort. Make life a little easier for your body - give it the macronutrients it
will need and appreciate that each one has a purpose.
And of course: Use. Common. Sense.
Not all calories are created equal!! Negative calories! Not all calories count! Such a jumble of instructions and information. Let's slow everything down and take a look at what calories mean and talk about why they are important. Once you have a good grasp of what calories are, how many you need, and some basic comprehension of how your body works, it will be a lot easier to understand why a lot of these claims are garbage, why a lot of guidelines are extreme and unnecessary and where a lot of these weird myths come from. So let's get started.
So What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of measure of energy. That is IT. It is the amount of energy required to raise 1 g of water by 1 degree at 1 atm pressure. Saying "good calorie/bad calorie" is like saying "good centimeter/bad centimeter" or "not all degrees Celsius are created equal". It makes no sense. Saying "some calories "don't count" is like saying the elevator won't drop if it's over the weight limit because "some pounds don't count". It is JUST a unit of measurement of energy. There is no mystery around it. Now the nutritious value of a food IS a valid concern, but that is a completely separate issue. So for starters, let's be clear - the energy measurement of a meal and its nutrient density are two completely different things. Not all nutrient-dense foods are low in calories (looking at you avocado, you delicious bastard), and not all nutrient-void foods are high in calories. These words also do not make ANY of these foods "good or evil", but that is a topic for another post.
Hundreds of studies, years of research and the conclusion is always the same - thermodynamics are KING. Eat in a caloric deficit and you will lose weight... eat in a caloric surplus and you will gain weight. Easy right?
Well... not quite. How many times have you heard people complain that "calorie counting doesn't work"... "I eat 700 calories a day and I'm gaining weight"... "I have a horrible metabolism". I am also guilty of going through a phase where I was SURE something was clinically wrong with me. There HAD to be. I was eating whole unprocessed foods... I haven't had bread for 2 years... I was training my butt off doing 8-9 workouts per week... And my weight stayed the same AT BEST. What the hell was happening? There are multiple issues that people don't consider when counting calories.
You are not tracking accurately.
Happens to the best of us. People who have trouble "gaining weight" persistently over report how much they eat, people who have trouble losing weight under report. Unless you are in a clinical setting and someone is giving you the food, chances are there have been times when you have been erring on the side of what's comfortable. That. Is. Normal. It does not make you a bad person, just a normal human being. Accept that there might have been times when this happened and move on. The solution is simple. Weigh/measure and track every morsel that goes into your mouth. No exception. Do this for a few days and you will see the real numbers. Better yet have someone else do this for you for a couple of days and hand you the food servings to get a more accurate idea - we are our own worst enemies with this stuff.
The best online calculator will NOT tell you how much YOU need to be in a surplus or a deficit.
The online calculators to calculate your daily calorie needs do not know you. Stop thinking they do! These are a ROUGH ESTIMATE. Now, they ARE a GREAT starting point. But it is just so you have a BASELINE. If you are using these numbers and are not getting the results you want, don't blindly persist and say "no THAT IS MY CALORIE REQUIREMENT TO LOSE WEIGHT I DON'T CARE THAT I HAVE MAINTAINED MY WEIGHT FOR 5 MONTHS ON IT", clearly, it is not. If you are consistently maintaining your weight, BY DEFINITION you are in maintenance. Not a deficit. So you HAVE to adjust your intake.
You know what's much worse?
The calories you require on a daily basis... fluctuate EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
Because your daily caloric needs are a combination of your
Basal Metabolic Rate/BMR (bare minimum to keep you alive. This is a fairly stable number that is proportional to your weight)
Exercise Expenditure (EAT) (calories you burn off at the gym... which is SOO painfully fewer than you think. Even if your Garmin tells you otherwise)
NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) - your daily walk around life. Taking the stairs, scratching your back... the "everything else" apart from the other 3.
TEF - the thermic effect of food - energy required for digestion, makes up approximately 10% of daily energy expenditure. (Image from Trexler and Norton, 2014)
Now your BMR is pretty consistent and those online calculators come pretty darn close... TEF doesn't fluctuate much either and is dictated by the macros ingested. The other 2 factors are a complete gong show and where most people go astray with their assumptions:
Your exercise expenditure is a LOT LESS than even the most accurate HR monitor will tell you. The technology is not magic, and this is a harsh reality check... but eating those calories back is the number 1 reason (apart from poor tracking) why people "maintain/gain" when they are convinced they should be losing. To make matters worse - the fitter you get, the more efficient your body becomes at doing the exercise... (yay progress)... and the fewer calories you burn doing it (dammit). So do not eat back exercise calories.
Now "NEAT" is even worse - some days you are just more active and some days you are less active... and here is where things get even more tricky - when you are in a caloric deficit... your body undergoes some metabolic adaptation. Not DAMAGE... ADAPTATION. Subtle things you might not notice... feeling a little more chilly than normal? Feeling a tad more sluggish getting off the couch? A little less bounce in your step? Your body will TRY to conserve some energy if it is feeling a lack of energy input... that is FINE. It will obviously not go for your organs... so it will try to make little changes to drop your requirements with other tiny changes. Tiny changes that ADD UP. The deeper you go into weight loss... the more you feel these effects.
"Well with all these changes... what am I supposed to do? What's the point of counting?"
Because although the body is in CONSTANT flux... there are still overall trends. But these trends take time to figure out. I know this is not a sexy solution... but the only way to figure out how many calories YOU need is trial and error. Use the calculator... pick a starting point.... stick to those numbers for at least 3 weeks and see what happens. Are you losing/gaining/maintaining? Go from there. Try again... and again... and again... to consistently and sustainably get the results you want.
A good starting point is taking your current body weight in pounds and multiplying it by 12.5-14 (depending on your average daily activity). This might not sound overly accurate, but NO approximation is. This is a STARTING POINT. Treat it as such.
"Screw that. I will just checkmate my body, eat 1000 calories because I KNOW that is a deficit and lose weight".
This is how crash diets work. (apart from the ones that just have you drop water). Be forewarned, the more aggressive your approach... the less you will get the result that you want. First of all, this is not sustainable, so the rebound and weight regain is on the horizon. Second of all, with such a harsh drop you are going to be seeing loss of muscle mass... which will give you that wonderful skinny fat look... and third of all... well... why make yourself miserable? Doing cycles of this type of thing makes you feel like crap... physically and emotionally. People waste YEARS doing these cycles... YEARS. Each cycle seems short but what you are doing to your body in the long run is creating a bad result. Remember - the long road is the fastest road. Blindly chasing short term goals destroys long term success.
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