Your calorie tracker may be busting your body comp: use these tweaks to fix it.

7023751359_e317cb1cdb_z

photo credit: Memphis CVB

Do you use Myfitnesspal or a similar tracking tool? If so, hang out with me for just a few moments because there are a few really important things you should know.

Before we get plunge right in, let me be clear: the point of this article isn’t to determine whether the practice of tracking is a good or bad thing. There are passionate advocates and deterrents, and both camps make valid points about the benefits and costs of managing our nutrition with calorie counting. 

But if you are tracking your intake or considering it, there are a few important things you should know. I’m using Myfitnesspal today because it’s the most widely used app around and the one I’ve also tinkered with the most. 

Unlike some, I don’t hate tracking: it’s great for people who are:

-Just getting started with fat loss. It’s a data tool to tell us if things are moving in the direction they want.

-Builds mindfulness of what’s in food – is it calorie dense? Was the portion surprisingly small? What foods actually have a lot of bang for their buck in terms of filling protein? How on earth can chicken wings be so high in calories? 

-Gives us time on “training wheels” to begin learning those lessons and skills that will make NOT tracking way more successful.

-More useful than intuitive eating for someone who wants to more quickly lose weight. It’s hard to intuitively put yourself into a significant deficit. Most people don’t need to put themselves into a steep one, but they do have a place in some situations.

-Tracking intake of nutrients. I discovered I don’t eat enough dietary fat and my iron counts have been low lately.

-A way to regain a sense of control if you find yourself packing on a few pounds. This isn’t the ONLY way to get back on track, certainly. It’s just one way that I find a lot of people actually like.

These tools get a bad rap for a few reasons. Some features are admittedly terrible: I don’t like the arbitrary and usually very low calorie goals that MFP sets for pretty much everyone who uses them.  

The calorie burning estimates that allow people to “eat back” calories as a reward from working out aren’t great for our mindset but more importantly, they usually are wildly inaccurate. The macronutrient ratios are needlessly fussy and confusing to new users. Bleh. And stop alerting me that I might go over my fat goal! This is not a crisis, MFP. Sheesh. You don’t even know me, MFP.

Now a smelly pre-teen. Did not throw out with bath water.

Now a smelly pre-teen: did not throw out with bath water.

But the biggest reason MFP actually hampers fat loss is not so much the fault of the app – just how we use it. This is a “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” kind of scenario.

I saw that lesson played out last night after I got home from an evening talking shop and life with a trainer friend over a taco and margarita.

Myfitnesspal is the tool I use to monitor my overall calories and protein intake right now – I’m trying to build some sweet muscle. I knew my margarita contributed very little to my day except through calories and fun, but I looked up the count anyway.

Imagine my surprise when I appeared to have hit the jackpot:

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

Sweet baby Jesus. A margarita with 23 grams of protein? Bye bye, chicken! Just kidding. Unless they were mixing tequila with protein powder, that’s not happening. And yuck: that’s a truly terrible idea.

How could this be?

It’s simple: user error. We’re going to fix that as well as we can today.

How we screw stuff up.
You see, Myfitnesspal entries, like those on several other apps, are created by users. People like you and me; I can only imagine that entry was shared by someone who had already enjoyed a few too many beverages.

There are a few ways to make sure you’re getting a close estimate.

-Whenever possible, check ingredient labels: then you can use them to compare with the current entries you see in in the app.

-On foods that don’t contain labels, look up the USDA estimates if you’re unsure. It’s not a perfect tool but it’s less overwhelming than the bajillion entries in the MFP database; and more accurate. 

-Look for Myfitnesspal entries that have a little green check mark. Those have been verified by many users as being accurate.

-Mind your meats: was the food entered cooked or uncooked? This changes the weight and caloric density of the meat.

Grandma didn't eff around.

Grandma didn’t eff around.

Rock the Recipe Creator

It can be really confusing at first to enter “tuna salad” and have 50,000 entries pop up, all with wildly varying estimates. At this point, you have 2 choices:

-Know that calorie estimates aren’t completely perfect anyway, use your best judgment, and chill out.

-Create your own recipe and have a closer estimate.

Neither of those options is terrible, but if you’re consistently way off on what you’re actually eating, you may be consuming far fewer or more calories than you intended.

Dip your toes in these waters once you get the hang of inputting basic foods. It gets faster as you acclimate to the process too. What’s in it for you? A better estimate of the calorie content of your favorite casseroles, soups, and stews.

Some things are easy to generate with this tool. You look up the ingredients one by one, add them to your recipe, indicate the number of servings, and poof. You’ve got your dinner counted.

recipemfp

No soup for you?
Serving sizes can be tricky for things like soup. For this reason, I have an easy trick to show you. Just do this:

-Input all of your ingredients into the recipe with the MFP tool. 1 medium onion? Check.
50 grams of sweet potato? 1 quart of low-fat chicken broth? Done. They don’t all have to be in grams at this point.

1. Weigh the entire recipe in grams. I scoop it into a bowl; reset the scale to 0; then get the total weight in grams.

2. Input the serving size as whatever total grams you have. So if the soup weighs 850 grams, put 850 servings.

3. When you record having a portion of this recipe at your next meal, input how many grams you actually ate. If 1 portion is 2 calories, and I ate 200 portions, then the total calories would be 400 kcal. Fortunately MFP will do the math so you don’t have to fiddle around. Phew.

This sounds tedious but it becomes faster with time. I’m more likely to do it if the recipe isn’t too complicated or if it’s something I intend to make often. 

Another bonus of the MFP tool is the ability to import recipes from other websites. You save a step because they gather all of the ingredients and attempt to find them in their database.

Just check them all. The other day it told me my garlic contained 2,000 calories. That’s one hell of a clove.

There are other times when we’re busy or just not up to the hassle of this. In this case, use the best estimate you can find and get on with your day.

salmons
Tracking restaurant meals:
Look, my friend: unless you’re training to be the next worldwide bodybuilding champ and need your diet to be 100% on point, relax. Don’t haul along a scale. People do this. Please don’t. Even when you’re tracking diligently most of the time, there’s a time to ease up.

Sure, some restaurants offer estimates for their meals. You can use that if you wish. 

But it’s just as useful to practice an alternate strategy – aim for a plate that has plenty of non-starchy vegetables, a portion of protein, a small portion of something starchy or a glass of wine, and then a little bit of fat to boot. Toast your companions, enjoy your dinner, and put the app away for the evening.

Trackers are tools that have a helpful place while working on our body composition: but they should never become a ball and chain. How do you feel about them? Love? Hate? Love-hate? Leave a comment below and share!

 

Could these nutrient deficiencies harm your fitness goals?

Every picture I found of "fitness vitamins" was shockingly awful. So here's a kitten with some oranges.

Every picture I found of “fitness vitamins” was shockingly awful. So here’s a kitten with some oranges.

If you take a glance at supplement store shelves, you might imagine that getting into great shape requires buying a boat load of powders, pills, and potions.

I’m not against taking supplements. I’m just not in favor of taking every boost under the sun, especially if someone hasn’t yet mastered the basics.

The vast majority of people will be able to get amazing results for goals like burning fat, becoming more athletic and strong, preventing disease, and staying full of awesome by doing a few key things:

1. Eating mostly whole foods. These are stuffed with vitamin and minerals and make you feel good. 
2. Eating a diet with adequate protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs.
3. Getting plenty of sleep.
4. Managing our stress in healthy ways.
5. Moving our bodies often.

If you’re a competitive athlete or have very high expectations for carving up your muscles like a Thanksgiving turkey, then you’ll likely need to dial those things in even more finely. You’d benefit from certain supplements more than the rest of us. 

But what about the rest of us? Is there stuff we can take to make ourselves be more of a badass in and out of the gym? 

There are, but they’re not what you might expect. Here are two common ones that you can safely skip:

1. BCAAs: branch chain amino acids, usually taken in powder form. Most of us get enough of them anyway if we’re getting adequate protein in our diet, and the latest research seems to show that our bodies don’t utilize the isolated BCAAs the same way we do when they’re in food. 

I don’t see protein powder as a supplement – it’s just a highly concentrated food.

2. Fat burners. With a few exceptions, they’re mostly bunk.

But what about vitamins and minerals: can they help us with our body comp and performance goals, and can we get enough from just eating food?

In some cases, our bodies don’t do so well when we try to get a vitamin from a supplement instead of from the food itself. We’re not really sure why, exactly, but it’s not just about a nutrient – it’s how that nutrient plays with the other ones as they’re digested and absorbed by your body.

Plus, when we eat those foods, we get a whole bunch of other benefits other than just one nutrient.

We also get boosts from things like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins; plant chemicals that play a role in our overall health; and like I said, the intricate and still mysterious interactions that make nutrition best suited to coming from our diets.

Still, there are certain vitamins and minerals that are hard to get adequately even if we follow a rockstar diet. Vitamins K, D, Zinc, and Magnesium are very commonly lacking in our diets. I have to work at getting enough omega-3s, those fatty acids that help blood flow, decrease inflammation, and may lower risk for heart attacks and strokes.

So eat lotsa nutrient-packed foods. But for active people in particular, there are a few to really zero in on to improve our health AND our fitness.

Also – ALWAYS check in with your M.D. before taking a new supplement, particularly if you have a medical condition. Deal? Ok, cool.

Vitamin D

Why to supplement: it’s actually a hormone. Your body can make it from exposure to the sun, except we sit inside all the time or wear sunscreen when we go out. Doh. Some foods contain it, but it’s tough to eat enough of them to take care of your body’s needs.

I don't know about you, but whenever I see a sunset I make a heart around it. Just kidding, this is weird.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a sunset I make a heart around it. Just kidding, this is weird.

Roughly 40% of American adults are deficient in Vitamin D, so it’s worth having your doctor check you out on this one. Aside from all kinds of critical hormonal functions, bone health, and possible disease prevention, new research is showing that vitamin D may help you build muscle. Higher doses may also improve testosterone levels. That can help you out with those gym gainz.

How much: the upper limits on this one are generally much higher, but the standard adult dose to prevent a deficiency is 1,000-2,000 IU/day.

Magnesium
Why to supplement: here’s the kicker. If you don’t get enough of this mineral, it may be harder for your body to use Vitamin D. Magnesium has an important role in many processes that directly impact our body composition and athletic performance: stuff like hormonal balance, helping to regulate insulin, and has also been linked to making athletes perform more explosively and recover more easily.

Meanwhile, not getting enough of it carries risks too. Low levels have been linked to inflammation that increases risk for certain diseases, diabetes, and cancers. It also may put you at risk for osteoporosis.

greenshits

How we get it: you can eat things like dark leafy greens, beans, peas, potatoes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. But most of us just don’t eat enough to make the grade.

How much: More is not better here, with too-high levels being linked to everything from diarrhea to um, death. The standard recommended adult dose for a supplement is 300-350 mg/day, with citrate better than oxide for absorption. This is also used to treat constipation, so ease into this one to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Iron
Why we need it: sometimes we think we’re overtraining, and we might actually not have enough of this nutrient.

Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia and generally feeling like crap. If you’re finding that you’re tired all the time, cranky, and have lost your gym mojo, looking at your iron intake is one box to check: it might be worth tracking your intake of iron and having your levels tested.

Around 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women don’t have enough iron in their body. Yikes! Athletic folks have more red blood cell mass. And so we have a higher demand for iron.

Foods: you can get iron from plant sources, especially beans and dark leafy greens. Fortified cereals and breads contain iron too. Heme iron, the kind found in beef, turkey, and chicken, is particularly good because our bodies absorb it more efficiently.

You can just eat it: if you’re eating plenty of these sources, you may be just fine. If you don’t eat a ton of calories each day, you may find your diet falls short, however.

When to supplement: ONLY after you’ve checked with your doctor. Taking iron can screw with absorbing other nutrients and also make you feel lousy too.  

I’m a big believer in keeping things as simple as possible. We eat as well as we can and then fill in the gaps where we need a little boost. Have more questions? Shoot me an email at fit@amydix.com and I’ll be happy to help you out. 

Staying healthy with hotel living – how to stay on track.

hotelroomEver feel like you’re in that weird place that isn’t quite vacation but still manages to launch you completely out of your comfortable routine?

I think we’ve all been there at least once. Having babies, starting new jobs, moving to new cities, getting married, getting divorced.

It doesn’t really matter what it is: it’s not easy to figure out a new normal. But possibly the most frustrating situation for those who want to keep up healthy habits is being away from our cozy, predictable nests. 

home

It might be because we’re on an extended business trip, or we’re moving, like my friend Lexy is doing right now.

She’s a badass working mom who is getting ready to move into a new house. That’s all good stuff except while they’re waiting for their new home to be ready they have to camp out in one of those long-term business hotels. The ones with only a microwave, a mini range, and a fridge.

Her kids love the pool but other than that, it’s a heck of a stressful situation. Have you ever found yourself in a similar place – one where all of your normal routines felt like they’d been blown to bits?

I had an online coaching client whose kitchen burned to ashes. She had to deal with a major kitchen fire and had to figure out how to feed herself and her family for several weeks. Yeesh. 

Life is messy, isn’t it? Lexy asked me if I had ideas for how to make healthier choices while living in her situation. The good news is that there are things that she can do to feel like she’s taking care of her health; things that work for anyone who might be traveling a lot, going through a new job transition with little time to cook, or just having big stuff going on in their lives.

Remember this above all else…
If you’re nodding your head right now, you need to know one big thing. Here it is:

You don’t need to do everything just like you were when you were in your normal routine.

That’s a nearly impossible task, and it sets you up to feel defeated. It’s okay to loosen up your expectations for a time.

steinbeck

Perfect is the enemy of good; it’s so common for people to say “screw it” and just completely abandon eating well and working out because they aren’t able to do what they think they should. So first and foremost, give yourself permission to let go of what your perfect “healthy” routine looks like at home. 

Phew. Feels good, yeah?

Next. Let’s brainstorm some solutions.

Eating Well 
Lexy felt frustrated because of how often they were eating out. I asked Lexy what she thought was going well and she had already come up with some magnificent strategies:

  • Fresh fruits and veggies to keep in the fridge.
  • Family picnics in the park
  • Getting lean protein via deli meats
  • Choosing portable and easy to store fruits and veggies like carrots, celery, grapes, bananas and clementines
  • Chilling out about using some Lunchables for school lunches but choosing the kind with no extra cookies/candy
  • Pre-diced chicken
  • Microwavable veggie/pasta combos
Hell yeah, Barbie Dream Kitchen. The antiquated, politically inappropriate favorite toy of my childhood.

Hell yeah, Barbie Dream Kitchen. The antiquated, politically incorrect yet favorite toy of my childhood.

Lexy mentioned that making salads frustrated her in such a small space, and I don’t blame her. There’s usually an odd assortment of utensils, fewer available bowls, and in short, makes for the opposite of my Barbie dream kitchen. 

Simplicity is your new best friend.
My biggest bit of advice for eating while out of your routine is to do whatever is simple and still healthy. Pick the things that help you meet your goals yet don’t stress you out too much to prepare. And for the love of all that is holy, stay the hell off Pinterest. You’ll just torture yourself. 

Your #1 goal is to make your life as simple as possible. The fancy stuff can wait. 

peepszap

Embrace new ways of cooking:
You might not be able to grill a steak, but you can do a surprisingly large number of things in a microwave besides nuke those bags of vegetables:

1.Boil water(duh)
2. Scramble and even poach eggs
3. Zap a protein mug cake (they’re not great but passable)
4. Cook whole grains like oats, quinoa, farro
5. Steam fish like salmon 
6. Blow up Peeps. (This is a requirement at least once in your life. Clean it up though.)

chicken

Other ideas for “no-cook” meals:

  • Buy rotisserie chicken and a pre-packaged salad kit. Instead of having to chop veggies, you’ll just throw it all together.
  • Tuna + those little guacamole packets = magic. Actually anything + those little guac packets are wonderful. 
  • Use that microwave – but in steps. Nuke some sweet potatoes. Heat up a can of black beans and/or diced protein. Add salsa. Fill your belly. This works with regular old potatoes too and whatever microwaveable veggies you have. Add whatever fixings are easy to use – a little cheese is great.
  • Take advantage of pre-chopped veggies in the supermarket. It stinks to have to chop up things in a tiny space, and if this makes you more likely to actually eat some more vegetables and skip eating fast food, do it.
  • Keep portable and no-prep munchies around. Aside from fruits and veggies, I’ve found it pretty easy to nab Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese and jerky for quick snacks.
  • Oats are easy. For breakfast, oatmeal is easily microwaveable and even comes in disposable containers now if you’re traveling and have no bowls.
  • If your hotel offers a free breakfast, bulk up! Grab a piece of fruit for later. Choose yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and oatmeal over choices like pastries and cereal. 
  • Allow yourself some “pretty good” choices. These might not be your favorite go-to solutions. I don’t love daily protein bars and bottled protein shakes, but this might be a perfect time to keep some available.

Flipping your mindset.
I think the big thing here is to maintain a sense of order. Make a plan ahead of time, just as if you were cooking at home. Is Monday cold cuts night and perhaps Tuesday rotisserie chicken night? Write it down or save it in a file. 

Take more choices out of your life and it becomes easier to choose wisely.

Lexy also shared that she didn’t much she found foods creeping into their hotel room that she never had around at home. Again, loosening our expectations a bit is probably wise for our mental health, and yet it’s easy to see a transition time as vacation.

But if that vacation is 4-8 weeks long, we might begin feeling not so great about what we’re putting into our bodies on a regular basis. Lexy was wise to attempt to curb the creep here.

It’s not vacation. It’s your life – your real life, just in a slightly different spot than where you’re normally at. Vacation mentality won’t necessarily make you feel less out of sorts; it might erode your peace of mind as well as those routines that keep your body and mind humming.

Photo Credit: Minitime

Photo Credit: Minitime

Working out when life is nuts.
Again, doing fitness if you’ve just moved to a new place or are going through a crazy period can feel rough. Don’t have a gym? No biggie. If you’re talking about 3-4 weeks of upheaval, take a deep breath. You won’t lose all your progress.

But I encourage you to do SOMETHING. Every small, positive action reinforces more positive actions that help you care for yourself. Exercise is a huge stress reliever, and if you’re in the weeds, taking 20 minutes to do a very basic workout will go far in helping you feel good. If your hotel has a gym, that’s fantastic, but there are plenty of body weight routines that you could do just about anywhere. Investing in a suspension trainer like a TRX is another wise idea if you’re a frequent traveler.

But really, don’t sweat the details too much. Go for a walk. Just move your body, because it will make you feel like you’re on track. And that thought will piggyback into you doing more things to put yourself on track. 

Here’s a “do anywhere” quick set that will keep you strong and centered: 

Motel Muscle
Instructions: Complete 5 rounds of the following moves, resting when you need to, preferably at the bottom of a set. 

Circuit:
1.5 Bulgarian split squat – 8 reps/leg (all the way down, half way up, down, then all the way back up for one rep.)
Pushups – 8 (add a pause at the bottom if they’re easy for you)
Lateral lunge – 8/side
Russian twists – 8/side

Living in limbo is a weird place. Whether it’s for a week-long business trip or a month-long stop on the way to somewhere else you’d rather be, it’s maybe not what you expected, but you can absolutely still do things that not only help you be healthier but make you feel a little more at home. 

Do you have strategies that have worked well for your own crazy weeks (or months!)? Leave a comment below and share! 

High end rewards for high intensity training

Photo Credit: Jenni C, Flickr.

Photo Credit: Jenni C, Flickr.

High intensity training has the potential to bring lots to your own training table aside from making you feel like a badass. But understanding how, when, and why to put it into our workout weeks can be a little confusing. So let’s clear that right up. 
 
There are approximately a bajillion articles that explain the science behind this and how your energy systems work. It’s pretty cool stuff, actually, but for today’s purposes I just want to show you how to start doing it safely and effectively while making it easier to work on your own goals. 
 
Why do we need high intensity training?
First of all, It does a hell of a job burning fat because it takes advantage of the “afterburn” effect, when our bodies scramble to repay the oxygen debt it incurred during really hard work. 
 
It also makes all the other workouts we do feel easier by improving our ability to use oxygen. We become better conditioned and can perform better. They offer more opportunities to move often because they take very little time to do. Plus you can find ways to do high intensity work with little to no equipment at all. 
 
Training in this way can look differently depending on the kind of workout: metabolic conditioning, high intensity interval training, sprinting, sled pushes and pulls… there are small differences in the characteristics of various high intensity workouts, but we really just need to know a few basic things to get going. 
jumpandstuffTo reap the benefits of high intensity workouts you need to know a few things:-Give a really hard effort. Then be willing to really rest when it’s time to rest.
 

-If you’re doing a 45 minute high intensity interval workout that you’re not actually doing high intensity work. You’re doing cardio, and that’s fine too. But we’re working different energy systems and producing different training effects. I want everyone to know exactly what they’re getting when they choose what to do.

-It’s not a substitute for strength training: but it’s a killer way to have more opportunities to build and retain some muscle as you work on fat loss.
 

It’s also helpful for “greasing the groove” of movement when you do sessions like metabolic conditioning, which use lighter loads of strength moves to produce that good stuff I’ve been talking about.

tired

The cons of high intensity training.
Here’s my one caveat to promoting high intensity work: I have nothing against training this way, only in how it gets used.
 
Many people have become so accustomed to doing these very demanding workouts that we begin to believe that if we’re not completely breathless and exhausted that we’re not getting anything out of the workout. This simply isn’t true. 
 

Yes, sometimes you’ll be pooped after your workout and it can be fine. Sometimes you’ll leave feeling glowy and energized. I’m for working hard  – but only to accomplish what I think you want too: to improve. 

It can feel exhilarating to come away feeling like we just got thoroughly worked – but it’s not always an indication that we made ourselves better.

 

And in reality, if you’re so wiped out after every session that you can hardly walk around for the rest of the day, you likely are overdoing it. Chase better, not tired. 

Precisely because these workouts are so taxing, you shouldn’t be doing them all the time. 1-2 times per week is plenty and will allow your body time to both reap the benefits and recover. 

So are we gonna work out or what?
Here are 3 ways out of many that I like to program high intensity training for myself and my clients.

1. Sprinting
Sprinting is great for so many reasons. It will greatly enhance your power in your legs. It can be done just about anywhere; you can smoke your legs and glutes in under 10 minutes; and it’s really fun to go so fast you can pretend you’re running from the law.  

 
For beginners, it can actually feel easier on joints to run up a hill, and it forces you into a more athletic position as you lean forward a bit and drive those elbows back while sailing up the hill. Just don’t lean TOO much. You want to be upright enough to be powerful. 

Hill sprints also help build more muscular, powerful legs and glutes. They give you tons of bang for your buck. 

 
How long?
I like to keep the time increment very, very short and just go as fast as I can, then recover fully. 
 
How hard?
Remember – a true sprint is an all out effort. If you’re really giving that, you will need rest – a minute or two. 
 

Where though and how do I do it?
Treadmills, hills, your own street… wherever you choose, you’ll crank your heart rate up like crazy and make you feel and perform more like an athlete. Try this sprinting workout – it works well for seasoned sprinters and new kids too. 

soundofmusic

 
The Hills are Alive (for Sprinting)
Instructions: Find a steep hill. Warm up a bit first. I really like this one for beginners because it’s more intuitive than timed intervals. Instead of counting seconds or distance, you’re going to go as hard as you can until you feel that dramatic slow down course through your body.  If you’re someone who really wants a time to shoot for, try around 8-10 seconds as your work goal at first.   1. Look around you. How far up the hill are you? I usually do these on a steep hill in a nearby neighborhood.2. Choose a landmark near where you stopped. Now walk back down the hill, catch your breath. You’ll be resting for a minute or two total.

3. This is where it becomes challenging. You’ll do this anywhere from 8-10 times, and by around set 5 to 6 it’ll be tougher to push yourself.

4. Keep at it. This part of sprinting trains our mental toughness and we can take that with us into not only workouts but life. 

 

So you want to go to the gym? Try a metabolic conditioning workout to get some extra muscle building work in while torching fat. Here’s a quick and dirty one to take on:

The Complex (a Metcon)
Instructions: grab a bar (or dumbbells, if you prefer). Now, without stopping between movements, you’re going to complete everything in the set for the indicated reps. You’ll rest for 2 minutes, and then do it again, each time working the number of reps listed. Notice how the reps go down each set? You’ll need that to happen as you progress through the workout.

Front squat x 8
Overhead Press x 8
Single Leg Deadlift x 8/side
Bent over row x 8

 

No equipment? No space? No problem. I gotchoo, boo. Give this one a go:

The Do-Anywhere HIIT
This high intensity interval workout is easy to remember, simple to learn, and can be done just about anywhere. 

Instructions: set a timer for 30 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest. Alternate between these 2 movements. for a total of between 6 and 8 rounds – 3-4 for each movement. 

Squats (bodyweight or add load for a goblet squat if you have it)
Spider pushups

 
 

What’s your favorite way to HIIT it? Leave a comment and share! 

You need poblano pepper egg boats in your life.

eggs-in-pepper-boats

I eat eggs for breakfast almost every morning. You’d think that would get boring, but I haven’t hit my breaking point yet. My 9 year old is on Team Runny Eggs with me, and is game to try just about any way of eating the mighty egg: poached, scrambled, fried, soft boiled, hard boiled, whipped into oats… you name it. 

Eggs are a rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Plus they taste mighty fine for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I stumbled upon a recipe for poblano pepper egg boats from Jacques Pepin, one of the OGs of fine cooking.

Sup, Jacques? Photo Credit Tim Hopkins

Sup, Jacques? Photo Credit Tim Hopkins

Jacques knows what’s up. His recipes calls for some cooking oil in the water that you use to steam your peppers before you fill them with eggy goodness. This seemed unnecessary to me, especially if I used a nonstick pan. Not that I’m dissing Jacques. But Jacques probably doesn’t give a flying French fry about calories. So I was off to modify this. 

By the way, you can use any large-ish pepper for this. Some people have used big banana peppers, but the ones I always see are so narrow that I figured they’d become a huge mess. Pick the pepper that pleases you.

Scroll down for a printable recipe, or get some how-to help here.

Begin by carefully cutting your peppers horizontally and scrape out the seeds and extra bits.

Begin by carefully cutting your peppers horizontally and scrape out the seeds and extra bits.

Fill a nonstick pan with some water - around 1/3 to 1/2 cup should be enough. Sprinkle in around 1/4 tsp of salt and let your peppers rest in there, cut side up. Heat your pan on medium heat and when it begins to warm up, cover the pan and set a timer for around 4 minutes.

Fill a nonstick pan with some water – around 1/3 to 1/2 cup should be enough. Sprinkle in around 1/4 tsp of salt and let your peppers rest in there, cut side down. Heat your pan on medium heat and when it begins to warm up, cover the pan and set a timer for around 4 minutes.

Jacques said to turn them while cooking, but I pretty much forgot. Oops. I was checking Facebook. They were fine. Whateva. Take the lid off, and you’ll notice that the water evaporated and it looks a little sketchy. Move onward. Your pan will be dirty but your peppers won’t stick.

Fill each pepper half with a tablespoon of cheese. I used 2% colby jack, but I can think of way more luxurious ideas. It's just what was laying around in the fridge. Then carefully crack an egg into each pepper half. If it oozes out a little, it's no biggie. It'll all be wonderful, I promise.

Fill each pepper half with a tablespoon of cheese. I used 2% colby jack, but I can think of way more luxurious ideas. It’s just what was laying around in the fridge.

Then carefully crack an egg into each pepper half. If it oozes out a little, it's no biggie. It'll all be wonderful, I promise.

Then carefully crack an egg into each pepper half. If it oozes out a little, it’s no biggie. It’ll all be wonderful, I promise.

You'll sprinkle a bit more salt on your eggs, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat another 3-5 minutes. 5 was just about right for the acceptable amount of runniness in my eggs. You want the yolks to still be runny but the whites to be white. Otherwise, you'll get "snotty eggs", as my kid calls them. He's so gross.

You’ll sprinkle a bit more salt on your eggs, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat another 3-5 minutes. 5 was just about right for the acceptable amount of runniness in my eggs. You want the yolks to still be runny but the whites to be white. Otherwise, you’ll get “snotty eggs”, as my kid calls them. He’s so gross.

Anyway, when they’re done, all you do is plate them, sprinkle on a little cilantro to be fancy, and eat them up. Enjoy! Serve this with some roasted tomatoes and a little whole grain toast and you’ll be breakfasting like a boss. 

Recipe below! What’s your favorite way to eat eggs? Leave a comment and share. 

 

Poblano Peppers in Egg Boats
Serves 2
A pepper stuffed with cheese and an egg is a healthy way to breakfast.
Write a review
Print
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
10 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
10 min
Ingredients
  1. 1 poblano pepper
  2. 1/3 to 1/2 cup water
  3. 2 Tbsp 2% colby jack cheese
  4. 2 large eggs
  5. 1/4 tsp salt plus a bit more for sprinkling
  6. 1 Tbsp cilantro, chopped
Instructions
  1. Cut pepper in half horizontally, removing seeds.
  2. Add peppers, cut side down, to a nonstick pan. Add water and salt, then heat over medium heat.
  3. When water begins to heat up, cover the pan for approximately 4 minutes, or until pepper is a bit tender.
  4. Uncover pan. Make sure the cut sides are up. Sprinkle cheese into peppers.
  5. Carefully crack eggs into each pepper boat, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and cover pan again.
  6. Cook covered over medium heat for another 3-5 minutes, depending on how runny you like your eggs. Egg yolks should be a little runny but the whites should be set.
  7. Serve and enjoy!
Notes
  1. This recipe serves 2, but I'm not saying you should stop at one half. Eat all the peppers. A pan will accomodate around 4 halves at a time.
Adapted from Jacques Pepin
Adapted from Jacques Pepin
Amy Dix http://amydix.com/

10 delicious ways to give your meals a healthy makeover.

healthy

Think eating healthier means saying sayonara to your favorite flavors? It really doesn’t have to feel like a drag to eat well. Let’s talk about how to make it easier (and yummier) today.

As I changed the way that I eat to lose weight and maintain better overall nutrition, my day-to-day choices began to look much different than they had in the past. It’s not that I never allow myself to have super rich, cheesy, decadent things: but they’re more the exception than the rule. When I do, I enjoy the hell out of them and then get back to the regular scheduled programming.

But I’ve also found myself doing things that I never used to do – making completely painless tweaks to my meals that don’t diminish them at all. In fact, I think many of the changes make for even tastier dishes. Here are 10 biggies to try:

#1. Lighten up on cooking oil.
Even though fat isn’t the enemy, using a lot of it to cook our meals can pack on a bunch of extra calories. So it’s wise to scale back.

I’ve begun using nonstick sprays quite a bit more the last few years. Don’t go crazy spraying your pan – unlike what the label tells you, nonstick sprays aren’t calorie free. Who actually sprays for a quarter of a second? But it’s still a viable tool. Either with a nonstick spray or with a thin veneer of your favorite oil, scale back on how much added fat you use for sauteeing.

I see so many recipes that use a few tablespoons of oil to just help veggies not stick to the pan. I’d rather use that oil in something that I can actually enjoy. A nonstick pan with a little spray can easily shave off significant numbers of calories without us missing any flavor. My caveat to this is that sometimes a sauce actually needs a little fat in it to round out the taste of the dish: I’d rather save that for a small amount of butter added to the end rather than making my food not stick.

#2. Greek yogurt instead of mayo or sour cream.
Yogurt in tuna salad. Yogurt on a potato. Yogurt in your chili. Yogurt on yogurt. It’s high in protein, low in calories, and serves as a perfect stand in for heavier condiments as well as making your morning breakfast bowl more wonderful.

#3. Cereal vs. granola for sprinkling.
This one pains me, because I love the flavor and texture of granola. And it might surprise you to see this one listed. After all, granola has a rep for being wholesome and virtuous. Sure, it has some whole grains and nuts. But it’s also crazy high in calories and has bunch of extra sugar and fat that I’d rather not spend on such a tiny amount of food. Granola is usually a topper for my yogurt. I began switching it out for a little cereal, because the main reason I like it in yogurt is for the crunch.

When I do have it, it’s just a few tablespoons – definitely not an entire bowl. I’ve found a few exceptions – Mamma Chia granola is relatively low on calories and high in nutritional value. I found some at Target recently. It’s definitely not as sweet or decadent as most granola I’ve had, but it’s satisfying.

Grilled bok choy and plums with pork chops is mind blowing and amps up your nutrition too. Nom nom.

Grilled bok choy and plums with pork chops is mind blowing and amps up your nutrition too. Nom nom.

#4. Flip flop your veggie to starch ratios.
A good rule to follow when putting together a dinner plate is to cover half of it with veggies, include a portion of lean protein, a small portion of starchy carbs, and a wee bit of fat.

That’s a great rule: except that becomes tricky to do with many recipes, especially soups, stews, and casseroles. An easy way to make your meal look more like what I described is to just double the amount of veggies in the recipe and halve the amount of starch (especially if the recipe includes a lot of it). 

This makes for a meal where you still get to enjoy your family’s favorite “epic pasta meal” but can usually make it a little less calorie dense. You’ll squeeze in more nutrient-packed vegetables this way too. Win/win. 

Gonna marry this.

Gonna marry this. 

#5. PB2 vs peanut butter.
PB2 was a slowly-burning love affair for me. This is the most popular brand of what’s essentially dehydrated peanut butter. At first I just added it to smoothies. Then to Greek yogurt. Those were my gateways into full PB2 obsession. Now I rehydrate it with a little water and add it to oatmeal, pancakes, or just eat it like peanut butter: with an apple, celery, or on a spoon. It’s so much lower in calories than peanut butter and it’s shockingly good.

#6. Lemon and a drizzle of heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil vs. packaged dressing.
I end up using less dressing this way and my salads actually taste fresher. Try it! Sherry and balsamic vinegars are intensely flavored and make another good sub for lemon. I end up needing very little additional oil. Just enough to help absorb those nutrients in the greens.

#7. Fresh fruit instead of dried in pretty much everything. 
Ugh, I love raisins and dried cherries. But I can get so much fuller from using fresh fruit on way, way fewer calories. Dried fruit is calorically dense, often contains added sugar, and makes me sad when I measure out the tiny 2 TBSP serving. I use it sparingly or as a treat. Most of the time, I’m team #freshfruit.

#8. Bulk up a casserole with plant-based protein.
Mushrooms are extremely low in calories, boost a bit of protein and minerals, and have a meaty texture that plays well as either a stand-in or addition to meat in many meals. They’re also usually easy to find at a low price.

Now that my 3 boys eat enough food to feed a small army, bulking up our casseroles with foods like beans, chickpeas, and mushrooms not only gives them a more diverse source of nutrients in their diet; it also sometimes shaves off calories and saves us money. I don’t mind going totally meatless some days – my kids prefer me adding at least some meat to the dish, so I just do half meat/half plant stuff.

photo credit: the belle vie blog. The autumn turkey burger is kickass, by the way.

photo credit: the belle vie blog. The autumn turkey burger is kickass, by the way.

#9. Turkey brats/Italian sausages/ground turkey or chicken instead of ground pork.
I feel like a traitor, because I’m from Iowa, the pork capitol of the world. I really don’t feel like turkey or chicken is a sacrifice in most of these forms; there are so many insanely yummy sausages out there now too. Turkey and chicken varieties contain less fat and protein than their porky counterparts. My only exception is bacon. Turkey bacon is barely better for you than pork and pork bacon is just too good to swap. Come at me, turkey bacon. 

#10. Smaller corn tortillas or burrito bowls vs. white flour tortillas.
Tacos are life. It’s also Tuesday, so I thought I’d wrap this up with a taco tip. Those tortillas we use to wrap up our yummy fillings can really pack on a ton of not-all-that nutritious calories. Corn torillas are flavorful, smaller, and help control portions.

Sometimes I skip them completely and just serve my filling on top of greens, which shaves off calories and helps me get more servings of veggies into my day. This is one example of a thing I don’t really miss all that much.

Do you have any swaps you use? Share them, pretty please? I’m always up for new cooking hacks. Do me a favor and leave one on my Facebook pageLet’s start a conversation about it. Have a great day!

 

I share my best strategies for using nutrition and fitness to torch fat, get strong, and feel like a million bucks. You can get in on more conversations by signing up for my free newsletter. I’ll send Fat Loss on a Budget right into your inbox right away. Sign up on the form thingy below.

 

 

Want to get stronger? Try these 3 brutally effective variations on lifting classics.

longleverplankThe interesting thing about strength training is that when it’s all said and done, there really aren’t that many movements you need to learn to reach your goals, whether that’s getting stronger, leaner, gaining more muscle, or all of the above. If you can check off the following boxes, you’re in good shape to get cracking with some good work at the gym:

-Squatting movements (like a goblet squat)
-Hinging movements (deadlifts, exercises that emphasize movement from your hips)
-Pushing movements (pushups, bench pressing, overhead pressing, etc.)
-Pulling movements (chin-ups and rows come to mind).
-Core stabilization and rotational power development (planks, chops, crunches, twists, etc.)
-Power movements – to build explosiveness and improve overall strength (think oly lifts, jump squats, plyometrics)

If we focused on improving just one move from each category, we could make quite a bit of progress for quite some time. But that’d get pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that variations on exercises require our bodies to move, build strength and stability, and function better in slightly different ways. That’s where we spice things up with twists on the basics that we’ve come to know and love.

Sometimes we progress a movement because one becomes too easy. I’m going to show you one today. We often also use a variation of a staple to work our muscles differently, to get past a “sticking point” or even to work around an injury. Or sometimes just because it’s fun to change stuff up. Fun is important too, yeah? Read on for ideas:

Progress Your Plank
Once you can hold a plank pretty easily, you’re ready to move up in the world-o-planks. Congrats, it’s time to make them hard again. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve been messing around with long lever planks and even 1 legged long lever planks. They’re tough!

Here’s a demo:

How to do it:
Start by getting into the plank position and walking your feet back so that your elbows are in front of your shoulders instead of in a traditional plank, where you have them stacked under them. Brace those abs like you’re going to get sucker punched and hold there. Try starting with 3 sets of 10-20 seconds and tell me how much you love them.

A Squat You’ll Love-Hate
I think that every beginner would do well to begin with a simple body weight box squat to groove that sitting down and back movement that’s critical for the squat. From there, the sky’s the limit: goblet squats are a good next step, but another overlooked squat that works well not only for beginners but squat pros is the underrated Zercher Squat.

A Zercher squat may feel easier on the lower back than a barbell back squat; it also lets you get low (to the window, to the wall). It requires you to stay pretty upright, a good reminder for those who are new to squatting.

I put them to use for a client who is rehabbing her shoulder and can’t comfortably get into a back squat position. Zerchers feel great to her. Sometimes an injury allows us to discover a brand new way to get strong. Cue the silver lining, eh? 

silverlining

And for those of us who have been squatting for a long while, it’s a great variation to play with to get some extra fun and glute gains on leg day. Oh, and they’re harder to load up than they look. Good grief.

Demo here:

How to do it:
You’re going to cradle that bar in the crook of your elbows. I really like a squat sponge for these, because they’re way more comfortable with the pad. If you don’t have one, try crossing your arms a bit around the bar to feel more secure. Some people deadlift them up from the floor but it seems a heck of a lot easier to me to just start with the bar in a rack at an appropriate height. Get under it a bit, lift it into your arms and walk it out a few steps.

Make Your Barbell Bench Press More Badass
It’s a smart idea to spend training cycles using slight variations of the “big players”: you know, the squat, deadlift, and bench press for starters. The bench press is a staple of the gym (and favorite bro lift of all time). Using variations like pausing at the chest, 1.5 reps, and using dumbbells instead of a barbell will make your bench press stronger over time.

I’m working on the eccentric bench press again this month after a short hiatus from barbell bench press. Holy hell it felt hard this week. Eccentrics will do a lot of muscle damage, which is actually a good thing. They’ll make you muy strong and force you to learn to control the bar better.

Check it:

How to do an eccentric bench press:

I sort of forgot I was doing an eccentric on the first rep. Heh. Progress, not perfection, right?

You’re going to try to lower the bar very, very slowly – take a full 4 seconds. You’ll notice that it’s toughest down near the bottom of the movement. That’s where you’re going to need to control it even more. Lower the weight on these: they’re brutal.

So you want to try these out in a workout?

Of course. So let’s do one today. On Instagram I shared a bonus: a lower body conditioning circuit you can use to give the Zercher squat and long lever plank a whirl. Check that out for butt feels and sweat-inducing fun. You can also put them into a classic full-body strength workout, like the one below.

1. Zercher Squat 4 x 6

2a. Eccentric barbell (or dumbbell) bench press 3 x 6
2b.Band pull aparts 3 x 12

3a. Barbell RDL with 4 second eccentric 3 x 8 (yup, another eccentric variation!)
3b. Chest supported row with a pause at the top 3 x 8

4a. Incline dumbbell bench press 3 x 10
4b. Long lever plank 3 x :15 seconds

Now go flex, and remember to never stop experimenting with movement, both within the gym and outside it. 

Want to get in on more tutorials to make you a lean machine? I share my insider info for fitness and nutrition with my newsletter every week. Join for free and I’ll send my e-book, Fat Loss on a Budget, right into your inbox. 

 

 

Single leg Romanian deadlifts to make you awesome sauce.

single leg RDLIt happens every so often, and it may happen even more often if my coach reads this: I get single leg Romanian deadlifts put into my program. I used to cringe when I saw Bulgarian split squats, but I have made my peace with the Bulgarians and their exercises. I actually enjoy them now.

heartbulgaria

But the Romanians… oh, you Eastern bloc countries, with your strength prowess. You make me work harder. And you make me better, which is why I continue to do the Romanian deadlift as well as a variation, the single leg Romanian deadlift. But they’re still tough.

The single leg Romanian deadlift in particular gives me a run for my money every time I work on it. My old hip injury might shed light on that: this exercise demands (and builds) hip stability like crazy. It also builds strength and stability through the entire posterior chain. That’s your backside, FYI. You know, your butt, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, your back. It also requires your abs to help you maintain core control. Those are all good things to improve: so every time I begin doing single leg RDLs again, I remember that I should probably be doing more of them.

Here’s the lowdown on the single leg deadlift: what it is, how to do it, and when to use it in your workouts. Read on:

Basics first: what’s a single leg deadlift?  
A single leg deadlift is a basic hinging movement that requires mastering strength, balance, flexibility, and overall control of your body. That’s a lot, isn’t it? For this reason, I like to have beginners start by just using their own bodyweight to practice.

Deadlifts in nature: I’m mostly thinking “omg it’s so hot. Why am I wearing pants?”

Why to use them:
Single leg Romanian deadlifts build strength in the butt and hamstrings, though I don’t use them as a main strength move in workouts. For building brute strength and muscle mass, I still rely on the “big” players like squats, conventional and sumo deadlifts, as well as hip thrusts and 2-legged Romanian deadlifts. The lack of stability one on leg makes it tough to add a huge amount of weight to the single leg variation – but that’s exactly why you should do these as an accessory exercise.

They do a bang up job of building single leg stability, core control, flexibility, and still give you extra volume to work your muscles. I also use them in metabolic conditioning.

When to do them:
I put them near the end of strength workouts, typically with 3 sets of 8-12 per leg.  I also like doing the movement slowly with just my bodyweight as a glute activator.

How to do one:
You’ll start by thinking about your hips shifting back as you elevate one leg while your torso shifts forward.

Tips for getting off to a great start:

  • If you think about bending forward instead of reaching your leg back, you’re more likely to round your back and you’ll never get that beautiful hip hinge you’re aiming for. Instead, think of your body as a teeter totter and your working leg as the axis. If you focus mostly on making that elevated leg really long, you’ll have an easier time getting the movement down.
  • People move farther down than they need to: work on getting that lifting leg elevated toward the sky instead of worrying about your working arm reaching the floor. You want a big stretch on the back of your planted leg.
  • Locking the knee: it’s no bueno. Instead, think about keeping your knee just a little “soft”.
  • Try to keep your hips as square with the ground as you can. While doing this movement, it’s easy for the hip on your lifting leg to open up too much.
  • Gaze at the floor about 10 feet in front of you – if you crane your neck up to see yourself in the mirror, it tends to throw off your back alignment and makes it tougher to get down into the position.

Balance bonus – if you have a tough time holding your footing, a few things may help you out:
1. Don’t be afraid to lightly drag your foot for a few moments as you extend it behind you. This gives you a little extra contact time with the ground that goes a long way in helping you learn to balance.

2. When you begin the movement, lightly brace your abs and try to maintain stiffness through your torso. A more active core makes it easier to stabilize your body.

3. If you have squishy shoes, consider taking them off and doing this exercise barefooted – or put on a very flat, stiff-soled shoe like some Chucks.

4. One balancing trick that really helps me is digging my big toe of my working leg into the floor. It also seems to help me avoid opening up at my hip too much.

Once you’ve mastered the basic move, load ‘er up. Give one of these variations a try:

  1. Hold one or two kettlebells:

    I like the challenge of holding only one kettlebell, as it makes for feeling a bit more of an unbalanced load and makes me think about my core stability more. Grip it hard. I picked up this trick from Tony Gentilcore, who explains that a tight grip gets your rotator cuff firing and puts your shoulder into a better position as you move. Your shoulder will be less likely to creep forward.

  1. Barbell single leg deadlift:

    Sometimes I don’t have access to heavy enough kettlebells or dumbbells to do my deadlifts. So a barbell variation does the job.

    3. Landmine single leg deadlift:

    I had this crazy fantasy that the landmine variation would rock my world because  the bar would be less annoying to hold onto than a heavy dumbbell. While a big dumbbell or kettlebell is less stable than a barbell, try holding onto the end of an Olympic bar with a small hand: it’s a huge grip challenge! My grip strength is only slightly above grandma level, so I’ll be doing more of these.

If you don’t have a slick landmine holder set up in your gym, just do what people have been doing for eons: shove it into a corner of the room or into the corner of a rack like I did. Some people like to use the center hole of a 45 pound plate too.

Other ideas for your single leg deadlifting pleasure:
1. 1.5 rep single leg Romanian deadlifts –
move to the bottom of your pattern, come up partway, back to the bottom, then all the way back up. That’s one rep. 
2. Eccentric single leg Romanian deadlifts –
take a full 4 seconds to lower yourself down into the bottom of your position. 
3. Combo moves for metcon –
try doing a rep of a single leg deadlift and then following it with a lunge. Do all your reps on one side, and then switch. Your legs and heart will be talking to you. 

What’s your favorite way to do single leg RDLs? Leave a comment below and share! 

Psst – if you want workouts to use the moves I talked about, I share them on the regular with my insider newsletter subscribers. Sign up for free below – I’ll hook you up with a copy of Fat Loss on a Budget too. 

 

Stop Burning Calories.

Photo credit: Sara via Flickr

Photo credit: Sara via Flickr

Stop burning calories.

Ok, so maybe I’m being dramatic.  I want you to burn calories, because that means you’re moving your body and doing physical work. But when we look at our workouts primarily as opportunities to burn calories, it’s usually for a few reasons that may actually get in the way of your progress toward worthwhile goals. 

1. You think about burning calories so that you can “earn back your food”. First of all, you can easily eat back the calories you burned in less than a minute depending on what you choose to eat. Especially when we use tracking tools like Myfitnesspal or treadmill computers, we often overestimate how many calories we’re actually burning and then end up overeating. 

photo credit: dogs.about.com

photo credit: dogs.about.com

2. It sets you up to have a bad relationship with exercise, if you’re just working out to get to eat more. Someone once remarked “you’re not a dog dancing for treats.” That really stuck with me. We may exercise to change our bodies – it might be the shape of them, or how they function, or how exercise makes us feel emotionally. Those are all great reasons to hit the gym. And yes, calorie expenditure is a bonus effect because we really can eat more food and maintain or lose weight more easily when we’re active. Yet if we begin to feel guilty about eating unless we’ve done a killer workout, it can become less pleasurable to work out. 

3. Some of the activities that will improve your body composition goals the most aren’t actually the ones that burn the most calories during your workout. Yeah, running moderately for an hour will burn a bunch of calories while you’re running. But after you stop, your body doesn’t take long to get back to its starting point. By contrast, when you lift weights, you will burn relatively few calories while you’re actually lifting, but because you’re using so many big muscle groups and doing really intense work, your body has to work harder afterwards to pay back the oxygen debt you created.

 

This effect is called EPOC, or exercise post oxygen consumption. What it means for you is that your metabolism will be revved up more for several hours after you do a strength workout or do an intense metabolic session. And yes, your body will burn some extra calories from that.

You may miss out on other benefits of exercise.

 
I’d also say that while easy walks may not burn a lot of calories, they do tremendous things for your overall health and stress level. Walking is an extremely underrated recovery tool for those who often do intense exercise. Yet I used to ignore walking because I thought it was a waste of time. Go walk it out. 
 

4. Still thinking about burning calories? Packing on more muscle means your body is burning more calories all the time to fuel that muscle. That’s another win for lifting if you’re trying to change your physique while getting to eat a bit more food.

So all in all, what I’m saying is this: lift weights because it’s great for your metabolism, your bones, your overall health, and will make you feel and look like a badass. Do cardio-based activities because they’re good for your body too. But don’t work out only because you burn calories to earn your supper. Does anyone say supper anymore? Let’s bring that back.

And finally, if you’re trying to lose body fat, start with your nutrition. If that’s not on point, no amount of exercise is going to overcome it.

Want more help with nailing down your nutrition and fitness? Get my free newsletter delivered to your inbox on the regular: you’ll get workouts, insider info on how to lose fat, build muscle, and get crazy strong. Just fill out the form thingy below. 

 

How and Why to Choose a Protein Powder

The importance of getting more protein in our diet seems to have hit the mainstream hard this year: has anyone else noticed the explosion of protein-enhanced products on supermarket shelves this year? Some of them make me cringe a bit. Just like it’s a better choice for you to eat an apple instead of a Fiber One bar if you’re trying to increase your fiber intake, I’d much rather people get their protein from whole food sources like lean meats, eggs, dairy, and legumes than cereal labeled “Protein Fruity-O’s!”

Why? Those things aren’t inherently evil, but they contain a bunch of other ingredients that you probably don’t need. The apple has vitamins and minerals and lacks some funky additives that your body might not actually digest all that well from that fiber bar (like chicory root, for example. It does a number on my stomach.) 

The American recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is actually fairly low. But keep in mind that those guidelines are to maintain a baseline of overall health. If you want to maximize your potential for things like burning fat, building muscle, and enhancing your performance, you’ll need to eat more than that. I won’t delve into the intricacies of how much you should eat for today, though aiming for daily grams that equal roughly your target body weight is a good start.

Instead, I want to talk about what most of my clients face when they begin to increase their protein intake: it’s pretty tricky at first. Over time, you learn to choose meals that are naturally higher in protein to meet your goal. But often, many of us are either too busy to prepare all of our meals and snacks at home or we just want to change things up.

As it turns out, protein powders are one of the few added supplements that are an excellent boost to your intake. I don’t really think of them as a supplement so much as a highly concentrated food. For example, the whey in your dairy products gets filtered out and micronized into powder form to be used in whey protein powders. But when you go to your local vitamin shop, supermarket, or look online, the varieties available can feel incredibly overwhelming.

proteinpowders

Not only are there countless brands to choose from; there are all sorts of proteins available; whey, egg white, casein; plant based solutions like hemp, rice, and pea powders; grass-fed beef and even cricket. Yeah, for real, cricket. (I can’t quite get past the idea of the last one but hey, to each her own.)

So what kind of protein supplement should I choose?
My short answer is the one that you can afford that also tastes good to you and aligns with your overall nutrition needs. If you’re a vegan, my recommendation to try an animal-based protein isn’t going to do much for you.

My long answer is that if you want to really get into the nitty gritty of how the body uses protein, we have to understand the idea of bio-availability. That just means that your body can use more or less of the protein in different kinds of foods. Dairy and egg based protein sources are the most highly bio-available of any protein source; soy protein is also quite high; other plant-based sources are often lower.

photo credit: critical bench

photo credit: critical bench

But does that mean we should do nothing but guzzle milkshakes? Nope nope nope. The amino acids that protein sources contain are important – they’re the building blocks for everything that your body does. But food also contains a host of other nutrients that your body needs, so slurping nothing but smoothies might be delicious but you’d miss out on quite a few other vitamins and minerals. I’m pretty sure it would get boring really quickly, too. So keep in mind that your supplement should probably only serve as one snack or meal out of your day. Put in the context of your overall diet, the type of protein powder you choose probably matters less than we think .

But whey is still my first pick… here’s why:
Aside from whey having a very high bio-availability score, in the sea of protein powders, you can find high quality whey protein inexpensively. I look for protein supplements that don’t contain a ton of extra fillers and ingredients that add fat and calories. If I want extra calories, I would rather add them back in with tasty whole foods. You’ll find whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolyzed isolate in the whey protein market.

gainz

gainz

All whey powders go through a filtering process that removes most of the carb, fat, and lactose from unprocessed whey. Both concentrates and isolates are high in their protein content, though isolate is higher. Concentrate has more lactose, so if dairy makes your belly hurt, you might choose an isolate. Hydrolyzed isolates further break down the isolate through processing and are easier to digest. Personally, I don’t like the taste of the hydrolyzed isolates I’ve tasted. They’re also more expensive than other forms of whey protein.

anabolicmeme

Whatever form you choose of whey, your body quickly digests it, making it a good source of post-workout protein. The idea of an “anabolic window”, i.e., of having only a short time to take advantage to muscle-repairing protein, has been reconsidered. You can chill out and don’t need to choose a particular form of supplement purely based on rate of absorption.

Getting some recovery fuel into your body within an hour or so after your workout will aid your gainz and help you feel better. The only people who really need to examine nutrient timing more closely are athletes – endurance athletes in particular need to make sure they’re fueling their work with sufficient nutrition. 

sciencepepsi

I’m intrigued as well by a recent study shared at the April meeting of the Endocrine Society too: researchers found that obese subjects with Type 2 diabetes felt much fuller after a breakfast containing whey protein than other high-protein breakfasts. They also experienced fewer spikes in their glucose levels thoughout the day. Of course this is just one study and its worth will emerge more in the context of more studies. But it’s one that I’m keeping my eye on 1

For those with dairy allergy, an egg white protein powder would be my first pick. It has a high score for bio-availability and is a “complete protein”, meaning it contains all the amino acids your body needs to function well. It may sound funky, but I’ve sampled several and they don’t taste eggy at all. Vegans might take a look at supplements containing pea protein, which is easily digested and contains several, though not all of the amino acids your body needs. It digests more slowly than whey protein, but like slow digesting casein, this might be a bonus for staying full longer.  Hemp protein contains a good dose of fiber and is also easily digested. All in all, if you’re shying away from animal-based protein supplements, a vegan supplement with a blend of plant-based protein might be your best bet to try.

Brands
Some companies have been caught spiking their supplements with non-protein sources to increase the overall nitrogen content of the powder. When tested, they appear to contain more protein than they actually do, because carbs and fats, unlike protein, don’t contain nitrogen. If you’re eating a well balanced diet, this isn’t a make or break scenario. However, as a business practice I think it stinks. So before you heavily invest in a brand, spend a few minutes on Google to learn a bit about the reputation of the company.

Everyone’s budget and tastes are unique; I’ve read glowing reviews of certain powders only to find that I could barely stand ingesting them. When you can, start with a sample or the smallest size available. I’ve consistently had good luck with companies like True Nutrition, Optimum Nutrition, and Cellucor. For vegan protein powders, I loathed many of them but found that Vega Sport tastes excellent, to me at least.

Some people prefer unsweetened protein powders for their versatility and lack of artificial sweeteners. Sometimes I just want to mix powder with water and ice and go, so flavored protein is a bonus in my book. Vanilla is versatile, works in lots of different recipes, and is often less cloying than other varieties. I also try to choose brands that use stevia as a sweetener because it tastes less fake and funky to me.

How to Eat/Drink Protein Powders

I’ve had a few that tasted great enough by themselves to just shake up in a blender bottle with some water, add ice, and go. If you have to bring one to work and want to minimize extra calories, this is, of course, a fine option. However, if you have a bit of extra time, making a smoothie with some kind of milk, fruit, and vegetables is an easy way to amp up both flavor and nutrient content.

I’ve also used protein powder in place of part of my flour in pancake recipes. This works surprisingly well as long as I don’t make the powder ratio too high. Mug cakes have historically ranged from cake disappointments to epic disasters. A half scoop melts seamlessly into my overnight oats, and a small amount added to Greek yogurt along with a bit of fruit is surprisingly tasty. If I throw that concoction into the freezer for 15 minutes I can almost convince myself it is ice cream. Except not completely, because I’m no chump. Have a small bowl of ice cream if you really want some, but it makes a very yummy and healthy snack.

In general, I avoid using protein powders to make a lot of healthified “Frankendesserts” and instead just enjoy it for what it is: an easy, inexpensive, and tasty way to boost my protein intake when I need it. Here are two summer smoothie recipes I made this week. The calorie and macro profiles will change a bit depending on the type and brand of supplement you use, but you’ll have a basic idea.

strawberrysmoothie

Strawberry Cheesecake Protein Smoothie
Serves 1

Note: I made this for breakfast, and it makes a gigantic shake. Halve the recipe for a snack if it’s too much food for you.

Ingredients:
½ cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
¾ cup vanilla cashew milk (or milk of your choice. It’s what I had on hand.)
½ cup 1% cottage cheese
2 Tbsp Greek yogurt cream cheese spread (I use Green Mountain. Lowfat cream cheese would work too.)
1 scoop strawberry or vanilla protein powder (I had a sample of Quest strawberry whey-casein blend, which whips up like crazy from the casein. Vanilla is just as good here.)
5-6 ice cubes
½ graham cracker sheet
Optional: grated lemon zest and a packet of stevia. My berries were ripe and my protein was sweet, so I skipped the extra sweetener. The zest is optional but adds a nice something something to this shake.)

Directions:
Whirl everything except for the cracker in a blender. Top your smoothie with a crumbled cracker, and marvel at how cheesecakey it actually is.  

Nutrition:
Calories: 314|Protein: 40g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 28g|Fiber: 3g|Sugars: 18g

Full disclosure- this photo was from a kale smoothie, but all green smoothies look pretty much the same!

Full disclosure- this photo was from a kale smoothie, but all green smoothies look pretty much the same!

Big Green Smoothie
Serves 1
Note: adding spinach or kale to protein shakes is a very quick way to get more leafy greens into your diet. Coupled with fruit and flavored protein powder, you won’t taste the “green stuff”. I swap out fruits in this smoothie, but usually leave in some banana – it adds extra sweetness. Use frozen fruit to make this shake thicker and creamier. 

Ingredients:

1/2 frozen, medium banana, preferably frozen
1/2 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup spinach
1 packet stevia
1/2 Tbsp chia seeds (for healthy fats)
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
1 scoop of  vanilla protein powder (I used True Nutrition vanilla whey isolate)
5-6 ice cubes if not using frozen fruit

Instructions:
Blend it all up, and enjoy!

Nutrition:
Calories: 296|Protein: 36g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 29g|Fiber: 7g|Sugars: 14g

I hope this demystified choosing some powda for you. If you already use a protein supplement, what are your favorites and how do you use them? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear your ideas. 

Want more ideas for getting strong, torching fat, and feeling amazing? My free insider newsletter delivers exclusive content to your inbox on the regular. Just fill out the form below and I’ll send you my book, Fat Loss on a Budget, right away. 

 

 

Notes:

  1. The Endocrine Society. “Large whey protein breakfast may help manage type 2 diabetes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2016.

Strength and Nutrition Coaching to Help You Find Your Fit