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Everything You Know About Breakfast Is Wrong

You’re wrong about breakfast. And so is everyone else. Despite years of hype, two new studies point to a startling conclusion: skipping breakfast doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. Nor does eating breakfast boost your metabolism, suppress appetite, or reduce overeating later in the day. But it still might be one of the most important meals of the day (more on that later).

“Our findings are a bit of a reality check,” said nutritionist Emily Dhurandhar, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), lead author of one of the studies. “It’s a broader question we’re trying to answer. As a message interpreted by the general public, just recommending people eat breakfast is not sufficient.”

While years of observational research have shown associations between eating breakfast and being leaner, none of the studies reach the gold-standard level of evidence of showing causation—randomized controlled trials—to show that breakfast was indeed responsible for weight loss, says James O. Hill, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, and co-author on Dhurandhar’s study.

At last, gold-standard research on breakfast has arrived. And the findings subvert years of nutritional advice while highlighting one often underestimated and under-hyped benefit of the morning meal. Dhurandhar’s trial randomized 309 overweight or obese adults who were given healthy eating advice to two groups. One group ate breakfast and the other skipped. Both groups lost a little weight, but there was no greater weight loss in the breakfast eaters as compared to the skippers. The researchers are careful to note that the study was not a controlled feeding trial and the subjects were not told what to eat at breakfast.

Another smaller study, led by James Betts, a senior lecturer in nutrition from the University of Bath, randomized 33 lean adults to either eat or skip breakfast for six weeks. The study found no appreciable difference in metabolic or cardiovascular health markers. “It is commonly stated that breakfast kick-starts metabolism and/or reduces snacking, etc. We saw little or no evidence of these things,” Betts said.

Insofar as testing has gone, the evidence hasn’t boded well for breakfast. But it wasn’t all bad news, Betts said. His study was also one of the first to measure how a feeding pattern influenced physical activity levels throughout the day using combined heart rate and accelerometry (think: sophisticated wearable tech, not just pedometers).

Betts sums up the results: “Specifically, the breakfast group was much more physically active than the fasting group, with significant differences particularly noted during light-intensity activities during the morning.”

In this case, this was causal evidence (not just correlation) that breakfast gets people moving—good reason to keep enjoying the most important meal of the day.

Our near-sacred regard for “don’t skip breakfast” is one of the most fundamental but oversold nutritional guidelines, and as we’re now discovering, there are plenty of other flawed recommendations in the nutrition world. So the problem isn’t with breakfast. It’s with a failure of skepticism, says the study’s senior investigator whose previous work began the attack on the conventional thinking, David Allison, director of UAB’s Nutrition Obesity Research Center.

“This goes back to the idea that we need to be more skeptical—we as scientists, as journalists, we as public health officials,” Allison said. “These platitudes sound good. You tend to believe them, but some might not be true.”

The perpetuation of pro-breakfast bias could be said to come in part by lobbying and funding of research by food companies keen on selling breakfast cereals and packaged breakfast foods. But diet myths are also often spread through shoddy reporting and writing. And they frequently come from public figures at the intersection of health and pop-culture. Take this line from the polarizing celebrity surgeon Dr. Oz. His site reads, “The fact is, when you’re trying to lose body fat, you can’t skip breakfast…” and “Boost your metabolic rate by 25%.”

Don’t trust Dr. Oz? How about this line from the Mayo Clinic’s site, “In fact, skipping breakfast actually increases your risk of obesity” or this quote from a researcher on Yahoo! Health, “Skipping breakfast may lead to one or more risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which may in turn lead to a heart attack over time.”

Not only is the Internet rife with this kind of language, but so too is the scientific literature, Allison points out. And it’s not always in research that has received food industry funding, he says. There’s what he calls “white hat bias” largely found in observational or short-term trials that also suggest breakfast produces beneficial effects on metabolism and satiety. But, once again, these types of studies cannot demonstrate causation. These limitations are rarely addressed in the research or in the media hype. Plus, not all breakfasts should be considered equal; the timing and nutritional content (think: sugary cereal versus eggs) are both key.

“It’s tempting to assume that if something shows promise in a short-term study, or if it has some aspect on insulin or fat metabolism, that we can extrapolate from these. But I think that it’s important that we test these things,” Dhurandhar said.

If there’s one underlying message these researchers are giving, it’s just this: beware oft-repeated diet advice not rooted in evidence. Additional vague platitudes that perhaps deserve equal attention are “eat everything in moderation” and “eat only when you’re hungry.”

As made clear with the rigorously designed tests on breakfast, our presumptions don’t always hold true. But breakfast now has one new thing going for it: increasing physical activity.

“Whether or not you have breakfast can dictate how much activity you engage in, which directly impacts energy balance but also holds implications for health via the independent benefits of living a more active lifestyle,” Betts said.

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Sunscreen On a Plate

Summer may seem like the best season for your skin. But under that well-tanned surface, the sun is actually wreaking havoc on your cells.

“When you leave lettuce in the sun too long, it wilts and turns brown because the light is causing oxidative damage. This is similar to your skin exposed to sunlight,” says Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., who researches antioxidants at Tufts University. On your skin, the damage manifests in the short term as a red-hot sunburn, but long-term, it can cause cancer.

And while sunscreen helps prevent the light from penetrating, what comes to the rescue once free radicals have taken over? The hero has to come from your plate in the form of antioxidants—like vitamin C, E and beta-carotene—which block free radicals from causing more damage. “Antioxidants float through your blood and amass in tissues, including the skin,” she says. This means when the sun damages your cells, antioxidants are already on the front line to battle damage.

Plus phytochemicals—a nutrient group that includes antioxidants—may ramp up your body’s natural protection systems against cancer-causing damage, adds Karen Collins, registered dietitian, Nutrition Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. In fact, a 2010 study from Tel Aviv University found that participants who follow diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, like that in the Mediterranean region where melanoma rates are extremely low, have lower incidences of skin cancer.

One of the best foods for protection? Tomatoes. A new British study found that people who ate ¼ cup of tomato paste—which offers high levels of the nutrient lycopene—for two weeks saw less oxidative damage. And a 2012 UK study found women who eat a tomato-heavy diet have 33 percent more protection against UV exposure than those who skip the fruit.

But since nutrients all have different functions and interactions, it’s important to eat all colors of the rainbow. “Many phytochemicals manifest as pigments, so eating fruits and vegetables of all colors guarantees that you’re diversifying your nutrient intake and better fortifying your skin,” says Johnson.

The best skin protectors include dark leafy greens, beta-carotene-rich carrots and cantaloupe, and polyphenol-packed berries and citrus fruit. And skip supplements in favor of whole foods. Most phytochemicals are bioactive, meaning they’re most effective coming from whole foods, and the high doses of most supplements can be harmful to your health.

Protection doesn’t occur overnight, Collins adds. In fact, most studies supporting nutrition’s benefit on sunburns or cancer prevention don’t see results until participants have been eating the food for at least 8 weeks, she adds.

Most importantly, there is no better protection against developing skin cancer than limiting your exposure to UV light, Collins adds. And, while a nutrient-rich diet can help fortify your cells, slathering on sunscreen as well will give your skin the best chances to stay healthy.

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10 Timeless Fitness Laws

In the not-so-distant past, your food grew on a farm. Meals were home-cooked (on an actual fire, in an actual stove). The outdoors was your gym. Watches? They tracked time, not activity. Blue light, texting neck, and the masses getting supersized by McDonald’s were issues for a future generation.

Yet somewhere along the way, conventional wisdom got muddled with modern mechanisms. And the results weren’t pretty. We became much more sedentary and got fatter. And slower. And weaker (seriously). At the table, our food began to look less and less like it ever came from the ground.

“Western society is the most overfed but malnourished, sick society due to the imbalance of physical activity and real nourishment, says Stacy Sims, MSc, Ph.D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. “The body is designed to move all the time and use food that supports health, not quick hits of ‘feel good’ sugar and fat.”

So how do we go back? By homing in on the fundamentals and returning to the principles that have stood the test of time. Here, 10 laws of fitness your grandfather would approve of.

#1: Perfect the Pushup

When Charles Atlas promised the men of America that he’d transform them from weaklings into masses of muscle, the fitness industry was forever changed. But “Dynamic Tension”—for all its faults—also had its strengths. It was a program based on the basics: bodyweight. As the legend goes, Atlas studied lions, noticing that animals had no exercise equipment. They had no gyms. Instead, they pitted one muscle against another. And dropping down and giving 10—or 20 or 50—should still have its place in your routine. “With proper form, your pushups and pull-ups are still the best exercises you can do. They engage your core with a functional push-pull action,” says Sims.

#2: Do It Right—or Stop Doing It

Focus on form. If your technique is all wrong, you might be doing more harm than good. Why? Misalignment means the biomechanics of movement are out of whack.  The result: increased stress in different joints and potential muscle imbalances—the perfect setup for overuse, chronic pain, and injury, Sims says.

But mastering the “how to” isn’t all about taking preventative measures. “The other aspect of proper form is that you end up using the smaller, stabilizing muscles giving you core stability for daily movement,” Sims explains. And if you’re engaging your muscles all day—with good posture (yes, you really should pull your shoulders back), or by perfecting a pushup—you’re building core strength without realizing it. Slouched over, resting on your elbows, back twisted? It should be no surprise that you make grandpa noises when getting up from your chair.

#3: Drink, Baby, Drink

Athletes have been around far longer than Gatorade and the new class of beverages strewn across supermarket shelves (ones that promise to replenish, hydrate, and boost performance). And when a run was no more than a run, athletes didn’t swear by high-concentration sugary liquids.

When a workout isn’t long enough or intense enough to result in severe fatigue, plain old water works, says Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist, and author of the book Diet Cults. “In fact, it's not necessary to drink anything in most workouts lasting less than an hour,” he adds. That’s not to say that drink scientists aren’t onto something: “You need a small amount of sodium to actually pull water into the body,” says Sims. That’s why low-concentration approaches (Nuun, SOS, and Sims’ OSMO) have become popular.

#4: Eat a Quality Breakfast

Rising with the sun means more hours to move and more hours to eat well. “One of the overlooked benefits of eating breakfast is that it provides an early and additional opportunity to make progress toward meeting daily quotas for high-quality food types such as vegetables and fruit,” says Fitzgerald.

It’s not hard to start knocking out nutritional requirements before your day begins either—one serving of vegetables or fresh berries added to whole-grain cereal—can make all the difference, says Fitzgerald.

Just remember composition, says Sims. A croissant and a coffee won’t cut it: “You wake up with high levels of cortisol (the belly fat hormone), and adding sugar and caffeine will perpetuate cortisol’s actions,” she says.

#5: Repeat After Us (One More Time): I Will Eat Real Food

You won’t find the recipe for a healthy diet on the back of a package. Change the way a food naturally exists, and you change the way your body absorbs it. “There is a disconnect between the marketing claims of pre-packaged food and real food made from scratch. And food can’t just be reduced to single compounds,” says says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs.

To that extent, Fitzgerald has spent time analyzing world-class endurance athletes—a group as fit and healthy as any population on earth—finding a simple trend: “what I call ‘agnostic healthy eating,’” he says. What that means: eating in culturally normal ways, but not avoiding food groups entirely; filling meals with vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and high-quality meat, whole grains, and dairy; and only sparingly eating low-quality refined grains, processed meat, and sweets. “If this formula is good enough for athletes who place tremendous demands on their bodies, it's good enough for us,” he says.

#6: Feel Your Way to Faster

The most sophisticated and reliable fitness monitoring device that exists—or will ever exist—isn’t a device at all: it’s your brain, says Fitzgerald. “If your body needs rest, your brain will communicate that to your conscious awareness in the form of feelings of fatigue and low motivation,” he explains. The symptom: a greater perceived effort: “If the body is fatigued or if its performance capacity is compromised, the brain will have to work harder to get the same level of output, and the greater the effort the exerciser will perceive.”

On the other hand? If your body is responding well to your training and is ready for more hard work, your brain will let you know that too in no uncertain terms, Fitzgerald says.

#7: Lighten Up and Have Some Fun

“The more you enjoy your training, the more you'll put into it,” says Fitzgerald. “And the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.” The research agrees: Your best efforts will likely come when you’re having the most fun, a 2012 study by Alan St. Clair Gibson of the University of Worcester found. Find something you like and the addiction will come naturally: “Research indicates that the association of ‘fun’ with things you do perpetuates stress release, making you want to go back for more,” says Sims.

#8: Recover. No, Really: RECOVER.

One of the problems with the evolution of cross-training is that you can go hard every day. The problem: That’s not what your body needs. The key is finding an easy-hard cycle you can give into, says Michael Joyner, M.D., and physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “People have forgotten to make the hard days harder and the easy days easier.” Think in terms of “active rest”—a 3- or 4-mile run for a distance runner, calisthenics, jumping rope, or classic conditioning drills, Joyner says. “That’s really important.”

#9: It's Not All About the Bike, the Shoes, or the Compression Underwear

Aerodynamics, biomechanics, breathability—they’re words that get a lot of ink (on labels, in magazines, and in the scripts of gear salespeople across the world). And yeah, tech has its perks. Breathable fabrics make long and hot hikes more bearable. But will your gear always make the difference?

A recent University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found only 14 percent of runners who laced up in lightweight kicks reported injury in a year’s time; almost half of runners in traditional sneakers did. So plus one for minimalism? Not so fast. The same University of North Carolina research revealed that people who chose traditional shoes landed differently from those who donned the minimalist shoes (on their heel or mid-foot versus on their forefoot).

The point: Everyone is different. And gear that works is subjective. “Good gear makes things more enjoyable, and most importantly prevents injury,” says Sims. So don’t skimp on no-brainers: proper bike fit, shoes, and protective items—but don’t become slaves to them.

#10: Never Stop Moving

Take this in the most expansive and philosophical way: Build movement into all aspects of your life—work, home, play—and throughout your life. You name the disease and exercise is the cure. “It’s proven to reduce the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, sexual dysfunction, and a host of infectious diseases,” says Fitzgerald. Work out, and not only will you be healthier, but happier, more confident, and (bonus!) smarter, Fitzgerald adds.

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