*Reprinted with the kind courtesy of FLEX Magazine (January 2009)
Article by Jordana Brown. Photography by Pavel Ythjall.
You know you’re a true flex disciple when you find yourself casting a wary eye at any food that wasn’t made in your own kitchen. Diet is such an important part of molding your physique that any extra hidden fat or carbs on the wrong days could throw you off track. Yes, flank steak has a permanent spot in your diet, but not when it’s topped with onions and mushrooms that have been sautéed in butter.
You know to be suspicious of restaurant food, the potluck at the office and possibly even Mom’s Sunday dinner – but what about that loaf of whole-wheat bread that’s currently sitting on your kitchen counter? Just like Mom’s brisket, it wasn’t made in your own kitchen, but most of us throw a couple of slices in the toaster for breakfast or a preworkout slow-digesting carb boost.
In fact, there could be any number of ingredients hiding in that loaf, or in any of the other myriad processed foods that you’re storing on your kitchen shelves. Most people don’t worry too much about what’s entering their mouths and bloodstreams, but we know you do, which is why it’s important for you to understand some of the things that are hidden in mass-produced foods that can hurt your muscle-building ambitions.
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Although you may be following a clean diet, HFCS is present in many foods and can lead to a rapid elevation of insulin levels.
Have you seen the commercials lately? The Corn Refiners Association is running a series of ads extolling the virtues of high-fructose corn syrup. Did you know that it’s "made from corn, has the same number of calories as sugar and, like sugar, is fine in moderation?" Although the folks with all their money sunk into corn futures desperately want you to believe this, we’re just not convinced.
It’s true that HFCS and table sugar are composed of the same two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Table sugar is half glucose and half fructose; the ration in HFCS is most often around 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The bigger difference, though, is that in sugar, the glucose and fructose are chemically bonded, and upon consumption, your body must break that bond before absorption can occur.
HFCS, on the other hand, is essentially predigested sugar – the glucose and fructose are not bonded. All this talk about chemistry is significant because, although both sugar and HFCS act fast on insulin levels, it is very likely that HFCS elevates insulin levels more quickly due to the fact that it requires one less step to be digested (it doesn’t have to wait for enzymes to break bonds between glucose and fructose) before entering your bloodstream.
There have also been allegations that HFCS can affect feelings of satiety, and that those constant feelings of hunger associated with consumption of HFCS might, in turn, be responsible for this country’s obesity problems. However, there have been several studies that have not found any relationship between feelings of satiety and HFCS. Our best guess is that science just hasn’t found the smoking gun yet. However, nothing that is as highly processed as HFCS can be good for the human body in the quantities in which the average person downs it. Our best advice to you is to limit HFCS consumption. Although eating HFCS’s in moderation is an admirable goal, it’s a difficult one to achieve. In case you haven’t noticed, HFCS has almost entirely replaced sugar as the sweetener of choice. It’s in everything from juices to bread, ketchup to lunch meat. Even when following a clean diet, eating some instant oatmeal for breakfast, having a sandwich on whole-wheat bread and putting some ranch dressing on your chicken breast can fill you with HFCS. The best means of avoiding it is by being hypervigilant: read ingredient lists on all the foods you buy and look for organic alternatives when possible.
Trans fats can add fat to your body and decrease amino acid uptake, and we’re not just buttering you up.
If HFCS is a triumph of modern food science, trans fat is a casualty of "modern" nutrition. In the 1970s, nutritionists concluded that because fat contains more calories per gram than any other nutrient, it must be the cause of the dawning obesity epidemic. But besides leading thousands of nutritionists to offer deleterious advice to thousands of clients, the low-fat diet craze also sparked the propagation of one of the most malicious compounds ever to appear on supermarket shelves.
A product of the vegetable oil companies’ misguided attempts to marry their product’s healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats with butter’s solidity and spreadability, trans fats are created when hydrogen molecules are added to oil.
When low-fat diets took off (a trend that has yet to truly die), people fled butter while flocking to margarine. But we now know that trans fats are dangerous. Not only do they contribute to heart disease, diabetes and liver damage, but they also can obscure muscle in at least two ways.
The first thing trans fats do is (no surprise) make you fat. A study published in the July 2007 issue of the journal Obesity fed one group of monkeys a diet that contained trans fats and another group a diet that contained healthy fats. Both groups’ diets were calorie controlled, so that neither group should have gained weight. Yet, the healthy fat group increased in bodyweight by about 2%, while the trans fat group increased by over 7%, with a large percentage of that weight going straight to their bellies.
In addition to just hiding your muscles under a layer of fat, eating a lot of trans fats can actually affect how your muscles grow by decreasing amino acid uptake, as well as compromising the integrity of the muscle cell membrane. This can lead to a blunting in muscle protein synthesis (i.e., growth) and an increase in muscle breakdown.
Like HFCS, maltodextrin can make foods taste sweeter, but it could have a souring effect on physique improvement.
There is nothing inherently harmful about maltodextrin. Compared to trans fats, it’s pretty benign – by which we mean it’s not going to ruin your cardiovascular system. It could, however, contribute to diabetes or bury your muscles under a fluffy layer of fat.
Maltodextgrin is primarily derived from corn (or other starches like potatoes) by a method similar to that of HFCS. It, too, is used as a sweetener, and because it’s technically not sugar but rather a polysaccharide (or long chain of sugar molecules), it doesn’t have to be listed as sugar on product labels. (This, incidentally, is how there can be nutrition labels on products that list, say, 20 grams of carbs, 1 g of sugar and 3 g of fiber – the remaining carbs are in the form of maltodextrin and its relatives.)
But just because it’s not sugar according to the food producers’ dictionary doesn’t mean your body won’t interpret it as sugar. In general, the longer the chain of molecules, the more bonds your body has to break in order to digest a substance, and therefore the longer it takes. But maltodextrin, despite being composed of longer chains of sugars, is actually the rare complex carbohydrate (like white potatoes) that is very quickly digested.
Maltodextrin illustrates the rule that you can’t just rely on the Nutrition Facts label when making decisions about what foods to eat. Be sure to examine the ingredients for any hidden surprises, but there’s no need to completely exclude foods that contain maltodextrin. Like we said, it’s not going to kill you; but if eaten at the wrong time (i.e., any time other than immediately postworkout), it could slow your muscle gains or speed your gains in bodyfat.
Enriched flour has lost most of the grain’s nutritive value and fiber; you’ll be much better off with whole-wheat flour.
Every manufacturer wants you to believe that eating its food will keep you healthy. Since one of the mainstream nutrition’s current favorite health concepts involves eating a high-fiber diet full of whole grains, many bread companies have slapped labels on their loaves implying that they are chock-full of whole-grain goodness. We’ve already debunked some of their tricks in a previous issue of FLEX ("Label Lies", March 2008), but in case you’re wondering, all you need to do is read the ingredient label. Anytime you see "enriched wheat flour" as one of the primary ingredients on a loaf of bread, put it back.
Yes, we understand that the words "wheat flour" appears there. However, the word "enriched" is what should clue you in. Here’s why: There are three edible components to whole grains: the bran, or the outer shell that contains all the fiber; the germ, which contains all the vitamins and minerals as well as the protein and fat; and the endosperm, which is the starchy, carby part. When grains are refined, as they are to make most bread, the bran and endosperm are removed. Since those parts contain the majority of the grain’s nutrition, bread companies must replace the missing vitamins and minerals, a process called "enriching".
Ignore any bread or other grain products that include enriched flour, as they have been stripped of all their fiber and nutrients. Look instead for whole-wheat flour and you’ll be assured that you’re buying the best in slow-digesting carbohydrates.
You don’t want these hydrogenated compounds fermenting in your intestines, so here’s what to look for and then ignore on store shelves.
Odds are you haven’t seen the words "sugar alcohol" on an ingredient label. But equally good odds have it that at least one of these words will seem vaguely familiar: maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Sugar alcohols represent yet another way that food companies attempt to sweeten foods without adding sugar or carbohydrates. Most of them occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, but HSH are created by adding hydrogen molecules to carbohydrates (sound familiar?), with the result being a sweet-tasting compound that doesn’t drastically affect blood sugar and is poorly absorbed by the body. This means that they’re great for people on low-carb diets, but not so great for those dieters’ intestinal tracts.
When we say that sugar alcohols are not well absorbed by the body, we mean that when they hit the intestines, your body doesn’t really know what to do with them, so it ignores them. As they sit there, they ferment, causing bloating, gas and other unpleasantness. Some people are more sensitive to them than others, but these alcohols are definitely worth avoiding, particularly just before a first date.
It may go without saying, but the companies that make the processed foods that line supermarket shelves do not care about how big your biceps are, how whittled your waist is or how clear your arteries are. All they care about is how much you’re going to spend. What this means, particularly for those of us who are indeed deeply concerned about our physiques and our health, is that we have to become hyperaware and hypervigilant – all in an attempt to beat these companies at their health-endangering, muscle-busting game.