Tag Archives: Myths

I am a woman and don’t want to bulk up like a man. Why do I need to train with weights?

I saw the inside of a gymnasium for the first time when I was 14. My school was rather avant garde when it came to sporting facilities and the brand new gym was the latest addition to its repertoire for physical training. A friend and I were so enthused by the various types of equipment, that we would sneak into the gym after the Games session every evening to crank out some reps on the leg press machine or pec dec station (I didn’t know what the equipment were called until many years later).

One day the Sports Teacher saw us doing some lifting and hastened to warn us. I believe he said something to this effect, “That machine is not meant for you. Girls should not use it or they’ll grow disproportionately.” Alas, the teacher was not avant garde enough. So that was the end of my gym exploration. And it remained that way until a scientifically better informed trainer cleared the cobwebs in my head about why ‘girls’ should, in fact, train with weights.

“That machine is not meant for you.”

Today, despite the updated awareness among the trainer community about the benefits of resistance training for women, the lack of awareness among women themselves remains high. Have you seen how the cardio sections of most gyms are packed with women sweating it out on the treadmills or elliptical trainers while the weight rooms are almost devoid of women?

My own perception of weight training changed only when, about a decade ago, an enthusiastic trainer encouraged me to complement my marathon training with some strength training. I did not fully comprehend why he thought it was important for improving my running but I agreed to give it a shot anyway. And that became the turning point in my fitness journey.

 

It is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones.

Let’s first look at why women are resistant to resistance training (oops, I did it again!) Most women who shy away from weight training think they’ll end up looking grossly muscular, too manly for comfort. In truth, it is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones. The predominant male hormone, testosterone, which makes men looks like men, is what promotes muscle build-up. Women have very low levels of testosterone and could only look like men if they underwent hormonal intervention (read steroids). The female hormone, estrogen, on the other hand, helps fat build-up, among other things. That is also the reason that women have a relatively higher percentage of body fat than men. So that should put to rest any doubts a woman has about looking manly or unfeminine.

But are there any special benefits for women to engage in resistance training apart from those available to men such as fat loss, muscle definition, and increased strength and functionality? Several!

Because weight training enables hypertrophy, i.e. growth, of muscles, it accentuates the natural human form. In the case of women, the improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Training the muscles of the back and core helps to taper the waist, giving the illusion of the hourglass to the entire female form. As a woman, wouldn’t that be something to strive for?

Women tend to be more prone to bone-related troubles than men due to the effects of childbirth and age-related degeneration following menopause. Osteoporosis and osteopenia, thus, affect women a lot more frequently than men. Resistance training, supported by adequate nutrition, is the only form of exercise that can help to strengthen the joints and bones, thus, reducing the risk of these maladies. For the cardio-lovers, weight training complements high-impact cardio activities by improving bone density and preparing the joints for sustaining high-impact work.

The improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. 

For women of childbearing age, weight training can prove to be highly beneficial in all phases of making a baby – during pregnancy, delivery and post-natal recovery (this has been my own experience too). Women who lift weights on a regular basis have fewer pregnancy symptoms and are able to deal with them better than those who don’t – little or no water retention, swollen ankles, backache, nausea. They have a higher chance of delivering a baby naturally, i.e. through a normal vaginal delivery, versus women do not train with weights. They are also much better placed when it comes to post natal recovery, easily regaining their pre-pregnancy weight, and resuming their exercise form. The training also naturally helps with all the lifting that a new mum has to do – a baby, nappies, wipes, bottles, bags, mats, toys and what have you!

So, woman, the next time somebody tries to tell you that you shouldn’t train with weights, do yourself a favour and find a different fitness advisor!

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I walk 30 minutes each day. Why do I need to train with weights?

I was 11 when I learnt for the first time that ‘walking’ was a cure for all obesity-related maladies. A neighbour, the mother of a friend of mine, had, I’d heard, been denied a reservation on a US-bound flight by an airline because she was overweight. Now I don’t know about airline norms existing at the time, but I do recall that that lady walked about ten kilometres everyday for the next three months to whittle down her 96-kilo frame to a 78-kilo one. When she tried to book her ticket again, the airline had no cause for complaint. On my following term break, I heard that the lady had had to extend her sojourn in the US due to a knee fracture she suffered from a fall on the pavement.

I’ve seen this story repeat itself several times since then (newly minted middle-aged marathoners who literally break a leg, come to mind). ‘Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Well-meaning relatives and friends, who oftentimes are the biggest defaulters where exercise is concerned, seem to proffer this advice left, right and centre. Mothers-in-law of expectant brides encourage their daughters-in-law to ‘simply walk’, all as part of the ante-natal care-giving for the mothers-to-be. Doctors of obese diabetic patients prescribe ‘walking for 20-30 minutes a day’ as part of the treatment. Parents of obese teenagers tag the children along with them on their own morning walk ritual.

Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Now, I have nothing against walking as a form of exercise. In fact, it is an inseparable part of my own regimen. It is convenient, cheap, does not need to be learnt, and does not require any special gear or equipment except a good pair of shoes. But to say that it is the ‘best form of exercise’ only explains the ignorance of the person saying it.

A person may be motivated to take up exercise for a variety of reasons, mostly reactively, unfortunately, rather than proactively. But if the goal is to seek long-term sustainable health and fitness, then depending on walking alone is investing your time in a severely lop-sided exercise programme.

If you break down the physiology of walking, you’ll realise that it is primarily a lower body workout, which engages your core. It is a high-impact activity that causes a great amount of stress on your weight-bearing joints, the hips, knees and ankles. Since it is a low intensity steady state activity (walking fast would still qualify as low intensity if you are able to do it for tens of minutes), walking engages your aerobic energy system (more on this later), necessarily involving your cardio-respiratory apparatus to provide a constant supply of energy.

The reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat.

As a cardio activity, then, walking depends on the carbs immediately available in your system in the form of glycogen stored in muscles, the fat stored in your body as adipose tissue, and the protein from muscles, which can break down to create glucose for energy, in that order. This implies that a cardio activity will eat through your muscle (presumably precious) if it is not able to generate enough energy quickly from the body fat (presumably dispensable). That’s also the reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat, unless their nutrition super-compensates for it.

When you let go of muscle, you allow for the weakening of your joints and, hence, bones. So, while your cardio-respiratory endurance improves, resulting in greater lung capacity and a lower resting heart rate, your muscles atrophy and your joints become feebler. How do you then spare the muscle and avoid risking a joint/ bone injury? By doing two things – ensuring appropriate nutrition (a protein-rich diet to repair the muscle tissue) and training with weights.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen.

Weight training provides your body with the training stimulus to first break down muscle tissue and then build it up to be stronger than before. It also prepares your joints and bones for dealing with high-impact activities such as walking or jogging.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen. A larger muscle mass means that you carry more metabolically active tissue, i.e. lean body mass, which revs your metabolism and increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Also, resistance training has the greatest after-burn effect among all types of exercise. Hence, you burn more calories even when you are at rest and not only during exercise, as is the case with a cardio activity.

Here’s a bonus: weight training helps muscles to hypertrophy, i.e. grow larger, giving your body a complementary anti-aging lucky charm. It tones the body because muscles add definition to the limbs. You’ll love the compliments that come your way. (See what I did there?!)

Despite all these benefits to resistance training, there is a lot of resistance to training this way. (Okay, now I’m overdoing it…backing off!) I’ll explore other myths on this soon.

 

PC: shutterstock

Will exercising more help me lose weight?

It was a memorable summer. For all the wrong reasons. While I had just returned from a great vacation and was mentally recharged, physically I was in the doldrums, inside and outside. In the three months prior, I had had a super hectic work schedule (which made the vacation that much more gratifying), as a result of which, my lifestyle had suffered in every way possible – food-wise, exercise-wise, rest-wise, family-time-wise, and personal-time-wise.

I felt drained, sluggish and apathetic most of the time. 

I’d developed a chronic lumbar pain, which made sitting for any period longer than 10 minutes painful. My immunity system had taken a hit, and I was struck by long bouts of cold and cough that lasted several weeks. An old shoulder injury had made itself apparent again. Horror of horrors – I’d gained over 3 kilos within a short period of four weeks! And they refused to budge. I wasn’t sleeping well (the cough and the bad back contributed to that equally). I felt drained, sluggish and apathetic most of the time.

But I’m a fighter. I fought back with all I had. I had to get fit. Three days after I returned from vacation, I hit the gym with a vengeance. I briefed my personal trainer about the new health goals I’d set for myself – get my back functioning normally again, drop all the excess weight and then some, and gain meaningful muscle, over the next three months. The almost threatening tone in my voice told him I meant business.

I thought I was killing it. But, alas! 

And business it was – functional training three mornings a week, strength training three evenings a week, yoga twice a week, and a walking routine every weekday. I also downloaded a calorie-tracking app and tracked everything I ate for two months straight. I thought I was killing it. But, alas!

In truth, I was killing myself. I had become a victim of overtraining. I felt worn out and tired all the time. The thought of another early morning HIIT session, another turn at the power cage in the gym, or another walk, put me in a lethargic state of mind immediately. I strengthened my back and lost the extra weight all right, but overall I was drained of energy.

Have you ever gone or seen a friend go through a similar experience? Did the extra exercise ‘work out’ in the end?

Too much of a good thing can also be bad for health.

Exercise has several benefits for the body and should be a regular ritual for everybody, regardless of age or gender. At an overall level, it improves heart health, energy levels, immunity & mood, strengthens bones & muscles (depending on the type of exercise), and helps to manage weight and stress.

However, too much of a good thing can also be bad for health. Your body needs a certain amount of stimulus to allow for removal of waste tissue and generation of new tissue. Exercise provides that stimulus. A well-rounded exercise programme will lead to improvement on all five components of fitness, including an ideal body composition, which addresses fat loss.

But, one must bear in mind that exercise is only one leg of the health tripod, the other two being nutrition and rest. Give yourself less energy than it needs, through a calorie-restricted diet (as I did), and your body will not have enough resources to regenerate its tissues, which break down or get depleted during exercise. Give yourself minimal time for rest and recovery (as I did too) and your body will not have the time to use those resources even if you eat well. The result will be a body worse for the wear.

Exercise is only one leg of the health tripod.

So, to answer the original question, exercise, at the right intensity, does help to streamline your metabolism by providing a stimulus for growth and repair, thus, assisting in weight loss or fat loss. However, simply adding more exercise time to your schedule without appropriate nutrition and rest is only a recipe for disaster.

What other myths/ dilemmas do you face when it comes to exercise?

Will eating less help me lose weight?

I caught on to the calorie counting game long before the advent and proliferation of fancy calorie tracking apps. As far back as 2008, I figured I could use my skills at Microsoft Excel to do more than creating financial models and business plans. I created my own calorie counter, following up with several updated versions (I think I even passed it on to some keen friends and relatives). The idea was to have a neat food log to track the calorie intake on a daily basis and ensure it remained at or near my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). I arrived at my ideal calorie requirement based on conventional wisdom of the time, and the vision I had of myself six months down the line.

That’s it, I thought. Calorie counting and control is all I need to do to crack the weight loss game.

As my food log got populated, I could see patterns emerging. I utilised the knowledge to tweak my dietary habits. Barring a few social incidents, I managed to remain fairly consistent in sticking to my ever more aggressive calorie goals. Needless to say, at the end of three months, the number on the scale had moved south significantly, despite little support in the form of exercise. I was feeling rather proud of the achievement not only because of the weight loss but also because of this fantastic tool I’d developed. That’s it, I thought. Calorie counting and control is all I need to do to crack the weight loss game.

 

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Not so fast! Despite the shouts of success from the weighing scale, I wasn’t receiving the expected looks, compliments or appreciation from people around me. Why couldn’t they see what I could?

Have you ever had this experience? Or know someone who did? Why was your/ their ‘loss’ not apparent or as significant as what the scale suggested?

The answer, as I discussed in my last post, lies in the type of weight that was lost – water, muscle or fat. Weight loss is easily apparent to the eye of a beholder when there is fat loss. Hence, what an overweight person with a disproportionate body composition must seek is fat loss, not simply weight loss.

Coming back to the original question, eating less does indeed help you lose weight. But, and this is a BIG ‘but’, it will not necessarily help you lose fat if you are eating the wrong type of calories since all calories are not equal.

Weight loss is easily apparent to the eye of a beholder when there is fat loss.

Another phenomenon that you might notice is that the rate of weight loss tends to slow down despite maintaining a calorie deficit, i.e. eating fewer calories than one spends in a day. This is because the BMR of a lighter person is lower, in absolute terms, than that of a heavier person (not to be confused with slow or fast metabolism).

Also, remaining on a calorie-lowering spree could prove dangerous if you reach calorie intake levels so low that they threaten the normal functioning of the body, usually around 1,000 calories, for the average adult.

A collateral fallout of such low calorie intake levels is that the body senses that it is in a semi-starvation mode and holds on to its stores of energy even more closely, potentially stagnating or even reversing weight loss.

So, take the ‘eat less’ formula of weight loss, or rather, fat loss, with a pinch of salt. There are other ways to create a calorie deficit than simply through eating less.

More myths to be flushed out. Soon.

 

PC: https://getrawenergy.co

Weight loss or fat loss – which is better?

It was one of those New Year’s eves when you decide you’ve had enough and need to take charge of your life. This particular one was memorable because I actually managed to stick to my health-related resolutions for over five months in the new year. I’d celebrated my first wedding anniversary and the ‘new bride’ glow had started to wane. The weighing scale seemed to have taken on a life of its own, adding numbers at will. Within just a year, I had gained almost 10 lb, firmly putting me in the ‘overweight’ category. I knew I had to do something. Leveraging my past experience, I turned to what I knew had worked in the past – exercise.

I had gained almost 10 lb, firmly putting me in the ‘overweight’ category. I knew I had to do something.

I had always been involved in sports while at school, thanks to a carefully crafted regimen at my quasi-military style alma mater (something I can’t be thankful for enough). While at college, I’d got introduced to Yoga and fallen in love with it. The one thing I wasn’t too proud of was my endurance level. I decided to kill two birds with one stone – improve my stamina, and lose the excess weight. The first hour of my day was, thus, reserved for jogging (as far as I could go without stopping) followed by a routine of intense Yogasanas.

The first moment of exhilaration came when I crossed the 5-km mark for the first time, about eight weeks into my schedule. I was ecstatic to find that I did have some endurance muscle fibres in me after all. The Yoga practice was supporting the cardio schedule admirably, with outstanding improvement in breathing capacity and flexibility. I did not own a scale then so was not distracted by minor fluctuations. The diet was unchanged but the eating was mindful. In about three months, I’d reversed all the damage of ‘newly-wed’ celebratory feasting and then some.

“Are you not keeping well?”

I was feeling highly accomplished. That’s when the reality check happened. One day, a colleague that I was collaborating with again after several months of being on separate projects, casually asked, “Are you not keeping well?” …er…what?

Have you ever had a friend or relative return from a health retreat, where they promise dramatic weight loss, put you on a detox diet of ‘healthy’ juices, boiled and tasteless vegetables, and lentils cooked the ‘zero-oil’ way? You wondered why he looked so feeble that he might fall if he stood in the way of a mildly strong draft of wind? Or a cousin or aunt who took up marathon training to ‘lose the flab’, but at the end of the annual marathon calendar ended up not only weighing several kilos less but also looking several years older, with sunken eyes, gaunt cheeks, and far more wrinkles than you remembered she possessed?

Without going into a lesson on physics, let us understand what ‘weight’ actually means in the context of health and fitness. Our bodyweight comprises two things: lean body mass and body fat. Lean body mass further comprises internal organs, bones, muscles, skin, and body water. Of these, muscle tissue is the most metabolically active tissue, requiring more energy than the other components for growth, repair and maintenance. In terms of changes in weight, it is the muscle mass that can gain or lose weight in the short term, a few weeks or months. The only other component that can change in weight quickly is the water in the body; just a few days are enough.

The prolonged cardio activity definitely burnt the fat, but only after it ate into precious muscle too, hence, the weathered look.

In the case of the friend who patronised the health resort, what he probably lost was water weight. In all probability, he promptly regained all the lost weight within a few weeks of his return as his body readjusted to the usual levels of water intake and retention. In the case of the marathoning cousin, she lost valuable muscle tissue along with the dispensable body fat. The prolonged cardio activity definitely burnt the fat, but only after it ate into precious muscle too, hence, the weathered look.

Appropriate levels of fat loss, while retaining existing skeletal muscle mass, will automatically give you the lean look.

The ideal body composition focuses on body fat as a percentage of your bodyweight. Hence, one should aim to lose fat rather than simply losing weight. Appropriate levels of fat loss, while retaining existing skeletal muscle mass, will automatically give you the lean look.

Now, here come the twin dilemmas:

  1. If a so-called ‘healthy’ diet only helps to lose water weight then what should I eat to lose fat?
  2. If a challenging physical activity like marathon training costs me precious skeletal muscle mass, then how do I protect it? (Everyone says walking is the best exercise. I thought I’d take it to the next level with running. Should I simply walk then?)

More on cracking the dilemmas soon.

 

PC: http://bodycarehealthclub.com.au/

The ‘fat-free’ revolution that made us fat – the biggest con in the food industry

In my last post, I recounted my initiation into calorie research. Like many rational and reasonably intelligent people, I arrived at the same conclusions that others do: fat eats into the calorie quota quickly, and it takes up too much space in the body, and, thus, would make me gain body fat. So, I should eat as little fat as possible, which will result in two benefits – I get to eat more, and I don’t get fat!

I soon became a pro at figuring out which foods contained fat and which didn’t, reading food labels for their fat content, looking for skimmed and low-fat options on supermarket shelves, and even cooking fat-free meals. Despite all this diligence, I could avoid neither the hunger pangs nor the weight gain. The way my requirement for larger clothes was going, I knew the weight gain was from fat, not muscle. It was definitely not dietary fat that was making me gain fat thanks to my thoughtfully crafted low-fat diet. Then what was making me fat?

Ever been through this before or know someone who has?

The answer lies in the inequality of calories. A calorie from fat will always remain a calorie from fat, and be stored as triglycerides, until it is required for providing energy. Calories from carbs and protein, however, are talented – they can change form. Carbs that are unutilised by the body are converted to fat and stored for later use. Any protein that is excess, after completing the job of growth, repair and maintenance, also converts to fat.

OK. That explained the metabolism issue, or the lack thereof. But surely the body should have been able to tolerate some amount of fat, especially if it was not getting any from my diet! ‘Some’, yes, but what about the body fat that was already sitting there and not getting used?

The human body has evolved over a couple of thousand millennia to use its resources in the most efficient way possible. For our ancestors of the Stone Age, starvation was a real situation that presented itself every so often. The store of fat in the body was what kept them going during those periods, which could very well last a couple of days or a few weeks. The reason being that the body has unlimited potential to store fat. Our ancestors, however, were different from us in that their bodies knew how to metabolise fat since they needed to do it frequently. On days that they got enough to eat, their bodies used the quick-energy providing foods, i.e. carbs, for immediate uses, and stored dietary fat as, well, fat. Obesity, hence, was a rare occurrence, if at all, since the body was adapted to burning fat.

With the advent of agriculture, about ten millennia ago, a dramatic shift occurred in the eating habits of human beings, since vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, largely carbohydrates, became far more easily accessible to wide proportions of the population. With a rise in their consumption, the body started adapting to a sugar-burning mechanism (all carbs essentially being a form of sugar, once the fibre is removed). Now, the human body can store only about 2,000 calories worth of carbs at any given time, basically enough to last a day or at most two, versus an average of 30,000 calories from fat.

The food processing industry amplified this change by an order of magnitude. And guess what types of food were processed the most? Carbs! From raw vegetables and fruits to fibre-less juices and sugar-laden smoothies, from dehusked grains to polished ones, flours and breads, from steamed, whole tubers to dried and fried snacks.

With human bodies having essentially switched over to becoming sugar-burning factories from the highly optimised fat-burning, muscle-sparing ones, requiring feeding at small intervals (mostly carbs again) is it any wonder that rates for obesity, not to mention diabetes, have broken all records in the past hundred years?

What we actually needed to do was not cut out the fat from our food but to reduce the proportion of carbs, especially the processed ones.

So, how does one switch back to the fat-burning metabolism without subjecting oneself to starvation? That story begins with understanding ‘metabolism’. And I’ll get to it soon.

For those who like to do their own research, look up The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Jeff S Volek and Stephen D Phinney.

A calorie is NOT just a calorie! The first diet-related myth

I still recall the first time I became cognisant of food calories. I had just polished off several courses of a lavish breakfast spread at the five star hotel where my consulting team was put up during an international project. My colleague, a fitness junkie, then in the pursuit of the elusive six-pack abs, had been observing the careful consideration I had put into picking up an eclectic mix of breakfast items. He waited patiently for me to wipe off the foam from the coffee, which served as the finale of my meal, before remarking casually, “You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?”

“You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?” 

“What!” That couldn’t be right. I had understandably eaten a big meal, but surely those dainty Danish pastries, choco-chip muffins, baked beans, cold cuts, and the egg-white omelette could not add up to that many calories! I consoled myself that since I was going to have ‘just a salad’ for lunch anyway, perhaps the big splurge was justified. I vaguely recall that the lunch did not end up being ‘just a salad’.

But I clearly recall that I spent a good part of my morning looking up the calories in various foods. That was over twelve years ago. And that’s how the initiation into my self-guided study of nutrition happened. The fascination has not stopped but now I’m well guided in this matter.

I’ve heard the refrain ‘A calorie is a calorie…is a calorie’ several times. The import of that statement is that what is important in a diet, regardless of the health goal, is the number of calories. At the most basic level (we’re talking survival here), this is correct. But if one has certain goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from, i.e. the three energy-providing macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. Water, termed the fourth macronutrient at times and an essential nutrient at others, does not contribute any calories.

If one has certain health goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from. 

While each gram of carbs and protein provides 4 calories, a gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the energy of carbs or protein. So we would need fewer grams of fat than carbs or protein to provide the same number of calories. As a corollary, one should be able to eat more grams of carbs and/ or proteins vs fat to fulfil their calorie requirements, isn’t it?

Now, consider this. Fat takes up more than three times the space of the same quantity of protein in weight. Hence, 1 kg of fat will occupy at least three times the space of 1 kg of protein. This is the reason why two people with the same height and weight can look slim or obese depending on the proportion of body fat. More reason to consume fewer grams of fat, because who in their right mind wants to be fat, right?

Wrong!

The reason that we have had this upside down for so long is because of the understanding that all calories are equal. In reality, one must ask what type of calories we are talking about. This is because each macronutrient has a different role to play in our body. Carbs provide quick energy – their calories can potentially be burned almost as soon as they are ingested. Protein grows, repairs and maintains the body – muscles, organ tissue, blood vessels, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, etc. Fat provides a long-term store of energy, regulates body temperature, enables brain functioning, and allows vitamin absorption.

Just as the role of each macronutrient in our body is different, so is the manner in which each is used by the body. Carbs are used for providing energy instantly and for aiding digestion if they are fibre-rich. Protein, although used primarily for growth and repair, can be used for providing energy in times of distress, when adequate energy from other sources is not available, but at the cost of muscle tissue. Body fat, stored as adipose tissue in the body, is used for providing energy only when other sources of energy are not available or when the body is in starvation mode.

Here’s the kicker – any calories from carbs and protein that are not used by the body are converted to fat in the form of adipose tissue! So much for avoiding dietary fat, huh!

So, which calories should one consume? I’ll talk about this in the following posts.

P. S. The self-guided ones might like to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which puts to bed several arguments on calories. Will provide my own review of the tome soon.