CrossFit: An Independent Unbiased Review

CrossFit: An Independent Unbiased Review

CrossFit exploded onto the scene about a decade ago and since then has amassed a huge following – and a lot of criticism. But is this criticism fair and warranted? CrossFit helps a lot of people, so how can it be bad?

In this guest post by professional strength and conditioning coach Dan Jolley, MSc, he takes a step back and provides a level-headed and balanced rundown on CrossFit, the pros and cons, and those who might benefit most from it.

Over to you Dan!  -Bill


There has been a massive change in gyms and group exercise over the last few years. At the forefront of this has been one of the most polarising exercise modalities of recent years – CrossFit.

While nothing in a CrossFit workout is actually new (they use bars, weights, and equipment that has been around for decades), their workouts are put together in a novel – and in some circles, controversial – way.

Plenty has been written about CrossFit, most of it very polarising. Therefore, the aim of this article is to take the view of an impartial observer. I’ll assess the pros and cons of this form of exercise and examine what the evidence says about its claims.

Principles of CrossFit

To define CrossFit, it is useful to go to the source. According to the CrossFit website:

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.

While this isn’t necessarily a novel approach, there are a couple of things worth noting. One is the use of the word “functional.”

What Does “Functional” Actually Mean?

“Functional” is a buzzword bandied about by the fitness industry in recent years and tends to be attached to the use of free weights, body weight exercises, and exercises that challenge stability. None of these are bad things.

In fact, as a strength & conditioning coach, these are all options I use daily. You will always see plenty of free weights in a CrossFit gym, and this has influenced the broader fitness industry to provide this equipment too.

But when deciding whether or not a movement is functional, it’s worth considering whether that “function” is relevant to the person doing the training.

Personal trainers are generally taught to select exercises (and other variables) to suit the needs of the client. This is good practice regardless of whether or not you consider your exercise “functional”.

There isn’t necessarily an agreed-upon industry standard definition of this term as it relates to exercise. The key phrase from the Wikipedia definition, “movements based on real-world situational biomechanics” is a good place to start.

CrossFit has a slightly different take:

We scale load and intensity; we don’t change the program. The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.

What this suggests is that everyone walking into a CrossFit gym will do the same workout, in the same order, though the resistance applied will vary.

Exercise selection is generally seen as a fundamental part of exercise prescription that can be varied to suit the individual (a good summary of the research on resistance training prescription can be found here).

CrossFit suggests that everyone can benefit from the same program.

To a point this is true: beginners, especially, will benefit from any increase in exercise levels, regardless of the choice of movement. This becomes less true with more training experience since the athlete is closer to his/her own physiological ceiling, but more on that later.

CrossFit and Exercise Intensity

The other variable that may be manipulated in a CrossFit workout is intensity:

The more work you do in less time, or the higher the power output, the more intense the effort. By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness.

In this case, the concept of power (i.e. a faster workout) is used synonymously with intensity. But in other modes of exercise, intensity can be changed in other ways.

In resistance training, for example, intensity is often measured as a proportion of the maximal weight a person can lift (i.e. their one repetition maximum, or 1RM) that is used for an exercise.

When running, intensity could be the proportion of maximal speed or heart rate, depending on what can be measured at the time.

Further, if we look at intensity subjectively, a more intense effort could be anything that the exerciser thinks is harder (the concept of RPE – rate of perceived exertion). This can be influenced not only by the difficulty of the workout, but other social and psychological factors, and their recovery from their previous workout.

We can also vary difficulty of a workout by using methods such as repetitions which are slower, or over a longer range of motion, or more repetitions at a lighter weight. The speed of the movement is just one variable that a good trainer can manipulate.

In CrossFit however, the emphasis is on completing workouts faster. Speed is characteristic of these workouts, rather than a variable to adjust.

How Can You Tell Which is a CrossFit Gym?

This can be harder than you think. CrossFit gyms are independently owned, not franchised. As such, there is no common image or corporate branding. And while there are similarities in the types of equipment you will find, the size and layout of gyms will vary significantly.

Similarly, they tend to be operated by the owners, and there can be significant differences in the approach of the owners and the instructors they employ.

They have a few things in common though. The word “CrossFit” will probably be in the title. When you go into a CrossFit gym you know what you are going to get in terms of exercise. You will lift weights. The exercises will generally be big, compound (multiple joint, multiple muscle group) lifts. You will be challenged to lift heavy. There will be an element of cardiovascular fitness in the workout. And you will race against a clock, with your time being written up on a board.

Each gym will have their “workout of the day” or WOD. In keeping with the principles of CrossFit, most people who attend the gym that day will complete this session. Depending on the gym they may have other classes or sessions for different levels of ability. The workout may take around 45 minutes, so fits pretty comfortably into a working day.

One of the major characteristics of CrossFit is the atmosphere of the gym. Though (as mentioned earlier) there is significant variation in gyms, there is an element of teamwork and camaraderie that is missing from most commercial gyms.

You don’t see many people training on their own in a corner wearing headphones. This is either a positive or a negative – depending on how you like to train – but it is obvious! There is a genuine social element to attending one of these gyms.

Who Are CrossFit Coaches?

Again, this is a tough one to answer, as the coaches I’ve met come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have come from a traditional gym or personal training background, some have sport science degrees, and others have come from sporting or Olympic weightlifting backgrounds. And some have known nothing but CrossFit in their fitness careers.

Qualifications

CrossFit qualifications have been a point of discussion in the fitness industry for some time. The basic qualification for a new instructor is a two-day course, which includes theory, practical components, and an assessment. There are other courses an instructor can do to update their knowledge after that but these are not compulsory.

While this is better than nothing, it compares poorly to the rest of the industry. In Australia, the Certificate III and IV qualifications for personal trainers, for example, have recently become much more demanding and can take up to 12 months to complete full time.

University qualified personal trainers and accredited exercise physiologists have 3 to 4 years of education. And to work in sport in a professional or semi-professional capacity as a strength and conditioning coach, it’s pretty hard to even get a foot in the door without a Master’s degree or PhD, as well as practical coaching qualifications.

While not everyone needs such a highly qualified coach, it is clear that, in terms of education and depth of scientific understanding, basic CrossFit certifications compare poorly to the industry at large. It’s always useful for the client to know what qualifications their trainer holds and whether they are up to date with ongoing education.

Is CrossFit Effective?

The short answer is: it depends on the individual and level of exercise experience.

One of the key tenets of CrossFit – the high effort the workouts consistently call for – means that even someone with a decent exercise history can stand to benefit from the increased effort. All of us have been guilty of coasting in our workouts from time to time, so getting pushed harder can lead to real improvement.

The workouts are also conducted in group settings, against the clock, with the encouragement of trainers. The psychological benefits of this environment are huge; most of us will work harder in these conditions. If you have fairly general fitness needs, this could be a great environment for you.

For those with more specific needs, CrossFit might not be their best option. Earlier in this article, I discussed the need for specificity when designing training programs. For those with a long training history, or those who compete at higher levels of sport, generic programs are comparatively less effective.

For example, in my time as a strength and conditioning coach, I have worked at high levels within Australian Football and American Football (gridiron). Both groups of athletes need a degree of aerobic fitness and repeat sprint ability. CrossFit would improve both groups of athletes if they were relatively untrained.

But the Australian Football players may need to run hard over relatively long distances with short rest between efforts. The American Football athletes, on the other hand, need to be able to perform high intensity sprints, but get much longer recovery between efforts and cover much shorter distances.

I spend much more time developing the aerobic capacity of Australian Football players, whereas the gridiron guys have much more of a repeat sprint focus. With CrossFit’s focus on generic programming and timed workouts, and speed as their major marker of intensity, the specific requirements of each sport may not be met.

Additionally, differences in the distances covered, types of change of direction and physical contact, and the different body positions in the sports mean the training programs of these players end up looking quite different.

And lastly, the needs of an individual may change over the course of a season. Meeting these needs often involves an element of foresight and planning (called “periodisation”). The WOD on any given day may not match these needs.

How Safe Is CrossFit

The answer to this is, it depends who you are (do you sense a trend here?). It is hard to label CrossFit as “safe” or “unsafe” due to the massive variation in gyms and clientele. But regardless of the gym you are joining or the exercise program you are beginning, there are a few things that should be standard:

  • Did the gym you joined ask you to complete a form outlining your medical and injury history?
  • Did they ask follow up questions based on the answers you provided?
  • If they identified you as a high risk client, did they request a medical clearance?

If they didn’t do any of these things, they are breaching their duty of care. There is now an industry standard form and process endorsed by both Fitness Australia (which regulates personal trainers), and Exercise & Sports Science Australia (which regulates exercise physiologists). This level of detail is a good start and clearly a step in the right direction.

  • Did the trainers at this gym assess your ability to perform the exercises required? A movement screening of some sort (for example, the Functional Movement Screening), a fitness test, or a strength test, would provide relevant information here. If everyone is doing the same program, it’s worth making sure everyone is capable!
  • Do they offer introductory courses? Despite the marketing, I know from firsthand experience that not everyone can do the same movements. In particular, CrossFit WODs may involves parts of (or even full) Olympic lifts, which are technically quite challenging. If they run beginner’s classes, sessions where they teach these lifts, or individually adjust the exercises to suit the individual participant’s ability, you can have some confidence that they are looking after their members.

There is an inherent risk to performing any exercise under high levels of fatigue, such as CrossFit may encourage. As a general rule, injury rates in CrossFit are comparable to other sports. A 2014 study of CrossFit participants found the injury rate to be 20%, though those with more trainer supervision had lower injury rates. This may be a level of risk that someone wishing to compete in CrossFit may be willing to take on, but the recreational exerciser with general goals should make an informed decision about whether this exercise intensity (and risk) is appropriate for them.

CrossFit-induced Rhabdomyolysis?

One of the most well-publicised risks of participating in CrossFit is rhabdomyolysis (or “rhabdo”). While this condition is not unique to CrossFit, there has been an upsurge in rhabdo cases with the increasing popularity of this type of exercise. The CrossFit brand is also not helped by the casual way that rhabdo is treated by some of its proponents.

CrossFit Rhabdomyolysis clown

“Uncle Rhabdo,” one of the unofficial mascots of CrossFit. From www.nypost.com.

In an exercise setting, rhabdomyolysis occurs when skeletal muscle breaks down rapidly. While some muscle damage is an essential part of our adaptation to exercise, a very high volume of demanding resistance exercise using large muscle groups (i.e. squats), can cause an extreme amount of muscle damage. As a result, byproducts of muscle breakdown enter the bloodstream. Very dark urine, and unusual swelling in the muscles are obvious signs.

Previously this was seen in athlete populations such as triathletes and ultramarathon runners, but those who are relatively untrained and doing CrossFit workouts have a higher risk than other modes of exercise. The incidence of rhabdo in CrossFit is not well documented and the scientific literature to date mostly deals in case studies, so it’s hard to draw conclusion from such a small sample of cases. On top of that, a competent and well-qualified trainer should be able to manage the progression of the client at a safe rate (as discussed above), rather than throwing them off the deep end straight into the full workout.

My Experience?

The aim of this article was to remain impartial and present the risks and benefits of CrossFit to someone without a pre-existing opinion, or a lot of exercise knowledge. My own personal experience with CrossFit has been fairly limited, but unusual for someone writing an article about this mode of exercise, I am neither an advocate or a hater.

I have used CrossFit gyms for testing and training sessions when coaching teams which didn’t have access to gym facilities. This is because they have the weights, lifting platforms, and other equipment we need that not all gyms have. The trainers I’ve met as a result and been welcoming and helpful.

When holidaying in the US a couple of years ago, I was staying with some friends in Denver who train at a CrossFit gym. I went along for a workout with them one morning and found it to be a reasonably enjoyable experience.

While it was not a session I would normally select for myself, I was happy to join in. The instructors were degree qualified, did a movement screening with me before the session, and made sure I warmed up properly. And I got a decent workout (I didn’t perform at my best though – I blame the altitude!). Overall, it was a professionally run operation.

I’m aware of other CrossFit trainers who are highly experienced and possess good qualifications beyond their CrossFit certifications. Unfortunately, I am also aware of trainers who cut a lot of corners and operate outside their scope of practice (by purporting to be able to treat injuries or prescribe diet plans).

I’m also personally aware of one case of exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis from a CrossFit workout here in Perth. This person was the typical higher risk candidate for the condition (having a poor training history to that point), but was put straight into the main workout by her trainer and ended up hospitalised.

Take Home Message on CrossFit

Like all exercise modalities, this CrossFit is not for everyone. If you want a challenge, have a moderate level of fitness, and have lifted weights in the past, go for it. If you want to compete in the sport of CrossFit, by all means go for it.

If you have a history of injuries or medical conditions that may affect your ability to exercise, then a group setting, or high intensity exercise, may not be the best choice for you. CrossFit is both of these!

If you have very specific needs (such as sports performance), then CrossFit may give you a bit of a boost to your training in the short term, but a more structured long term approach will provide a better benefit.

Retirement is Bad For Your Health (So Don’t Retire!)

Retirement is Bad For Your Health (So Don’t Retire!)

I subscribe to a number of research digest emails, many highlighting molecular research which, for the most part, I find profusely boring and impractical.  But one headline from Medscape caught my eye: “When It Comes to Work, How Old is Too Old?

The intro made reference to the author’s grandfather and, in many ways, immediately reminded me of my own grandfather (which I’ll address later).

The passage read:

My 92-year-old grandfather cuts hay atop a 5-ton tractor each summer, baling winter feed for more than 800 head of cattle. The rest of the year he herds, corrals, immunizes, and cares for the cattle.

But digging further into the implications of this question, it spurred a number of thoughts on what will no doubt become a growing issue – particularly in places like the United States still recovering years later from the global financial crisis.

I just read a related article today on the

Questions remain about how the US national debt may affect federal pension funds. Connecting the dots, I seriously question whether those reaching retirement age will actually be able to retire at all if there’s nothing left in the coffers to pay retirees.

While continuing to work well past age 70 might seem like a fate worse than death for most, I’d argue that, from a health perspective, this might even be a good thing.

Retirement is Bad For Your Health

In this day and age of better medicine and longer life spans, the idea of retiring at 65 is antiquated and only contributes to age-associated declines in physical and mental health.  I’m sure you can think of someone you know who retired and then sat back in their easy chair waiting for the grim reaper to come knocking on the door.  You may have noticed a loss of muscle tone and a steadily encroaching waistline.

On the other hand, I’m sure you can also think of people who’ve retired from their careers but continued to lead physically active lives, kept involved in social events, and perhaps even went back to work a part-time job just to have something to do.

As a health professional, I believe the latter is a much more productive way to live in so-called retirement.

The article references a publication by Rohwedder and colleagues in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (2010; 24:119-138) and states:

Many workers benefit significantly from continuing to work into old age. Work is “medicine” – even better than medicine for many. In addition to providing economic security and often wider access to healthcare options, work enhances well-being, promotes social interaction, increases the variety and quality of life, and provides many people with a sense of accomplishment and achievement.  Although some older individuals work out of necessity, many report that they continue to work to contribute, or to “make a difference.” Almost all jobs help older people sustain and extend their physical activity level and support increased social engagement and larger support networks. Work provides accountability for many; an absence from work may serve as the first sign to warn distant family that something is wrong with a loved one. Emerging evidence also suggests that work may improve brain health, sustain healthy cognition, and protect memory.

The overarching theme here seems to be that NOT working is hazardous to your health. In my experience working in a hospital-based cardiac rehab program, I’ve seen many older adults come into the clinic after a massive heart attack and open-heart surgery and, after pushing through the first couple weeks of exercise sessions, they begin to feel better physically (as expected).

More importantly, they develop a sense of social connectedness by relating their personal stories with other patients sharing similar medical histories. I found this effect to be even more pronounced in widowers who, after having lost a spouse, given up their careers (evil retirement!), and feathering an empty nest, were basically sitting around doing nothing up until their hospitalization. In a twisted version of irony, it may very well be that a small heart attack was just what they needed to shake off the retirement blues and rediscover the joy of living again.

The Body Only Knows Neglect, Not Age

In my lectures, I like to use a quote I once heard regarding age and health: “The body does not know age….the body only knows neglect!” And in my line of work, I can confirm wholeheartedly the unequivocal truth in this statement.

Stories of Resilience and the Human Spirit

I recall the story of a former patient named Norma. She was a dainty grandmotherly lady in her late 70s who’d never set foot in a gym in her life. Upon arrival to cardiac rehab, she was a bit intimidated by all the treadmills and bikes. After familiarization with the equipment, she developed a comfort level with exercise and, dare I say, even became an exercise junkie! She was there religiously three days a week, on time, all the time, every time.  She even showed up by accident on a public holiday when the clinic was closed!  All of us at the clinic developed a fondness for her and even gave her the moniker “Stormin’ Norma!”

Bonnie was another patient of ours who was in her early to mid 90s.  Despite some limitations in her eyesight, she was quite resilient and always willing to try any exercise we put in front of her. By the time I left the clinic to pursue other professional goals, she was doing a pretty solid pace on the treadmill, tolerating a fair workload on the stationary bike, rowing on the rowing ergometer, lifting weights, and taking yoga classes.

The two words you frequently heard out of her mouth were, “I’ll try.” Whenever we asked her to try a new exercise, her response was always the same: “I’ll try.” And as I took a step back and looked at her, I realized she was so functional and spry simply because she refused to roll over and take frailty as a given!

Exercise is Hard, No Exercise is Even More Difficult

Some older people think that exercise is “too hard” but the reality is, life WITHOUT physical activity is exponentially harder. Sure, if you exercise, you’re probably going to have some sore muscles and pinched nerves once in a while, but the penalty for doing nothing is far worse than a few transient aches and pains.

I’ve led a very physically active life over the years and, in spite of knee injuries, broken ribs, a tweaked back, and pulled muscles (and the list goes on), I still think it was all worth it. Again, the penalty for a physically inactive life is a slow, insidious onset of degenerative orthopaedic and metabolic dysfunction, not to mention the decrement in cognitive function – yes, exercise is good for the brain, too!

Ode to an Active Family

On a more personal note, I love it when I speak to my mother and she tells me about all the gardening work she’s doing around the house (especially now that it’s springtime in the US). Ok, so it’s not quite like going to the gym and giving the body a good flogging, but it does constitute physical activity, it’s functional and relevant to her life, and she enjoys it – ticks all the boxes as far as I can tell!

In closing, I’d like to pay homage to my own grandfather and his personal brand of “exercise,” even before it was the trendy thing to do.  My memories of him would have reflected his so-called retirement years, but seeing how he moved about, you’d never have known he was “retired.”

John Sukala

Before I go on, you have to understand, he lived in a rural area in central-western Pennsylvania which means open space…and lots of it.

I fondly remember him going out into the field next to the house and using a scythe to chop down large areas of tall grass.  Being a farmer, he was out there with a hoe and preparing the soil for laying down crops.  He kept some animals so he built his own sheds to house them.  Even when he wasn’t “working” he always seemed to be doing something physical.

In the summers, we’d go fishing which would entail hiking around the lake to find a good spot to cast out our lines. In the winter, he’d spend all day out in the woods hunting with my dad, uncles, and older cousins.

But one lasting memory I have of him that still remains strong to this day was when he would kick my sister and me out of the house and refused to let us watch television!

He’d slap a hammer and nails in our hands and say something along the lines of “get out there and wack some nails into 2 x 4s!”  Pop-Pop walked on water in my eyes so whatever he said must have been the right thing to do!

While he may not have had all the science background on child obesity and inactivity physiology, he certainly had enough common sense and intuitiveness to know what was good for us.

Despite all the doomsday headlines telling soon-to-be retirees to fear for the worst, I think it’s all for naught.  We’re already living longer due to modern medical technology, so why not help it along by beginning a second career at 65!

Is Sugar REALLY That Bad For You? An Honest Answer

Is Sugar REALLY That Bad For You? An Honest Answer


Sugar.  Everyone loves to hate it. But is it REALLY all that bad?

With the exception of fat, no other single nutrient has been more maligned and misrepresented than carbohydrate.

Sugar, as it’s commonly known, has been singularly scapegoated as the culprit behind our expanding waistlines, chronic diseases, and child hyperactivity disorders – among others.

The mass media, ever thirsty for a sensationalized headline, has muddled fact and fiction, referring to sugar as a metabolic poison. Popular diet book authors and purveyors of potions and pills have profited by feeding a confused public small portions of the truth that are meant to serve their sales agendas.

But the question that nobody seems to be asking is, can something that tastes so good REALLY be so bad for health?

Why does everyone believe sugar is bad?

Sugar has been demonised by alarmist book titles like “Sweet Poison” and “I Quit Sugar,” social media, anti-sugar websites, popular magazines, and the personal trainer at your local gym. When lies and half-truths get repeated often enough, they become true in everyone’s minds (much like old wive’s tales).

But to understand what sugar has done to earn its unsavory reputation, you have to first understand what food processing has done to carbohydrate.

Food science technology allows manufacturers to isolate, extract, and manipulate starches and simple sugars, which can then be added to foods to enhance:

  • Flavor
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Sweetness
  • Shelf life

The knee-jerk public reaction is that ALL added sugar is bad news. However, this view does not take into consideration that sugary foods consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, nutrient-rich diet are unlikely to pose any significant harm.

What exactly does “in moderation” mean anyway? 

The word moderation can mean different things to different people so it’s important to draw some lines in the sand and set limits for a frame of reference.

The World Health Organisation recommends adults and children reduce their added sugar intake to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake, but suggests that a further reduction to 5% (about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons) per day would confer additional health benefits.

Sounds easy enough, but how does our sugar intake ACTUALLY measure up?

Added sugar: recommended vs. actual intakes

Unfortunately, added sugar intake in the United States and Australia far exceeds these recommendations. In the US, added sugar accounts for almost 270 calories, or 13% of daily energy intake. The highest sugar intakes were found in children, adolescents, and young adults and ranged between 15 and 17% of daily energy intake.

is sugar bad?

Sugar Intake: Recommended versus actual intake. Source: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/

According to recent health survey data released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians are consuming 60 grams of added sugar per day (14 level teaspoons of white sugar). Children, adolescents, and young adults were most likely to exceed the WHO recommendations, with males aged 14-18 years found to be consuming 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day (and the top 10% of male teenagers consuming as high as 38 teaspoons of free sugars per day).

In both countries, beverage intake was responsible for the highest intakes (including soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, fruit and vegetable juices). Leading food sources included muffins, cakes, and confectionary.

Is sugar making us fat?

Is sugar bad for you? If in a Big Gulp, then yes!While all the alarmists would have you believe that a single granule of the sweet stuff on your tongue will make your ass wider than an axe handle, the evidence clearly shows that the devil is in the dose – and we’re chowing it down by the truckload.

Foods high in refined sugar are also high in calories and low in nutrient density so it’s easy to eat a lot of them. They are less satisfying which can leave you feeling hungrier sooner and more likely to reach for the next doughnut and can of Coke.

Further reading: Check out these articles on satiety and nutrient/energy density.

Before we start pointing fingers, remember that the current obesity epidemic is due to not only the overconsumption of refined, high sugar, high fat, high calorie junk foods, but also the epidemic levels of physical inactivity (i.e., long hours chained to a desk, playing video games, using messaging apps, etc). According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 adults is not physically active and 80% of the world’s adolescent population is insufficiently physically active.

Translation: we’re easily putting down the calories, but we’re not doing enough to burn them off. Sugar is at the scene of the obesity crime, but it clearly isn’t a “lone shooter.”


Sugar 101: back to basics

So what is sugar anyway?

Time to get back to basics. There are six nutrients, three of which provide calories. They are: protein, fat, and carbohydrate.

You might be thinking, “hey, wait! Where’s sugar?”

Simply put, sugar IS carbohydrate, but in its most basic form.

Monosaccharides

The simplest of carbohydrates are called “monosaccharides.” They are:

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose

Disaccharides

Carbohydrates that contain two monosaccharides are called “disaccharides.”  Common examples are:

  • Sucrose (table sugar) – formed from glucose and fructose
  • Lactose (milk sugar) – formed from glucose and galactose

Both monosaccharides and disaccharides are commonly referred to as sugars. In general, the smaller the molecule, the sweeter the taste.

Polysaccharides

Long-chain complex carbohydrates (known as polysaccharides) are comparatively less refined and therefore less sweet on your tongue. Examples of polysaccharides include:

  • Starch – this is the carbohydrate stored in plants. Humans have an enzyme called amylase that allows us to break down starch into glucose.
  • Glycogen – this is the storage form of carbohydrate in humans and animals.
  • Cellulose – this is the strong, thick fiber that gives vegetables and fruits their rigid shape and structure. Humans cannot digest it since our enzymes are unable to break the chemical bonds that hold it together.

What are the different types of sugars?

Natural sugars

Natural sugars are “naturally” present in foods. Fructose, for example, is the naturally occurring sugar that gives fruit its sweetness.

As a fruit ripens, longer chain carbohydrates called starches break down into simpler, sweeter sugar molecules. Honey also derives its sweetness from fructose.

Refined sugars

Refined sugars are made via the processing and refining of starches.  In the case of sucrose, the processing of starches in sugar cane or sugar beets produces the sweet tasting white crystals most people recognize as table sugar.

Added sugars

“Added sugars” can be either natural or refined such as those added to foods. Commonly added sugars include table sugar, high fructose corn syrup (controversial and frequently maligned), as well as supposedly healthier sweeteners like agave nectar and honey.

Whoa!  Supposedly healthier? What does that mean? Are honey and agave nectar REALLY healthier than sucrose or high fructose corn syrup?

Is honey healthy?

While it is true that honey, especially raw honey, contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and even amino acids to varying degrees depending on the type, the contribution of these nutrients to a healthful diet if consumed regularly has not been well established.

A current review of the scientific literature shows that the health benefits attributed to honey are often associated with ingesting large amounts (50-80 grams). Thus, the supposed benefits of honey could be due to the additive effect of these trace elements.  If this is true, then honey’s benefits come at a relatively high caloric cost (i.e., high energy, low nutrient density).

A recent report by the Food Safety News found that about two-thirds of commercially produced honey has been filtered to the point that it no longer contains any traces of pollen and can’t be identified as true honey.


Is agave nectar healthier than sugar?

Agave nectar has been shown in mice to moderate weight gain, glucose, and insulin levels compared to sucrose.

In a human study of adults aged 20 to 45, consumption of 50 grams of agave nectar elicited a lower blood glucose response compared to the equivalent amount of sucrose. However, a greater level of nausea was reported in the agave nectar group.

Agave nectar is very high in fructose, almost 85%, which would explain its beneficial effects on blood glucose response, but in the high doses found in many junk foods, it can contribute to obesity and poor health.

Despite some early positive press, agave nectar has lost its shine as a media darling. It’s now been trashed and tossed onto same heap as other refined sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.

Once you get past all the marketing hype, most sweeteners, including honey, are surprisingly more alike than they are different. You need only look at their chemical composition to understand why.

Chemical composition of different types of sugar

Chemically speaking, table sugar, the dissacharide derived from sugar cane, is composed of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose where glucose and fructose occur in equal amounts.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), also a glucose and fructose solution, is made from corn. It is produced as HFCS-42, HFCS-55 or HFCS-90, which contain 42 percent, 55 percent or 90 percent of fructose, respectively.

Likewise, agave nectar is a mixture of glucose and fructose obtained by refining the agave plant.

Even honey is little more than a solution of glucose and fructose, with the exact ratio of glucose to fructose varying from product to product, though often occurring at or near a 1:1 ratio. Pollen is filtered to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, the sweet-tasting end products offer comparatively little nutritional value.

Natural sugar guilty by association

In our zeal to slay the sugar monster, we have thrown out the natural sugar baby with the added sugar bathwater.

Some self-styled nutrition experts have slammed fruit by naively reasoning that because it contains fruit sugar, and fruit sugar contains fructose, it must therefore be bad for you.

What critics consistently neglect to acknowledge is that an orange (which contains fructose the way nature intended) also provides valuable fiber, vitamin C, potassium, folic acid and a whole slew of other important micronutrients and phytonutrients.

Because of these other food constituents (fiber in particular), the food leaves the stomach slower and leads to a slower rise in blood sugar (as opposed to a can of Coke).

For more information, check out this article on fruit sugar and health on this site.

Right, so refined sugar may not be good for me, but is it BAD for me?

Based on the current science the best answer to this question is kinda, sorta, maybe, but this ambiguity must be put into context.

Commercially-produced sweeteners are derived from whole foods. At their core, they possess some combination of the naturally occurring sugars, fructose and glucose.

The difference is, when eaten in the original unprocessed whole foods, these sugars and the starches they come from are diluted, distributed, and evenly balanced out by a combination of other healthy nutrients (i.e., fiber, phytonutrients, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals).

The refining process distorts this balance and comes at a high nutritional cost – very high in calories and low in nutrient density Still, the fact that refined sugar isn’t a chock full of wholesome nutrition does not necessarily make it bad for us.


Fructose intake and fatty liver?

Unlike glucose, fructose is metabolized in the liver. There are conflicting opinions, but research on fructose suggests that consuming very LARGE AMOUNTS of this monosaccharide may have a negative impact on your health and contribute to conditions like fatty liver in some people. Nearly anything in moderation can potentially be harmful in excess – and sugar is no different (excessive water intake can kill you too).

It is important to note that many of the fructose studies were conducted in rats or on small groups of obese individuals. Therefore, these results may not readily apply to healthy weight or mildly overweight people.

Much of the research to date included the ingestion of pure fructose solutions at very high levels, which are not representative of the amounts consumed in the average diet.

The real take home message here is that findings from available fructose studies do not provide any compelling evidence against moderate consumption against a backdrop of an otherwise diverse and healthy diet.

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that the facts have been misrepresented by the mainstream media and self-styled nutrition “experts,” usually for a sensationalized story line or as marketing fodder.

So sugar is not a bad, rotten, evil poison after all?

Sugar is sugar is sugar – empty calories that aren’t necessary. For those who are eating a diverse and nutrient dense diet, occasionally drizzling your favorite whole wheat pancakes in a little syrup is probably okay and does not pose any clear or well-established risk to your health.

However, routinely drenching pancakes made from refined white flour in agave nectar and washing it down with a 2-liter bottle of Coke is clearly not going to do your health any favors.

Bottom line: sugar redeemed

The issue with sugar may not be one of “good versus bad” but rather one of “some versus too much.” It has been my experience that people who cut down the added sugar from their diet don’t miss it (this nutritionist included). So, while accustomed to the sweetness of added sugars, when given the chance, tastes buds happily and naturally recalibrate.

This strategy, by default, results in a more nutrient-dense diet which leaves the stomach slower, leaving you feeling fuller for longer, and therefore less likely to overeat. People who lose weight and keep it off through a diet low in refined sugar do so mainly as a result of continued calorie control – and less so because “sugar is a poison.”

Additional Reading

Schneider, Andrew. “Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey.” Food Safety Network. November 1, 2011. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/(link)

Hooshmand Shirin, Holloway Brittany, Nemoseck Tricia, Cole Sarah, Petrisko Yumi, Hong Mee Young, and Kern Mark. Effects of Agave Nectar Versus Sucrose on Weight Gain, Adiposity, Blood Glucose, Insulin, and Lipid Responses in Mice. Journal of Medicinal Food. September 2014, 17(9): 1017-1021. doi:10.1089/jmf.2013.0162. (link)

Cravinho,A, Hammon, M, Rieger, K, Kern, M. Acute Ingestive Effects of Agave Nectar Versus Sucrose in Healthy Young Adults. The FASEB Journal. 29(1) Supplement 596.17. (link)

Willems, JL & Low, NH. Major Carbohydrate, Polyol, and Oligosaccharide Profiles of Agave Syrup. Application of this Data to Authenticity Analysis. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2012, 60(35): 8745–8754. DOI: 10.1021/jf3027342.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22909406 (link)

Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R., Gallmann, P. Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review.  J Am. Coll Nutr 2008, 27:677-689.  http://www.jacn.org/content/27/6/677.long (link)

Rizkalla, S. Health implication of fructose consumption:  A recent review of data.  Nutrition and Metabolism 2010, 7:82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2991323/pdf/1743-7075-7-82.pdf (link)

Stanhope, K., Havel, P. Fructose Consumption:  Recent results and their potential implication.  Ann NY Acad Sci. 2010; 1190: 15-24.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3075927/pdf/nihms279303.pdf (link)

Dolan, L., Potter, S., Burdock, G.  Evidence-Based Review on the Effect of Normal Dietary Consumption of Fructose on Blood Lipids and Body Weight of Overweight and Obese Individuals. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2010; 50 (10): 889-918. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21108071 (link)

5 Laughter Health Benefits & 8 Ways to Laugh Yourself Healthy

5 Laughter Health Benefits & 8 Ways to Laugh Yourself Healthy

Laughter is the best medicine, or so goes the age-old adage.  And it just so happens there is scientific evidence that backs it up.  Research shows that laughing in the face of your daily woes can improve your mental and physical well-being?

But before we get into the science, how the heck did we get so serious? When did we “unlearn” laughing and trade in our happy faces for serious scowls?

Close your eyes and drift back to visions of your childhood – long hours at the beach playing with friends, riding bikes around the neighbourhood til dark, and indulging at will in the joy of a deep down belly laugh.

Slowly and without notice, your youthful silliness gave way to stodgy adult silence. You grew up, and with it came grown-up responsibilities. Moments of folly and jolly became far and few between as the responsibilities of adult life got in the way.

But did you know that reclaiming your joie-de-rire not only lifts your spirits but may also help boost your body’s health defenses?


Laughter and the Science of Silly

Laughter and blood pressure

Laughter has been shown to exert a positive influence on your cardiovascular system. For example, emotions are known to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system which increase both heart rate and blood pressure.

In a study that exposed three groups of men to a humorous, sad, or neutral movie, only the sad movie caused a rise in blood pressure while the blood pressure in participants watching the humorous movie remained stable. The authors concluded that a humorous stimulus may help buffer the rise in blood pressure.  Not a bad side effect of having a bit of fun, especially if you’ve had, or are at risk for a heart attack.

Laughter and immune function

Researchers at Loma Linda University in California exposed 52 men to a humorous video for one hour.

Blood samples taken before, during, and after revealed increases in protective natural killer cell activity and immunoglobulins, with some of these beneficial effects lasting as long as 12 hours after the intervention.

The authors concluded that laughter may have important benefits for the immune system and should be recommended in conjunction with other therapies.

Laughter and psychological well-being

According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression.

That’s a grim statistic, but the good news is that studies have shown both humorous stimuli and a healthy sense of humour are associated with lower levels of depression, loneliness, and stress and higher levels of self-esteem and quality of life.

In a study of 48 depressed geriatric patients and 61 age-matched controls, participants exposed to four weekly laughter groups scored significantly lower on the Geriatric Depression Scale and had a better Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index score compared to those in the control group.

In another study, 60 depressed geriatric women were randomly assigned to a laughter yoga group, an exercise group, or a control group. Similar improvements in mood were observed in the laughter yoga and exercise groups compared to the control group. Moreover, the laughter yoga group scored better than the other groups on the Life Satisfaction Scale.

In a 2010 review, Fonzi and colleagues summarised the effects of laughter on depression, finding that 1) laughter improves mood directly and moderates negative consequences of stressful events on mental well-being; 2) laughter stimulates regions of the brain involved in the development of depression and normalises dysfunction of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical system; and 3) laughter has positive effects on social relationships and physical health which can help depressed people to face the disease.

Laughter, diabetes, and blood sugar levels

For people with diabetes, healthy eating, regular activity, medication, and education are the cornerstones of blood sugar management. But it seems that a healthy dose of laughter may be just what the doctor ordered.

Japanese researchers studied the effects of laughter on after meal blood glucose levels. Participants with type 2 diabetes ate a 2100 kJ (500 calories) meal followed by an intentionally boring 40-minute lecture, with blood glucose levels measured two hours later.

This was repeated on a different day but instead with a comedy show of the same duration. Blood glucose levels after the “boring” intervention were 6.8 mmol/L,whereas blood glucose levels only rose to 4.3 mmol/L after the laughter treatment.

These findings suggest that a side dish of laughter may help moderate the post-meal increase in blood glucose levels.


Laughter and diabetic nephropathy

In separate report based on the same study, the comedy show attendees also experienced desirable reductions in prorenin – an early warning sign for diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease) – and favourable changes in its associated genetic markers.

In a related study, the same researchers observed improvements in the renin-angiotensinogen system (linked to blood pressure and diabetes) and blood prorenin levels of type 2 diabetic participants receiving six months of laughter therapy.

The findings from these two studies suggest that both short and long-term laughter treatments may help stave off diabetic nephropathy.

Laughter limitations

Though the physical and mental health benefits of laughter seem self-evident, it is important to note that research results can be influenced by the number of participants, gender, their initial health status, choice of tests used to measure physical and mental health, and less obvious influences like culture.

More studies are needed to conclusively determine the short and long-term health benefits for both healthy people and those with diseases.

Finding your funny bone

Whilst scientists squabble over the details, there’s no denying a good gut-wrenching guffaw feels great! Sense of humour is subjective, and what’s funny to you may not be to someone else.

No matter what your tastes, these 8 quick tips can help fire up your funny bone and inject a bit of levity into your life:
1) Net effect YouTube is a limitless source of funny videos. Search for your favourite comedians. Search Google for joke websites, misquoted song lyrics, or funny photos. Whatever trips your trigger, bookmark the sites so you can come back and have a laugh at any time!
2) Good news If you receive the newspaper in the morning, skip the doom and gloom headlines and go straight to the cartoons page. Clip out your favourites and stick them on the fridge for a daily chuckle.
3) Mirthful movies – watch comedies with your favourite funny actors. With online services like Netflix readily available, you can watch them again and again, kind of like your own personal laughter library.
4) Radio gaga – listen to your favourite radio personalities in the morning on your way to work (not venom-tainted talk radio!). If you want to listen to the program again, most radio stations now make broadcasts available for download on their websites.
5) Goofy games – host a game night with friends, but keep it non-competitive in nature. Quirky games like Twister and Pictionary can draw hoots and howls even from the most stone-faced people.
6) Out on the town – do something quirky and out of character and have a laugh at your own expense. Try ten pin bowling, dodgem cars (bumper cars in the US), miniature golf, or sing karaoke (badly!) – and perhaps a trip to the comedy club before heading home!
7) Happy virus – if humour really is infectious, then keep positive, uplifting, and funny friends close at hand – and the social contact is good for your spirit, too!
8) Book ‘em Dano – visit your local library and ask the service staff to help you locate humorous books.


Do you need a reason to laugh?

What about laughing for no good reason whatsoever? Is it possible to “fake it til you make it” and still reap the health benefits?

Dr. Madan Kataria, founder Laughter Yoga (laughteryoga.org), seems to think so. “Your body cannot differentiate between acted and genuine laughter. Both produce the same happy chemistry.”

Unlike physical yoga for your muscles and joints, Laughter Yoga is a relaxed social experience where you get together in a group and do interactive chants and hand-clapping, act out silly hypothetical scenarios, imitate animals such as waddling penguins, or blow up your cheeks like a puffer fish – the possibilities are limitless! The child-like playfulness and simulated laughter which accompanies the exercises soon give way to very real, contagious laughter.

What started off in 1995 as five people laughing for no reason in a park in India has since turned into a global phenomenon. There are now about 8000 laughter yoga clubs in 100 countries.

According to Bronwyn Roberts, Chief Happiness Officer at Let’s Laugh (www.letslaugh.com.au) in Victoria, Australia, “the laughter movement is fast becoming as popular and well-respected as yoga and meditation.”

Classes are easily accessible and open to everyone. “Entry is free to most community laughter clubs, though some leaders may charge a small fee to cover the cost of the venue hire,” says Bronwyn. “And all ages are welcome. In my community group, our youngest participant was 4 years old and the oldest was 87.”

Like anything we do in life, laughter is a habit – the more you practice, the easier it becomes and the more relaxed you feel.

“It’s about being entirely in the moment, not thinking about your problems or things you have to do, or even how silly you feel, but allowing yourself and your mind time to play, to release your inner child and give you some much needed exercise,” adds Bronwyn.

In a world that takes itself far too serious, that’s certainly something we could all use!