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Do You Need to Take Probiotics? (Science Says it Might Be a Waste)

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The probiotic industry has a dirty secret: It’s creating a billion-dollar business based on twisted science.

If you are wondering, “do I need probiotics?” Consider this: Probiotics — the healthy bacteria highlighted on most yogurt products — are being added to everything from popcorn to muffin mixes.

According to a report by Grand View Research, the market for probiotics supplements is expected to reach $7 billion in the next 7 years.

Here’s the thing: That business is built on a little bit of science…and a lot of fiction.

“There are many products labeled with the word ‘probiotic’ in the U.S., but not all are responsibly formatted or studied for health benefits,” says Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., executive science officer of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics.

The science is that probiotics are good for you  — but only if you have a condition that requires their use.

That’s not something you’ll want to hear if your pantry and fridge are filled with probiotic-infused foods.  

“The benefits of probiotics in foods — especially foods that aren’t fermented dairy products — is questionable, at best,” says Shira Doron, M.D., professor of medicine and attending physician in infectious diseases at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to food, many probiotic supplements fail to live up to the promise on their label.

Unless you have a specific condition that’s been shown to benefit from probiotics, you likely don’t need them.

“There is no evidence that it is essential to take probiotics to be healthy,” Sanders adds.

Her next point may be even more important:

“You don’t need probiotics if you are healthy,” Sanders says.

The Hype (and Mythology) of Probiotics

Probiotics are live microorganisms that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Most people treat probiotics the same way they would a multivitamin.

In theory, the benefit of a multivitamin is that it helps make up for deficiencies from your diet. So, if you have a good multivitamin (that’s an entirely different story), and if you don’t have a great diet, then it might offer you some benefits.

Here’s the thing:

Probiotics do not function like multivitamins.

Whereas multivitamins can have a benefit for anyone because it helps support deficiencies, probiotics are really designed to help treat, improve, or solve dysfunction.

You need probiotics if your microbiome (i.e. your gut health) is messed up. This means that taking probiotics can be very helpful if you suffer from a condition such as irritable bowel disease.

But if not, then your use of probiotics might not be doing as much good as you hoped.

The Probiotic-Gut Relationship: It’s Complicated

You might be wondering:

How does a billion dollar business get built on something as shaky as “maybe this will be good for you?”

It all starts with the extremely complex nature of your gut.

It’s so complicated that science needs much more time to figure it out. “The human microbiome may have as many as 200 trillion microorganisms and up to a thousand species,” Doron says.

That’s a lot of biological ground to cover, which is why probiotics are still a field that scientists are trying to understand.

“There are a variety of things we think happen, but we don’t know how that all works,” Doron says.

Three reasons why what you see on probiotic labels isn’t necessarily reflective of what it will do for your body:

  • Different probiotics may work differently (and again, there hundreds of different types)
  • Each probiotic may have more than one effect
  • Not everyone responds the same way to a specific strain

Researchers are currently trying to figure out potential benefits that have shown hypothetical promise.

One theory is that when probiotics reach your gut, they digest available carbs and produce short-chain fatty acids. Those acids then fuel other beneficial microbes in your gut, in turn, producing more fatty acids.

Why should you care?

Because short-chain fatty acids are known to create a healthy microbiome, and they improve colon health.

Another theory is that when some probiotics reach your small intestine, they interact with the immune cells lining your organs. This may lead to a positive immune system response, such as a decreased incidence of respiratory tract infections or improved response to vaccines.

Sanders says some studies suggest that probiotics improve gut barrier integrity, which is why you’ll hear probiotics recommended for some digestive issues.

But, at this point, all of this is hypothetical. Probiotics might be amazing, but — in healthy people — we don’t know if they have extended benefits.

So…What Do Probiotics Really Do?

Probiotics help people with specific conditions where gut dysfunction is a problem. Consider it one of nature’s best medicines if you suffer from:

Additionally, some research suggests taking specific probiotics may support immune health and potentially reduce the risk or duration of the common cold.

But, any benefit is specific to the strain of probiotic, and even the transport of the good strains is still a work in progress. That’s because we still don’t know if good strains that we can create in a supplement — or a food like yogurt — can survive the environment in your stomach and then have a positive impact in your gut.

“Any probiotic, even a combination product, is just a tiny drop in the bucket,” Doron explains. “In our group’s research, we saw that when subjects took a probiotic containing lactobacillus, we couldn’t even detect a change in lactobacillus abundance” within their gut.

What If I’m Healthy? Will Taking a Probiotic Help Me?

Always consult your doctor if you have an immune disorder or any serious underlying illness before taking a probiotic.

If you are generally healthy then there aren’t too many downsides. If you take a supplement, give it a month, trust yourself, and see how your body responds. It’s possible that you’ll feel better — but know that studies indicate the positive outcomes you experience could be a placebo effect.

“That’s worthwhile if you feel better, but it’s also expensive,” Doron says.

If you are healthy, curious, and OK with spending the extra money, feel free to try a supplement. As we mentioned, it could have benefits for immunity and creating more short-chain fatty acids to help your gut. But only time will tell if this is the case for people with no health problems.

If I have a health condition, what should I do?

First off, skip the fortified foods. And skip microbiome tests that will allegedly help you understand what probiotics you need to eat.

“At this point, an individual cannot look at their microbiota and come to conclusions about their health, Doron says. “There are still more questions than answers.”

Your best bet is to consult a doctor who understands your condition and is also well-versed in probiotics. Doron suggests researching academic medical centers and looking at the profiles of physicians in the field you need.

“Check [for doctors whose] interests include subjects like ‘probiotics’ and ‘microbiome,’” Doron says. “The field is still young, and even for the world’s experts, there are way more questions than answers when it comes to manipulating the human microbiome for health purposes. But there are certainly doctors in a variety of fields who take an interest in this area of research or do research themselves and use the knowledge they have gained in their medical practice.”

Remember, you’re trying to fix a dysfunction, which is the real health benefit of probiotics.

Follow your doctor’s recommendation down to the strain and dose. The strain will be a long name and often include a number, such as L. acidophilus NCFB 1748.

The “dose” is the big number on the label, such as 10 billion, which indicates the colony-forming units, or CFU. Higher isn’t necessarily better, so follow your doctor’s advice.

Avoid any products that list the CFU “at time of manufacture.”

“That’s a red flag,” Sanders says. Counts of the live microbes decrease over time, so you want to know the CFU through the end of shelf life.

The front of the box will typically say the total CFU count; the side label may list the CFU for each strain. Look for whichever your doctor recommends. And if the product is refrigerated at the store, keep it in the fridge at home to ensure you don’t kill off more CFU.

The last thing to look for is any seal from a third-party verification program to be sure that what the probiotic contains what the label says it does.

At this time the ISAPP is working with the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) on a verification program, USP labels (ordinarily a good sign of quality) are not yet available. You may, however, find NSF International, which is legitimate. But note that statements like “quality guaranteed” do not mean they have been verified by third parties.

READ MORE: 

Understanding the Microbiome: How Gut Health Affects Your Health, Weight Loss and Mood

Wheat Belly Deception: Understanding Wheat, Insulin and Fat Loss

Are Multivitamins Right for Your Body?

 

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I Want to Look More Muscular. What’s the Best Way to Make Gains?

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There’s one thing that all the biggest, most muscular people on the planet have in common.

It’s not great genetics.

(Good genes help, but plenty of people have gotten huge without having been blessed with it at birth.)

It’s not that they all just live at the gym and do nothing else, or follow some magical workout. (When it comes to building muscle, many different approaches — low rep/high weight, high rep/low weight, straight sets, supersets, and on and on — can work. There is no one that’s “best.”)

And it’s not that they’re on performance-enhancing drugs. (You can pack on plenty of muscle naturally — look no further than any drug-free bodybuilding competition for proof.)

The thing they all have in common is this:

Patience.

Not the answer you expected? Here’s why being patient is so important.

The Problem with Bulking and Cutting

First, when most people set out to build muscle, they go through a phase where they eat a lot and train a lot. You’ve probably heard it called “bulking.”

Then, after a few weeks or months, they switch. Maybe they get self-conscious about the size the gained. Or maybe they think they’re starting to look fat. So they trim back on calories and change their training to try and burn the fat off. This phase is called “cutting.”

Most people bounce back and forth between these two phases — bulking and cutting, bulking and cutting — without making any real progress. Why? Because each new phase undoes the success of the last.

On our website, we’ve talked about Set Point Theory. It’s the idea that the body identifies with a certain weight and then becomes resistant to change. In our previous article, we discussed how it applied to weight loss. It’s one of the reasons why losing weight — and keeping it off — can be so hard.

But the concept also applies to muscle gain. Your body is used to being a certain weight. When you change that through strength training, it will take measures to go back to how it was — unless you teach it that this more muscular weight is it’s new normal.

Have a Born Fitness coach guide your gainz!

 

You teach your body that through what’s called a maintenance phase. In a lecture on his site Renaissance Periodization, Dr. Mike Israetel discusses how people hold themselves back if they do not include this phase in their training. (The content itself is paywalled, but totally worth buying if you like to nerd out on the science of muscle-building.)

I don’t want to give too much away or do violence to the quality and depth of his explanation. So I’ll summarize it like this: During a maintenance phase, you ease up on training a little bit. And you aim to eat what’s called an isocaloric diet, meaning you try to eat as many calories as you’d need, but not more.

Sample Muscle-Building Macronutrient Formula

This formula from Adam’s Great Abs Experiment will help:

For Total Calories Per Day:

Take the body weight you wish to maintain and multiply it by 10 if you are training 1 hour or less per week. For each additional hour you train per week, add 1 to the multiplier. So if you’d muscled up to 200 pounds, and trained 4 hours per week, you’d multiply 13 by 200 and get 2,600 calories per day as your mark. You can split that total across however many meals per day you prefer to eat (two, three, four, five, whatever).

Protein:

Eat at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. So if you were 200 pounds, you’d aim for 200 grams of protein (800 calories total) per day.

Fat:

Eat half a gram of fat per pound of bodyweight. So at 200 pounds, you’d target 100 grams of fat (900 calories) per day.

Carbohydrates:

Determine how many carbohydrates to eat by subtracting the protein and fat calories from your daily total, and then dividing the remainder by 4. To continue the example we’ve been using here, it would be 2,600 calories total minus 800 calories (protein) and 900 calories (fat), leaving you with 900 calories for carbs. Divide that by 4 and you get 225 calories of carbs per day.

While the length of your maintenance phase can vary, you’d want to approach it as if it were something you could do for several months or even years. Why? Because — again — you want this to be your new normal.

You want to think of building muscle not in terms of days and weeks, but months and years. The biggest, most muscular people in the world are the ones who show up for training, again and again, for years on end.

READ MORE: 

Adding Muscle At Any Age: Defying Genetics And Designing The Muscle Building Workout

The New Rules Of Specialization: How To Add Muscle Mass

How To Master The Art Of “Old School” Muscle Building

5 Muscle Building Mistakes (And How To Make Gains)

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Should I Cut Out Alcohol to Get Rid of Fat?

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First, I’ll toast you to a good question here. (I’m drinking green tea right now, but feel free to have a sip of whatever you wish.) When people ask “does alcohol make you fat,” or “should I stop drinking to lose weight,” the answer is complex, but can be summed up with:

  • No, you don’t have to ditch alcohol to lose fat…
  • BUT, if you do cut out drinking, it might help.

Alcohol And Weight Loss: It’s Complicated

Let’s start with the first point here. From a metabolic perspective, alcohol and your body have a weird relationship. There’s actually been a lot of research into it over the years because it’s so surprising.

Numerous studies, both observational and in controlled settings, have shown that people can consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol and not necessarily gain weight. (Moderate drinking is defined as 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men.)

An infographic showing what one standard alcoholic drink looks like

Part of this may be due to alcohol’s unique effect on the body. Your body can’t store alcohol and the 7 calories per gram it delivers. (Yup, it does have calories — more per gram than carbs and protein, but less than fat.) So instead the body fast-tracks that booze through your system.

Additionally, a high percentage of calories from alcohol get burned up by your metabolism through a process called the thermic effect of food (TEF). The thermic effect of alcohol is about 22.5%, which puts it on par with protein (which has a TEF of 25-30%) and well ahead of carbs (6-8%) and fat (2-3%).

All of which is to say: Alcohol on it’s own won’t necessarily make or break your weight loss goals.

“If you enjoy a few drinks during the week, it is still possible to have a highly successful fat loss journey,” says Born Fitness Head Nutrition Coach Natalie Sabin.

Now for the but…

Why Alcohol Might Make You Fat

Just because your body doesn’t store alcohol’s calories, it doesn’t mean you (and your fat cells) get off scot-free.

When your body is processing those calories from all those hoppy IPAs, or just one more glass of wine, they take the place of other calories you could be burning — like the bacon double cheeseburger you had on the way home from the bar. With beer calories taking its place in the metabolic line, the burger’s calories become part of you (and your belly).

In fact, some research would lead you to believe that the problem isn’t necessarily the alcohol itself. It’s what can come along with drinking. You know, like nachos. Or two dozen wings. Or a box of Totino’s Pizza Rolls if it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in college.

“Many folks who drink alcohol also have a tendency to eat more,” Sabin says.

A review published in Physiology & Behavior backs her up on this. It found that, sure enough, drinking before or during a meal tends to increase food intake.

Also, note that even though your body can’t store alcohol, it can (and does) store the calories mixed with it — like the 83g of sugar in a frozen margarita.

So What Should You Do?

1. Examine how much you’re drinking currently. For some this can be very eye-opening on it’s own. You might see that the “beer or two” you have “now and then” is actually “a couple drinks every night, plus about a dozen on the weekend.” Remember, the studies mentioned previously involved light to moderate drinking — i.e. one drink per day for women, two for men. Drinking more than that is conclusively not good. Heavier drinking is associated with weight gain and increased waist circumference, as well as poor health. Excessive alcohol consumption is the third-leading cause of premature death in the U.S. If your drinking exceeds that one to two drinks per day guideline, then yeah, cutting back (or going dry) likely will help you lose fat.

2. Pay attention to what else you do when you drink. If your occasional cocktail with friends is just that — a cocktail — then the caloric load probably isn’t all that significant. But if your drinks seem to come with a late night pizza chaser, you might have an issue on your hands. Here again, cutting out drinks might help your fat loss.

3. Let’s say your drinking (and appetite) is under control, but you still aren’t losing fat. And let’s say your drink-per-day is a must-have. If that’s the case, you could try and offset the calories by trimming elsewhere. For example, a glass of wine is around 120 calories. A typical beer is about 150 calories (although those heavier microbrews that are so popular nowadays can be double that). Cut out 30 to 40g of carbs from somewhere else, and pay attention to any changes. “Remember, to get rid of fat you need to create a calorie deficit,” Sabin says. “That means burn more calories than you are consuming — whether that’s eating OR drinking.”

READ MORE

Why Am I Not Getting Stronger

Why Did I Gain Weight On My Diet

4 Week Fat Loss Transformation

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When to Do It, and When to Avoid It?

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When to Do It, and When to Avoid It?

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life. Most of them having nothing to do with fitness and nutrition. But my nutrition blunders run especially deep. 

I’ve done everything from waking up twice in the middle of the night to drink protein shakes (gotta eat every 3 hours, right?) to slugging 20-30g of BCAAs throughout the day to “stay anabolic” (this still feels like my “pet rock” moment).

When it comes to carb-loading, I’ve experimented with extremes: I’d wake up 2 hours prior to my workout and eat about 100-150g of carbohydrates. (Think: Two bowls of oatmeal + fruit + 2 slices of bread just to make sure my glycogen stores were “fully loaded” to build muscle.) And I once avoided carbs completely, because fasted exercise burns more fat, right? (Nope!)

The truth is always more about sustainable behaviors than trying to “hack” your body. For instance, fasted cardio does not burn more fat, but if you feel better doing it, then go for it. And carbs can help build more muscle, but you don’t need to eat yourself silly.

Still, the question remains for most:

Should you eat carbs before a workout?

From a scientific standpoint, research suggests a little bit of carb-loading can be a great thing for your workout performance.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared endurance performance when consuming different amounts — and types — of carbohydrates.

The high-carb group ate 1.5g/kg of bodyweight before completing 90 minutes of intense exercise (think: a long run). This group saw better performance and were able to maintain their intensity for a longer period of time, whereas the lower-carb group had better fat oxidation, but were quicker to fatigue.

Looking at the results, it was a little murky to determine if the type of carbohydrate (low vs. high glycemic index) made any difference.

When to Carb Load

If you’re going to do long-lasting activity (especially endurance-type exercise, like running, biking, etc.) and performance is your goal (running longer, faster, and experiencing less fatigue), than pre-workout carbs is a better approach than avoiding carbs or going for a lower-carb meal.

In general, the longer the activity, the greater the “need” for carbs to help boost your workout.

But remember: if “forcing” your carbohydrate intake before a workout means you don’t work out, or makes you feel sick to your stomach, then don’t do it. Carb loading isn’t worth it if the meal that disrupts your workout.

READ MORE:

Do Carbs Make You Fat?

5 Signs a Protein Bar is Worth Eating

Understanding Fasted Cardio and Fat Loss

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