Nutrition and the brain

The vast majority of people claim to fail their new lifestyle, nutrition and exercise regime because of a lack of will-power. They blame their “weak mind” for their failure or lack of progress. They eat really well for three days then have a big blow-out meal and fall off the wagon. “I just can’t resist those foods”, “I enjoy chocolate too much “. I hear it all the time.
It is true that some people naturally lack motivation and that certain people are inherently lazy, but what we must take into consideration is that the foods we eat determine our mind-set through the up-regulation and down-regulation of various hormones and neurotransmitters released in response to their consumption.
To put it simply: “what you eat will determine how you think”.
I don`t blame the vast majority of people for failing. I personally blame the overwhelming array of easy and desirable food choices: Pizza, sandwiches on the go, cereal for breakfast, sugar-saturated energy drinks, chocolate bars at the service station. It is staggering really. What most people do not understand is that these foods will pretty much kill your motivation, lower your mood and create a vicious circle of continual wrong decisions and bad judgement because of the interaction between these foods, your gut, your hormones and therefore your brain.
Most underestimate the influence gut health has on your entire body. The gut acts as a second brain and contains more neurons than your entire spinal cord which is linked directly to the brain (this in itself tells us something). The gut houses 70% or our entire immune system and is our largest exposure to the outside environment (the small intestine alone when stretched and flattened will cover an area larger than a tennis court). It is home to trillions of strains of beneficial bacteria which interact with our bodies in ways we could never have possibly imagined. It is here we produce the neurotransmitters which are released within nerve synapses, essentially determining and governing how and what we think.
Most of the neurotransmitters in our brain such as acetyl choline, GABA, serotonin etc. are produced in the gut and govern the ways in which we think and act. For example poor uptake of serotonin from the gut and between nerve synapses is associated with depression, which is why many people are prescribed SSRIs (antidepressants) to prolong serotonin exposure in the brain. Perhaps the rapid surge in antidepressant prescriptions is due to our poor nutrition? Science would certainly back this up as those with significantly elevated body fat levels are statistically more prone to depression. The human gut and brain are constantly communicating and relaying feedback via the vagus nerve and disruption at either end can affect the other. Researchers have even found that brain trauma has been associated with gut irritation and food intolerances.
Constantly bombarding the gut with sugars, alcohol, trans fatty acids, food allergens such as gluten and poor quality processed foods can interfere with the micro flora balance (gut bacteria) and can influence the production and exchange of neurotransmitters through the gut membrane which will influence uptake of various neurotransmitters in the brain. The body will respond to these harmful foods as a stressor and this can lead to a prolonged release of glucocorticoid hormones such as cortisol, which up-regulate centres of the brain responsible for food cravings and appetite. This leads us to make the wrong food choices and governs our desire for particular foods, particularly sweet tasting foods which raise blood sugar (this will also extend to savoury foods such as bread and crisps etc. which are converted to sugar in the body). This uncontrollable desire to eat sugar laden food is governed not by our will power, but through a hormonal response to the fallout from eating the “wrong foods”. This is why those participating in diets where the underlying principles involve eating what you want but in small quantities will ultimately fail, as they overlook the fact that these foods are hyperpalatable and override the body’s natural satiety signals, leading to uncontrollable eating.
One classic example is a typical bag of sweets. Most manufacturers claim that their bag of sweets will provide 6 whole separate servings. I don`t think I have ever seen somebody eat just a sixth of the packet and leave the rest. They eat the whole lot! That is because these foods interact with the opiate receptors on the brain and light up the feel-good, happy hormones. This is essentially how drug and alcohol addiction works. Food is no different!
The stress response inflicted upon the gut and its processing of these harmful foods will also induce oxidative damage, leading to an upsurge in insulin as well as blood pressure. The body is fairly efficient at avoiding the extremes of any kind of hormonal reaction, so the inhibitory (calming) hormones serotonin and GABA are released to down regulate this response. Over time the cells in your body which possess a receptor site for these types of neurotransmitters desensitize to their signalling actions, causing a type of cellular resistance. This means that the once-balanced effect of an up-regulation of stress via release of cortisol/adrenaline etc. and the subsequent release of inhibitory calming neurotransmitters is compromised. This allows excessive amounts of stress hormones to run rampant through the body leading to depression, anxiety, an inability to sleep, and poor concentration (among other things!). All of these factors will increase the likelihood of suffering from the vast majority of modern day diseases. This all comes about as a result of a high sugar, nutrient deficient diet. The good news is that a good diet and a smart approach can reverse this.
I will shortly be putting together a second article which will address ways in which to reverse these issues. Check back soon for part 2!

By David Cox

Cutting calories is not the best approach to eating for fat loss

I am not saying that calories in vs. calories out does not influence changes in body weight. What I am saying is that the process of purely reducing the number of calories you are allowed to eat each day is an inefficient way to get healthy and look better. It also has an extremely poor long-term success rate. In fact, a review of 31 studies looking at calorie restriction and weight loss in The American Psychologist found that as many as two thirds of dieters weighed more following their diet than they did at baseline! With a failure rate this high, why do people persist with this method?!

There are many reasons for this poor success rate. In this article I hope to explain a few of them. In my opinion, the primary reason these diets fail is because lowering calories lowers our metabolic rate. Eating less calories causes levels of certain hormones to drop (including testosterone, grehlin and thyroid hormones) and results in less calories burnt through the thermic effect of feeding. This all adds up to make us feel hungry and lethargic and predisposes us to gain fat as soon as we start eating a normal amount of food again! This is essentially what is going on with “yo-yo” dieters.

Purely cutting calories does not take into account the influence of the different macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate). These different macronutrients have very different effects on our hormones and influence our metabolic rate (the amount of energy we burn at rest). For example, when we eat a diet high in carbohydrates, our bodies release higher levels of the hormone insulin. The presence of insulin puts us in a state of energy storage rather than energy mobilisation, so our bodies are receiving no signals to breakdown fat for energy. Looking now at metabolic rate, a diet high in protein has been shown to significantly increase the energy we burn at rest due to the thermic effect of feeding.

Another key critique of the calorie restriction diet is the effect it can have on eating patterns. When a person has a set allowance for calories for a given day, they have a tendency to save up their allowance in order to binge on things like chocolate and alcohol without failing their diet. It does not take a genius to realise that this is not conducive to healthy fat loss. Additionally, eating in this manner does not lend itself to maintaining stable blood sugar and appetite levels. It is much more difficult to make healthy choices when the hormones that regulate your appetite are all over the place.

If you are looking for a nutritional strategy that will enable you to lose body fat in a healthy manner and maintain that loss, purely cutting calories is probably not your best bet. Keep reading our blog for future posts detailing more effective strategies that can help you produce sustainable results.

Toby’s Supplements

Here is a quick blog post detailing the supplements used during Toby’s transformation.  Before you read on, please be aware that the outstanding results were predominantly down to a strict and consistent diet and an extremely intense and carefully programmed exercise regime.  In terms of supplements, we just stuck to the absolute basics…


Whey Protein

Whey protein shakes were taken post training only.  At all other times, adequate protein was obtained from whole foods in order to maximise the intake of micronutrients and fibre.


Essential Amino Acids

15g of EAAs were consumed before and during each training session to promote anabolism and a favourable hormonal environment for muscle gain.  Powdered EAAs were mixed in water and sipped before and throughout the workouts.


Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine has been proven to be the single most effective nutritional supplement for increasing high intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.  Following a loading phase, Toby took 5 grams per day.  On training days, this was added to his post workout shake.


Vitamin D

There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the use of vitamin D for optimal health, fat loss, muscle gain and performance enhancement.  Vitamin D deficiency is extremely prevalent, there are some quite dramatic statistics available!  Toby supplemented his vitamin D intake with 4,000 IUs each morning with breakfast.



Zinc plays a primary role in anabolic hormone production and insulin health.  Higher levels of testosterone and improved insulin sensitivity both contribute to lean muscle gain and fat loss.  Toby took 15mg of zinc citrate each morning.



Magnesium is another mineral that is chronically deficient in most people.  It has been linked with a whole host of health benefits.  Most important to us was improved sleep, testosterone output and protein synthesis.  Toby used magnesium oil before bed each night.


Fish Oil

Toby took high doses of fish oil daily to support healthy cell membranes and insulin sensitivity.  Fish oil is also thought to improve training focus, and reduce stress and inflammation.

Why Long, Slow Cardio Is Not The Best Way To Lose Body Fat

There is an extremely widespread misconception that the best way to burn fat is to perform long bouts of slow, tedious aerobic exercise.  Go into any gym and you will find countless overweight individuals plodding away on the cardio machines (treadmills, cross trainers, stationary bikes etc.).  If you return several months later, you will find the same individuals doing the same type of exercise with no real results to show for it.


Many of these pieces of equipment will even have a little chart on them showing you the “fat burning zone”, an area towards the lower end of the intensity scale.  The idea is that exercising at a low intensity for a long period of time is the most effective way to lose fat.  This is actually a misconception stemming from peer-reviewed sports science research.  The research shows that we burn the highest proportion of fat for energy at low intensities.  What this ignores is the total amount of energy required by the exercise and the amount of energy we burn once the exercise has finished.


A smaller percentage of something big can be greater than a larger percentage of something small!  Therefore generally speaking, the harder you train the more fat you will burn.  If we also take into account the additional energy we burn after the exercise, referred to as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) in the scientific literature, we can see that we burn more energy after high intensity exercise as well as during it.


Looking now at different modes of exercise, it is actually becoming more widely accepted that resistance training (repetitive exercises using weights, resistance machines, bands or bodyweight) is more effective for improving body composition than cardio.  The research shows that “EPOC” is higher after resistance training than after cardio (in fact, some studies have shown energy expenditure at rest to be elevated for several days after resistance training!).  Additionally, any gains in lean muscle mass as a result of the resistance training will serve to further elevate resting metabolic rate and improve markers of health such as insulin sensitivity and bone mineral density.  Resistance training also has a more favourable effect on our hormonal profiles.  Our bodies release Growth Hormone (a hormone which maximises fat breakdown) in greater quantities following this style of training, whereas long bouts of cardio leads to elevations in the stress hormone Cortisol.  Over time, a chronic elevation in Cortisol leads to fat storage (especially visceral fat, around the belly) and inflammation.


Losing weight is not an easy process for most of us.  It is therefore extremely important to utilise the most efficient training protocols possible.  This means ditch the jogging and aerobics and start training with weights or performing sprint intervals.

Breakfast for optimal body composition

Toby has been training with us for six weeks and has achieved some impressive results so far.  The first alteration we made to his nutrition in order to achieve these dramatic improvements in his body composition was to completely change what he was eating for breakfast.


Unfortunately, the most common breakfast options in this country are cereal, toast and fruit juice.  If we look at the macronutrient breakdowns of these breakfast options, we see they are all low fat, low protein, and high carbohydrate.  This is the absolute opposite of what we need in the morning for optimal body composition.


We wake up in the morning in a fat burning state.  We have high levels of cortisol and growth hormone and low levels of insulin.  Our bodies are breaking down triglycerides into free fatty acids for metabolism (we are burning our body fat for energy!).  The last thing we need to do at this point is consume a large amount of carbohydrates.  What this does is raise insulin levels and shut down fat burning.  Some research shows that fat burning remains vastly reduced throughout the whole day as a result of this insulin spike.


Looking instead at what the body does need at this time, our focus switches to protein and “healthy” fats.  A high protein breakfast is very important because you need the amino acids to build and maintain muscle mass.  Additionally, it will make you feel fuller throughout the morning, stabilise blood sugar levels and increase your metabolic rate.  Consuming good sources of fat, contrary to popular belief, will actually aid fat loss rather than oppose it.  The body uses these fats to build hormones and lipid bilayers in cells.  The addition of coconut oil, which is high in medium chain triglycerides, has been shown to significantly increase our ability to utilise fat for fuel.


It is also useful to include a good source of fibre and antioxidants.  When training hard (and when you are not!) antioxidants are useful because they reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.  There is also research to suggest that they may protect us from disease and slow down ageing!    Fibre is important for bowel health and also contributes to blood sugar management and satiety.  Foods high in fibre and antioxidants, as an added health benefit, tend to have an alkaline effect on the body.


Taking all these points into consideration, Toby’s breakfasts was made up of the following components:


1.       A source of animal protein.

-E.g. eggs, ham, bacon, beef, any other meat.

2.       A source of healthy fats.

-E.g. coconut oil, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, cashew nuts, almonds.

3.       A source of fibre and antioxidants.

-E.g. green beans, broccoli, spinach, kale, asparagus, berries.

Four Simple and Effective Fat Loss Tricks

Several weeks ago I made a few deliberate alterations to my daily routine in an effort to reduce my body fat percentage while still eating for muscle gains.  The body is an extremely complex thing.  There are many more factors at play than just calories in and calories out when it comes to fat loss.  We also store fat in response to chronic stress, hormone imbalances, exposure to environmental toxins and anything else that contributes to systemic inflammation.  These are all things that we can minimise and avoid with small adjustments to the way we do things.  Here are four quick and easy changes I made which worked very quickly.

1.        Taking filtered water into work in glass bottles

I have a reverse osmosis water filter at home and have got into the habit of taking 2 litres into work with me each day.  Taking a known volume of water in allows me to keep track of my water intake and remain hydrated, which is important in order to maintain a high metabolic rate, among other things.  Additionally, tap water contains many toxins that are harmful to our health which the filter helps to eliminate.  I bought two large glass bottles in order to avoid storing it in plastic, which is known to contain a number of toxic chemicals (such as BPA, which mimics oestrogen).

2.        Wash all berries and vegetables prior to eating

My second change was to start washing all the fruit and vegetables I consume to remove any chemicals (toxic pesticides and herbicides etc.) still on their surface.  These chemicals are also often sources of xenoestrogens.  They can cause increases in fat storage through many methods, such as reducing insulin sensitivity and negatively effecting thyroid metabolism.

3.        Drink water with breakfast instead of fruit juice

I have been a strong advocate of a low carbohydrate, high protein, high fat breakfast for some time (favouring meat, eggs, nuts etc. over cereal and toast).  However I have only recently stopped having my glass of fruit juice.  A glass of fruit juice typically contains around 20 grams of sugar, making the low carb breakfast no longer low carb!  Eliminating this fruit juice will therefore promote stable blood sugar and fat oxidation throughout the morning.

4.        Keep a notebook by your bed

I identified that when I cannot get to sleep, I tend to be thinking a lot.  Writing down my ideas allows me to forget about them and relax, which in turn helps me fall asleep.  Acute sleep deprivation decreases the body’s insulin sensitivity, leading to elevated blood sugar.  This puts us in a state in which we are more likely to store fat than burn fat.


Top 4 Common Mistakes Made When Losing Body Fat

1>     Relying too heavily on aerobic training


Despite aerobic training being one of the most popular types of training (i.e. marathon running, jogging, cycling etc.), research has proven countless times that aerobic training is an inferior way of losing body fat when compared to high intensity interval training or resistance training.  Countless trainers and trainees have adopted aerobic training as a tool help to lose excess body fat, and this is a common error.  It is true that aerobic training burns a higher percentage of fat as an energy substrate during exercise, but the total fat breakdown during training and post training is extremely low. Aerobic training is also catabolic by nature (meaning that it burns muscle tissue) which leads to a reduction in resting metabolic rate and thyroid function, and can contribute to a loss of strength and various other negative factors. Consistent aerobic training will make your body more efficient at preserving energy which is the total opposite to what you wish to achieve when training for fat loss.

For superior fat burning results, opt for intense bursts of near maximal effort followed by low level recovery.  An example of this would be a 30 second sprint proceeded by a 60 second easy walking recovery.  You could then repeat this between 5 and 10 times.  More results in less than half the time.  What is not to like?


2>     Following a low fat diet


Due to the irresponsible marketing of low fat products and dietary regimes, many are led to believe that a low fat diet is necessary to lose body fat.  Once you understand the importance fat plays in hormone regulation you will realise that this is a major mistake.  All of the cells in your body are composed of fatty acids, such as Omega 3, including brain tissue and immune cells, which regulate and manage key hormones such as progesterone and testosterone.  These key sex hormones balance the effects of other vital hormones such as Insulin and oestrogen, which can contribute to excess body fat.  Low fat diets also contribute to insulin resistance, because of the increased appetite, and therefore consumption of carbohydrate-rich food (namely sweet food).  High consumption of these foods manipulates the way in which blood glucose reacts with various cell types.  Over time a high blood sugar/repeated insulin release will blunt the ability of glucose to enter your muscle cells.  This can increase the likelihood of diabetes and metabolic type diseases including cancer cells which multiply at a fast rate under high insulin loads.  This explains how some people can eat very little but still struggle to lose any fat.  It is typically because of poor quality foods as opposed to an excessive number of calories.   If glucose is unable to enter muscle tissue or liver glycogen stores, your body may create new fat cells where this glucose could be stored as fat. This is made worse by consumption of low fat products which are excessively high in sugar (Cue Weightwatcher meals, slim fast etc.). Aim for plenty of nuts, seeds, oilve oil, coconut oil , avocado, oily fish and  moderate consumption of animal fats. Not all fats are so beneficial to human health so make extra effort to avoid trans fats (found in cakes, biscuits, baked goods, processed foods etc.), vegetable oils, nut oils and excess intake of saturated fats.  Please note that eradicating all saturated fats is actually a bad idea (another post to follow).


3>     Eating poor quality food for breakfast


Everyday breakfast cereals such as Special K, Weetabix, coco pops, shredded wheat etc. contain exceptionally low quantities of nutrients.  Refined grains/cereals are a poor source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals to such an extent that the government passed a law during the 1970s which required manufacturers to add artificial B vitamins to the cereal grains because of population nutrient deficiencies.  Around 16 nutrients are removed during the refining process but only 5-6 nutrients are added back (these are artificial).  I found a packet of Cornflakes the other day with added vitamin D advertised on the front. They contained 25 IU of Vitamin D per serving which to the average person could seem a fair amount.  This is far from the truth as studies report we need between 2000—5000 IU of vitamin D per day for optimal health. This is another example of clever marketing which cereal companies are renowned for (sorry to disappoint you folks, Coco pops is not a rich source of B vitamins despite what Kellogg’s might say).

Common breakfast foods such as cereals, orange juice, toast etc. chronically elevate blood sugar and increase insulin which increases the rate of fat storage.  Some cereals, such as Cornflakes and Rice Crispies, can actually act like pure granulated sugar and are broken down at the same rate, creating massive surges of energy followed by a major energy slump (typically during the mid-morning break when your colleagues bring out the Krispy Kreme doughnuts).  Opt for nutrient dense foods such as eggs, berries, nuts, fish (Kippers, sardines, Salmon), good quality meats, Greek yoghurt etc.  Think outside the box (pun intended!).


4>     Disregarding digestive health


I personally believe this to be one of the biggest factors in ill health, appetite dysregulation, obesity and just about every disease known to man.  Our national love for sugar-based snacks, processed foods, calorie-dense meals, high stress jobs and foods with little to no nutrients etc. has thrown our gut ecology out of balance.  This is known as gut dysbiosis and is a leading cause of many debilitating conditions such as gastro intestinal disease, acid reflux, heartburn, constipation and IBS to name a few.  This means that our bodies will struggle to extract the nutrients from our food because of poor digestion.

Bad bacteria, which would otherwise be destroyed by sufficient stomach acid levels, is allowed to thrive, which can increase cravings for sugary foods and can decrease production of various neurotransmitters such as serotonin (a deficiency of which can cause depression). Gut dysbiosis can also adversely influence immune function, which can lead to increased inflammation in the body thus create a stress hormone response which increases the likelihood of metabolic dysfunction. To combat this common situation, ensure that you consume an adequate variety of nutritionally dense foods such as Garlic, onion, vegetables, fermented foods, live yoghurts, grass fed meats, fruits, nuts and seeds etc……  These amazing foods supply our body with the necessary nutrients, enzymes, and pro and pre biotic bacteria, which keep our gut ecology healthy and balanced.  If you wish to take this a step further, consider supplementing with HCl, digestive enzymes or probiotics such as acidophilus or create your own live cultures such as Kefir and Sauerkraut.


By David Cox