By Dr. Mercola
I've long advocated strength training as a part of a healthy lifestyle for adults, children and teens. However, as reported in a recent Time article1, kids do need extra guidance and attention when hitting the gym and altering their dietary habits.
According to a recent study2 of teens' body image and potentially unhealthy muscle-enhancing behaviors, six percent of middle and high school boys and nearly five percent of girls are using steroids to improve muscle mass, which is linked to significant health risks.
Clearly, anabolic steroids are not part of a healthy lifestyle, regardless of age, as they are loaded with long term side effects that will move you towards disease and not health.
In all, six percent of girls and 12 percent of boys engaged in three or more different behaviors in an effort to gain muscle, including using a variety of supplements and altering their dietStudy author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer told Time Magazine3:
"There are many confusing messages in our society regarding what is healthy. While it is appropriate and desirable to aim to be physically fit and be involved in physical activity, this should be done through healthful eating and activity behaviors.
The youth may view taking muscle enhancers as a healthful behavior given that substances such as protein powders are widely promoted."
What You Need to Know about Protein
I've recently come to the conclusion that lower amounts of protein may actually be beneficial for many people. I don't advocate a complete vegan diet — you do need some animal protein. But it's quite likely that many are consuming too much for optimal health and disease prevention.
I recently interviewed Dr. Ron Rosedale, who helped me understand the potential dark side of consuming too much protein. I believe high quality protein powders can be part of a healthy regimen, but they need to be used judiciously.
Dr. Rosedale believes that when you consistently consume protein in levels higher than one gram of protein per kilogram of LEAN body mass (or about half a gram of protein per pound of lean body mass) you can activate the mTOR pathway which can potentially increase your risk of cancer.
To determine your lean body mass find out your percent body fat and subtract from 100. So if you are 20 percent body fat you would have 80 percent lean body mass. Just multiply that times your current weight to get lean body mass. For most people this guideline means restricting protein intake to anywhere from 35 to 75 grams. Pregnant women and those working out extensively need about 25 percent more protein though.
If You Want More Muscle, Choose the Most Efficient Exercise
The mTOR mechanism, which is part of the insulin pathway, is also responsible for building muscle. Fitness expert Ori Hofmekler has discussed this in a number of previous articles.
Like Ori, I too believe that, as a species, humans are not designed to be overweight and unfit; we're actually genetically programmed to be lean and muscular, with potential for extreme longevity. Unfortunately, most people are not fulfilling this genetic promise due to inactivity and poor diet. Even those who exercise regularly have trouble reaching optimal states of fitness.
Part of the problem is choosing ineffective forms of exercise.
Ever since I learned about the benefits of high-intensity interval training, which I termed "Peak Fitness," my physique has changed dramatically — despite the fact that I've been exercising regularly for over 40 years. I used to run, so I wasn't exercising my super-fast, white muscle fibers. Once I started, the metamorphosis was quite dramatic, giving me a far more sculpted physique. I believe the excessive focus on cardio may be part of the reason why so many are not seeing very dramatic improvements in their physique, and stocking up on protein shakes and other supplements is not going to improve matters.
Protein and the Building Muscle
A common belief is that if you want to build muscle, you need to eat loads of protein and carbohydrates because they fuel muscle growth. However, the evidence that has emerged over the past several years shows us it's not that simple.
Ori describes one amazing finding in particular — that your body has a mechanism that allows it to build muscle even when deprived of food. As it turns out, amino acids and protein serve not just as building blocks for tissues and muscle. Certain amino acids can also signal genes in your muscle to grow and to build protein, and they do that even during times of food deprivation as long as these amino acids are circulating through your blood stream.
One of the most powerful muscle-building amino acids many are missing is leucine, found in certain foods. It serves multiple functions in your body, one of which is signaling the mTOR mechanism, which causes protein to be created and builds your muscle.
However, according to Ori, you need far more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of leucine in order to reap the optimal effect. The highest concentrations of leucine and other branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are found in dairy products; particularly quality cheese and whey protein. A three ounce serving of high quality whey protein can provide the leucine needed for the average adult.
However, most protein powders on the market are best avoided. While whey protein is an excellent choice as a post-workout recovery meal, quality is everything, and most commercial products simply do not fit the bill, and can do more harm than good. Similarly, using leucine as a free form amino acid can be highly counterproductive.
Choosing the Right Whey
There are a number of whey products on the market, but unfortunately many of them will not give you the health benefits associated with high-quality whey. Most commercial whey products are derived from pasteurized dairy and are processed with heat and acid. Many are also artificially sweetened. All of these factors render them completely useless from a health perspective.
Whey isolate is one such inferior product, because when you remove the fat, you actually remove important components of its immunological properties.
When selecting a whey product, I strongly recommend making sure it's made from raw, pasture-fed milk, in order to obtain the majority of its immune-enhancing benefits. Most of the whey protein sold on the market is made from pasteurized milk, including whey protein concentrate and New Zealand whey. The New Zealand whey does come from pasture-fed cows. However by New Zealand law the whey must be made from pasteurized milk, which negates many of the inherent health benefits of whey, even though it's pasture-fed.
There are, however, a few good sources of high-quality whey protein, made from the raw (unpasteurized) milk of pasture-fed cows. (If you can't afford high quality whey, your next best option is raw dairy products, such as raw milk or raw milk cheese. To find a source near you, check out www.RealMilk.com. They are a great resource for raw dairy.) The factors you need to look for in order to ensure you're buying a high-quality whey product include:
|Organic (no hormones)
||Made from unpasteurized (raw) milk
|Cold processed, since heat destroys whey's fragile molecular structure
|No artificial sweeteners
||Highly digestible — look for medium chain fatty acids (MCTs), not long chain fatty acids
||Rich creamy, full flavor
How Insulin Sensitivity Affects Your Ability to Build Muscle
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give your child or teen is to teach him or her about the importance of normalizing their insulin sensitivity. And this applies whether they are trying to gain more muscle or not, and whether they need to lose weight or not. Insulin sensitivity is the foundation of good health, and as it turns out, it also plays a significant role in developing muscles.
Insulin performs multiple functions in your body. It helps mobilize or signal a certain kind of protein to mobilize glucose from outside your cells, and it's a satiety hormone that affects your hunger. It's also closely inter-connected with another hunger-regulating hormone: leptin. In addition, the mTOR mechanism, which builds protein in your muscles, is part of the insulin cascade pathway as well. It cannot be bypassed.
In order to build muscle, you must activate the mTOR mechanism, which in turn will activate the eukaryotic initiation factor. This signals the muscle to build protein. If you are insulin resistant (the most obvious case of which would be type 2 diabetes), then muscle wasting is inevitable. In short, you need to normalize your insulin sensitivity in order for optimal muscle building to occur. Fortunately, your insulin sensitivity is highly responsive to proper diet and exercise.
Hormones can also activate the mTOR mechanism, such as testosterone (the anabolic effect of IGF-1) and, indirectly, human growth hormone (HGH). High intensity interval exercises naturally provoke HGH production, and can do so very effectively.
Five Guidelines to Teach Your Child or Teen
So, to summarize, if you can instill just a handful of healthy lifestyle guidelines in your child, the following guidelines would top that list. Naturally, you should take the age of your child into account. I would not recommend intermittent fasting for a young child, for example, but eliminating grains and sugars should ideally start from day one. Your baby does not need sugar to thrive — quite the contrary! Similarly, feeding your child healthful raw saturated fats from organic pastured butter and coconut oil is NOT going to make them fat, but low-fat foods just might, as the fat is typically replaced by sugars.
Also, children will engage in high intensity interval exercises naturally, when left to their own devices, so the only difference between a younger and older child in terms of HIIT is the mode used. A young child might play catch in the back yard for 10 minutes, whereas a teen might take to the gym.
- Normalize your insulin levels by avoiding or eliminating grains, fructose, and other sugars (check labels for all forms of corn sweeteners), and boosting consumption of whole foods and as many raw vegetables as possible (juicing makes this easier and can help increase the variety of veggies in your diet)
- Make sure protein sources are high quality and hormone-free (i.e. pasture-fed organic meat and animal products, raw pasture-fed dairy, and follow guidelines for selecting high quality whey protein above).
Also don't go overboard on protein consumption, as this may be counterproductive in terms of long-term health, as discussed above. Whey protein is an ideal post-workout recovery meal, to be taken 30 minutes after your workout. But it's not advisable to chug protein shakes throughout the day, thinking the protein itself will somehow magically make your muscles grow
- Replace the calories you've eliminated (grains and sugars) with healthful fats, such as: avocados, butter, coconut oil, nuts and eggs. Fats are far more filling than carbs, which will also help you eat less
- Incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT), and/or turn your strength training routine into a high intensity exercise (for details, see my interview with Dr. McGuff). HIIT will help you achieve a number of goals simultaneously:
- Effectively help normalize your insulin sensitivity
- Boost muscle growth (even if you're not using weights)
- Promote human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is important for muscle building, overall fitness, and longevity
- Older teens may boost muscle-building and weight loss effects by timing your meals appropriately — a technique referred to as intermittent fasting.
Please note that any type of fasting, even intermittent fasting or simply skipping breakfast should ONLY be implemented if you are eating a healthy whole food diet as discussed above. It is extremely ill advised to attempt if you are still eating primarily processed foods and/or fast food meals