Social media can be such an incredible learning tool if used properly. I try and follow the accounts of the people in the fitness industry who I think put out amazing content and are leaders in the field, the people I look up to most, and who I know I will learn something from.
I remember stumbling across Alex’ account on Instagram one day, it only took about 30 seconds before I clicked ‘follow’.
If you look at any of his videos or content two things will strike you. Number one is he is very, very clever, and has an incredible knowledge base on all things nutrition.
Number two is that he’s a thoroughly nice and humble guy, and it’s that pairing that made him the obvious choice when I decided I needed my own nutrition coach and mentor.
We check in weekly via video call, and one thing I got know pretty quickly is that Alex has such an interesting story and outlook on things.
He calls me from his apartment in Seville.
‘So you grew up in Spain and went back because you know the language right?’, I asked.
‘Nope, not even close’, he replied.
I wanted to do an interview with Alex because he’s a leading figure in the area of evidence based nutrition practice, but I also wanted to do it because I think his perspective on life and his journey is a true breath of fresh air.
It would be easy for someone who is so busy to not have accepted the offer when I asked, and I would have fully understood as I am familiar with the volume of work he has to get through weekly. He did accept, and I am incredibly grateful he has taken the time to answer my questions.
I hope if you read on that you enjoy it, there’s some pure gold in here, and you’ll be able to see yourself that he is just as I said – a very, very clever, humble and interesting guy.
Alex, first off thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Before we even get into the area of nutrition, I would like to ask where in the world you are now, where have you been, and what influences you to travel from place to place?
One of only a few modern-day philosopher’s I enjoy reading, Alain De Botton, beautifully describes the feeling of traveling in his book: ‘The Art of Travel’ ; where he wrote: “Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.” I’m yet to find an environment, quite like feeling gleefully lost through travel, that helps generate new ideas and different frames of thinking.
This feeling alone, motivates me to remain on my current nomadic journey. Currently, I live in the charming city of Seville. If you haven’t been, you must- just avoid the city from June to September (the city becomes an oven). I grew up with a multi-cultural background, due to my Father’s job, living in Malaysia, Germany, America, and the UK until last year.
Growing up amongst different cultures has, I’d like to think, given me a more well-rounded perspective of interpreting the world. My vision for the foreseeable future is to remain feeling gleefully lost through travel, keep learning languages and continue to spread the evidence based word of nutrition.
I find it tough to stay on top of everything settled at home, so to move to Seville and take on the world is something I was taken aback by!
As far as work and training goes, can you fill us on what has happened so far in 2017, and what’s to come in the near future?
A month ago, I graduated with a Distinction in my Master’s Degree in Applied Sports Nutrition. I’ve also recently been given the honour of becoming a Tutor on the International Society of Sports Nutrition Diploma (Dip.ISSN) as apart of the Guru Performance Institute. I’m currently fine-tuning my thesis paper and only a week or so away from handing it over for peer review *takes in a nervous deep breath*.
Although I’ve officially graduated, I’m a life-long learner, as nothing provides me with more fulfilment than attaining knowledge; so I’m putting my daily habit of reading research to good use by mentoring the students on the ISSN Diploma program and putting out evidence based, pragmatic content via social media (a YouTube channel will be coming soon).
In terms of training, moving the business to Spain came with it a few months of dancing between different gyms and getting used to, what felt like, far more public holidays than I was used to in the UK. This forced my hand to focus on being more flexible with my training. I’ve also ingrained in the habit of daily meditation, which I think has helped me start looking at my approach to things more holistically.
With this, I’ve become far comfortable auto regulating the intensity of my workouts better in accordance with my current stress levels. In the past, I’ve definitely suffered from ‘invincibility syndrome’, and a stubbornness to appreciate the impact that work and life stress can have on my body. I’ve been learning more to listen to these internal cues and to turn the dial higher and lower depending on how I’m feeling. Importantly, I’m making these calls with a long-term vision of how I want to be functioning and looking now and when I’m an old-fart.
A study by Ruiz et al. (2008) is a testament to this desire to remain supple and active. The researchers studied 8000 participants and followed them for 18 years to gauge the influence of strength and cardiovascular fitness on healthy ageing. They found that individuals over the age of 60 years classified in the lowest third of strength, were 50% more likely to die of all-cause mortality, then individuals in the upper third for strength. Albeit correlative, the same pattern occurred when looking at deaths associated with cancer. The association with longevity was also established with subjects with a higher cardiovascular fitness compared to subjects with a low cardiorespiratory fitness.
This comprehensive study demonstrates the importance of the continual pursuit of exercise.
With feeling fit and healthy, being an inner state I/we perpetually crave and want to continually embody, it’s important I’m considering this when regulating my intensity, rather than constantly having the dial full blast and running the risk of injury. Parking the ego and truly understanding what’s best for my body at that very moment has helped me keep injury-free, enjoy my workouts more and has kept me progressing. You can check out some of my training updates on my Instagram page.
Also, all of my programming is tailored for me by my business partner and LBP’s strength Coach Jedi Adam Willis. His unwavering support and guidance have made the biggest difference to my training approach over the past 12 months. He’s one man that constantly inspires me to become a better Coach.
Here’s to training to make sure I’m looking great naked and feeling brilliant now and when I’m an old fart…
There’s some very smart advice there on training, longevity isn’t sexy but I definitely think sooner or later people learn that it’s the key to making progress.
I’d like to move on to the area of nutrition. I’ve been quite lucky in that from the very start I’ve only been exposed to the ‘evidence based’ approach to nutrition and training. A big problem I see across the board is that ‘evidence based’ is trying to push against a tide of misinformation.
The quick sale, the shortcut, the celebrity endorsement – social media can make this situation an absolute nightmare.
Do you think the battle against misinformation can be won?
The short answer is no unless things drastically change from the grassroots up.
Buying into dogma and holding outlandish views, are cognitive traits, many of us have been, unfortunately, hardwired to attain. Currently, educational systems aren’t progressing with the technological changes exponentially occurring. In a growing age whereby we all have access to an abundant supply of free information, at a click of a button or question to ‘Siri’, attaining a level of critical thinking and filter for ‘Fake news’ needs to be at the forefront of our education curriculum.
Most education programs are simply telling students what’s right and wrong, rather than posing questions to critically evaluate topics. If we want the new generation to thrive with the continual changes of how to attain knowledge and not to fall folly to logical fallacies and the vast amount of poor information that goes unfiltered, we have to learn how to decipher good from bad information, learn how to research topics and become independent, critical thinkers.
Now, there will always be conspiracy theorists out there, but currently the majority, it would appear, have little concept of basic critical thinking. This lack of sound thinking is the current reason behind our generation buying into scandal and dogmatic journalism, which as a result, has led to our current political predicament (Trump, Brexit), our environmental crap-storm and the constant outlandish views held on nutrition and health.
It’s the problem with our current generation, but it’s also, merely the card we’ve been dealt. As a believer of Science, Coach, and Tutor, I’m passionate about educating and empowering my clients and students to think critically about the information they are receiving in health and nutrition, whether from me or anything they read or hear.
Ultimately, if I want long-term results specifically with my clients, then it’s not just changing their aesthetics, it’s changing their mindset, too.
While misinformation is a huge problem across the board, I would love to hear your thoughts on obesity. This is such a complex issue, but the fact that prediction models show obesity rates will only get higher in the coming years makes it something that needs to be tackled head on.
What do you think are the main factors which cause obesity?
I’ll let the obesity map outline all the facets of why we’re currently amongst this obesity epidemic.
Instead, I’ll pose and answer another question. Why have we, as a species, succumbed to the obesity epidemic?
From an evolutionary perspective, I’ll highlight the Darwinian view of the human species which is: ‘species are evolving in a linear fashion and thus no qualitative design of nature of an organism must have to be a member of a species’. From this, one can infer that our normative state is perpetually changing amongst our forever evolving environment. With the current bodily maladaptation to our convenience environment, this concept worries me. The obesity epidemic is a very recent phenomenon in terms of evolutionary history.
Only 600 generations ago, we lived as Hunter Gatherers. You could argue following on from the views of Charles Darwin, that our natural evolving species will be one of excess fat mass and associated disease states amongst our progressively more convenience, technologically-driven environment. Clips of the Pixar film ‘Wall-E’ comes to mind when thinking of our future that leaves me shuddering. It may sound extreme to some, but at the rate of how things are progressing and our evolutionary pre-disposition, this wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s sad, but it also makes complete sense. Just think, our bodies have not been programmed to fend off behavioural habits of overconsumption and discipline to the triggers of food reward. Through evolutionary biology, the current state of obesity is exactly the state which should occur amongst our ‘all-things’ convenience living. Modern living has predisposed us to become computer-dependent, sleep bereaved, highly stressed humans living amongst hyper-palatable, hypercaloric foods, which are readily available and affordable.
Through evolutionary biology, our central and peripheral inner workings have been tactfully designed to feed to our gastric capacity and store as many calories as possible, conserving nutrients and being resourceful with our energy expenditure in a bid to fend off extended periods of time without food and water. These traits came in handy living as Hunter Gatherer’s, but equally made us useless to fend off excess energy consumption amongst our current environment. This genetic makeup provides the perfect recipe for obesity amongst our current convenience world.
But, as science continues to push technological advancement, we also have science to gain further insight into combating this disease. The direction of how we combat this epidemic will only become clear in time. However, I hope it changes direction from our current receding path.
If you could implement some kind of system or reform to combat it all what would you do? It’s an Alex Ritson dictatorship…you’re in charge and what you say goes…
We’ve boldly given our species the conceited name ‘Wise Man’ (‘Homo’ ‘Sapiens’ translates to ‘Wise’ ‘Man’ in Latin). Yet, our approach to tackling this epidemic could be none-the-wiser. Obesity is a Rubik’s Cube of a condition and no singular reform could ever nullify the epidemic.
However, implementing some government policies could go some way of moderating it’s growth curve and at the very least, provide some examples, which I’d hope conjure up discussions that lead to better proposals. For brevity sake, I’ll highlight two aspects which from recent reading, may make a difference. Firstly, I’d start at the grass-roots level by banning all junk food from schools.
I know this may sound like a slightly totalitarian-esque proposal and I promise I haven’t got the North Korean National Anthem blasting into my earbuds as I write this; but as a species we don’t do ‘moderation’ well and junk food should have no place in an environment that’s trying to cultivate learning and creativity. A recent paper highlighted that in some provinces of Canada, each year a student was banned from purchasing junk food in school, a decline of 0.05 body mass index was associated, albeit the degree of significance was low.
In alignment with this, Schools need to introduce programs to teach children on attaining discipline with managing the consumption of junk food and other dopamine triggers that children have an unhealthy amount of exposure too, such as social media and video games.
Secondly, I would lobby an increase on tax prices towards junk food (not just the evil added sugar, Jamie..) as this has already made a positive impact on decreasing rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption. Junk food, firstly, requires a unified definition, before any direct increase in tax could be issued. Commonly in the literature, junk food is defined as foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
However, governments differ in their interpretations on what they feel will make an impact on their countries health with current taxes on food types varying. For instance in Finland, France, Latvia, and Hungary, taxes on food and beverage products high in added sugar have been issued, whereas Finland, Portugal and Hungary have implemented a high salt tax policy on all products. Also, taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages has been implemented in Mexico and a few cities in the US. As you can see a high degree of heterogeneity. I’d label ‘junk food’ and issue a tax on all foods high in saturated fat, added sugar and salt, I’d go ahead and add fixed value based taxes on the quantity, size or weight of the product, rather than ‘ad-valorem’ taxes, as this appears to have a greater impact on health reform.
Now, in terms of the amount of tax given, currently, the literature demonstrates the greatest effect on behavioural change with taxes at 20% and or higher. On that note, I’d aim for taxes at this level or above, along with subsidising the revenue from such taxes to ‘healthy’ foods and expanding community environments to encourage increased activity.
Earmarking revenue for health spending is one means of encouraging support from the public health community and keeping such policies in place for the long-term amongst government reforms.
I know that’s a tough question to get hit with so thank you for providing such a well thought out answer.
Something that I learned from you, and which I now know holds such huge importance when managing your weight, is the area of general day to day activity level outside exercise and a person’s food environment.
What kind of tactics do you use with your clients?
Ok, before tackling this question, the reader requires some background understanding first. As a species, our tendency to consume above our homeostatic energy requirements- which we’d associate as hunger (being a non-specific drive for energy-containing food to maintain normal physiological functioning)- is due to impulsive, non-conscious brain activity. Through evolutionary biology, we’ve been programmed to sought after sex, safety, social networks and energy (food). One of the main mechanisms that drive this motivation is the neurotransmitter: dopamine.
A simple example of this in research would be when animals decide to opt-out of pressing the lever for such basic motivations for food, water or sexual contact, when dopamine function is impaired. On the other hand, animals will happily endure physical pain and extreme temperatures in order to obtain the spike in dopamine, such as in the form of junk food, even when much healthier unprocessed food is freely available. This desire to seek out ‘dopamine-stimulating’ energy dense food or other things related to heightened dopamine spikes such as porn, social media, drugs, and other stimulants is due to a step like process of craving and reinforcement, which has manifested over thousands of years to aid reproduction functioning and survival.
Can you now start to see why we as a species don’t do moderation well?
There was a time, not long ago, when food was sparse and the attainment of food energy demanded a lot of our own energy to sought after. Provide a Caveman with a bucket size serving of KFC and he wouldn’t think twice above devouring the entire contents until he felt physically sick. Why? Because the Caveman has no idea when his next energy dense meal will be and thus consuming as many calories from this meal as possible, is his natural inclination for survival. Over time our associations towards energy dense/hedonic foods have become one of heightened reward and as a result, we’ve become hardwired to carefully take note of such motivations through smell, taste and sight and mentally stamp down these associations (reinforcement).
Now, amongst our current environment, where ‘Caveman’ has transformed to ‘Man-Cave’, we are perpetually tempted by dopamine spiking things. As a result, we are left wide-open to a constant cycle of cravings and reinforcement. With this information in mind, the best way to manage such temptations is to reevaluate one’s environment.
In the context of junk food, this would mean separating such foods from your home and work environment. For the likes of porn, social media and any other dopamine spiking things, in order for a better less-tempting relationship, similar disciplines would most likely need to occur- although who am I to tell you where to stash your Playboy magazines? In the words of Brian Wansink: ‘Out of sight, out of mind’, is the best principle to leading a healthy food environment.
In reference to why I emphasise a heightened activity level away from my client’s set training program is to provide a better internal environment for appetite regulation. Well, at least that’s one of the reasons.
Let me explain.
A colossal study by Mayer, Roy and Mitra (1956) on jute mill workers in Bengal compared the difference between the physical activity and effort needed to perform certain types of tasks to the worker’s dietary intake. The study presented the classic U shaped curve for the relationship between daily energy expenditure and daily energy intake. The U shape curve demonstrated an asymmetrical relationship at low levels of energy expenditure, whereby the symbiotic relationship between dietary restraint in the ‘sedentary zone’ and energy consumption was lost.
This observation fittingly mirrors the findings by the researcher Henry Taylor, in which he hypothesised that the homeostatic control of appetite to the physical activity performed goes awry in a sedentary lifestyle. In an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the author David Jacobs Jr, references Henry Taylor as postulating that: ‘Sedentary persons may lose the innate ability to compensate for inactivity by reducing their eating.’
In a recent review on Appetite Control and Energy Balance: Impact of Exercise by Blundell, Gibbons, Finlayson and Hopkins (2015), the researchers highlight that the improved relationship between increased activity and the homeostatic system may be due to postprandial sensitivity to ingested nutrients; an increase in fat free mass, which appears to be a better indicator of energy intake than fat mass or insulin sensitivity (with low insulin sensitivity reducing post prandial satiety and dampens meal to meal appetite control).
What this research does provide is food for thought on how increased activity may help us intuitively self-regulate our appetite more in tune with our homeostatic system. Less Myfitnesspal and more steps perhaps?
Another incredibly in depth answer, thank you!
I know as a coach you can provide all the information, systems and support a client needs to succeed, but success is most definitely a two way thing. Do you notice any similarities in character traits with your most successful clients?
One of the key traits with successful clients, I find, is organisation. One of the first conversations I have with any client that comes on board is to enquire about their weekly routine and their methods for life-management.
Dieting requires consistency. In order to make sure my clients are being organised, we run through their daily checking lists and schedule phases during the week for planning. For clients who struggle with organisation, I make it an incentive for these clients to message me weekly with their routines. Some may view the checking list as regimented, but I’m yet to meet anyone who hasn’t benefited from keeping a structure to their schedule. Often, in our modern world we are left perpetually distracted.
The simple process of keeping tabs on our priorities has become increasingly difficult, but brings so much value when consistently met.
Even for the most organised of clients, intrinsic motivation can be quite tricky when it comes to body composition as things take time to happen. Do you have any thoughts on how you approach this with clients?
Inner motivation runs hot and cold, unless you’ve tapped into the sweet-spot, whereby the pain of not doing something, becomes far greater than to withdraw from the struggle of getting it done.
One can drift from spells of being hot and cold with motivation, never truly cultivating daily routines that ignite this feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time reading research and learning from other habit-hacking enthusiasts on deconstructing how motivation and habits manifest and then tailoring such methods into my own life and relaying my experiences back to my clients.
In the book: ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a FU*K’, the author Mark Manson, uses the ‘Do Something Principle’, to trigger motivation. The reason for this, explains the authors, is that motivation usually manifest’s after doing an action, rather than the motivation occurring beforehand. With this information in mind, I’ve learned by cultivating a daily routine for motivation to occur, by implementing systems which trigger action, one can start developing a method for continued motivation and habit formation.
An author who’s discussed this in great depth is James Clear, be sure to check out his work here. In essence, a lot of what I discuss with my client’s is cultivating daily systems that make habits and motivation easy to attain and sustain. Each year, I and a lot of my clients, write out a report, assembling together a host of core values we would like to drive our lives. Again, I took this from James. Then we proceed to cultivate daily systems which help maintain our core values.
Let me provide some further insight:
In my report, I outline in the ‘Personal Legend’ section, an overview of descriptions of how I want to conduct myself. One of my descriptions is to embody the habits of a leader in the field of Health and Exercise Nutrition. Now, I’ve established and written this description, I know that in order to live up to this, I need to create habits that someone of this description would likely maintain.
For me, this is in the form of reading every day, as this is what I’d expect a leader in this field to do. On that note, I give myself the daily habit of reading 20 pages of relevant material every day. Now, the way to keep this habit consistent is by cultivating what James Clear calls the ‘3 R’s of habit formation’: ‘Reminder’, ‘Routine’ and ‘Reward’.
For me, this set-up runs like this: My reminder is that after I’ve done my 10 minutes of morning meditation, I sit down with a cup of tea and I then proceed to read. The Reminder is the meditation and tea. The Routine is the 20 pages of reading and the Reward is the feeling I receive when I put out this content to social media.
Over time, it becomes automatic. This method is something I put across to my clients all the time.
I think a common misconception is that to lose weight or live a lean lifestyle, the food you eat must be boring and bland…chicken and broccoli etc. What is your retort to that statement?
And do you have any ‘go to’ meals, or what’s currently on the menu?
Flexibility is important for long-term sustainability to a diet. In order to sustain a healthy, weight-stable body composition for the long-term it’s equally important to set up an environment that cultivates healthy choices and prevents not too many non-homoeostatic impulses.
A researcher and popular evidence based flag holder, Alan Aragon outlines a set-up which I feel tactfully merges the two together nicely. The researcher highlights that for a long-term flexible, healthy diet: focus on 70% of your diet being whole and minimally processed foods you love the taste of (there are exceptions regarding processing), 10% whole and minimally processed foods that are neutral to your taste, 10% questionable/semi junk food you love the taste of and 10% blatant junk food you love the taste of.
Depending on your body composition goals, these percentages may vary. However, some degree of flexibility is needed for sustainability to any program, and thus no foods should ever be banned from a program, simply, the margin of refined food consumption narrows and widens depending on where you are on your dieting journey.
Current recipe I’m geeking out on Liver, aubergine and tomato curry topped with pomegranate.
If you could sit down with anyone in the world right now and discuss any topic, who would it be and what would you talk about?
It would have to be one of my heroes in the industry Kevin Hall and we’d discuss all the surrounding literature around metabolism- it would be a long conversation. I’ve read everything he’s published and it would just be a real honour to listen to him discuss his work in further depth.
I had a feeling it might be someone from the realm of nutrition and research!
Finally, you have someone close to you who is looking to be coached by someone but it cannot be you. What do you tell them to look for?
Three key traits:
1. Someone who exercises a high degree of emotional intelligence
2. Shows a true desire and passion for their job
3. A clear communicator
Alex, there is so much incredible information in all the answers you’ve given, thank you for all the work you have put in.
I think it’s clear to see you’re in the upper echelon of evidence based educators in the industry today, I’m proud to have you as my coach and mentor, and like I said at the start you are also a very interesting, humble guy.
Thanks for your time and I look forward to catching up with you soon.
There you have it guys, if you have taken the time to read through everything you’ll have gotten some amazing food for thought and rock solid information on the questions posed.
If you have any feedback don’t hesitate to let me know.
[…] Guest Post – Alex Ritson August 20, 2017 […]