26 January 2014

First-hand Fitness #2 | On Cost: A Recipe for a 59p Luxury Nutella® Protein Bar with 38.4g Protein!

There have been times in my life when I’ve survived on as little as a twenty quid a week. A good proportion of that sum usually went on pre-night out alcohol; the rest I would squander on food and warmth. These days I’ve got more than just myself to look after though, and thankfully my means have increased to meet my responsibilities, yet I still find myself fighting a constant war with the cost-cutting thriftiness that a combination of four years on a student loan and having been raised by one of the most frugal men to have ever lived engendered.

Towards the back end of last year, as our weekly “big shop” started to spill over two hundred notes per week, even the missus began to realise that we were spending too much on grub – or, as she saw it, I was. Eating healthily costs, so “overeating healthily” (a contradiction in terms though it may be) really costs.

Even once I’d finished with my winter bulk-up and finally given up meat (and thus slashed our food bill by a third overnight), I was still throwing too much away on supplements - particularly protein bars. I tried buying them online in bulk, but that would have only brought marginal savings even if I’d have just kept consuming the same amount as when I used to buy them individually. Inevitably though, more in the cupboard just meant that I increased the number that I was eating.

At the same time, I was also becoming more aware of all the extraneous ingredients that’s in even the most reputable of them, as my mission to cut our food bill coincided with my side-project of eliminating inflammatory foods from my diet in an attempt to mitigate the effects of arthritis. I therefore decided to try my hand at making my own.

Now anyone who’s ever tried this will tell you that the word ‘bar’ is extremely misleading in a domestic context – my first few attempts were more like bowls of cereal than they were the rock-solid, factory-pressed slabs that you’ll find inside a wrapper in a shop, and the next couple of batches didn’t survive for long outside the fridge either. Now though, I’ve created a recipe that can survive outside the fridge for almost a full day if required (though I’d still urge you to pack a spoon in summer). And, best of all, it’s cheap to make; tastes better than any commercially-available protein bar that I’ve ever tried; has a much higher protein content; and contains only the sweeteners and preservatives that you’ll find in Holland and Barrett’s highly-regarded Precision Engineered protein whey (which, crucially, don’t include the hyper-inflammatory aspartame).

1kg natural rolled oats [75p]

1l skimmed milk [£0.89 for 2l, so 45p ]

324g Precision Engineered protein whey powder (chocolate flavour) [RRP is £42.99 for 950g, but Holland and Barrett usually have it either at half price, or in their “Penny Sale”, so it’s £21.50 for 950g in real terms; £7.33 for the requisite 324g]

100g crunchy peanut butter  [89p for 340g, so 26p]

150g Nutella® hazelnut spread [around £3.50 for a 750g jar, so £0.70 for 150g]

TOTAL COST TO MAKE 16 BARS: £0.75 + £0.45 + £7.33 + £0.26 + £0.70 = £9.49


Pour 500g of the oats into a large mixing bowl.

Pour 250ml of the skimmed milk into a shaker, add 25g of the peanut butter and three full scoops of the protein whey (totalling 81g). Shake vigorously for around thirty seconds until the shaker is filled with a viscous brown liquid flecked with crunchy golden peanut fragments.

Empty the liquid into the bowl, taking care to scrape all of the crunchy peanut fragments into it too (most of them will be lodged in the shaker’s filter).

Repeat steps two and three.

Using a large wooden spoon, carefully stir the liquid until all of those lovely, slow-burning oats are caked in high-protein choc-peanut milkshake.

Scrape the mixture out of the bowl and into a baking tray. Use the spoon to flatten down the top of the mixture so that the surface is smooth.

Place it in the – wait for it –freezer. For best results with whey, you should generally consume it within twenty minutes of mixing the powder with liquid, but I’ve never experienced any problems with freezing it in its mixed form.

Repeat steps one to seven, so that you have two baking trays’ worth of the product in your freezer. Leave them there for at least a couple of hours; ideally longer (I generally take one out after around four hours and proceed to step nine, leaving the other in the freezer for a few days until the other has been consumed. That way I only have to bake once each week).

Measure out 75g of Nutella® and spread it evenly across the now rock-hard surface of the mixture until you have a thin hazelnut topping. Place the product in the fridge and leave it for an hour or so.

Chuck some weights about in your garage (or the gym) for an hour, take the product out of the fridge and slice it (it should now be soft enough to cut) into eight cake-like slices. Eat one (or two).

Once you’ve eaten through your first baking tray’s worth of the product, repeat steps nine and ten.

A (rather obvious) word of warning though: as will be evident from the nutritional information provided above (which was arrived at by inputting all the ingredients’ respective values into MyFitnessPal and then tallying up their aggregate), this is obviously not a protein bar cake for those looking to maintain a svelte physique or cut fat. It’s intended as a big, dirty bulk-up  bar cake for those stuggling to hit their calorie goals and looking to add mass. As well as plenty of protein and slow-burning carbs, it comes with a decent dose of healthy fats and one hell of a sugar spike.

But it’s cheap - and delicious.

19 January 2014

First-hand Fitness #1 | On Mass (or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defecating in the Woods")

Those who read my review of the MyFitnessPal app (still available for nowt in Apple’s App Store) will be familiar with my personal history. For the benefit of those who haven’t, following the birth of my daughter and the onset of psoriatic arthritis, I cut back on the heavy cardio exercise that had kept me slim for more than a decade and began to pile on a bit of podge. It may have only been confined to the cheeks and the midriff, but I could see that I was on a slippery slope and so, last January, vowed to not just regain but surpass my pre-2011 levels of fitness. I’m now a year on, a fair bit fitter and stronger and a hell of a lot wiser, and the purpose of this piece is to share what I’ve learnt. There is so much contradiction in print and online, no doubt borne of the differences in individuals’ lifestyles and genetics, but this is what’s working for me, and, if you don’t know much about human biology beyond the oft-repeated myths, you might find this quite sobering.

It’s been drilled into me since youth that a person’s weight is governed by their caloric intake and energy burn alone. My dad, an incredibly thin man who still runs five miles daily despite being only months away from his seventieth birthday, still regales all who’ll listen with tales of the vast quantities that he’s seen people eat, particularly on the frequent all-inclusive cruises that he and my mum take around the Med. The incredulity in his eyes as he describes his fellow passengers’ portions is truly something to behold - it’s halfway been revulsion and envy. He’s just as quick to wax lyrical about what he feels is their pandemic lethargy, often launching into monologues that vividly describe holidaymakers sat around troughing all day long as he - quite literally - runs around them on the deck in his hand-me-down sneakers. And to a certain extent, my old man’s quite right. If your only concern is maintaining that weathered, skeletal look favoured amongst septuagenarians, eating little and exercising a lot is going to work for you; it can’t not. Whatever your unique bone density, metabolic rate or even thyroid activity levels, if you can somehow create a negative balance (burn off more than you put in) then you’ll lose weight. Over time, your metabolism will slow down and your breath will reek, but you definitely won’t get tubby.

The trouble is, I don’t want to be skinny - the geek-chic look is so 2006. But then I don’t want to look like a no-neck Sontaran either. I’m gunning for that elusive, lean-but-muscular ‘Men’s Health’ physique. And getting it, unfortunately, isn’t as simple as eating less and moving more. In fact, it’s perhaps the most complicated thing that I’ve ever attempted to do, short of building a LEGO Death Star.  

Part of my initial difficulty was down to ignorance. For years I had fundamentally misunderstood how my body works, and even once I’d read countless books and articles on the matter, it wasn’t until I put the matter to my own pseudo-scientific test that I actually started to put some stock in the terrible truth. I’d always understood - well, assumed - that whenever doing high-impact cardiovascular training, my body burns food first, then fat. But when reading up on the subject, it seems that it ain’t necessarily so: sometimes it burns food then fat; sometimes it burns food then muscle. Essentially, it draws on anything that it can to maintain the requisite energy output. As such, whilst high-impact cardio is great for losing weight across the board, many experts posit that it can actually be counter-productive if you’re looking to burn fat but maintain or build muscle as I am. At best, you’re killing some of your gains.
For most of 2013 I trained with as heavy weights as I could handle on Saturdays or Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for sixty to eighty minutes, and did a lot of cardio on the other three weekdays (eight miles’ running, six or seven miles’ very brisk walking). I weighed myself and measured my body fat most mornings, looking for trends, and body fat was invariably higher on a morning after a heavy cardio day, leading me to conclude that, in my case at least, my body probably does often sacrifice muscle to meet its incredible energy demands. This obviously became something of an obstacle when it came to me gaining some decent mass - even when consuming as many as 4,000kcal (gross) every day, my lean weight was only just being maintained over most weeks; some weeks it actually fell. My bodybuilding brother’s solution was to consume around 600g of slow-burning carbohydrates throughout the daytime along with the requisite protein (my eight-mile run finished the day as it was how I got home from work) to meet the demand before the event and thus safeguard the muscle. I tried this once and ended up having to take a shit in the woods at around the seven-mile mark, by which point I’d already long-since decided that the practicalities of this plan hadn’t been fully thought through by my big bro, having waddled at a snail’s pace through town and out into the countryside, farting all the way.

Consequently, for the last six weeks of 2013 I decided to go all-out with a “dirty bulk-up”. Whilst I didn’t give up on cardio entirely, burning as many as 700kcal some days through walking alone (according to Runtastic Pro), I did cut out running, saving my body not only the calories that it had become accustomed to burning three times per week, but some of the muscle that had been regularly set fire to too. On 4th October 2013 I weighed in at 11st dead (154lbs, or 70kg); by 6th January 2014 I was 12st 2lbs (170lbs, or 77kg) and my metabolism was like a furnace. Inevitably my body fat had risen, but my lean weight had increased more dramatically, and by the time that I’d finished I’d hit all of my strength / performance goals and was ready to set some new ones.

Just as important as learning how my body fuels itself was learning how to properly fuel it. One widespread myth that does seem to hold true is that you should consume a gram of protein for every pound of your lean target weight. This is far above the recommended daily allowance for adult men, yet still way below what many looking to bulk-up consume. Of course, the type and quality of the protein is important - your protein of choice needs to have all of the necessary amino acids necessary to build and maintain muscle. If it doesn’t, youll need to complement it with another that has what it’s missing.

However, whilst this “one gram to one pound” protein myth seems to hold up, society’s rampant anti-carbohydrate propaganda certainly doesn’t. For several months my carbohydrate intake was nothing like sufficient to keep me going, let alone rebuild following muscular hypotrophy, no matter how hard I trained or how much protein I consumed. I was unwittingly on an almost Atkins-like diet, and a result I shed pounds and pounds of fat and got slimmer than ever, but I wasn’t putting on much beef. Having been bombarded with marketing for expensive protein supplements, I thought that if I ate nothing but chicken and whey I’d be ripping through my shirts in no time, but my protein-heavy diet was like trying to build a wall with a ton of bricks but no hands. You see, carbohydrates are vital in muscle-building - they provide the necessary fuel for your body to use the protein to repair and rebuild your gym-damaged muscles; the carbs lay the protein bricks, as it were. For weeks I wasn’t even getting enough to keep a regular bloke going, let alone one doing my level of exercise and looking to create a positive balance. Yet almost as soon as I increased the carbs, not only did I finally start to pack on the poundage, but I also experienced an obvious, yet naïvely unexpected, surge in energy. The amount I was lifting increased dramatically over just a few weeks and I felt, well, good.  

At the end of my bulk-up though, particularly with all the nutrition-free excesses of Christmas, I’d actually exceeded my initial goal weight (the upper echelons of my height’s ideal BMI) and was looking to literally trim the fat. Now I hadn’t seriously reduced my caloric intake in years - I don’t drink alcohol at all anymore and, save for in my arthritis-enforced year off running, all that dashing about I did swiftly put paid to any fat from excess grub. This time, though, I didn’t dare to run on dramatically-reduced calories as I’d have probably lost some muscle with the fat, and in no time at all found myself back where I first began. So, like a reluctant fatty straight from Dr Jessen’s clinic, I jumped from several thousand net calories per day to just 1,800, and even those had to be protein-heavy and spread over six “meals” (meals my arse!) to try to mitigate the inevitable non-fat losses. It was horrible. I was fucking starving.
And in addition to cutting down on my food intake, I had to make it clear to my body that it shouldn’t even think about burning any of its hard-won muscle to keep me ticking over. I laboured a lot over whether to opt for the commonly-favoured “high reps (12-15+), lighter weights” workouts in favour of my normal regime as I’ve read some very persuasive articles advising against it. Some say that lower weights have only fallen into favour when fat-cutting as no sod can lift heavy weights when they’re not properly fuelled, and that this “easy option” will do little, if anything, to preserve your muscle; all you’ll improve is your endurance. Indeed, they even say that if you decrease your weights, your body won’t think that it needs all its muscle and will promptly set fire to some - the only way to maintain what you’ve got is to actually keep pushing for overload and progression. Others dismiss this as utter madness: if you wear down your muscles with a workout, but don’t build them back up again with enough food afterwards, then you’ve lost the muscle anyway. To a layman like me, both schools of thought seem to have some logic - not to mention a few gaping holes.

Eventually I elected to go for the generally-pushed soft option for my first five days of fat-cutting. I kept my weights at level where I could crack out 16+ reps on everything, and made sure that my workout was restricted to one hellish, intense hour. The results were okay - I shed around four pounds and hadn’t lost much, if any, muscle (it’s hard to be precise over such a short period when using fancy electro-pulse scales or even callipers, but crucially my vital statistics didn’t budge) - nonetheless to hedge my bets I reverted to my usual heavy training circuit for day six, upping my gross caloric intake to 4,000kcal for that day to (a) lessen the risk of not fully building the muscle back up; (b) remind my body that isn’t starving, just in case it was thinking about slowing that raging metabolism down in an attempt to defend its current weight; (c) keep me sane and functioning. I was pleased to find that I was just as strong as I had been a week earlier, if not a little more so. For day seven, I stuck to 4,000 well-balanced, muscle-repairing calories again, before repeating the cycle for week two. Now I’m back to eating loads every day, albeit not 4,000kcal’s worth; lifting loads; and running occasionally, which is slowly but surely eradicating the last visible traces of the extra fat that I gained in my bulk-up without destroying my gains.
Of course, it would no doubt be possible for me to get ripped in six weeks or so if I went on an “alligator and ostrich” Made in Chelsea crash course, but as someone who has a life and a wife and a two-year-old daughter (not to mention local supermarket staff who look aghast whenever asked for alligator meat), the most crucial thing for me is workability. And, whilst the above might sound terribly complicated, it fits in with my work and childcare duties with relative ease - the real challenge is doing it affordably, which is what I’ll turn my attention to in the next instalment of First-hand Fitness.

09 January 2014

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75020 Jabba's Sail Barge

The last couple of years have seen Jabba the Hutt’s stock go up considerably in LEGO terms. After years of existence as only a dull green lump of plastic inside a flimsy, hand-me-down palace or absurdly-expensive second-hand sail barge, he’s finally been given texture and form inside a meticulous, sand-washed world comprised of four separate but companionable sets. The most recent of these to see release was 2013’s Jabba’s Sail Barge, which I found myself unwrapping on Christmas Day, having bought it in a Toys Я Us September sale and then given it to my wife to surprise me with on 25th December.

Whilst it boasts only around seventy pieces more than the slightly-longer 2006 superset (set #6210), which also included the Sarclaac pit and a desert skiff, this 43cm incarnation of the anti-luxury liner boasts a finish that’s much sleeker and more detailed than its predecessor, finally brining it in line with the quality of the recent Return of the Jedi-themed releases. Its Jabba megafigure is identical to the one released with Jabba’s Palace, which of course means that it impresses both aesthetically and when it comes to playability too. I was more excited about getting my hands on the elephantine musician known to Star Wars enthusiasts as Max Rebo though, as I believe that this is his first appearance in LEGO form. And with his uniquely-moulded headpiece (which has his trademark bulbous proboscis and almost cute lop ears) he does not disappoint. The three-eyed, gun-toting Ree-Yees is almost as distinctive, and again I don’t recall him ever being made available as a LEGO minifigure prior to this set’s release. Accompanying them is a bald Weequay clearly in Jabba’s employ, and R2-D2, who this time comes with a bespoke encumbrance that allows him to serve a few drinks to Jabba’s cronies before supplying Luke with his emergency lightsaber.

One of the most startling omissions from the Jabba’s Palace set was Princess Leia in her legendary gold bikini – what Dorling Kindersley’s LEGO Star Wars Character Encyclopedia describes, somewhat playfully, as “Demure Princess Leia” – who found herself dropped in favour of a Leia styled in her pre-bondage Ubese bounty hunter getup. However, this set finally provides us with Leia in all her glory, her reversible headpiece having been updated to contemporary standards and even her posterior showing new definition. She also comes with shackles capable of binding her to her Hutt captor, which is a particularly nice touch as it allows young builders to restage the movie’s garroting of the vile gangster.

The vehicle itself has been cleverly redesigned to allow easier access to its innards. In this iteration, its deck lifts off and both its sides fold out, allowing even the largest of hands inside to place Jabba on his deathbed; lock Leia away in the holding cell; or even put Max or Artoo to work in the grubby kitchen. In fact, there’s so much space available above and below deck that you’ll need to draft in minifigures from sister sets to make the barge look shipshape. I’d especially recommend lining it up with the Desert Skiff set, which many contend should have formed part of this set as it did #6210.

Something that really surprised me about this model was its robustness. Equipped with well-hidden wheels that allow it to navigate the laminate as easy as the real thing could the Jundland Wastes or the Great Pit of Carkoon, the finished craft survived more than twenty minutes in the hands of my two-year-old, who found it far more stimulating than her age-appropriate Christmas DUPLO. Even after twenty minutes, the only breakages to speak of were the pulled-off sheet-plastic sails, which were easily reattached. Even the peek-a-boo windows (with their vulnerable stickers…) survived countless openings and closures.

A fine addition to the Hutt criminal cartel, and indeed the larger world of Star Wars LEGO, this shorter, sleeker and more detailed vision of Jabba’s infamous barge is guaranteed to light the imagination of anyone from playing child to ageing geek.

The Star Wars LEGO Jabba’s Sail Barge is available from LEGO directly for £99.99 with free delivery. Today's cheapest online retailer though is Youngworld Toys, who are currently selling this set for £94.99 plus £3.99 delivery (£97.99 overall).