“Superstarch” and the Endurance Cyclist

cyclist with appleA comment from a reader led me to take a look at a slick website hawking a product called Generation Ucan that is marketed as delivering several “scientifically validated” benefits to people engaged in athletic activity.  From the serious beginner to the most highly-paid professional, athletes are notorious for their susceptibility to being taken in by products that claim to improve performance.  The Generation Ucan website has several of the characteristics that are often associated with nutrition scams that make fabulous claims while trying to sell untested or poorly tested junk to gullible people so I decided to take a closer look.

What is it?

waxy-maize-starch_2 (2)Generation Ucan is hydrothermally modified waxy maize starch.  The starch is processed under conditions of higher than normal moisture (hydro) and heat (thermal) which changes the chemical properties of the starch molecules.   One effect of this treatment that is of interest to endurance athletes is that the carbohydrates in hydrothermally modified starch have a low glycemic index.  Generation Ucan calls HMS “superstarch” which is such an obvious and ridiculous marketing ploy that I’ll avoid it.  What they’re selling is hydrothermally modified starch or HMS.

sciencequizlogoThe Generation Ucan website is filled with phrases like “lab tested”, “scientifically proven”, “our science”, and “proof/validation”.  First of all, reputable research scientists virtually never talk about “proof” like this.  We talk about the extent to which the experimental evidence supports or fails to support the conclusion.  The marketing-hype alarm goes off big-time when “science” and “proof” occur together in product marketing.

What scientific evidence does Generation Ucan actually provide?

The website has links to a couple of white papers that talk about research that supports their claims for their HMS.  White papers are documents produced by a company with the aim of selling a product.  Generation Ucan’s white papers reference “internal studies” as evidence that HMS is wonderful.  As evidence to support their claims about HMS, these internal studies are worthless.  Not enough information is given to determine whether the research was carried out rigorously and properly.  The internal studies may provide good evidence or they may not.  There’s no way to know one way or the other.  However, if the science was good, you would expect it would have been published in a top-rated peer-reviewed journal.  There is no indication on the website that these internal studies were submitted to a reputable journal or survived a rigorous peer-review process.  Basically, the white papers contain a lot of unsubstantiated claims tricked up to look like science.

The Generation Ucan website also provides a prominent link to an article in Men’s Health Magazine that promotes the product.  Men’s Health Magazine?  Lol, really?

Buried in the science section of the website they have a link to downloads.  Follow that link and what you mainly find are sales kits.  Sales kits in the scientific evidence section?  There are seven of these sales kits.  There are also two links to their own white papers, and one link to an article in the journal Nutrition about HMS.  Nutrition is a peer-reviewed journal and this article is the only reliable scientific evidence that I found on the Generation Ucan website.

cyclist in labThe article in Nutrition is the real deal although it should be noted that Generation Ucan funded the research project that is reported in the article.  What does it report?  Nine male cyclists engaged in a 150 minute cycling session at 70% VO2(max) – that’s fairly intense – followed by a 100% VO2 (max) time-trial to exhaustion.  Before the exercise session and immediately afterwards the cyclists were given either HMS or maltodextrin.  Maltodextrin is a sweetener often used in candy, soda and many other products.  HMS and maltodextrin are both sources of carbohydrates.

Note that they didn’t call their HMS “superstarch” when they submitted the research for peer review.   If they had, they would have been laughed out of the room.

Ucan insulin dataThe study found that the HMS group had a lower initial insulin spike than the maltodextrin group.  They also found that the HMS group showed a higher level of fat breakdown during the recovery period.  There were no reliable performance differences between the HMS and maltodextrin groups during either the 150 minute exercise period or the time-trial to exhaustion that followed.  There was also no reliable difference between the two groups in the level of fat breakdown during exercise.

The authors of the article note that the increase in fat breakdown during the recovery period after exercise was probably due to the HMS that was given after the exercise period.  Their research doesn’t test this hypothesis but it is plausible given what is known about the effects of HMS and the relationship between insulin and fat burning.   Insulin is prominently involved in the regulation of fat oxidation.  Lower levels of insulin correspond to higher rates of fat burning and vice versa. The study in Nutrition provides good evidence that HMS reduces insulin and reduced insulin typically produces higher levels of fat oxidation.

Keep in mind that this study in Nutrition is the only reliable scientific evidence that is given on a website that heavily stresses the scientific basis for their claims about how wonderful their product is for athletes.  While this isn’t much, it’s more than you often get on websites that sell wonder foods for sports nutrition.  There is some real science here.  The study provided good evidence that HMS reduces insulin levels.  This information could be of interest to people who are looking to lose weight because reduced insulin levels correspond to higher levels of fat burning after exercise.  It’s worth repeating that the study showed no differences in performance between those who exercised after ingesting HMS and those who ingested maltodextrin.

What claims does Generation Ucan make about their product based on this scientific evidence?

snake-oil-salesman-bigThey claim that their HMS produces “optimized performance”, “sustained energy”, “enhanced fat burn”, “speedier recovery” and “no gastric distress”.  The claim about enhanced fat burn is supported by the evidence in the Nutrition article.  The scientific evidence they reference on the website has nothing at all to do with sustained energy, speedier recovery or levels of gastric distress.  As far as “lab tested” or “scientifically proven” these claims are completely unsupported by the scientific evidence the Generation Ucan people provide.  They give you no good reason to believe HMS provides any of these benefits.

The claim about optimized performance is outrageous.  I expect many people looking at the Generation Ucan website uncritically will understand this as meaning that performance is better if you use their HMS than if you use other carb sources during exercise.  The article in Nutrition that is offered as the only reliable scientific evidence given on the website flatly contradicts this interpretation.   There was no difference in performance (or fat burning during exercise) between the HMS group and the maltodextrin group in the study.

lawyerI have no doubt that company lawyers can parse the “optimized performance” statement to mean that Generation Ucan’s HMS produces optimized performance in the sense that it matches the “optimal” performance levels expected after ingesting carbs from candy, soda or energy drinks.  When you have to rely on lawyers to weasel out of charges of false advertising, there’s clearly something wrong.  Anyone with a lick of common sense can see that, at best, the “optimized performance” claim is highly misleading.  At worst, it is pure bullshit designed to sucker you into buying their product.

What’s the take-home message about Generation Ucan’s HMS?  The product is likely to lower insulin levels.  This can be useful to people who want to burn fat.  If this is one of your goals, taking Generation Ucan’s HMS immediately after exercise may be useful.  If you are diabetic, don’t go near this product without consulting your doctor.  As far as supporting performance during exercise, their HMS is unlikely to be any better, or any worse, than many other sources of carbohydrates you can eat or drink on the bike.

What’s the take home message about the Generation Ucan company based on how they present themselves on their website?  Either the people who are trying to convince you to buy their HMS have the scientific training to tell the difference between good science and junk science or they don’t.  If they do, then the science heavy promotion on the Generation Ucan website is purposefully designed to mislead you into buying their product based on unsubstantiated claims that they figure you are either too ignorant or too stupid to recognize for what they are.  If they don’t, what are they doing marketing their product with a website that goes heavy on the science?  In either case, why should you believe anything they have to say?

Cycling and Weight Loss Part 1: Riding the Bike to Lose Weight

A champion

A champion

This is the first of a series of posts about riding the bike to lose weight.  Throughout this discussion of losing weight it’s important to keep in mind that eating has many consequences for health, athletic performance and weight gain or loss. We’ll start by focusing purely on weight loss but it is very important to keep in mind that the “best” diet for losing weight is unlikely to be the “best” diet for maintaining your health or a high level of athletic performance.

A lot of people aren’t going to like these posts.  I noted in a recent post that Americans spend about $50,000 on diet industry products and services every 80 seconds, 24/7/365. If you work for 50 years and average $50K a year, Americans spend more on diet stuff in an hour and 10 minutes than you will make in your entire life. 24/7/365.  The people who are spending that money and the people who are raking in the cash from all that stuff are going to be especially unhappy with these posts.  Why?  Because if you’re riding your bike to lose weight, most of that stuff is a waste of time and money.

Many people get into riding the bike as a way to lose weight and others who are interested in the health benefits of riding have weight loss as a secondary goal.  This is a good idea because riding the bike can be a great way to lose weight.

Shoes on scaleThere are a couple of ways to go about this.  One approach is to focus your attention on losing weight.  You buy diet books and scour the internet for info about losing weight.  You pay careful attention to things like how many calories there are per serving size.  You count calories for each meal and snack. You weigh yourself obsessively.  You may fork out money for the advice of a licensed nutritionist.  If you are especially gullible you buy a magic bracelet.

This approach to losing weight is often accompanied by the view that riding the bike is a type of exercise that is going to be used as a weight loss procedure.  Exercise is onerous but you have to do it.  People with this attitude will often want to maximize their weight loss for every minute they have to spend on the bike.  They’ll want to know things like what’s the smallest amount of time they’ll have to spend on the bike to burn X number of calories, what’s the absolute minimum they have to eat on the bike to get through a longer ride and exactly when they should eat in order to survive the ride on this absolute minimum.  They’re always worrying about numbers.  They’re not having much fun.

Happy cyclist_cropHere’s a second approach losing weight on the bike.  Forget about losing weight.  Forget about measuring this and calculating that, about eating so much of this kind of food and so much of that kind of food, about magic bracelets and paying for the advice of licensed nutritionists.   Forget about all of it.  Instead, enjoy riding your bike, ride frequently and consistently, and keep trying to get better at it.  That’s really all you need to do.  You will almost certainly lose weight.

The basic story is very simple.  Your body needs energy to function.  That energy is measured in calories.  The type of calorie that is used when talking about weight loss and nutrition is sometimes called a large calorie or a kilocalorie. One kilocalorie is the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

If you are alive, you are burning calories. Calories are burned when you sleep, when you think, when you go through your normal daily activities and when you ride.  The fuel that provides these calories is glucose.  The glucose is derived either from carbohydrates, proteins or fats that are being broken down in the digestive system from food you have recently eaten or from reserves stored in the body.   If there is not enough glucose in the blood stream to fuel ongoing activity, the system starts breaking down stored reserves to get the glucose it needs.  When stored fat is broken down, people start losing the kind of weight they want to lose.

calorie-balanceLosing or gaining weight depends on the balance between the calories you burn and the calories you ingest during the day.  If the calories you ingest are less than the calories you burn, you will lose weight because the system will turn to its stored energy reserves (which include stored fat) to get the energy it needs.  If the input calories are more than the output calories, you will gain weight because the excess calories will usually be stored as fat.  If input and output are about the same, your weight will be stable.  Thinking only in terms of weight loss (and not health or performance), it doesn’t matter if the calories being burned are coming from carbs, proteins, or fats.  A calorie is a calorie. That’s almost all you really need to know.

Almost but not quite.  There’s one important modifying factor to consider that we’ll look at in more detail in the next two posts in this series.  In order to take this modifying factor into account when you’re riding your bike, you need to try to get better every time you ride.  Every time out try to get a little stronger, go a little faster, ride a little longer.  That’s really all you need to do.

Riding like this will result in weight loss for the simple reason that in most cases when you add the calories you burn during the ride to the calories you burn during the rest of the day the total calories burned is greater than the calories you take in by eating.  If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.  Simple. And you don’t need to support the diet industry with your hard-earned cash to do it.

People who take the first approach try maximize weight loss by obsessing over how many calories, what kind of calories, when you eat those calories, and all the rest of it.  People who take the second approach try to maximize the enjoyment they get from riding the bike.  They work on spending more time on the bike doing the things they enjoy about riding the bike. When you engage in exercise or athletic activity you’ll burn the calories whether you enjoy what you’re doing or hate it, whether you’re thinking about losing weight or thinking about whatever you think about when you’re having fun.  So, why not give your attention to enjoying yourself and having fun rather than on how much you’ll weigh the next time you get on the scale?

food-nutriiton-bannerWhen you focus on riding the bike because you enjoy it rather than riding the bike as a weight loss procedure all of the questions about calories and weight loss turn into questions about how to be a better rider.  Getting better on the bike usually means increasing your strength and endurance so you can ride harder, longer or faster.  Eating isn’t about minimizing calories anymore, it’s about supporting performance.  As your performance increases and you ride harder, longer or faster, you burn more calories whether you’re trying to lose weight or trying to be a better cyclist.  If you ride hard enough and often enough, you can eat whatever you want because no matter how many calories there are in what you eat, you’ll burn more on the bike and lose weight.

If you don’t really enjoy riding the bike, find another type of exercise that you do enjoy.  If you enjoy something, you’ll want to do it; if you want to do it, you’ll find a way to do it; if you do it, you’ll burn the calories and lose the weight.  Find something energetic that you enjoy, do it frequently and consistently and always try to get better at it and the weight will come off.  It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen fast, you’ll hit plateaus, but if you keep striving to ride harder, faster, stronger, longer, you will lose weight.

Once you’ve started to lose weight there’s another factor you have to consider which we take a look at in the next post in this series.