There will always be much debate about the subjects of diet, weight loss, muscle building, and exercise. In a culture that is plagued with misinformation about obesity and is overly concerned about body image, it is no wonder that the ever illusive key to perfect weight maintenance is comparable to the fountain of youth.
Realizing that there is not just one key, many of us understand – much to the displeasure of the current pop culture – no one body image is ideal.
Knowing that nourishing food and exercise are tools in reaching your own body's capability, learning to listen to your body will help you determine not only what to eat, but also when to eat.
Let's step through the process of food and exercise mechanics to learn how you can make healthy decisions that will assist and empower you to make the right decisions.
Adjusting Your Macronutrients
In an age of trendy diets, consuming the right amount of nutrients is very important. The three types of macronutrients are:
Yes, even carbohydrates are important. Until just recently, fat was the enemy. Low fat diets ruled the day. Now, it's carbs that are said to be causing the problem. I do recommend a lower carbohydrate method in the Advanced Plan, but note that it's refined carbohydrates and grains that we eliminate. Just remember not all carbs are created equal, a handful of margarine is different from a handful of almonds.
Different people thrive on various proportions of these nutrients. When we focus on the quality of the food, we can enjoy each macronutrient as planned. We need to remember to get out of our own way and let our bodies function as they were intended to.
How Protein Gives Us Power
There is value in the Paleolithic, low (processed) carb, and grain free diet, particularly when paired with higher fat intake. Even athletes – who are traditionally coached to carb-load, no matter the quality – may find that a high protein/high fat/low carb diet may be a viable option.
Protein is of top concern. Among other benefits, it provides the building blocks for muscle, and unlike the other macros, we rarely see people with too little protein. In fact, there may be benefits to increasing recommended amounts when working on dropping excess pounds. In 2013, Army researchers evaluated a group of 39 people to see how extra protein affected their weight loss efforts. Doubling recommended values seemed to help participants drop weight, in all probability by protecting muscle mass from loss and directing the body to use up fat stores. (3)
Be careful – tripling the recommended standards did not provide any extra benefit. Since excessive protein can be unhealthy, you need to remember that a little bit more is good, but be aware that you don't go overboard. Adults need a recommended amount of about 50 grams of protein per day, give or take based on age and gender. (4) For perspective, a basic hamburger contains around 20 grams. Add in a couple of other meals with the Standard American Diet's focus on meat, and you can see how easy it is to go overdo.
You want to be concerned with quality instead of quantity, and quality is of utmost importance. (5) If we are protecting our muscles with a food source, you'd better believe we want it to be high quality! I recommend lean meats from naturally fed, organic sources in the Advanced Plan, as do most paleo plans.
Fat Can be Fabulous
Fat intake has also been connected with better performance in athletes. Even in endurance athletes, who have traditionally followed higher carbohydrate diets, those with increased levels of fat intake actually fare better. (8) In one study, cyclists who adapted to a high fat diet over two weeks had improved fat oxidation, better endurance, and better stamina than those on a high carb diet. (9)
My father was a marathon runner who performed exceptionally well. At sixty years of age, not only did he run a marathon, but he was the fastest in his age group – presumably in the world. The only time he chose carbs as part of his training regimen was when he'd eat a bowl of pasta the day before a 20-mile run. If he could run a marathon just shy of three hours on high fat/ high protein training and a single bowl of pasta, I have no trouble placing my confidence in studies that verify the importance of fat for endurance athletes.
The University of Buffalo monitored over eighty female runners who maintained an average of 20+ miles per week to note connections between their diet and injury incidence. Of the various factors involved, low fat intake was the most consistent predictor of injury – with the least injuries befalling women who consumed fat in excess of 30% of their diet each day. (7)
Eating quality fats is just as important as eating quality protein, and we tend to fall woefully short on the amount of fat we consume. We still struggle against the low fat stigma of decades past. In reality, current recommendations for fat consumption by athletes falls around 20-35% of daily caloric intake. (6) The benefits of higher fat intake are many, from protection to performance.
Obviously, marathon and ultra-marathon runners still do carb-loading for race days, and likely always will. (10) Even for the athlete, marathons are not daily occurrences, and pre-marathon diets do not reflect daily dietary needs. Remember Michael Phelps and his mounds of pancakes while he trained so heavily for the Olympics? Yes, he was burning the calories – but should that become a normal diet recommendation? Of course not! And even though he needed the energy, one has to wonder what that amount of less-than-ideal food does to his gut, immunity, and long term health risks.
During my dad's actual marathons, he would consume some refined carbohydrate gels and drinks. However, he recognized that this was an abnormal intake for an abnormal activity!
Aside from abnormal carbohydrate needs for abnormal events, do carbs have a place in the athlete's diet? Certainly! But one macronutrient should not be singled out and vilified. Even in a ketogenic diet, some carbohydrate intake is necessary. Typical high-fat recommendations for those in training give 25-30% of the diet to each macronutrient, with the remainder up in the air, depending on your body's needs. (11)
Just as with fat and protein, a good source of carbohydrates is vital. Unless you plan to win record-setting amounts of gold medals, you don't need to inhale every carb in sight. When carbohydrate intake does seem necessary, there are plenty to choose from that won't spike blood sugar, inhibit fat oxidation, or disrupt training goals.
Some of the carbs I recommend include (but certainly are not limited to):
- Sweet Potatoes
- Green veggies
Refined sugars and flours are absolutely off the list, and for someone on what's known as the Maximized Living Advanced Plan, Dr. BJ Hardick suggests avoiding grains, as well. By choosing vegetable and fruit sources of complex carbohydrates, you will avoid that overly-full feeling that starchy carbs bring while leaving room to bulk up your meal with fat and protein consistent with the high-performance findings we've looked at today.
How and When to Break-The-Fast
Have you ever looked at the word “breakfast” as anything other than the morning meal or the most important meal of the day? It actually is the meal that breaks the fast that overnight sleep creates. So it's not necessarily the most important meal because it comes early, but because it comes first and sets the tone for the day.
Dr. Stuart Phillips and colleagues at McMaster University point out that protein in excess of 20 grams at a time is not beneficial to the body. Therefore, for maximum use to the body, meals are best dispersed throughout the day with right around twenty grams of protein at a time. (12)
The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) tends to include a light, carb-laden, often sweet meal in the morning, a light lunch, and then a heavy, protein and fat filled meal at the end of the day. But if food is supposed to be our fuel, that would be like trying to fill up a gas tank at the end of the road trip!
Along with higher protein breakfasts and evenly spaced meals, interest is gathering around intentionally delayed breakfasts, playing on a dietary method known as intermittent fasting. Some intermittent fasts look like entire days of restricted calories. Others limit eating time to 8 hours per day – delaying breakfast until later in the day, then filling eight hours with plenty of nutrient-dense, evenly-spaced meals. The potential benefits of this method over full days of fasting are explained by Dr. Mattson, a leading researcher on this method:
“If you don't eat for 10-16 hours, your body will go to its fat stores for energy, and fatty acids called ketones will be released into the bloodstream. This has been shown to protect memory and learning functionality, says Mattson, as well as slow disease processes in the brain.” (13)
Studies are emerging on the potential benefits of exercising in a fasted state – for instance, waking up, exercising, then breaking the fast and beginning your 8-10 hours of meals for the day. So far, the results indicate potential endurance benefits via slowed glycogen breakdown (14), improved muscle recovery (15), and the reduction of intramuscular triglyceride, which is connected with diabetes (16).
Please note that exercise-induced nausea may increase when exercising either in a fasting state or if you have just eaten a meal prior to your workout. (17) If you are prone to feel queasy after a workout, consider drinking a juiced or powdered green drink to satisfy the stomach and provide a bit of nutrition without requiring digestion.
In truth, some people just find that they do better exercising with a bit of food in their stomach. It's likely a personal preference and many factors have yet to emerge in research. Listen to your body – but if you do eat before working out, make sure it is something easily digestible.
Building (and Strengthening) a Foundation
While not everyone needs to gain weight, I can't think of a (normal) circumstance where building or toning muscle is undesirable. This is part of the reason many experts are beginning to tell people to get rid of the scale.
More and more, research is favoring High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) style workouts for building muscle (1), which is beneficial for building muscle in nearly any body type. (2) The idea is that the exercise is intense enough that the body winds up in “oxygen-debt,” and much-needed energy is pulled from the glycogen stores in the muscles. Once oxygen is restored to the body, it switches to pull energy from fat stores. In essence, we're teaching the body that muscles feed the body during exercise and fat feeds the body the rest of the time.
Remember exercise does not exist in a vacuum. We have to give the body the right nutrients in order to teach it to burn fat, and even then, when we eat, the stress in our lives, and even our hormones can stand in the way.
After a big workout, it's all too easy to believe we've earned a splurge thanks to all that hard work. Really, the foods we choose at this point can actually slow the progress the exercise made.
Growth Hormone is inhibited when we reach for carbs – and thereby will increase insulin . Since Growth Hormone is a primary player in muscle repair and growth, eating carbs undermines the whole workout. For those of us who are over thirty, Growth Hormone is already in slow production, so we need all the help we can get! (18)
Instead, eating 20 grams of a high quality protein after a workout can help with muscle repair and growth without spiking blood sugar and undermining your efforts. (19)
A body filled with healthy muscle tone is going to function much more efficiently than a body filled with fat. Muscle tone is going to burn calories more efficiently, which means we need to build it when fat loss is the goal. So, whether we are talking about gaining muscle and weight or building muscle to burn fat, the premise is generally the same:
Feed your body well, move regularly, and remove the obstacles that hold you back.