Diet, weight loss, muscle building, and exercise are and likely always will be the subject of much debate. In a society plagued with obesity and simultaneously concerned about body image, the key to perfect weight maintenance is akin to the fountain of youth.
Many of us have come to the realization, however, that there is no one key and – much to the disdain of popular culture – no one body image to idealize. Instead, we can look at the ways that nutrients and movement combine then utilize them as tools to maximize our own body’s potential. That means not only choosing what to eat, but when to eat, as well as listening to your body.
Let’s walk step-by-step through the mechanics of food and exercise to empower you to make healthy decisions that will best benefit your body.
Building (and Toning) a Foundation
While not everyone needs to gain weight necessarily, 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 ditch the scale.
It should go without saying that a body filled with healthy muscle tone is going to function 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:
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.
But 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.
One thing that is important to note before moving any further: in an age of fad diets, macronutrients are still important. The three groups of macronutrients are:
Yes, even carbohydrates. For awhile, fat was the enemy. Low fat diets ruled the day. Now, it’s carbs that get the boot. I do advocate a lower carbohydrate method in the Advanced Plan, but note that it’s refined carbohydrates and grains that we eliminate. Just as a handful of margarine is different from a handful of almonds, not all carbs are created equal.
Each person will likely thrive on different ratios of these nutrients, but by focusing on the quality of food, we can become free to enjoy each macronutrient as intended. It’s another step toward getting out of our own way and letting our bodies function as they were meant to.
How Protein Powers Us
With this in mind, there is some validation for the Paleolithic, low (processed) carb, and grain free movements, particularly paired with higher fat intake. Even for athletes – who are traditionally coached to carb-load, no matter the quality – a high protein/high fat/low carb diet may be a viable option.
Protein is of first concern. It provides the building blocks for muscle, among other benefits. 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, presumably by protecting muscle mass from loss and directing the body to use up fat stores. (3)
A word of caution – tripling the recommended values did not provide any extra benefit. Since excessive protein can be dangerous, there is a line to walk – a little bit more is good, but be aware of what you are doing to make sure you don’t go overboard. Adults need a recommended amount of roughly 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 with little else, and you can see that we’re well over.
The question then is of quality instead of quantity, and the answer is that 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 Fab
Fat intake is in a similar boat with regard to quality, but we tend to fall woefully short on intake amounts. It seems we are still struggling 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 numerous, from protection to performance.
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)
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)
Completely anecdotally, 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 in 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.
Which Carbs are Friendly
Obviously, marathon and ultra-marathon runners still do carb-load for race days, and likely always will. (10) But marathons are not daily occurrences, and pre-marathon diets do not reflect daily dietary needs, even for an athlete. Think of 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.
Yes, during my dad’s actual marathons, he would consume some refined carbohydrate gels and drinks. However, he recognized that this was abnormal intake, for an abnormal activity!
Even though, aside from abnormal carbohydrate needs for abnormal events, do carbs have a place in the athlete’s diet? Certainly! No one macronutrient should 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, the source is vital. Unless you plan to win record-setting amounts of gold medals, you don’t have 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 the Advanced Plan I suggest 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-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 created. 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.
The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) tends to reach for a light, carb-laden, often sweet meal in the mornings, 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!
Instead, 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)
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).
However, one should note that exercise-induced nausea may be worsened when exercising either in a fasted state and if you have just eaten a meal prior to the workout. (17) If you are prone to feel queasy after a workout, consider drinking a juiced or powdered greens drink to satiate 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.
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.
By reaching for carbs – and thereby increasing insulin – Growth Hormone is inhibited. Since this is a primary player in muscle repair and growth, it undermines the whole workout. For those of us who are over thirty, Growth Hormone is already in slow production, and we need all the help we can get! (18)
Instead, reaching for 20 grams of protein – perhaps the first batch in one of your evenly spaced meals – is backed by evidence as beneficial. Eating a high quality protein after a workout can help with muscle repair and growth without spiking blood sugar and undermining your efforts. (19)
Questions? Please leave them in the Comments section, below!