Nutrition From a Practitioner's Perspective
“We have a field of sort-of-science in which hypotheses are treated as facts because they’re too hard too expensive to test, and there are so many hypotheses that what journalist like to call ‘leading authorities’ disagree with one another daily.” -Gary Taubes
It is that time of year for food promises, 30 day challenges, resolution challenges, and transformation challenges. I’m sure I have forgotten a challenge or twelve but you know what I mean.
Writing this piece is something I have been dreading for around a month. Nutrition and dietary practices are the most over-cooked (pun intended) and over-discussed piece of our health, wellness, and performance. Yet it remains the second highest priority behind sleep hygiene on my list. Food, the diet conversation, and nutrition continue to be debated, repackaged, and rediscussed to the point that my eyes and ears bleed.
I haven’t written a diet book or a paleo cookbook and I’ve barely been on a podcast, but I am going to share my perspective here, which only adds to the heap of shit sitting on your bookshelves and on your hard drive. However, this is a practitioner’s perspective based on three decades of meal planning, analyzing diet journals, looking at science, and talking to experts, yet mostly, and more importantly, observing what works with my own two eyes.
Individual differences absolutely exist, but incorporating the following concepts into your personal practice will, in general, make you feel better, look better and perform better.
“50 percent of what I am going to tell you is wrong, I just don’t know which 50 percent.” – Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Harvard School of Medicine (1820-1821)
We Are Built to Adapt to Shortages in Macronutrients
In Daniel Lieberman’s book, The Story of the Human Body, the biggest lesson learned is that our physiology is able to operate on various percentages of protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
While not ideal, all, some, or none of these macronutrients can be converted into energy. Should protein intake become sub-standard, muscle can be spared. Should carbohydrate or protein sources become scarce, the body can move to a fragile metabolic condition known as ketosis. It’s not pretty, but can be survived—it’s evolutionary. So, a balanced diet isn’t always possible but you’ll likely live in spite of it.
With the help of the CrossFit movement, the Zone Diet became all the rage. Around 2009, the paleo diet was hitting high gear. Fast forward to 2018 and we have fully entered the ketogenic diet era. So who is right and who is wrong? A number of fans of each will sell you on the benefits and advantages of each, but for weight loss, it boils down to thermodynamics. All things being equal, if you create an energy deficit on any of these platforms you will lose weight.
I also think it’s a good idea to go without any food for at least 48 hours one to three times per year. If you fast longer than that your stress hormones will rise and your sleep will go to hell—check out the Minnesota Starvation Experimen if you’re interested.
Beware the Butter and Carb Intake
The use of healthy fats has become a bit of an confusing issue in recent years. You need not be afraid of fat but you shouldn’t buy the hype that a stick of butter in your coffee each morning will trigger beta oxidation and make you lean. All things being equal, 20-30% of your daily calories coming from fat is the sweet spot for most individuals.
Carbs aren’t the enemy, but your ability to handle carbs can be an issue. Excessive carbs can be the enemy and simple sugars are clearly detrimental. If you are uncertain where you fall in regard to carbs, I suggest you read Robb Wolf’s work in the book Wired To Eat. This guide details a seven day carb test to reveal your skill at handling various carbohydrate forms.
It’s also relatively safe to say that if you are more active, you will be able to handle additional carbohydrates. This carbohydrate conversation excludes the possibility of carbs playing a role in neurological health and a potential link to Alzheimer’s, type III diabetes, and dementia.
You will probably feel better with more protein. In looking at diet journals over the last five years, I have failed to find a female who consumed even the recommended daily amount for protein intake—fifty percent consumed 40-50 grams total per day. This group were exercisers and could not understand while they felt so horrible and had difficulty recovering between workout sessions. If you focus on getting the recommended daily amount of protein for two weeks I’m pretty certain you’ll feel better and your workout performance will improve.
Adopt Precision to Meet Your Goal
Precision is necessary for the last bit of improvement. If you want to get over the hump, or you are looking for that final 5% of improvement, you need to be precise with your intake. That means something like a Zone Block calculation or use precise macronutrient ratios based on your sex, weight, age, and activity level. There are multiple options, but to really run like a Swiss watch you need the precision.
Employ the Diet Industry with Caution
Big diet industry players, like Weight Watchers, tell us that the majority of their business this time of year is actually repeat business—kinda sad, really. What this reveals is something beyond the biology and physiology discussed here. What this repeat business shows is that using a proper diet really is more of a focus on behavior change, so make sure your behavior matches your goals.