Monday, September 3, 2012

Eat like Conan!

Bodybuilders are some of the leanest people around.  At world class levels competitors will certainly have less than 10% body fat.  So in addition to training, what kind of diet should help promote this level of leanness?  Let's look at what Arnold Schwarzenegger advised in his 1984 book, Arnold's Bodybuilding for Men.  I recently found a photocopy of p.197 in one of my old notebooks, which I have not looked at for 25 years. At the time of publication Arnold was just past his prime and had been arguably the best in the world during the 1970's.  Here's what he had to say about diet:

"... [some bodybuilders] eat diets consisting of 50 to 70% protein, something I believe to be totally unnecessary.

"It is hard for me to convince them that what they ought to be eating is a basic, balanced diet, just like the one they were taught about back in health education class in school. I know they want something more exotic, but I can't help the way things are. That kind of balanced diet is necessary to provide the body with all of the essential nutrients it requires for the difficult and demanding training that bodybuilding involves.

"Here is my formula for basic good eating:

  1. Eat about 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight.
  2. Eat no less than 60 and no more than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day.
  3. Limit your fat intake.
  4. Take a limited amount of vitamin and mineral supplementation just for insurance.
  5. If you want to gain or lose weight, vary your caloric intake -- and that variation should be mostly in carbohydrates, in the form of vegetables, potatoes and fruit.

"Earlier in my career, I believed that a bodybuilder needed to eat as much as 200 grams of protein a day in order to develop the maximum muscle mass. Since then, my research has shown me that body- builders do need more protein than the average per- son, but probably no more than around 100 grams, and certainly no more than 150. This gives enough protein for muscle-building, without adding any unnecessary calories to the diet. Non-bodybuilders, on the other hand, can easily get by on no more than 1 gram of protein for every kilo (2.2 pounds) of body weight."

Now, before looking closely at these recommendations, note the comment about school health education.  Arnold would have been learning about this stuff in late grade school or junior high, but that would have been in Austria around 1960, most likely using textbooks published in the 1950's.  The advice in those books I think would not likely have borne any resemblance to today's government food guides, but perhaps some industrious and resourceful reader will find out for us.

Now to the 5-point list of recommendations.  The first thing to notice is that Arnold's advice on apportioning the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) is quite specific on protein and carbohydrate, but extremely vague about fat.  What does "limit" mean?  Without a number this is meaningless, but we can get a reasonable estimate of how much this should be with some calculation (my interpretation of this point is that we shouldn't specifically add fats and oils to what is already in our foods.  For example, trim your steak, enjoy the internal fat, but don't slather it with butter;  don't drench your salad with oil; avoid fried foods).

So if I were to follow Arnold's advice, as a non-bodybuilder weighing  73 kg (160 lbs), I should get by on 70 grams of protein and 100 grams of carbohydrate.  Considering a reasonably active lifestyle, I would need at least 2000 calories a day.   We know that protein and carbohydrate contain 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram.  So by Arnold's recommendation I will consume 70 * 4 = 280 protein calories and 100 * 4 = 400 carbohydrate calories.  In order to get my 2000, I will need 1320 more calories from fat, or 66% of my intake!  (The other proportions work out to 20% carbs, and 14% protein).  He may not explicitly have said it, but he is recommending what would certainly today be called a high-fat diet!

In addition, point 5 is clear that carbohydrates will be the determining factor in how lean you get.  It remains to be shown if this diet is healthy in the long run and if it would get results for most people.  Considering the number of testimonials out there, and personal experience, I would definitely recommend eating like Conan!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't feed your inner worm!

One of the most profound insights I got from reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes concerns the interpretation of cause and effect when considering caloric balance and weight gain. It is a difficult concept to grasp, and I had to think about it a long time before I understood it. I've participated in various comment sections in different blogs and have found that I have not done a good job explaining it, so rather than cluttering the comments in them, I'll expound on it here.

In a nutshell, the idea is this: if one gains weight, then by definition one has taken in more calories than one has expended -- one has "overeaten". That's what thermodynamics tells us. What it doesn't tell us is why one has overeaten. Most people believe -- and it seems obvious by observation -- that overeating causes weight gain. But here is the other possibility: weight gain causes overeating. This might seem silly and perplexing at first, but I propose a thought experiment below to explain the profound difference.

Let's imagine I have been affected with an intestinal parasite, like a tapeworm. This worm lives for itself, and steals some of the food I eat. It is capable of growing to an enormous size, capable of weighing as much as its host, and it has food preferences.

Now suppose this parasite steals ten percent of all the calories I ingest. Over time, I find that I am less satisfied with my portions, because the amounts I am used to eating now leave me hungry. So I have an extra snack or meal. If I had been living happily on an average of 2,000 calories a day, I find that I must now eat 2,200 calories, because the tapeworm has eaten and stored 200 of them to foster its own growth. After 150 days of this, my tapeworm now weighs a pound. The extra 200 calories a day is hardly noticed by me, because it is so easily obtained, and after ten years of living with my tapeworm, it has grown to weigh 20 lbs.

Now poor me, ten years older and 20 lbs. heavier, wonders how I gained this weight, in spite of watching my portions and exercising regularly! "Eat less!" "Exercise more!" say all of my friends, doctor, and the conventional wisdom.

So I cut my portions for a while, and guess what? I lose weight! Yes, my tapeworm slimmed down a bit, as have I, but now I am trying to live on reduced calories, and my worm still takes its (now reduced) tithe of my meals. My metabolism and cells are screaming for fuel by making me hungry. I feel tired and have no will to exercise. I still need my daily 2,000 to function well.

Eventually hunger gives in, and over time I must return to eating 2,200 calories a day, and my worm gets bigger than ever. And again I need even more energy to carry around the extra weight.

Now, knowing that my weight gain is due completely to the pirated and stored calories in my parasitic worm, and inaccessible to my metabolism, would any reasonable person blame my weight gain on my "overeating"? Is my overeating causing my weight gain?

No, the root cause is that the fuel I consume is not all getting to my metabolic engine. It is the weight gain of my parasite that is driving me to overeat. And if I don't overeat, I will become sedentary, or lose lean mass as my body attempts to compensate for the semi-starvation imposed upon it.

Now let's imagine two other conditions: my tapeworm loves, just loves sugars and starches! It will actually eat not 10% but 75% of the sugars I ingest, but it's not so fond of protein and fat. Furthermore, it is triggered to start eating by sensing high insulin levels in its host. Now what kind of diet would be the worst I could eat? What kind of diet would go a long way to fattening my worm, and leave me with the least share of the calories I eat? What kind of diet would ensure that I became really, really hungry not long after eating? I think you know the answer.

If you can now transfer these parasitic qualities to fat tissue itself, you begin to see the idea. Imagine that Metabolic Syndrome is an imbalance in the regulation of the fat tissue itself, causing it to hold on to stored calories more than release them. The end result is the same. The fat tissue has become like a parasite, robbing the rest of the body of the fuel it needs, and the body responds the way it always does, signaling the host to eat by inducing hunger. If that hunger is not met, it will slow down metabolism to compensate for the lack of energy. Fat storage is causing overeating, not the reverse!

If this is indeed the cause, or one possible cause of obesity, it explains several problems that the caloric-balance theory does not. For instance, why caloric restriction and exercise are so ineffective as a long term solution: it does not correct the underlying imbalance.

As far as I know, there has not been enough research done that can actually pin down the cause of the metabolic syndrome. Once you get it though, it may be incurable, and if I go out on a limb here, the best treatment may be a low carbohydrate diet.

I hope the above has made the understanding of the idea of causality in the conservation of energy a little easier -- and thank goodness we know how to treat tapeworm infections!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guest post: another paleo-diet success story

Anecdotal evidence continues to mount. Today's post is from a friend who has managed to lose 25 pounds in three months. He is the fourth person in my circle to have successful weight loss with a whole-foods, paleo approach to nutrition. This was originally posted at Thanks, Andy!

This is actually my second kick at the paleo can and, with one exception, it's gone much more smoothly than my first time around. In case anyone out there in Internet-land is as half-witted as I am, here are some basic tips from my go around that may help clarify things so you can get it right sooner.

And of course, I have been getting things wrong and will doubtless continued to do so (it's a gift, really), please revisit this thread as others who are much wiser than I correct me.

1) Don't over-read because you may confused between: the wealth of information, the various ideological camps within the paleo world and what things mean depending upon what you are trying to accomplish: are you trying to lose weight or maintain a particular weight. You also may be talking to someone with completely different goals from you. A 22-year-old who wants to get six-pack abs will have one set of needs rather different from you when you're a 55-year-old who's had two C-sections.

2) Keep it really simple to start: meat plus all the green vegetables you want. Where I made my mistake was treating all meats as equal -- in my first go around, I ate bags of cold cuts and paté, which have their place but lay off them to start. What I tell people is eat steak and all the celery, salad and spinach you want; or, salmon nuked on a plate with California mix veggies.

3) Your reading and people's opinions about what to eat depends in part on where you are.

Dairy and fruit in the weight-loss phase are completely different from the post-weight loss phase. There are pitched ideological battles over this but in the weight loss phase, less dairy is better. Now, I got confused by thinking dairy came from cows, cows are animals, ergo it's an animal fat, so I was slathering full-fat tzatziki on all my pork and lamb, and full fat sour cream on all my fish. No, not during the weight loss phase.

4) Nuts, eggs and the like are power foods. During my first paleo attempt I was eating nothing but and there was zero weight loss. I'm not saying never have these but moderate. I also have no natural immunity to nuts. If nuts are in front of me, I will finish the container, no matter how large the container is. It's like Kryptonite, I swear.

5) Add bacon and fish or freshly cooked meats and that unsalted salad spices to salads. This'll help wean you off of salad dressings. (Your taste buds will change, it's true.) Salad dressings I needed to cut in phases in my second go around. During my first go, I went through them by the vat but they're full of crap. Beware of fake bacon bits, too. Also consider buying fresh dill or coriander to scissor into your salads. These taste even stronger than any salad dressing.

Salads don't have to be complicated to be good.* When I restarted paleo, I bought many, many salad dressings. Well, after two or so months, they stopped being used. In fact, they're doing nothing but sitting in the back of the icebox for when guests come over. (By the way, a lot of them have sugar!)

6) In my first kick at the can, I found it hard to understand how the diet caused my lack of hunger. It works like this:

Animal fat keeps you from getting hungry -- particularly if you're overloading yourself with cheese as I was. With the amount of brie and nuts I was eating, my poo became frankly evil. Now that I eat no dairy apart for whitening my morning coffee, I've definitely started answering the second of nature's calls less because I'm getting my fats from freshly-cooked meats. Having fat in the meats keeps you from getting hungry.

That's normal so don't freak as is going 3/4 of a day without feeling peckish.**

By the way, if George Foreman has 'knocked the fat out,' why isn't he thin?

7) Fruits I also overdid when trying paleo for the first time. Again, your taste buds will change and remember that the weight loss phase is different from the maintenance phase. You can track down these nigh-religious debates over fruit in paleo discussion fora. Take home point: sweet fruits may slow your weight loss but if you've been having grapefruit for breakfast for the last 20 years and nothing short of Martians coming and kidnapping all of the grapefruit trees will stop you from doing so, dig in.

8 ) Get a crock pot.

9) Follow 80/20 rule to start. You will make mistakes, but if generally if you're doing 80 per cent of it right, you're going in the right direction. Staying at 80/20 to start rather than 'getting religion' and trying to stay at 100 per cent paleo to start will allow you time to experiment, and develop tastes. You're not a machine, you're a person with psychological quirks.

I deliberately gave myself open meals in the first month or two, and just...stopped. I found I could go a lot more toward the paleo side more quickly than I imagined. You may differ.

I once had an e-mail from someone who told me that I might as well not bother doing anything in paleo since I have cream in my morning coffee. That's elevating this nutritional plan to a religion. I mentioned to the same person (or was it someone else) that I also chew gum. Well, my goodness, it was like saying 'I'm a Nazi' to this one paleo practitioner. Since cavemen didn't chew gum, I wasn't on the diet therefore I should go to MacDonald's this instant.

Look, the point of eating this way, at this stage of the game, is to lose weight (another 25 lbs to go!) not adhere strictly to one person's strict interpretation of edge case items. Thog and Urg the cavemen also didn't drink Perrier or fizzy water but since my practical goal is weight loss, at this stage of the game the strictest possible interpretation of paleo is frankly 'paleo-ism' if I may coin a term.

Some discussions and articles flip freely between what foods mean in the weight loss phase, versus the maintenance phase because the authors themselves are confused or because they're answering an issue that's unrelated to your weight loss/maintenance status. Some people deal with edge cases and core foods the same way. People who do so can be well-meaning but cause you short term confusion. However, once things become clearer in your mind thanks to experience, you can have quite a lot of fun yanking their chains because they don't typically have senses of humour. If you're confused about what's nutrition/opinion or ideology, ask yourself if it fits within the 80/20 rule when explaining it to a really smart friend who doesn't know anything about this subject -- and relax.


*They also don't have to involve cutting tomatoes, which I regard as an imbecillic waste of time but that's just me.
**You'll also miss farting, one of the true pleasures of life but no diet is perfect.