Diet Intuition Part II (Know thyself)
“Know Thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has deep roots into Greek philosophy. Mankind has spent centuries pondering this statement. Recently – due to discoveries indicating that a great deal of our action and behavior is controlled unconsciously – we have begun to question whether it is possible to truly know ourselves.
The story of Ulysses reiterates how little control we have. His sea voyage from Troy to Ithaca passed close to the isle of Sirens, whose music was known to drive sailors mad whereupon they would steer towards the maidens and shipwreck against the rocks. Ulysses, upon contemplating how his “future self” would react, had his men tie him to the ship’s mast while well out of earshot and to plug their own ears with beeswax so that they could not hear the false orders given in his deranged state. Rendered temporarily insane buy the Sirens’ song, Ulysses struggled but could not break free, issued false orders that his men could not hear, and eventually sailed out of reach. This is known as the “Ulysses contract” (or pact) essentially setting up a successful future by limiting the damage of instant-gratification demanded by your present self.
There exist countless examples of how we overcome the brain’s inability to calculate the effect of immediate gain on future prosperity: automatic withdrawal for a child’s college fund or our own retirement, among others. Most of these agreements are written to shield future self from financial mayhem caused by the living-in-the-moment current self. This is done by limiting present exposure to excess, apparently disposable, income or resources. Diet is very similar to financial behavior, with the exception being that “excess” food is easy to come by, which actually makes it more important to limit our exposure to it if we wish to protect our future self.
Confronted by excess, few have this so-called willpower but it is feasible set up circumstances that produce a favorable outcome. Sometimes dietary “rules” help artificially reduce the chances of going off the reservation. Simple guidelines, i.e. “no processed food” limit selection so deciding what to eat is less complex or dangerous. Constrain this decision within a specific eating window, say every three hours or between 2pm and 8pm, and suddenly the risk of overeating declines. And you haven’t even started counting calories. Apply this simple approach before adding anything more complex. Once you can obey this simple contract, and allowed its magic to work, you may begin looking at other means of improving dietary behavior.
In “Diet Intuition Part One” I discussed how orators use data, spreadsheets and correlative studies to preach about the importance of calories or food quality from their respective podiums. I admit to having been in one or even both of these camps at some point but gave myself headaches when trying to apply these concepts to real world scenarios. Neither can be sustained indefinitely or universally imposed on everyone therefore I use temperament to help guide the application of dietary rules.
I introduced the idea of appealing to an individual’s emotional status in Part One and consider this the most important factor when setting up nutritional guidelines for a client. Knowing oneself helps determine the best means and intensity in the beginning but becomes even more important over time. We change. We evolve. We respond to circumstances. What worked last year is still true as a thesis this year but it may not produce the same results because it is affected by emotional status. When I adjust means and intensity according to my current temperament the benefits to my actions increase. No matter which dietary protocol is followed we can’t go against our own (emotional) grain for too long without damaging our physiology.
Learning what causes the least resistance takes time, possibly weeks or months and it will change over time. A high level of self-awareness can keep you out of the classic weight-loss trap of using what worked when you were younger, or even in the recent past. Metabolic and life circumstances change and so changes the stimulus/signal that is required to cause transformation.
The first step of any dietary intervention is to observe and admit that a problem exists. Whether due to weight gain, lack of performance, etc. you must diagnose and understand the exact nature of the problem. Then calculate how long it took you to get to your current state. If it was a three-month fall off the bus expect at least that to fix it. If a 30-year history of abhorrent behavior made you what you are today, you must accept that 30 days won’t dent the damage you’ve caused and to be discouraged by a lack of immediate progress shows a lack of realism.
Take a long view. Getting “ripped” for summer works well until the summertime achievement gives permission to reward oneself for how “good” he or she has been. “30 day diet challenges” last for exactly 30 days and realistically, most solutions begin producing results after three months. So take a slow, sustainable approach that addresses the influence of time constraints, family obligations, and even peer pressure, which can wreck any attempt at dietary change.
There are only a few reasons to take up special dieting protocol. The first is hitched to vanity. Aesthetic body re-composition is very different from performance-based dietary manipulation but much of what we know derives from confusion about aesthetics and athletics.
Body re-composition is usually a fat-loss, muscle-gain scenario. Bodybuilding as a sport requires enormous dedication to strict eating and training protocols. Much of what we know about supplementation, macronutrient partitioning and even hydration was discovered by bodybuilders trying to get as muscular and as lean as possible. That said bodybuilding is NOT what most dieters are doing nor are they equipped to do it. Their lack of understanding blurs the line between losing fat and gaining mass so their actions are inefficient, and the results dissatisfying because of that confusion. Similarly, when we confuse aesthetic goals with performance objectives it is easy to make drastic dietary mistakes.
No matter how good your abs look that appearance does not imply great sport performance. There are performance benefits to being as lean as possible and very few drawbacks but chasing leanness and performance simultaneously isn’t wise. The single-minded approach to fat-loss works best: plan it during a period when the accompanying loss of power makes sense, i.e. not during the sporting season, because it will happen. At a minimum you will likely lose motivation to train so either add an extra rest day between sessions or (and) increase the amount of sleep you get. If your norm is less than 6-7 hours per night simply adding two more hours per night may be all you need do to lose fat.
Being too lean – few are capable of becoming so – has a negative effect on recovery and can trigger connective tissue and joint problems. This is rare and manifests when males drop into the low single digits (percent-wise) of body fat. If you are actually training and competing in a sport you will know when you’re getting close to having a problem.
Most folks searching the web for fat-loss information aren’t concerned with sport performance so the information is skewed toward an aesthetic outcome, albeit with a bait-and-switch undercurrent of improved athletic capability. There aren’t shortcuts to any ability (worth having) so it should be obvious to any reader that promises of fat-loss, increased lean mass, more testosterone (euphemism for a bigger dick) and greater confidence should be dismissed for the hot air they are.
The more-for-less argument is prevalent when it comes to selling training plans as well. The recent talk of long slow aerobic work “damaging” the metabolism, or steady-state aerobic activity impairing the body’s ability to lose fat is a sales pitch for HIIT (high intensity interval training), which is characterized as the gold standard activity for fat-loss. Especially when viewed through the lens of competitive bodybuilding. To find out whether the blanket declarations are true for you and your objective you must first define the objective, assess your current condition, and learn whether your definitions of aerobic activity, steady state and high intensity are the same used to make those statements.
From an adaptation model the body’s caloric efficiency is phenomenal. In an abundance of food it uses the excess to fuel a host of different mechanisms. Pull that excess away it resorts to an onboard checklist to shut down what’s unimportant. When caloric restriction is prolonged for a period of time very few health risks arise aside from hair-loss and shedding of the toenails.
Stranger still, the body can adapt to increased exertion even without adequate fuel. This mechanism is advantageous for endurance sports, although in most cases an athlete never approaches the extreme deficit to trigger such efficient energy use. This ability to be efficient with calories is opposite to what is required for fat loss.
To illustrate individual efficiencies Dr. Layne Norton used an example of two 185-pound males who maintain their weight on 2000 and 3500 calories per day respectively despite similar levels of activity.
If the objective for each is to get as lean as possible it will be much “easier” for the 3500 calorie man because he can eat more without gaining weight. This seems contradictory until you understand that part of getting as lean as possible is developing a huge tolerance for calories. He can also trigger fat loss with only slight caloric deficit spread over a longer period whereas 2000-calorie man has very little margin to cut before the body refers to its hierarchic checklist and begins down-regulating metabolism.
On the other hand, if someone needed to survive on his own with very little access to food – let’s say to make it through a multi-day push on foot – the man already adapted to 2000 calories per day would have a much better chance (given that specific skills were equal in both men).
In most circles of “Pageantry” post-competition or off-season dietary training is used to slowly teach the body to accept more calories, especially carbohydrates. This adaptation creates a bigger margin – similar to the 3500-calorie man mentioned above – so there is less metabolic down-regulation during the next cut. The process is slow, and must be, i.e. add 5g of carbs and 2g of fat each week and if weight seems to stabilize then add the same the following week. The result might be to gain 1-2 pounds over a four-month cycle, but with an extra 600 calories to play with the added weight could be shed very easily, most likely upon the first deficit drop.
I believe the same strategy could be applied to endurance sports where a low bodyweight is helpful. Year-round racing and training puts the body in poor condition to lose weight and maintain power output. A slow adjustment in intake could theoretically set up conditions to easily drop unwanted weight without sacrificing performance. This would be the ultimate “long-view” and opposite of what happens for most endurance athletes, in the off-season when training volume and intensity are drastically reduced while calories are increased. Again, temperament must fit the cycle: if a “normal” off-season produces a greater desire to perform that may yield greater results than any sort of calorie-related metabolic manipulation.
Sadly, the majority of those using a standard endurance training protocol don’t understand what they are doing to themselves when they couple it to an extreme caloric deficit. This can set the stage for some terrible hormonal disruption as well as the frustration of reduced performance without fat-loss. Such a lack of results makes some people push even harder, which triggers even harsher survival activities in the body. Once the damage is done it is a very long road to reset metabolism. Those who try to cut weight while simultaneously building the volume demanded by their sport multiply the risks.
Losing weight – and fat specifically – contributes to performance in sports where locomotion is central. Clearly, there are exceptions but the point is this: gaining only the lean tissue that adds to locomotion and movement economy is a lifelong pursuit. The long view training approach combined with a slow and steady dietary protocol ensures that fewer mistakes are made. At least this approach makes such errors easier to detect, and smaller, which means less risk of disrupting an efficient athlete.
You must first define the objective, and truly be honest about it. Getting as lean as possible is a perfectly acceptable goal but strength, speed, or even endurance must take a back seat. If becoming as efficient as possible is your priority then a few extra ounces of intra-muscular triglycerides (let’s just call it fat) may not be appealing during beach season but makes the difference between a podium spot in a 50k trail race and a DNF.
Although the title of this article is Diet Intuition, to change the composition of your body requires you to dump intuition and feeling, and to be highly logical. It also means not punishing yourself for dietary mistakes and instead adjusting expectations and the timeline. If you are up against a hard deadline – for a movie role as an example – I suggest not making mistakes. Application of a temperament-adapted protocol reduces the odds of failure but increases the amount of self-awareness required and the education necessary to maintain and improve stalled weight loss. Thus it is not a quick fix, your results are a direct result of the effort and time invested.