Posts in Nutrition
Diet Intuition (part I)

This article was originally posted in the summer of 2013 on the Gymjones members site, it has been updated since to reflect a more accurate stance.


Under The Banner Of Health

It is relatively difficult to find a pattern of "good" eating linked to performance because genuine effort is not particular about the fuel. If calorie excess and/or specific macro-nutrient distribution leads to higher output then the choice was correct. But better performance is not always healthier, and healthier is not always achievable.

Most food evangelists would have you believe they have nothing to sell, that their concepts or opinions are NOT aimed at selling a product, only that these ideas can save you. For the web-based eating-elite, such salvation is often tied to the concept of eating for "health" though their definition is difficult to pin down, and changes according to the context of a follower's questions. To start the practice of posting a picture of a salad and tagging it “health” does not make you a nutritionalist. If anything I extend the term to whatever it is that your body is deficient in, macro first, micro next. Post-workout calories period are healthy, there may be better options when given a choice but to preach from the sanctuary of a filtered camera is neither informative nor progressive.  Still, the promise of improved health is an easy sell. Everyone wants it. No one knows exactly how to get it. And much like "heaven", the idea is likely better than the location and the company.


Both sellers and buyers must believe, and with "belief" comes group connection, a sort of tribalism that helps affirm faith in whatever eating habits one chooses - no matter how illogical. The more difficult or restricted the eating patterns the more tightly knit the group. Extremism is easy to justify when others are doing it too but being "extreme" rarely produces the results most extremists seek, especially extended over a long enough timeline. Consistency produces results but consistency isn't “shiny” and it doesn't command the attention the extremists want - even if all they want and need is positive reinforcement.


Most would be dietary aficionados love to bring to attention how "different" they are from the mainstream, "Look at how radical I am." They point out minute details, N-6/N-3 imbalances and the resulting hormonal disruption. They claim to know the answer to your problem whether said it was a problem or not. Their expertise insists it could be a problem and that you should … listen, buy, and obey the savior, the ambassador of health and wellness.


The best way they grab attention is to be different: to be gluten-free, dairy-free, carb-free, fat only, or animal product-free. If you live 100% on fruit, or don't eat fruit, or only "eat" regurgitated wheat grass shots you definitely get some attention, which puts you in a position of (apparent) authority: your extremism appears authentic and serious to those unwilling to go to similar extremes. Your answers are convincing to those who don't have the same experiences, who haven't tried to eat 70 bananas a day AND who also don't feel healthy. I don't have a problem with any marginal dietary concepts or those who follow them until these "authorities" start pushing the concept of "performance", which is not necessarily 100% healthy. We often sacrifice ideal health in favor of higher athletic performance.


Performance is a goal, it has objective, measurable answers. Health, much like aesthetics has no arrival, it is purely abstract. One day you have it, the next an oblong box is being fitted to you. On the other hand, performance has hard numbers and they either show improvement or not. Separating these is simple. Separating these is not easy. Daily, even hourly we are shown the importance of a lean, "sexy" look, or a healthy, new such-and-such and it influences what we do and how we eat, and it must be managed just like any other emotional distraction.


If we would use our dietary behavior to achieve an objective we must empty the cultural, psychological and behavioral nets that might have trapped us. We must reestablish the relationship between reason and food but/and use intuition as a guide. Eating schedules work for beginners, for those who CAN'T control their eating habits or if training is not intensive enough to require food as a recovery tool. Think about it: if you don't know exactly how you will train next week, and if you have not established baseline nutritional requirements according to past experience, you can't possibly adhere to an eating schedule, or a caloric plan from a web-based algorithm designed for "most users." instead of a schedule you need attention, and a good feeling for your own needs are.


That said, in periods of block training where the loads increase incrementally it is easier to estimate caloric and macronutrient demands. Experience should give you an idea of what you need, but if you don't let intuition guide intake then recovery speed and efficiency is reduced. Therefore an eating plan limiting CHO to 100g per day is dictating the training and it should be the other way around: work, and increased training stress are the act to which diet must respond. Diet supports the work - unless the diet IS the sport (or blog and sales topic).


A good, correct or clean diet can only be defined in the context of the objective. Again, as with training, we battle the one-size-fits-all paradigm. It would be easier if we were all similar and could therefore eat or behave the same but this generalization doesn't even work within the smaller circles of genotypes. Within the minor variations of Olympic-level scullers exists a wide range of eating habits. Rowers are known for consuming massive calories to support their size and their output but within there exists enormous variation - as diverse as the nations and individuals that compete in the sport itself. Pinning down then a way for rowers to eat “healthily” becomes more about the deficiency of the individual, as it should have always been.


It is often stated that, "if the engine burns hot enough, it will burn anything." Of course, improvements in nutrition may yield positive results but the people making blanket claims that they can make such improvements in others, in clients will most likely fail. We cannot ascertain individual needs without being on the ground with the subject, without seeing the emotional/psychological ties to food, and observing and recording causes and effects when we do make small changes. In the context of improved sport performance, remote dietary coaching is bullshit - except at the most basic level. To guide an athlete I need to see how small adjustments in carb totals and timing affect output and recovery. I need to understand the power of savory and sweet, of how certain foods comfort, therefore relax, which can improve recovery even if the nutrient profile is (scientifically) negative. As an example, alcohol has its uses.

To reap improvement you must first risk failure.

To reap improvement you must first risk failure.


When we coach an athlete, everyone involved in the process understands that, to increase performance at high levels, we must accept the risk of making it worse, because there is no blanket answer, only an individual one. And the higher the level the more precise the solution must be.


If you are experimenting with a performance diet on your own, without the guidance and accountability of a coach, you must eat according to how you feel. Sadly, this often results in answer-shopping because it is very hard to disassociate from social and emotional power of food, i.e., "I love ice cream. I work very hard. I deserve what I want and can afford to eat it." You might even justify that habit with pseudo-science and ingredients, "My trainer said that dairy and sugar spikes IGF-1 after a hard workout, which speeds recovery, and besides, the brand of ice cream I eat is all natural, etc…" This is the slippery slope of "doing what we want" justified unconsciously through confirmation bias which in it's worst form becomes conscious.


The opposite happens as well. When someone admits that, "My eating schedule says I must eat one pound of chia seeds blended with kale and mineral water," and does so, he or she is either indifferent to taste or lacks good dietary judgment or has no (force of) personality. A plan that doesn’t take palatability into account, or respect food reward scenarios is as inconsistent as making a decision to diet on the day by flipping a coin. The best eating plan on paper often lacks real world executability, most likely ignoring the human aspect, which is the most important.


I don't toe the line of the hardline healthy-elite. Being a diet robot is a trap like any other. Accurate application of any dietary rules takes sensitivity and a deep knowledge of one self. Extreme dietary control lacks emotional finesse but it does enhance psychological strength. In plain words, eat for consistent performance enhancement without disregarding nutritional optimization. Milk the fine line between getting what you need and getting in what you want because the effects are long-lasting.


We teach a difference between the Performance Diet and the Daily Diet but many sports require only a slight variation between the two concepts, i.e. eat normally but add 200g of carbs to fuel effort and speed recovery or bump total intake by 1000+ calories around competition. Is a Performance Diet not also a Daily Diet if the competitive season lasts nine months out of the year? Of course, the Performance Diet for a 24-hour no-stop effort is different than a normal Daily Diet but that's a topic for another post.


Like training itself, diet may be viewed as a big picture, which is conceptually ignored in favor of rules and special, "I'm unique," circumstances. Instead of learning the reason behind the rules we blindly follow them. We fast intermittently instead of counting calories, unwittingly reducing macronutrients because trying to understand the whole picture is too difficult. It's true weighing and measuring is difficult, and in some circumstances its cost isn't worth the outcome. The overriding rule of dietary manipulation is that knowledge allows more precise control than ignorance. Would a weightlifter progress training effectively without knowing the amount of weight he is lifting? Of course it depends on how advanced the athlete is. In any discipline, random progression works for the beginner but refining the top 5% takes incredible accuracy and precision. The bottom line is knowing is more powerful than NOT.


It's still being argued that a "calorie is not a calorie", through entropy and certain efficient macro-nutrients most deniers of calorie based eating plans are right, but they offer no more of an accurate model to practice. This discussion is usually heralded by those who find the neurotic stress of counting calories and macro-nutrient assimilation too much to bear. Instead they swear by other control methods, which are, of course, influenced by a personal bias. These methods become justifications for both action and argument: “IF is better than Zone is better than Paleo”. This is another way to form a consensus and a group, to tribalize behavior, belief, which often leads to selling something or recruiting members to reinforce your beliefs.


I assume that when I write a diet plan for an individual they will make the best food choices possible according to the objective we have agreed upon (performance and/or health). My optimism is clearly misplaced. We must all be taught how to eat at a very basic level, which is where most go wrong. On one hand they choose the miracle food they read about because it's a "cancer-fighter" while simultaneously negating that choice by combining it with something equally as bad, e.g., "I got the pasta primavera because it has tomatoes and I heard lycopene is good for my cells." This kind of nutritional rubbish may sell a periodical but it doesn't set the reader up for a lifetime of good behavior. It's a quick and delusional fix, not a long-term thesis.


Applying these ideas appears daunting because we have chained ourselves to complex ideas: we know more about the molecular make up of wheat than we know about how to prepare simple meals day in and day out. We invest in complicated eating strategies before we analyze what didn’t work for the past 20 years. Instead of trying to trigger hormonal releases by eating at 2:35am under a full moon we should first figure out how much food we eat in a day. You must know the answer to this very basic question: how many calories do you eat? How many do you need? And why?


Armed with the answer you may train intelligently and eat to support that process. Knowing allows you to eat for your personal goals, in a consistent manner, and to recover as best as possible. Observe and record behavior. Above all, be honest. If you do that then perhaps, along the way you may find Health.


Nutrition as a Modifier

      It’s well known that routine in the repeated sense, regarding physical fitness soon leads to stagnation. We have figured out over our essentially short existence that stress is the father of progress, and adaptation occurs when and if the cruel mistress compensation appears. No athletic endeavor is under taken without this sort of ebb and flow. We are told to eat for performance; high quality food, timed correctly with proper macronutrient proportion, in appropriate amounts usually does the trick, don’t forget to dogmatize with the appropriate amount of elitism. That pretty much sums up what thousands of Internet gurus scream at each other in varying ways in daily battles hosted by an online comments box.


Eating is a tool, and like any other tool it can be wielded correctly to manipulate a higher level of adaptation. I’ve seen a few posts here and there about “fat adaption”, I have even mentioned it in a previous article. But most of what I see is just a cult-like approach to diet that uses scientific references to be carb-phobic. Like any other stimulus when we apply routine the outcome is generally stagnation. So why is it that your physical protocol is constantly varied but your nutrition is a carbon copy of the day before? I understand it may be scarier than just switching up what type of protein powder source you use, but the risk comes with many rewards. Applied correctly it should be easy to adapt to specific goals such as, fat adaptation, increased glycogen storage, hormone adjustment, mass loss, fat loss, improvement of lactic buffering, the list goes on, you might as well just say “performance”. The similarities in properties that you can manipulate mirror that of physical training, which is the reason we should not ignore their use.


 5 events in out of 7, my body's recognition of coke was a welcoming feeling..

 5 events in out of 7, my body's recognition of coke was a welcoming feeling..

The basics of understanding how to use diet and recovery as fitness modifiers starts with knowing the direction of the application. Depending on the sport I generally see protein use predominantly pre-workout to ensure protein synthesis can occur after we break down the fiber through exercise. This practice in itself has taken quite a while to catch on, as those that know very little still use protein after stress, which is too late to influence the immediate signal for protein synthesis. In endurance sports we use CHO to fill glycogen stores prior to training. As some camps have caught on to and encourage training on empty in order to adapt more fat utilization. This style was even popular in some bodybuilding circles for cutting weight before competition. In general for recovery purposes, we know that an easily available source of CHO/protein approximately 3:1 post workout effectively helps the recovery response especially when ingested within 45 minutes of training. All of these are correct and none of them are correct, It’s like exercise selection, it depends. The thought of “why?” controls the means. I notice a trend in most “fitness sport” athletes to be chronically glycogen depleted; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you leave it unfulfilled going into competition. Drink all the GU you want, on the day your body will be unfamiliar with the process, and most likely reject it. This is easy to explain, as the aesthetic of fitness is a big draw, to do this most cut CHO as a way of reducing easy calories in order to “look” fit or their Diet brand hasn’t elaborated use of any CHO besides sweet potatoes. What they have actually accomplished is a signal to the body that CHO is alien and its usage will be treated as such. Glycogen storage is an adaptable feature and likewise a perishable ability. On another spectrum always training with glycogen will lessen your ability to use fat, so when the glycogen empties, and it most likely will if the event is long enough, or the events numerous enough the lights go out, proverbially.

This subject can get complex and is in no way fully understood, when first hearing of it it may all seem confusing. When I first explain this process to people their first reaction is panic, like they’ve done something wrong their entire life. They feel like they have the urge to flip and eat in a completely opposite manner, this would be wrong. Liken it to having never lifted weights as a runner, if I suggested lifting some weights and explained the benefits you would not stop running all together to reap the adaptations from lifting, you would simply add a day or two a week and see what happens. And just like that process it would be slight, over time though the benefits seep through, you become more adapted to the signals you send. If you’ve sent the signal to train on empty enough eventually it becomes normal. And that’s really what expression we are looking for, for each and every scenario to feel normal: empty, fed, full, depleted, given nutrients to recover and taking them away. The key here is planning nutrition to act as a modifier for physical training, which means it is neutral until we push it in a specific direction. The most common example of this is with fat adaptation, reduce the overall amount of CHO during a given block of training, more so before workouts, and your body will respond temporarily with a signal to use a different form of fuel (fat). Do this too often and the body will start to regulate the “top-end’ of performance as the limited storage of glycogen becomes more and more apparent, and the energy systems’ fuel source less and less available. Like anything in training if you hit the button frequently enough you risk overturning the original signal into an opposite one. To compare monotonous behavior you might attempt maxing out on a certain lift every day. Eventually the signal sent would no longer be “get strong” it will just be “survive”, the reaction from the body is to persevere. Muscle fiber and neurological recruitment will cease and the opposite will occur. In much of a similar pattern "over-recovering" can dull the signal sent and lead to little or even no progress.  Stimulate the body in a way that is progressive and compensated for with recovery, and that signal becomes a feeling for the body to see as normal. This action of periodization is well understood, it’s just that the action of nutritional stress is not so direct, and the adaptation less known.

We might also examine post-workout nutrition. We can use the depletion of glycogen to our advantage by pushing a stimulus another direction. By avoiding recovery between training sessions we can ultimately increase the stress of the next workout without risking increasing intensity or having to progress the workload. Eventually the piper needs to be paid but when used in an intelligent manner you multiply the tools available for adapting to specific fitness abilities. Numerous different sources have touted the benefits of recovery practices, and I have to agree it has its place. But the common overly sold idea that you cannot “over-recover” is a shot gun approach to training and is simply being ignorant of what our body actually adapts to…which is stress.  This counts for just about every modality out there, starting with nutrition. We can easily prove our body’s ability to become more efficient with various macronutrients as we pull them out of the diet. Our bodies have an excellent way of taking small negative doses and composing a better version of ourselves. Likewise our bodies can nullify the effects of a positive stimulus just as easily. Recovering is the only way we can actually adapt to the stress we expose ourselves to, but we limit the work we put in by trying to needlessly extinguish it through excessive routine. The trick is controlling and pushing the antagonists in the proper direction and at the right times, using the tools of nutrition to increase our ability to adapt. Most endurance adaptations occur off of the process of oxidation, this exchange causes leaps and bounds in the ability to limit fatigue. We all but kill the process by nutritionally dosing ourselves in super-copious amounts of anti-oxidants. If with too much regularity Icing reduces the inflammation we incurred from training what good will the ice provide when we need to actually increase recovery between events of a real competition? We also have to realize that our bodies have adapted over the past few million years, and in doing so have a reason to be “inflamed”. Cutting this process down by NSAID use and ice is arrogantly taking the helm of a process that works in a certain order and for a reason.

Training and preparation for specific sporting goals requires a plethora of stimulus. It should be all but obvious that our bodies need constant but consistent fluctuation across the board in order to take advantage of hormesis. Learning to use all tactics and tools in correct order is a huge undertaking, and could quite possibly take a lifetime to comprehend. As the science to “why” and “what” are behind actual sporting usage by nearly a decade, we must be careful with our antidotal experience, but also persistent in the exploration and use of unconventional training ideas. There is not one “package-deal”, no “magic” workout and for sure not an exact diet that should be followed; there are just various actions/reactions that we might try and harness in order to move in the direction we hope to.