“Several excuses are always less convincing than one.” – Aldous Huxley
Let’s Talk Nutrition!
And let me begin by saying that this is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise, but rather a 30,000 ft overview of how I approach the question of diet, nutrition and supplementation. And what is my approach, in a nutshell? Pretty much the same as my fitness prescription. Hammer home the basics. Careful observation, analysis and reanalysis. Then tweak as need be around the edges.
And really, this nutrition thing need not be rocket science. If you will agree that processed/packaged/man-made/zilch-for-nutrient-density crap is, for the most part, completely inferior to that which grazes the land or is pulled from the earth, then we’re 90% there. Now, there may be a guh-zillion or more reasons why you do not choose to eat nutrient-dense, real food, but that’s an entirely different question, and one that I don’t intend to answer in this piece. There is a time and place for addressing the psychological aspect (and it is for sure important), but that’s not the intent of this post.
So first, let’s first get the “givens” out of the way, then address the more touchy-feely aspects of implementation (again, sans the psychological aspect). And as far as the “givens” go, here’s the thing: the (properly performed) science is overwhelming, and the empirical evidence is obvious — eat processed crap, empty and inflammation-producing, grain-based products and eventually (sooner rather than later for most), you’ll be sick, weak and fat. Or, eat well, exercise well, supplement intelligently, and be fit and healthy. Pretty much cut and dry in my book. And hey, If you want to dive headlong down the nutrition biochemical rabbit hole, Paleo f(x) — the movement, the events, and the video/audio repository — has more options and avenues than you could ever want to pursue.
Now I’m certainly not going to lie and tell you that health, strength and performance — or even a healthy level of fitness — will come easy. It won’t; it takes damn hard work in this modern environment. And giving up shitty food may be extremely hard for you (for physical and psychological reasons) as well. Get over it; this is your health and wellness we’re talking about. If it’s at all worth it to you, you’re going to have to fight for it. But you don’t have to go it alone. Knowledge is power and, as such, knowledge is a particularly potent ally in this fight.
And like I said, this need not be rocket science. Autoimmune conditions, gut health issues, metabolic “brokenness” and the like aside (these constitute an entirely different set of subtopics), what we’re really talking about here is maximizing nutrient density per unit calorie intake. Food may be an emotional/psychological issue for you, but nutrient density cannot be argued. If you’re going to eat crap, that’s cool, but at least be honest with yourself and accept that food’s cumulative deleterious effect upon your health. I drink beer and swill tequila sometimes, and I own it when I do. I don’t get to bitch-fuss if/when I feel the repercussions.
So let’s get down to some of the nuts and bolts.
Overall caloric intake: This question should not be argued purely from a calories do/calories don’t matter perspective. There is just too much grey involved here. These inane black/white arguments are best left to idiots, politicians and moralizers, and engaging in such arguments is akin to teaching a pig to sing; it’ll just frustrate you and annoy the pig. Calories do matter of course, just not nearly to the extent that the make-up of those calories matters. This is kind of a bell curve thing where the further removed we are from the body’s natural setpoint, the more gross calorie intake does matter. Want to drop that last little bit of body fat for the stage? You’re going to have to fight through some nagging hunger and drop (at least cyclically) your caloric and/or carbohydrate intake. Want to get seriously swole, bro? Be prepared to eat your friggin’ ass off, and suffer the constant gut misery and chow-down sweats. On the other side of the curve, dropping weight at the beginning is pretty damn easy, especially if the diet is cleaned-up even a bit so as to be less inflammatory. Just a slight decrease in systemic inflammation will result in substantial water loss, and (usually, in a de facto sense) a fairly decent calorie reduction as well, with the resultant weight loss to follow. Also, it seems as if inflammation can totally screw with the hypothalamus which, in turn, can force the body to “defend” a higher body fat setpoint than it otherwise would under normal circumstances. Are you getting the feeling that systemic, chronic inflammation is the root of a whole plethora of health and performance problems? Yeah, it is. So we’re going to do everything possible to minimize that chronic inflammation.
So the basic rules of thumb are: maximize micro-nutrient intake via nutrient-dense food, and intelligent supplementation, and minimize inflammation via cutting the most across-the-board pro-inflammatory food there is — grains.
The fat loss trajectory tends to flatten the closer we get to “setpoint weight”. Quite simply, the body acts as a bewilderingly complex chemistry set, and not at all like some kind of friggin’ internal combustion engine. The sooner you quit trying to reduce this marvelous biochemical wonder to a nuts-and-bolts machine, the better. As such, the use/storage of those ingested calories will vary greatly depending upon the makeup of those calories, one’s hormonal profile and metabolic condition. These are the subtleties and contextual overtones to this question that must be addressed. What is the metabolic pre-condition of the person we’re talking about? The pre-existing hormonal profile? State of mind? Level of fitness? Work output/intensity/frequency? What is the goal (vis-a-vis, weight loss or weight gain)? All of these nuances matter, and all of these nuances must be addressed in order to properly answer the question of “do calories matter”. But if you want a rule of thumb, someplace to begin, here it is: eat the most nutrient dense foods possible (don’t worry about the macronutrient component of those foods just yet), get some smartly-programmed daily exercise, and everything will fall into place. Get rid of the most pro-inflammatory food we currently know of; grains. And if this simple fix doesn’t totally work, you’re going to have to at least begin from this deck plate anyway before moving forward. For some, this deck plate is all they’ll need. For others, it’s merely a starting point on a longer quest.
From a health (and, to a large extent, performance) perspective, I think that we can all agree that there is no place for empty calories; sugar is a good example. The body’s raw energy needs are easily met over the long haul, either via caloric intake or fluctuations in body fat and muscle tissue. This is a second-to-second ebb-and-flow, self-stabilizing system we’re talking about here, not the pedantic deposit/withdrawal model we continually hear. The real concern lay in the body’s micro nutritional needs. Know this: your body (even absent of inflammation) will continue to signal for calorie input if it’s nutritional requirements are not met, no matter how many gross calories are available for use in the body already. We can argue the biochemical minutia ad nauseum (this is why Al Gore invented the internet. Well, that and porn, Amazon.com, and Paleo f(x) too), but at the end of the day, micro nutrient needs is what proper dietary control boils down to.
Now, performance is a slippery slope, because at a certain point in the performance chase, health will have to take a backseat. Someone like me is constantly walking that tightrope — because, well, I’m a freak like that. My goal is to maintain the maximum performance (i.e., immediate indication of survivability) level possible without degrading my health (i.e., long-term indication of survivability) in the process.
Drilling down: the macronutrients
the carbohydrate issue –
Essentially, the more metabolically demanding the pursuit, the more grams/bodyweight of carbohydrate are going to be needed to fuel that pursuit. Unless we’re talking about bodybuilding, which is a whole other animal entirely (and not one that I’m particularly interested in), it’s that simple. And yet, both endeavors still require a good bit of n=1 tinkering. For instance, I motor along just fine on a relatively low carbohydrate (50-ish grams at 220lbs body weight/day) intake, even in the face of some fairly hellish (in an intensity sense) and metabolically demanding workouts. And, given a fairly high frequency/week of those type workouts at that. But I also supplement intelligently (see below) to be able to pull this off.
Now for me, I absolutely detest the feeling of being stuffed (or even “too full”), which, if I have too high a carbohydrate load in a particular meal, is exactly how I feel. This is the essence of n=1 test/retest analysis. That said, I have just naturally adjusted to a lower-carb/higher fat diet over the years (with protein intake remaining essentially the same). A great starting point here is to move toward a low-ish carbohydrate daily intake (maybe a half to .75 grams/lb body weight) and simply refuel metabolically-demanding pursuits with additional carbohydrate as need be. What is “need be”? You’ll know it when you feel it. Unruly cravings, lack of energy, wack performance, waning sex drive, lowered body temperature, badly trending HRV (if you have access to such), and sleep disturbances, just to name a few. Now there’s a lot to be said for the old school thought that “there is no such thing as overtraining, just under eating and slack recuperation”. I’d say “under nutrition” instead, but you get the idea. If you’re gonna work hard (and you should), ya gotta eat/refuel properly. The key is to continually assess/reassess how you look, feel and perform, and adjust carb load as necessary. In reality, though, I think that even endurance athletes would be much better served by forcing their bodies to utilize fats as a primary fuel source — both from a performance and from a health standpoint.
A quick note on glycogen depletion:
Glycogen depletion is really only a concern for folks who are diabetic/pre-diabetic, or otherwise eating a crappy diet AND in poor shape to begin with. It’s kind of an “oh yeah, and that too” benefit because people in these conditions need to clear glucose from the system in any way possible. A better answer would be to quit sucking in so much of the crap to begin with, but that usually gets back around to the psychological side of things.
As far as building muscle, though, glucose depletion it’s a non-issue — or if anything, so small a contributing factor as to be negligible. I’m not sure why or where this misconception arose, but “glucose clearing” seems to be a relatively new yet common misconception vis-a-vis hypertrophy.
I would for sure not worry about carb pre-loading prior to a workout, and would simply re-fuel following a workout as you need in order to recover well and avoid this list of “overtraining/under carbing” ailments listed above. Preloading usually degrades into an excuse to eat crap all the time (“I’m carb loading for monstrous workouts, bro!”). In other words, lots of preloading and very little of the “monstrous workout, bro!” part. Imagine that.
Look, let’s keep this real simple. Shoot for a gram/lb of bodyweight. That’s pretty damn easy to obtain if you eat a decent amount of animal products, so don’t sweat it. The higher the quality, the better of course; pastured/free-range/grass-fed over CAFO. You’ll see how this plays out in a bit, but let’s not lose any sleep over the issue. Eat your fill of high quality fat and protein. Use vegetables, roots and tubers as “condiments” or “butter soppers”. Wash, rinse and repeat. Oh, and always opt for solid protein choices over powders — even high quality whey powders. Using powders/shakes is cool in a pinch, and I certainly do this, too (see below), but let’s not let them become a crutch or a frequent substitute for the real deal.
Oh hell yes, and lots of it, my friend. Coconut, olive oils, fish, avocado oils and saturated fats from pastured animals are in. Vegetable, canola and the myriad list of other trans/frankenfats way too long to list here are out. Milk fats from raw, pastured sources are in, too. Healthy fats are anti-inflammatory, nutritious, and satisfying. And this is the area in which you are likely to skimp because you’re a culturally-conditioned fat-phobe. And if you do skimp on the fats, you’ll be fucking up, big time. When I see a diet attempt circling the drain, this is the first place I look. And 9 times out of 10, the problem will be that the person, either knowingly or not, is severely low in the good fats department. If there’s one area where you’re really going to have to buck what you’ve had hammered down your throat for the last 60 years, this is it. Not yet 60 years old? Well then you no doubt heard this bullshit while circling the great beyond, awaiting your birth in this fat-phobic plane. Yes, the message was that loud and incessant. And, unfortunately, the message was totally wrong. Forever scrub it from your mind, or be doomed to poor health. It’s really that simple.
The day-to-days. Or, “I’m staring at an empty breakfast plate. Now what?”
Ok, so how do I handle the proper nutrition question on a day-to-day (or meal-to-meal) basis? First, understand that while looking at what someone else does is a great starting point, you’ll still have to do the n=1 due diligence on yourself to formulate an effective game plan. Circumstance, environment, genetics, the particulars of your own gut biota and digestion efficiency (huge variable!) — all of these are wildcards that must be addressed via your own tinkering. With that said, here are some of my current practices. And I emphasise “current” because I will shift practices in a minute if I come across new data or n=1 empirical evidence to support a different practice. Remember, diet/nutrition is not an emotional thing for me, it’s simply a matter of best practices as scientifically and empirically “proven”. And yes, I am outcome driven. As such, solid empirical evidence does work for me. If it’s backed by solid science, so much the better. But be careful here. There’s as much misinformation gleaned from purported “science” as there is via snake oil hucksters. Shoddy nutrition science does take place; unfortunately all too often. And poorly conducted science is just one problem; The China Study is just one glaring example of purposeful manipulation and/or cherry-picking of data to “prove” and/or push forward an agenda. Again, nutrition science is, unfortunately, replete with these type examples as well.
Also, note that, just as with my strength and conditioning work, I feel that purposeful variability is a huge factor that most don’t give enough credence to. That said, few days are the same for me, though the above guidelines more or less form the boundaries of what/how I eat. What follows then are some additional highlights.
Breakfast? Hell yes, and on more days than not. Usually a hunk of meat from the previous night’s dinner. Occasionally a blend of 6 egg yolks, milk, heavy cream (about a 50/50 mix, though I never measure) and maybe 25 grams of supplemental whey protein. Soft boiled eggs (I like runny yolks) and bacon are another go to. If I’m craving them, I’ll have a small serving of potatoes (lots of butter!) as well.
Intermittent Fasting? Sure, when the need calls for it. For example, if I’m traveling and I can’t get my hands on decent food. Fasting “just happens” now and again, due to circumstance (if I’m otherwise occupied) or if I’m out and my only options are shitty options. Otherwise, I just eat when I’m hungry. Pretty simple.
The one semi-constant thing with me is a large dinner. This is by far the largest meal of the day for me, and the meal with the largest carbohydrate load. A typical dinner? Meat, starch, veggie or salad. But remember my day begins at 4AM during the week, and this is the only opportunity I have for a large meal. Otherwise, my largest meal would probably occur earlier — lunch, or even breakfast.
Raw foods? I’m not really a fan. But then again, I don’t like overly cooked foods, either. Look, we as a species evolved with fire. So much so that our teeth, jaws and digestion systems altered in response to that long association. I consider cooking the first step in digestion, and I think our brain to gut size ratio is testament to that.
I consume approximately 1 gallon of whole milk, 1 gallon of buttermilk and 3/4 of a gallon of cream in a two week period. All raw and unpasteurized. If you’re looking to gain weight, raw/unpasteurized dairy is the best “supplement” money can buy. And I do consider raw dairy (if you’re lucky enough to have access to this wonderful product) my first line of supplementation. On the flip side of the coin, if you’re looking to lose weight, dairy and alcohol (and yes, sadly, even tequila) are the first things that need to go.
And speaking of supplements…
They should be just that — supplements to an otherwise stellar lifestyle, diet and fitness regime.
However, in the same way that I consider curls a complement to (but in no way a substitute for) heavy deadlifts, the point of proper supplementation is to complement a base template of high quality, nutrient-dense, real food. I see the supplements that I take as either (1) a slight (emphasis on slight) performance edge or enhancement and, (2) a hedge against the fact that I do live in a somewhat tainted, modern environment. Questionable farming practices have depleted the soil of valuable mineral content, and the air is tinged with toxins. And let’s face it — I live a pretty chill life by modern standards, but in the context of what I’m evolutionarily wired for, I’m off the reservation. I work hard and I play harder. I don’t always get enough sleep and/or recuperation. I’m in the sun a hell of a lot more than most, but still nothing compared to what my genetic hand expects. I don’t always eat 100% grass-fed/pastured/organic — and even if I did, we’re back to the depleted soil problem. It’s not all hell-and-ruin, of course, but I do believe that the body does need some added help, even in the best of circumstances, in dealing with modern life. And that’s where a properly designed and implemented supplement boost can come in handy. The problem is what we don’t need is exactly the only option most of us have, and that’s the “shotgun ever’thang” approach. What we need is a smarter, more pinpointed/personalized approach to, for instance, dosing, combining and timing. For instance, the directions on my bottle of ZMA (a supplement I find beneficial) read “3 capsules for men, 2 for women”. That’s pinpointed and personalized? Seriously?
OK, full disclosure statement: I am very, very biased toward the n=1 supplement approach. So much so that I’ve aligned with a nutritional supplement purveyor ID Life, that utilizes an in-depth, on-line questionnaire to more accurately determine an individual’s needs and dosing requirements. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot more accurate than the aforementioned shotgun method.
Disclosure statement #2: I believe in the ID Life system enough to fully endorse it. I know the man (Logan Stout) behind the start-up operation personally, and I believe in his vision and conviction to make ID Life an industry game-changer. I’ve also consulted with them to make these supplements as Paleo-friendly as possible. As such, I am currently building a marketing team, and would love to add a few more like-minded folks to my stable — folks who believe that diet and fitness comes first (or course), but that there is a place for intelligently-driven supplementation. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll get you more info. In the meantime, you can check out the short intro clip and webinar the the still very much under construction website, here.
More on that later, as the specifics roll out — but for now, these are the supplements I do take, and why I take them:
*Multi-vitamin – kinda-sorta-sometimes. And here we go with the dosing problem. Who the hell knows just how much and of what to take? And when? Currently I add about a half a packet of emergen-C to my pre-workout mix below.
*Pre-workout – about 10 to 15 grams of BCAAs + about 5 grams of creatine + a couple grams of vitamin C + ~1000 mcg B12 and the aforementioned emergen-C. If I happen to have eaten in the last few hours prior to working out, I won’t down this concoction. No need at that point, as it would blunt the intent of the BCAA regimen. Remember that I motor along at a pretty low level of overall carb intake, and that the vast majority of the carbs I do take in are in the evening meal, post-workout. I won’t re-write the book on why this BCAA strategy is solid from a science point of view, as Art DeVanvy has already done that nicely, here. And empirically, I have plenty of gas for my workouts, and my body composition is spot on. Would that be the case without this voodoo mix? Maybe. But the risk (cost as well)-to-benefit works in my favor right now, so I’ll keep on truckin’ with it.
*Post workout – about an hour/hour-and-a-half post workout. Why do I wait? Well, first off, the last thing I want to do following a tough workout is to ingest anything, and two, I believe we do want the acute inflammatory response a chance to signal the repair/rebuild process. That said, my go-to here is about 8 oz of raw butter milk, 6 egg yolks, about 25 grams of whey protein (3 fuel is my current choice), and maybe a spot of molasses or raw honey.
Note: I’ll be shifting to the still-in-formulation ID Life protein option once we roll that product out.
*Vitamin D – 5,000 IU/day, on days that I don’t spend an hour or two outside. Usually taken in the PM. Sublingual drops.
*Fish oil – if I go through a period (i.e., week or so) of not eating any oily fish (mostly salmon and sardines, in my case), I’ll supplement with a couple of grams/day. Again, I’m not a big fan of this haphazard approach, but until a better option comes about, that’s how I roll.
Note: in an upcoming post, I’ll report on, the Holoman Omega 3 test, a pretty damn cool Omega-3 level blood test that Mike T Nelson turned me on to while we were chatting at AHS13. We’ll see where my hit or miss strategy has landed me thus far.
*ZMA (zinc, magnesium and B6) – after a particularly tough string of workouts, I’ll supplement for a few (2 or 3) nights with a bedtime dose of ZMA. I does seem to help the recovery process, and prevents me from sliding into a subjective feeling of “overdoing it”. May be psychosomatic, I don’t know. However, it’s effectiveness seems to be consistent with my HRV readings. It’s both cheap and benign enough for me to continue to experiment. Those who are prone to depression, though, should proceed with caution. Anecdotally, ZMA can heighten a depressive mood. Just something to be cognisant of.
I’ve dabbled with, and continue to dabble with, lots of other things — but really, what I have listed above are my go-tos. If I find something in the future that sticks, I’ll report on it.
And I’ll leave you with this idea: the body is healthiest and happiest when there is flux and frequency variance, both in exercise (weaving intensity, and waving modalities, surfing the force-velocity curve), and in diet (local, seasonal eating). We’re getting closer and closer to being able to do this with supplementation as well. ID Life is a massive step in the right direction here, and as time goes on, we’ll further refine this process.
Progress is a never-ending struggle. You don’t get to the top of the mountain and plant the flag; there is no final gun. Progress is a bell lap that goes on forever. Embrace that thought.
In health, fitness and ancestral wellness,