If you’re serious about optimising your body composition, i.e. gaining muscle and losing fat, being better at sport, or just being ‘healthier’ then you pretty much have no choice but to closely scrutinise your nutrition. The problem is, knowing what to eat, how much of it to eat, and when to eat it to get the results you want can seem like rocket science.
There’s tonnes of information on nutrition available but a lot of it can be contradictory, confusing and frankly complicated. Because new research is constantly being produced, books can become outdated very quickly, news articles on nutrition are often sensationalist (publishers are more concerned with selling papers/driving traffic than providing facts), and any information you get from personal blogs (like this one) or social media sites needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Social media has amplified the amount of bullshit doing the rounds out there, the problem is, the people who shout the loudest aren’t always necessarily right. It’s easy to read a 140 character tweet and take the content as gospel truth, just because your favourite fitness model posted it, but more often than not, this tiny snippet of information is just the tip of the iceberg. Or just totally incorrect.
Because the world of nutrition is so fraught with dogma, myths and misinformation, I decided to go and sit in a room and listen to the views of a highly qualified Clinical Performance Nutritionist and his team for two days. Martin MacDonald is , in my opinion one of the world thought-leaders on nutrition, so I was honoured to be given the opportunity to attend the Mac Nutrition Mentorship in Loughborough.
Here are my key takeaways;
Disclaimer: This is purely my interpretation of the material that was taught on the mentorship, and not necessarily the views of Martin MacDonald or Mac Nutrition.
It Kind of Is All About Calories
We all know that calories matter, regardless of your goal, but there are so many ‘counter’ arguments to the calories in vs calories out model that it’s easy to get drawn into the debate that, for weight loss (or gain) it’s much more about what you eat than how much you eat. For example, the misguided belief that ‘carbs make you fat’ is pretty widespread now, and while it might be true that reducing your intake of sugary carbs (which most people eat a lot of) will be beneficial for your overall health, it will have no effect at all on fat loss if you’re not in a negative energy balance. When it comes down to it, energy balance has the final say in weight loss or gain.
Eat less calories than you burn and you’ll lose weight, eat more than you’ll burn and you’ll gain weight (regardless of the macronutrient composition). Of course this is massively oversimplifying things, for example, adding more protein can help muscle retention and also increase satiety (the feeling of fullness) and therefore help people stick to a lower calorie diet, additionally taking in sufficient carbohydrates may efficiently fuel an efficient training session which will help burn calories.
You might hear someone say that they simply started ‘eating clean’ rather than counting calories which helped them lose weight. They probably aren’t lying, but the reason they lost weight probably isn’t because they were eating ‘clean’, the likelihood is that they cut down/out a certain food or foods that they eat of lot of, which in turn reduced their overall daily calorie intake.
In the end though, these tactics simply help serve the negative energy balance goal, which is the ultimate deciding factor in weight management. Want to lose weight? Try eating less calories.
N.B. Reverse dieting (temporarily upping calories to reset metabolism) might be necessary for those eating very low calorie levels and not losing weight.
Post Workout Nutrition – Everyone Calm Down
What do you do after your workout? Sprint to the changing room and neck 2 scoops of whey with 100g of powdered Dextrose, or Maltodextrin, or some other carbohydrate formula that has a name like a Latvian pornstar? You could well be wasting your time.
Reliable studies indicate that simply taking whey on it’s own -or even just waiting an hour and having a whole food meal – is as beneficial for muscle growth as a saccarine-sweet cocktail of sugar and protein. Just for the record – I’m not being all high and mighty here – I used to eat handfuls of Jelly babies after my workout. We’ve all been led to believe that we NEED protein and carbs as quickly as possible, and that there’s some sort of magical ‘anabolic window’.
So what should you do? Just have some whey after your workout, if you want. If not just make sure you have a whole food meal within a couple of hours. Regardless of how quickly you eat after your workout, you still need an adequate amount of protein and overall calories to gain muscle, so concentrate on that. Oh and make sure you’re actually training hard. And getting adequate sleep.
Are Any Supplements Actually Worth Taking?
If nutrition as a whole is confusing and contradictory then supplements are probably responsible for a lot of that, and that’s no surprise – they’re big business. If a nutrition brand can pull the wool over your eyes to sell your more pills and powders, they will. And more often than not it works. People are lazy. You’re lazy – and you want the quickest, easiest way to reach your goal.
The more the sports nutrition brands use clever marketing to tell you you need supplements, the more you’re likely to take. But the point of supplements is that they should be an addition to your diet, not a replacement.
Do we need synthetic vitamin C tablets? Not really, especially when we can get it from a wide variety of foods that should already feature heavily in our diet (e.g. vegetables). The supplements that will help us the most are the ones that contain stuff we can’t get from our diet. That’s why Vitamin D is rapidly gaining plaudits in the nutrition world – it can only be obtained from sunlight, and unless you’re an out-of-work Californian surfing enthusiast, you’re probably not getting anywhere near enough.
200 IU is the recommended daily intake but I personally take 20 times that amount. Fish Oil is the second ‘essential’ supplement. Of course we can get this from our diet, but how much Salmon, Mackerel and Sardines do you eat each week? if the answer is several, then your Omega 3 fatty acid intake should be optimal.
Problem is most people don’t get anywhere near that, hell, most people don’t even eat any fish, which is why this supplement is essential for a large proportion of people. Creatine is the third genuinely effective supplement – if you’re training in a way that utilises ATP stores – i.e. intense, heavy lifting. Creatine is without doubt one of the most studied supplements, and the evidence shows that it works. I take it intra-workout.
Don’t Worry About Muscle Loss
Contrary to popular belief, muscle tissue is in fact pretty difficult to get rid of. I don’t know about you but when i haven’t eaten for a while I feel like I’m slipping into a state of atrophy, and if I don’t find a protein source quickly I’ll wither away into an anorexic shadow of my former self.
The main factor that affects muscle fullness (and therefore, their perceived size), is glycogen stores. Glycogen is energy stored within the muscle themselves – most people can store from 400g-800g of carbohydrates as muscle glycogen.
These stores are depleted during intense exercise and then restored with carbohydrate intake. When glycogen stores become depleted, muscles have a flat look and feel, giving the impression of actual muscle tissue loss, when all that’s happened is they’ve ‘deflated’ a bit. So don’t worry, if you miss a meal or forget to take your shake to the gym, you won’t get home and look in the mirror to find a beanpole staring back at you.
Psychology is as Important as Physiology When it comes to Dieting
Can you get shredded eating Pop Tarts? Yes. As mentioned, losing fat is simply a case of being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time. Are you likely to get shredded eating Pop Tarts? Probably not. This isn’t necessarily down to physiology and biochemistry, but rather, psychology.
There’s something in the combination of sugar and fat that sends reward signals to the brain, telling it to keep sending hunger signals, prompting you to eat more calories before hunger is ‘switched off’ the kind you don’t experience when you eat more satiating food.
Therefore, it’s not that there’s something inherently ‘evil’ about sugar that will make you gain more fat quickly than say, protein, it’s just that you’re far more likely to overeat sugar – or rather – a combination of sugar and fat – than you are protein. Of course that’s an easy claim to make, and many people will just dismiss that statement, overestimating the amount of willpower they have. Let’s have a look an example. This is the nutrition information for an ‘Original Glazed’, Krispy Kreme glazed donut;
How many could you get through in a sitting? Three? Four? Let’s call it three. That’s 651 calories. What’s the equivalent of that in chicken breast? The average skinless chicken breast is probably about 150g. That weighs in at around 160 kcals. So to get the same amount of calories as three Krispy Kremes, you’d need to plough through more than FOUR chicken breasts. I eat a lot of chicken and I probably wouldn’t (couldn’t?!) do that.
Especially not as a snack (which is how most people treat doughnuts). What’s my point? Sugar and fat don’t make you fat, eating too much makes you fat. Eating too much sugar and fat is much easier to do than eating too much protein, therefore reducing foods that have a combination of sugar and fat can help you cut calories and lose fat.
N.B. Even if you can effectively drop fat on a diet of Krispy Kremes, it’s probably still not a great idea, since your overall health may suffer.
It’s ALL About context – What’s your Goal?
Whenever you make a decision nutrition-wise, the only way you can determine if it’s an intelligent one or not, is by asking yourself, what’s my goal? Should you eat more cheese sandwiches? Well, if your goal is to eat more cheese sandwiches, then yes, but let’s take a more mainstream example.
Many people want to know if they should cut down carbs. Well, if your diet currently contains are high percentage of carbs, and you want to lose fat, then reducing carbs might be an easy segway into reducing your overall calorie intake, so yes, it could work out well.
If you’re looking to increase your overall health, and your diet is made up of a large proportion of processed carbohydrates, then reducing your intake could make way for more nutrient-rich protein and fats, in this case, it could also be beneficial.
But what if you compete in an endurance sport, or indeed any sport or activity where you need/want to perform at your best? We know that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source for exercise at high intensities, so in this case, reducing carbohydrates would be a bad idea since it could impact optimal performance.
This was probably the most pertinent point I took from the mentorship – whenever a ‘new’ diet gets some media coverage, people jump on it regardless of whether or not it’s likely to help them.
Case Study: Me I’m happy to admit I made this mistake very recently. My goal is to build muscle, it has been for a while. Based on my previous reading about post-workout nutrition it seemed like a good idea – if having some carbs after is training is good, then having ALL your carbs after training must be even better right?
Problem was, I was kidding myself I could get my daily carb quota in one meal. I definitely couldn’t. It was convenient, don’t get me wrong, it was one less thing to do in my daily food prep, but my training suffered too.
I was trying to do regular, relatively intense, high volume resistance sessions on zero carbs. I could get by ok most, but it wasn’t optimal. I was getting through my workouts IN SPITE of the carb backloading, not BECAUSE of it.
I need to say a huge thank you to Martin and his team for a fantastic weekend, and mention that I’d highly recommend the Mac Nutrition Mentorship to any existing health, fitness and nutrition professionals, or anyone looking to break into the industry.