Tag Archives: fat loss

The Best Diet Part III

Welcome to the final installment of the best diet series. If you missed them, read part I and part II before moving onto this part. In this part, I will lay out the most important factors when considering which ‘diet’ to undergo. 

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL DIET REALLY MEANS

As you should know by now, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ diet. Not a single eating plan can possibly cover all of the possibilities and preferences of each person. On the other hand, there may be a ‘perfect’ diet for you at a certain time in your life/career. The key is to make sure it works for as long as you want it to. Of course, you will know if a diet works for you based on physiological and psychological assessments. Once you reach a goal, it will be time to either re-evaluate whether you should stick to the said diet or move on to bigger things.

To move towards finding the right eating plan for you there are a few general caveats to know if you want to to translate what the mountain of research has come up with. Each of the below points should be considered guiding principles when evaluating whether you would have success on a specific diet.

  1. It’s healthful. In other words, a good diet will make you look at what you’re eating. Remember the Twinkie Diet above? If your main goal is weight-loss, you can eat 800 calories of junk food per day and lose weight. In the respect, it works. However, it’s not enough to just control calories anymore. You can lose weight eating Twinkies all day, but how sustainable is that for your health? Diet quality matters, especially if you want to promote health and keep off any weight you lost.

 

  1. It’s individualized. A good diet should take into consideration your metabolic condition and lifestyle. In other words, a good diet should take into consideration your diabetes or high-level athletics. Diets should not be cookie-cutter. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all diet, although there may be slight variations between you and the next person. If you’re diabetic, it would make very little sense to eat the same way as a healthy, lean, and active person. Additionally, what type of activity are you doing? Are you an endurance runner, a weight-lifter, a sprinter, a dancer, or a coach potato? Certain sports necessitate more or less of nutrients for optimal performance.

 

  1. It’s fulfilling. A good diet should fulfill your body’s requirements for protein, fats, and carbohydrates without overfeeding you (unless your goal is to become a larger version). By keeping in mind that proteins and fats are more satiating than carbohydrates, you can then construct a weight-loss plan that can control hunger better while improving nutrient intake. In fact, carbohydrates are not technically necessary since the body can create it through an indigenous process, but it’s fulfilling because carbohydrates are required to optimize metabolic function and hedonism. And if you’re an athlete, carbohydrates are indispensable for optimal performance and body composition.

 

  1. It’s sustainable. Research shows that over 90% of people cannot stick to a diet for more than two years. I surmise this is probably because most people don’t know how to choose what diet is best for them and how to adjust a diet based on their preferences. Not knowing how to transition explains in large part why high-level athletes become fat and sick once they become working members of society. This is also a huge problem for high-school athletes going into college — ever heard of the Freshman-15? If Michael Phelps were to stop swimming but maintained his monstrous in-season training caloric intake, his ability to float would surpass his ability to swim in the blink of an Olympic second.

 

This last point is especially important in light of health-promoting diets. If you can’t stick to a diet, then it’s no good. If you go on a diet and lose 10% of your excess fat mass but gain it all back in two years, you’re no better at the finish than you were at the start. Think Biggest Loser. Somewhere there are reports of the contestants developing eating disorders and tipping the scales even more than when they started the show.

Having the “best” diet yet not sticking to it is like having a Bentley collecting dust in your garage. It’s nice to talk about and show people you have this “awesome” thing you can always turn to, but if you’re not going to use it to make yourself a better person, then it’s useless.

Please, don’t let this car collect dust. Source

Mediterranean, Paleo, vegan, Weight Watchers, low-carbohydrate, DASH, or any of the other slick Amazon best-sellers will help you become healthier and leaner. But underneath the veil of the fancy names and acronyms, most successful diets have the above things in common.

SO AGAIN, WHAT IS THE BEST DIET? USE THIS ANSWER.

It depends—whatever is working right now for whatever goals I have, and I should be able to stick to it”. It all boils down to context-dependent effectiveness and preference. Anything outside of that is just minor detail.

The answer probably is not as pretty as a dozen roses, but it’s the truth. You can force-feed yourself a diet you don’t like to lose the extra fat on your left eyelid, but what happens after you meet your goal? Are you going to stick to the diet? Do you know how to eat afterward? Do you know how to eat if you have a medical condition? Do these questions seem like a bunch of pester to you compared to what you should Tweet or tag on Facebook? Making dietary changes is a lifelong process, but it’s one that brings highly coveted awards. Stick with it.

As always I appreciate feedback, comments, and input. What is your perception of a good diet?

Carbohydrate Low-down: how many carbohydrates should you eat?

Time to tackle another head of what I consider the 3-headed beast of nutrition: carbohydrates. Especially in the field of dietetics and nutrition, there is a a pseudo-war about whether clients should restrict carbohydrates to see health benefits. And I swear, after this post, I will not be posting monster 3,000 + word posts again.

Every other month, there is a study that either touts or refutes the benefits of either carbohydrate restriction or carbohydrate liberation. Who’s wrong, who’s right?

First, I want to tell you what the other two heads are:

1) Saturated fat and cholesterol
2) Salt

And today, we are going to talk about carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates (carbs)?

Carbohydrates are energy nutrients, just like protein and fat. They provide the body with substrates to keep it functioning optimally. We are not going to talk about biochemistry here, such as which processes that involved in carbohydrate metabolism, where carbohydrates get absorbed, and the finer details of what happens to carbohydrates after they do get absorbed.

Carbohydrates are made up of three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Through a complex metabolic process, carbohydrate sources like bread, potatoes, and fruit are eaten and subsequently broken down into three simple sugar molecules: fructose, glucose, and galactose. They are the preferred energy source for red blood, brain, and muscle cells, especially during periods of high-intense activities. Carbs are stored in two primary tissues of the body: liver and muscle. The storage capacity of carbs in the liver is ~100g in average humans and 300-500 in muscle, for an average of 400-600g of storage capacity in an average person at any time (Acheson; Jensen).


Mmmm, carbs (source)

Carbohydrates in and of themselves are not evil–far from it. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which is an anabolic–building–hormone. Don’t know what insulin is because you’ve been living under a rock? It’s a hormone that acts on your body cells, opening them up like a key and lock, in order to remove sugar from the blood caused by eating carbohydrates. Insulin is a requirement if you want to build muscle. Insulin is also anti-inflammatory, meaning that some carbohydrates are actually required for proper immune function (Hyun).

Whether or not carbohydrates are necessary is something that experts like to debate about. This is where things can get a bit tricky. Notice how I said “preferred”. Some experts like to take it further and suggest that carbohydrates are either not necessary for survival or that you should eat a high-carbohydrate diet.

What is ‘low’?


And it ain’t twerkin’ (source)

Let me just say this: twerking is a menace to our society.

When you look at the research, it’s clear that ‘low-carbohydrate’ does not have a uniform definition. For example, studies done by Volek et al use low-carbohydrate plans that consist of less than 20g of carbohydrates per day. These are also called ‘ketogenic’ diets. Other researchers consider 40% of daily carbohydrate intake low, or 60g or less per day, or 130g or less per day (this 130g figure comes from the idea that the brain requires about 130g of glucose per day to function).

Then you have studies that predominantly use either percentages or absolute numbers. Some studies may use 40% as an arbitrary number for low-carb diets, but researchers of low-carb studies claim that 40% is too high. Whatever the case may be, a low-carb can safely be defined as having an intake of 50-100g. I prefer to use absolute numbers instead of percentages since they give you more solid guidelines. For example, if you used percentages, you would get different numbers depending on how many calories one eats.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say you want to get into a ketogenic state by eating 50g of carbs per day.

If you were a 2000-calorie diet, 10% would be 50g of carbs (50 * 4 = 200 kcals; 2000/200 = 10%)

But if you were on a 4000-calorie diet, 10% would be 100g of carbs, enough to knock you out of ketosis.

Instead, you can just say you want to eat 50g of carbs, regardless of what your calorie intake may be to get into ketosis.

Breakdown of carbohydrate intake:

  • 0% or 0: no carb
  • 20-50g: very-low carb (if high-fat, this is considered a ketogenic diet)
  • 50-75g: low carb
  • 75-150: moderate carb
  • 150-225: moderate to high carb
  • 225+: high carb

Before we move on, let me make clear that I am a fan of lower-carbohydrate intakes. But what I mean by lower is that my plans are lower than what public health agencies and authorities suggest. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guidelines suggest up 45-65% of daily calories to be in the form of carbohydrates. Of course, this highly depends on the individual, but suffice it to say that a vast majority of people would benefit from a lower carb intake than what they’re currently eating.

Source 

Benefits of lower-carb plans

This part is going to be short. I cannot help but be a bit biased toward carb intake on the lower side, and as such I realize that there are more benefits to lower-carb diets than consequences for a vast majority of people. When I refer to lower-carbs, I mean anything under 45%, which is the minimal that health authorities recommend.

In the literature,  lower-carb plans have been shown to:

  • Improve fat-loss at a quicker rate than low-fat/high-carb diets (Shai; Yancy; Gow; Gardner)
    • Some studies show that low-carb diets induce almost double the amount of weight loss as high-carb diets in the same time frame
  • Retention of lean body mass (muscle) better than conventional diets (Volek, 2002; Volek 2004; Miyashita)
  • Decrease risk factors and improve health biomarkers of certain cancers (Sedlacek; Ho)
  • Improve blood levels of inflammatory markers and endothelial/vascular function (Rajaje; Mah)
  • Improve insulin sensitivity (Blouet; Volek) and decreases levels of circulating insulin, which reduces risk of diabetes (Kodama; Demol)
  • Improve lipid profile (LDL, HDL, TG, total cholesterol ratio) thereby improving Metabolic Syndrome risk factors (Hu; LeCheminant; Sharman) compared to high-carb diets, which worsen diabetic complications and cardiovascular risk (Chen)
  • Superior glycaemic control compared to a low-fat/high-carb diet (Guldbrand)
  • More favorable impact on low-grade (chronic) inflammation compared to a low-fat diet (Jonasson)
  • Improves levels of leptin, which is considered the fat-burning hormone (Llanos)
  • In terms of athletic performance, too high of carb (above 5g per pound of bodyweight) intakes do not seem to confer additional benefits compared to moderate carb intake (Sherman)
  • Naturally lowers overall daily caloric intake by improving satiety (Wycherley; Bravata)

The last point is probably the most important point in this whole low-carb paradigm. Although many studies show that low-carb diets reduce weight, over half of them actually admitted that subjects lost more weight because they ate less due to satiety, which leads to less food intake. Translation: lower total calorie intake.

When talking about low-carbohydrate diets, you can’t ignore the impact that carbohydrates have on athletic performance. Most of the literature shows, without a shadow of a doubt, that high-carb diets outperform low-carb diets when it comes to athletic performance. But in the past ten years or so, low-carb gurus such as Mark Sisson, Robb Wolff, Stephen Phinney, and Jeff Volek have been proposing that a low-carb diet with high fat not only as effective as higher carb plans, but they also improve longevity, health, and body composition. If you need proof, look no further than some elite level athletes:

  • Professional cyclist, Dave Zabriskie
  • Ultramarathon runner, Timothy Olson
  • Triathlete Simon Whitfield
  • Winter Olympics pursuit event winner, Bjoern Ferry

Compared to high-carb plan athletes, low-carb athletes are much fewer in numbers. Whether their success is due to their diet or their insane genetics and training routine is still up for debate. One thing for sure is that low-carb diets DO work for some elite level athletes.

People who may benefit from low-carb plans:

  • Sedentary to moderately active people
  • Those with Metabolic Syndrome (overweight or obese; high lipids; impaired insulin sensitivity; high fasting blood sugars; high blood pressure)
  • Those with a history of high-carb plans
  • Those who are pre-contest (need to decrease carbs to improve appearance)

*** A little aside about fructose

Fructose, which is the sugar found in abundance in fruits, is primarily metabolized in the liver. The enzyme which catalyzes fructose metabolism is made in the liver. People say that fructose is an unnecessary component of an eating plan. Sure, it may be unnecessary… if you want to live like a zombie. Fructose is preferentially converted to glycogen in the liver so it can be used later, namely to keep your blood sugars under control. When you’re low-carbin’ it, this is important. Additionally, fructose is more efficient at supplying a constant stream of sugar to working muscles during exercise (Rizakalla).

After you eat fructose, it gets shuttled to the liver for processing. Unlike fructose, glucose and galactose act quicker, 30-45 minutes after ingestion. This is why all the holy Godmothers praise fructose as the next sweet savior, since it doesn’t increase blood sugar and keeps insulin levels down. Agave nectar, anyone? Now a low-carb plan will naturally dictate a decrease in fructose consumption because it decreases overall carbohydrate sources. Why is fructose consumption an important topic?

On average, the liver can only process 50g of fructose per day (Sun). This is equivalent to 24 ounces of high-fructose corn syrup sweetened soda, or 4 fruits per day. And what happens after you eat more fructose than your liver can handle? Since fructose is a nutrient just like many of the other things we eat, it’s quite plausible to theorize that bad things happen if you eat too much fructose. In 2002, a study released in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sent ripples through the nutrition world and raised a serious handful of eyebrows. In it, they concluded this:

“Fructose, compared with glucose, is preferentially metabolized to lipid in the liver. Fructose consumption induces insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, hyperinsulinemia, hypertriacylglycerolemia, and hypertension in animal models” (Elliott).

However, in this particular study, the researchers were focusing on the additional sugars and sugar derivatives, like high-fructose corn syrup, and not the fructose found in plant foods. On top of that, they used animal models and used non-physiological doses, or doses that are unrealistic to humans in terms of their bodyweight. Later research come out trying to figure out if fructose consumption really was linked to insulin resistance and all that jazz. While the above study used animal models, studies refuting negative consequences of normal fructose consumption were based on epidemiological data. These data support that fructose levels 100g per day had no negative effect on bodyweight (Rizkalla).

Unfortunately, many people who were ill-informed and with bad intentions took this fructose conjecture and ran with it. Even to this day, people run with it. While I don’t believe fructose is something you should be alarmed about if you don’t drink sodas and eat sh*t, you shouldn’t necessarily go hog-wild on it, either. Moderation, folks.

Not the same as…

Back to our main program…

Drawbacks of low-carb plans

Let’s preface this portion with me stating that low-carb plans, in my eyes, are plans that state you should eat less than 75g of carbs per day. 

Although low-carb diets have been shown to improve glycemic control, weight-loss, and lipid profile in the short-term (within a couple of weeks), most of the benefits diminish after a year and the diet is quite comparable to its higher carb counterpart when controlled for calories. A massive review and meta-analysis published this year looked at how well low-carbohydrates fared against balanced diets matched for calories. They found that over time, balanced diets (40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat) were almost as effective as low-carb diets in almost all parameters, although low carb diets were more effective at reducing triglycerides, improving lipid panels, and improving insulin concentrations (Naude, 2014).

Carbohydrates are required for intense activity. If you have ever tried to train on a low-carb diet, then you don’t even need to defer to scientific studies. For example, I will use the Paleo framework as an example here. Paleo does a good job at being extremely vague at how many carbohydrates you should consume per day. However, over time, the more fanatical and active Paleo-ites, Crossfitters, began to recognize the benefits of carbohydrates for athletic performance. From the Crossfit website:

Carbohydrates should be predominantly low-glycemic and account for about 40% of your total caloric load” (Crossfit.com). I don’t recall where I saw this–it was a few years ago–but someone interviewed competitors from the CrossFit games, asking them about their diet and whether they adhered to a Paleo diet. If my memory serves me correctly, not a single one of the top competitors adhered to a strict Paleo diet: they drank buku amounts of milk. 

Rich Froning: not getting by eating 2-3 sweet potatoes a day. Source

The example above is Rich Froning, one of the best CrossFit athletes to have ever competed and is a genetic beast. He didn’t start his career in CrossFit, either; it was in powerlifting. I will admit that this guy kicks ass and takes names, but don’t think for a second that all he eats per day are a couple of sweet potatoes. To build a physique and acquire conditioning like him takes years of hard, consistent work, not the fly-by-night plan that promises a six-pack in 4 weeks. By eating a diet with reduced carbs, you may be able to work towards his physique, but his athletic performance is a whole different matter.

Now in the literature, research shows that too little carbohydrates depletes liver glycogen, which can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and subsequent decline in athletic performance (Costill; ADA). With too little carbohydrates, you may ‘bonk’, which is the term described when the liver cannot maintain blood sugar at the pace that sugar is being used during exercise. This is especially true in endurance sports such as marathon running and cycling, where you are working at above 75% of your maximum heart rate for hours and your body relies on carbohydrates for fuel. Plus, good luck finding many low-carb Olympic athletes standing on the podium. I listed a few athletes up top, but they are far from the rule.

Another major potential issue of going too low in carbs for too long is the dysregulation of thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland produces hormones that are specially responsible for regulating metabolic rate. Carbohydrates are known to induce increases in metabolic rate because they stimulate the increase of thyroid hormones. Connecting the dots, we see that if you restrict carbs for too long, you run the risk of decreasing metabolic rate via decrease in thyroid hormones (Muller; Danforth). There is even some talk on low-carb forums where people have unexpectedly get diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

The last drawback of low-carb diets I will talk about in this post is the ability of long-term low-carb diets to increase levels of cortisol and decrease levels of testosterone. Some of the literature has shown that staying low-carb for too long throws the balance of androgens and cortisol off-balance, especially in those who are participating in high-intense activities, such as ice hockey (Anderson; Tegelman). For men, this could pose a problem.

Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin from the pancreas in healthy and most sick individuals (unless you’re type 1 diabetic, in which you lack insulin). Common sense dictates that insulin is a requirement for survival. This is pretty much a fact and not many people argue about it, even the low-carb gurus. But what many people overlook is that insulin is also anti-inflammatory. Low-carb experts often claim that insulin is the reason that people get fat. No, I argue, that is not true. Eating too much is the main reason people get fat. Insulin is just there to clear sugar from the blood, which is toxic if levels get and stay high (of course, a carb-based diet will drive up insulin levels in the absence of intense physical activity). Having high blood sugars is indicative of a state of inflammation and without insulin to clear it, you will heal slower, get infected easier, and die quicker. In short, you need insulin. So although eating less carbohydrates decrease insulin production, chronic use of low-carb plans may delay wound healing and increase risk of infection (Hyun).

Carbs, in the form of starch, is necessary for optimal health and gut function. Your microbiota, or the gut living in your gastrointestinal tract, require starch and fiber to survive and grow, and in return, giving you  health (Chassard; Sonnenburg).

People who should be more cautious of low-carb plans:

  • Very active athletes
  • Athletes with high muscle mass
  • Those with a history of very-low carbohydrate diets
  • Those who have terrible control over their sweet tooth

Although the above are drawbacks of low-carb plans, especially the last two, don’t be deterred from undertaking low-carb diets in a sensible way. One study is not enough to prove a causal relationship. Also keep in mind that the short-term decreases in thyroid hormone and increases in cortisol may not translate to you and do not mean that low-carb diets are inherently bad . Remember that low-carb diets have been and continue to be used with great success to get sick people healthier. It’s just that for athletic performance, you want to be more cautious.

Should you get low?


Your carbs probably shouldn’t be as low as this car (source)

Low-carb and high-carb plans definitely have their place. They are each part of the continuum and depending on your circumstances, each can be warranted. For example, low-carb plans may be more suitable if you have a severely deranged metabolism, such as high trigs, abnormal lipid panels, and God knows what else. If you’re looking for a quick and safe way to get your health back in line, low-carb plans can be highly effective.

But as stated above, low-carb diets work their weight-loss magic because they are better at keeping you full, which leads to early satiety. For example, in a conference in Atlanta in 2013, researchers presented a study that measured appetite and hunger ratings after two isocaloric breakfasts: one rich in protein/low in carbs and one with low protein/high carbs. A breakfast with 30-39g of protein and low in carbs was better at curbing hunger than a high carb breakfast, despite being the same number of calories.

Better hunger stomping means less appetite which means less calories. In spite of that, low-carb plans are not all that much better for absolute weight-loss compared to higher-carb diets as long as energy intake is accounted for. Essentially, if you eat less than you need to maintain your body weight, you will lose some weight regardless of how many carbs you eat. This was sufficiently demonstrated by a professor from an Iowa university a few years where he ate a diet consisting mainly of donuts, cakes, and cookies. However, low-carb diets have been shown to be superior in terms of health biomarkers and the aforementioned hunger control. Better hunger control probably means better dietary adherence, which is an all-important factor determining efficacy of diets.

Low-carb plans are not without their consequences. The key in all of this is making smart food decisions and engaging in a good exercise program, not your typical broscience bull crap.

How I do things

Liebman’s review on optimal intake ranges for carbs is a very good starting place for many people, and is the range I stick to for most of my and my clients’ activities. Unless you are an uber-active endurance athlete or blessed with God-like genetics, then you are probably better off wading in the swamp of 26-44% of carbohydrates per day. We can turn those figures to 20-40% to make things a bit easier. Having carbs at these numbers eliminates the risk of running into low thyroid, leptin, and energy issues over the long haul.

Eating 20-40% of your carbs also regulate the necessity to meet  exercise needs. This is especially important if you want to build more muscle, since the insulin released from eating carbohydrates is potent anabolic stuff (and that’s why constantly high insulin levels lead to fat gain, since fat storage and creation is an anabolic process). If you want to look at this in terms of numbers, then I suggest staying in the range of 75-150g of carbs per day. You can run the lower number on your non-training days and closer to 150g on your training days if you’re fat and/or sick. This number may register higher if you engage in more physical activity.

If you want to do a low or very-low carb diet, be my guest. I am not here to discourage you from doing so. You may very well be someone who responds positively to a lower-carb diet. It’s quite true that many people have anecdotal accounts of low-carb plans doing wonders for them. When I reached 5% bodyfat, I was on a low-carb/moderate fat/high protein diet. When my wife and I were preparing for our two previous powerlifting competitions, we used low-carb plans to decrease body fat while making sure we don’t lose strength and muscle. For people who are trying to lose fat and lose it fast, short-term stints with a low-carb plan might be the ticket that gets you to paradise.

Since adherence is usually the thing that separates champions from losers, you want to make sure you pick a plan, stick with it, and make modifications later when you are done. Low-carb adherence is no exception; sticking to it may not be any easier than sticking to a high-carb plan, though it may depending on your disposition towards food. If you are on a low-carb diet and want to increase your carbohydrates, whether it’s after a powerlifting competition or a photo shoot, then start by slowing adding 20g or so of carbs per day until you reach a level where your mood, performance, and body composition either stabilizes or improves.

Setting up an efficient plan:

  • Carbohydrates: 20-40% or 75-150g per day
  • Fat: 30-40% or 0.5g of your target bodyweight per day
  • Protein: 30-40% or 1.0g of your target bodyweight per day

Bottom line

Calories are your main priority. In a vast majority of the studies mentioned in this article, the researchers mentioned whether or not the diets were matched in calories. And in all of the studies matching calories but differing macronutrient composition, weight-loss was almost identical. If they were different, we are looking at 2-4 pound difference in a span of 12 weeks. Nothing to really split hairs about.

The shining light about low-carb plans is their ability to improve satiety, leading to possible better adherence to eating plans and moods. Lower-carb diets are also superior to high carb diets in terms of health improvements, especially in the short-term (6-12 months). Effects persist as long as people stay on the diet.

A low-carb plan cannot suit everyone’s needs and goals. Start with those numbers based off of the evidence and modify them to suit your lifestyle.

As always, your feedback is appreciated.

Live life strong,

David

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Acheson KJ, et al. Glycogen storage capacity and de novo lipogenesis during massive carbohydrate overfeeding in man. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988. 48:240-7.

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Jonasson L, et al. Advice to follow a low-carbohydrate diet has a favourable impact on low-grade inflammation in type 2 diabetes compared with advice to follow a low-fat diet. Annals of Medicine. 2014;1-6.

Llanos AA, et al. Favorable effects of low-fat and low-carbohydrate dietary patterns on serum leptin, but not adiponectin, among overweight and obese premenopausal women: a randomized trial. Springerplus. 2014 Apr 4;3:175.

Sherman WM, et al. Dietary carbohydrates, muscle glycogen, and exercise performance during 7 d of training. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;57(1):27-31.

Wycherley TP, et al. Effects of energy-restricted high-protein, low-fat compared with standard-protein, low-fat diets: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1281-98.

Bravata DM, et al. Efficacy and safety of low-carbohydrate diets: a systematic review. JAMA. 2003 Apr 9;289(14):1837-50.

Elliott S. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76(5):911-922.

Rizkalla SW. Health implications of fructose consumption: a review of recent data. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2010;7:82.

Naude CE, et al.  Low carbohydrate versus isoenergetic balanced diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2014 Jul 9;9(7):e100652.

Costill DL. Carbohydrate for athletic training and performance. Bol Asoc Med P R. 1991 Aug;83(8):350-3.

American Dietetic Association, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31.

Chassard C1, Lacroix CCarbohydrates and the human gut microbiotaCurr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Jul;16(4):453-60.
Sonnenburg ED1, Sonnenburg JL2. Starving our Microbial Self: The Deleterious Consequences of a Diet Deficient in Microbiota-AccessibleCarbohydratesCell Metab. 2014 Aug 21. pii: S1550-4131(14)00311-8.
Mullur R, et al. Thyroid hormone regulation of metabolismPhysiol Rev. 2014 Apr;94(2):355-82. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00030.2013.
Danforth E Jr, Burger A. The role of thyroid hormones in the control of energy expenditure. Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1984 Nov;13(3):581-95.
Anderson KE, et al. Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio alters reciprocally the plasma levels of testosterone and cortisol and their respective binding globulins in man. Life Sci. 1987 May 4;40(18):1761-8.
Tegelman R, et al. Effects of a diet regimen on pituitary and steroid hormones in male ice hockey players. Int J Sports Med. 1992 Jul;13(5):424-30.

Meal timing: do you need to watch when you eat?

“They say I’ll get fat if I eat carbohydrates at night.”

“People say to eat oatmeal and fruits in the morning because they’ll give me more energy throughout the day.”

“You need to eat lots of carbohydrates during the day so you don’t lose muscle.”

Again, more conventional wisdom. But like most of the questions I address on here, it’s another contentious issue. Meal timing is one of those things that people feel intelligent talking about but rarely get right. Hell, I am not one to talk, but at least I know one thing:

Meal timing probably doesn’t really matter for a vast majority of people. What matters is how much you eat per day, what you put in your mouth, and whether you’re meeting macro- and micronutrient needs. If you’re not paying attention to these things, then don’t worry about when to eat carbohydrates and if you should avoid combining fats with carbs, yadda yadda yadda.

Now…

On the other hand, meal timing can be appropriate for some of you. If you fall within one of these categories below, you may benefit from a more detailed meal timing approach.

  1. You are a high level and elite athlete.
  2. You train more than once a day. This is fundamentally different than doing cardio in the morning and doing lifting in the evening, and is usually reserved for those wanting to compete in a sport.
  3. You are beyond the ‘general fitness’ recommendations and are looking for an edge. You have decent body composition and want to increase the pace at which you progress. For example, if you are below 15% bodyfat, you may benefit from a more detailed approach.

 

Just because there are 6 donuts don’t mean you get 6 meals. Source

My nutrition philosophy is a three-pronged. However, I am not trying to re-invent the wheel; merely sending the message through a different perspective and medium. Before we move into meal timing, let’s cover what the other two points of the triangle are:

  1. Clean up the quality of your food. Strive to make the best possible food choices by eating single ingredient foods most of the time.
  2. Eat for your activity levels. Frequency, type, and goals often determine diet composition. Endurance runners will not eat the same as general fitness folks.

What about those who are not elite but want to be better than average?

Let’s get one main thing straight. Dieting and eating should not be complicated. After all, you eat to survive (or to perform, your choice) so something instinctive and required should not be as complicated as rocket science. And even if you want to be above average, nutrition and meal timing still doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated. The key thing to keep in mind in regards to meal timing is that you want to make sure you time your meals appropriately in accordance with the length, time, and intensity of your activity.

This is the face of awesome. Source

 In order to be like a superhero, you must first get down the basics, which are figuring out what to eat and why to eat. To be average and not become a slouch like over 30% of Americans, focus on single ingredient foods and eat less junk. For example, eat more vegetables and non-bastardized meats and less soda. If you’ve never touched a weight in your life (I mean a real weight–not the 5 pound dumbbells that you use for your overhead presses), your conditioning sucks, and you’re one French fry away from breaking your scale, then these two changes will go pretty damn far. At this point, you don’t need to worry about meal timing.

If you workout like an average person, maybe do the treadmill 2 times a week and some weight lifting that wouldn’t make my grandmother sweat, you will probably eat anywhere between 75-150g of carbohydrates. That’s about it. But we are not here to be average.   I generally focus on two things for those looking to become better than average. Even for those at a higher level, these methods work well. These are not listed in priority.

  1. Meal timing
  2. Daily carbohydrate timing
  3. Peri-workout nutrition (future post)

Meal Timing

This is the most general of the three and probably makes the most sense if you really think about it. Let me pose a question to you: if you are on a diet of 1800 kcals, do you think eating 1800 kcals at one sitting will have the same effect on you as eating 1800 kcals spread over several meals? Don’t fail on me.   In terms of effects, the answer is no and I hope this is what you answered. Now, there are instances in which people can get away with eating 1800 kcals at one sitting (Ori Hofmekler’s The Warrior Diet), but I don’t see this as sustainable, and for hormonal purposes, not ideal.

This is Ori. Great shape for his age; but not everyone should eat like him. Source

In contrast to what I said above, a study just came out this year that showed two meals to be superior to six for type 2 diabetics. The difference wasn’t huge–2-3 pound difference, but it was significant enough. The two-meal-a-day group also experienced other beneficial health effects–lower fat mass, blood glucose, blood glucagon, and C-peptide (6). For some, two meals is a bit on a low side, but it is also the lowest I will go. Six meals, on the other hand, I feel is unnecessary, unless you are a competitive athlete and have inordinate caloric needs (north of 4000 kcals) and find it extremely difficult to fit in all of your calories in 3 or 4 meals.

Spreading out your meals provides a steadier stream of nutrients for your body, especially on a training day. As much as I advocate extending fasting, I am wholeheartedly against evening fasted training. There is never a time when you should fast for the whole day then go train. Ever.   That segues well into the next point.

Fasting

I am a huge proponent of short, daily intermittent fasting and have been for years. Fasting has been around for a very long time. Fasting is associated with cleansing both spiritually and physically (think religious and cultural practices, like Ramadan). Biochemically, though, fasting is linked to longer life, better brain function, and better lean mass retention in primates. Studies done in humans show that fasting and restricting carbohydrates intermittently throughout the week yield better insulin sensitivity and body fat loss than traditional caloric restriction in the short-term (1). Now, Ramadan is very similar to the Warrior Diet discussed above in that Muslims eat one time per day, in the evening, within a very small time frame. However, Ramadan happens once a year for a month, so Muslims are not really doing this type of fasting all year around. Not surprisingly, my clients who practice Ramadan drop anywhere from 8-15 pounds in a month.

Want to know something more fascinating? My Muslim clients who come back from fasting and resistance train along with a sensible diet see some of their best gains in strength, fat-loss, and muscle mass.

(This is called reverse dieting in the flexible dieting world, which I will discuss in the future).

Unlike normal fasting practices and those found in mainstream (cayenne pepper and lemonade diet? No thanks), I advocate shorter daily fasts. For most people, I lay out a plan of 12-16 hour fasts for 5 days and 16-18 hour fasts for 2 days. Meal composition should not really differ between the days; only the amount of calories. I will start talking about intermittent fasting (IF) in the future, since there is so much controversy surrounding it. (I will leave this piece about IF: I am about 8% bodyfat and my wife is about 15% bodyfat while on an IF plan, all while experiencing no negative side-effects. We have been IF’ing for about two years).

Avoid extended fasting on training days.

So my philosophy for meal timing is thus:

1. 2-5 meals per day, depending on your schedule.
2. Fast for 12-16 hours 5 days out of the week and 16-18 hours 2 days out of the week

Daily Carbohydrate Timing

The same way that eating manipulating calories throughout the day has different effects on the body, so does carbohydrate timing. I am always for unconventional wisdom, because frankly, conventional wisdom fails the person looking to become better miserably. You need something more than cereal, fruits, and a couple slices of deli meats. You need carbs (the right sources, obviously) and you need to time them right.   Now when it comes to carbohydrate timing, you want to eat the bulk of your carbohydrates in the evening.

Yes, you heard that right, in the evening.

 

IMG_0925

IMG_0926

 

An example of a lovely dinner. Pork belly, white rice, pickled radish, kimchi, red leaf lettuce… don’t forget the beer.

***I hope my bold statement up there was a bit liberating for you to know that you will not get fat if you eat carbs in the evening as long as you control for total calories. Remember that this is not a ticket to currently eat what you are eating and then add carbs at night. This is especially true if you got fat or getting fatter with the way you are eating right now.

Why in the evening? Well, the research is new and is just starting to come out, but it is promising nonetheless. Some studies show that participants on equal caloric diets but differing meal compositions experienced different results. Those who ate most of their carbohydrates in the evening lost more weight, body fat, retained more lean muscle mass, and decreased their waist circumference (2). The same author did another study that showed that a low-calorie diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner time prevented mid-day hunger and improved hormonal profiles compared to a traditional low-calorie diet (3).

Unfortunately, Dos Equis is a terrible beer and you shouldn’t drink it, regardless of time of day. Source

 

What should you eat for breakfast?

What’s left, are the other two nutrients: protein and fats. I have especially found that a high-protein breakfast with a moderate amount of fat holds me over very nicely for several hours. Many of my clients feel the same way. And if you ever heard me recommend bacon and eggs for breakfast, it is for good reason.

One particular study showed that postmenopausal women who choose to avoid carbs in the morning have better control over their hunger (4). For those who want to lose weight, better hunger control equals better results (though I wouldn’t recommend eating bacon and eggs day-in and day-out–don’t forget the vegetables and quality starches). This study is certainly applicable as postmenopause is a condition that throws female sex hormones into disarray and makes losing weight, especially the belly fat, more difficult.

Another study showed that adding two eggs to breakfast 5 days a week for 14 weeks led to a reduction in daily carbohydrate intake, which can be beneficial if you are a controlled carbohydrate intake. The kicker to this mentioned study is that those who ate eggs experienced no adverse change to their blood lipids (7).

Training, of course, confounds how you should time carbohydrates. Research by Dr. John Ivy, author of Nutrient Timing, ushered in a whole new era of nutrient timing research in the early 2000’s, showing that carbohydrate consumption around exercise, especially post, was much more effective than consuming all of your carbohydrates in the meals before exercise (8). With this in mind, you would consume most of your carbohydrates after training. We will go more in-depth with carbohydrate timing in the future.

So my philosophy of carb timing is thus:

  1. Eat most of your carbs at night, preferably after training.
  2. If you train in the morning or day, then eat carbs after training.

Here is how I do it. Remember that my goal is to slowly gain some size while keeping body fat the same.

Example 

8AM: Wake
10AM, meal 1: 50g whey protein shake with a serving of kelp, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1 tbsp maca root powder in 16oz unsweetened, plain almond milk, 1 tbsp fish oil, small handful of macadamia nuts
1PM, meal 2: 40g of protein through turkey bacon with handful of mix nuts; 5 soft-boiled eggs and 3 cups of broccoli florets in lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes
4PM, meal 3: 50g whey protein shake with 1 tbsp. fish oil, handful of carrots
7PM, meal 4: 7oz canned, bone-in salmon, lemon juice, chopped spinach, 1 cup of oatmeal , and all-purpose tomato sauce
10PM, meal 5: Half a rotisserie chicken with stone ground mustard, kimchi, 2 cups or white rice or 3 baked potatoes
12AM: sleep

Comments? Questions? Drop a line.

REFERENCES

1. Harvie M, et al. The effect of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction v. daily energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers in overweight women. Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(8):1534-47.

2. Sofer S, et al. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity, 2011 Apr 7.

3. Sofer S, et al. Changes in daily leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin profiles following a diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner in obese subjects. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Aug;23(8):744-50.

4. Acute Satiety Effects of Sausage/Egg-based Convenience Breakfast Meals in Premenopausal Women

5. Brennan IM, et al. Effects of fat, protein, and carbohydrate and protein load on appetite, plasma cholecystokinin, peptide YY, and ghrelin, and energy intake in lean and obese men. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2012 Jul;303(1):G129-40.
6. Kahleova H, et al. Eating two larger meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is more effective than six smaller meals in a reduced-energy regimen for patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomised crossover study.Diabetologia. 2014 Aug;57(8):1552-60.

7. Rueda JMKhosla P1.Impact of breakfasts (with or without eggs) on body weight regulation and blood lipids in university students over a 14-week semester. Nutrients. 2013 Dec 16;5(12):5097-113.
8. Ivy JL. Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep 1;3(3):131-8.

How Often Should You Eat?

How often should I eat?

Another contentious issue that is often challenged in the literature and real-life. You see it all the time… exceptions and generalities. So whenever someone asks me a loaded question like this, my answer is always:

It depends.

That is the honest and simple answer I give to everyone who asks me this question, including clients. Certainly, this is also the answer that most people do not want to hear. But with further explanation, many people’s adverse reactions turn to curiosity, and eventually (hopefully), compliance.

I take pride in providing a no bullsh*t service that doesn’t paint a broad stroke as the “best” or “one and only way” to do things. I instead focus on what’s optimal for people under their unique conditions. Not everyone has the same lifestyle habits, or eat and exercise the same way. That’s precisely why you shouldn’t follow a cookie-cutter meal plan you find on the internet. Why? Simply look at the person who is espousing the diet. They are super-ripped, probably have great genetics, and probably spend a lot more time in the gym than you. Let me not forget to mention that you may not enjoy eating what they eat. And if you are unfamiliar with macronutrient (protein, fats, carbohydrates) content of certain foods, hardly think about swapping foods.

On the other hand, there are some general categories that a majority of people will fall under even if their life stages are different. For example, a student and a working professional are in similar circumstances, as opposed to a student and a competitive bodybuilder. The comparison made here is assuming that the student and business professional do not treat training and eating like it’s their job. In this case, the student and business professional will have training and nutrition protocols that bear more of a resemblance to each other than the student and athlete.

Now, for those of us who have lives outside of the gym, there are a few general guidelines that you should follow if you want to make the most of your nutrition plan.

The importance of keeping a regular meal schedule

This bears repeating. Research has shown over and over again that having a consistent meal pattern gives you better results and health. It is the key factor in making meaningful and lasting progress. There’s not too much debate about this considering how not many follow-up studies are in the literature after a few established this fact. To quote a study done in 2004,

…irregular meal frequency appears to produce a degree of insulin resistance and higher fasting lipid profiles, which may indicate a deleterious effect on these cardiovascular risk factors” (Farshchi, 2004).

What the above essentially means that if you eat with no regularity or your meals are all over the place, you increase your risks of becoming sick or experience more complications if you are sick. When it comes to nutrition, consistency is your trump card for many reasons, which we will discuss below.

But what about eating lots of small meals per day? People say you need to keep ‘stroking’ your metabolism?

Source

This might work if your metabolism works like a dog. Pet your metabolism frequently and it will roll over, pant, and reward you with unconditional love. Except this isn’t really how your metabolism always works.

If you have read any sort of nutrition-related research over the past ten years or read the news or peruse fitness magazines, you have probably heard that you should eat more often to “increase your metabolism”. Researchers have constantly been investigating this idea that a high meal frequency (6+ meals) somehow increases your metabolism. After decades of research and investigation, researchers of high-quality studies came to a general conclusion: for weight loss, it really doesn’t matter how often you eat; it’s the amount of calories that matters at the end of the day. To quote a research study from 2010 about this:

Researchers conclude that “increasing MF [meal frequency] does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study” (Cameron, 2010).

This study was a high-quality study, done for 8 weeks, and both groups ate the same amount of calories. The biggest difference was that one group ate 6 times per day while the other ate 3 times. Additionally, another study in 2012 added to the mounting evidence that a higher meal frequency does not confer extra benefits:

“RMR [resting metabolic rate] and appetite control increased in the LFr [low-frequency] diet, which can be relevant for body weight control on the long term” (Munsters, 2012).

And in one particular study, increasing meal frequency actually led to more hunger. To quote a study done in 2013:

Researchers conclude that “increasing meal frequency from three to six per day has no significant effect on 24-h fat oxidation, but may increase hunger and the desire to eat” (Ohkawara, 2013).

As with any study, you have to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • These studies were done on people who were not terribly active. They might represent the typical gym-goer, but not someone who takes their training seriously, like an athlete. So of course, these findings may not apply to someone competing athletically at a high level.
  • YOU may not like eating 3 meals per day, whether for your own sanity, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or because you are an athlete and need to nourish yourself constantly.

What about us regular folk? And yes, this includes me. 

Now let’s see how we can get general fitness folks who have no intention of standing on stage in a banana hammock or running a marathon to look good naked (the below is assuming that you already know your calorie, protein, fat, and carbohydrate needs).

  1. Keep a food journal. You don’t need to get a fancy leather strap and buckle journal for this one. A composition book will do. In it, you will keep track of what, when, how much. A food journal is the simplest yet most effective way to stay accountable. It’s also one of the main things people avoid doing. If it’s so effective, why don’t people do it? If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn’t even need to look for clients and I would be a financially successful personal trainer.

The reason I believe people don’t keep a food journal is simple: they’re scared of what they may see, lazy, or both. The journal may not be a person, but seeing for your own eyes what you eat on a daily basis may shock you. And no one wants to be told that what they’re doing is wrong, not even by themselves. If you honestly can’t take 30 seconds out of your meal to jot down what you’re eating, you’re lazy—plain and simple. Unless you’re making an insane amount of money, chances are high that you work 8-9 hour days and probably commute. Why not write down what you ate or will eat while commuting? Seriously, how hard is it to write this down?

12pm…5 eggs, 2 cups broccoli, 1 cup berries

You can make time to go out and have a few drinks with your buddies, but can’t keep track of what goes in your mouth? Pssshaw.

  1. Find your preferred eating frequency. If you’re not a competitive athlete or currently in-season for a physique sport, I suggest eating 3-4 meals per day. In the event you want to deviate from my suggestion, make sure you stick with it. If you decide you only want to eat two meals per day, then eat two meals per day.

Just keep in mind that the lesser amount of times you eat, the more likely you will run into vitamin and mineral sufficiency issues. Your margin of error gets increasingly smaller with less meals.

  1. Try to eat at the same time, every day. Find the best times for you to eat and stick with those times. If you can consistently eat a meal between 12-1pm, then do it. Avoid eating two meals, at 10am and 6pm, on one day, then decide to eat 4 meals at 11am, 4pm, 7pm, and 9pm another day. Key word, TRY. Don’t stress out if you can’t keep this schedule.

Source.

  1. Try to keep the same nutrient composition at each meal, every day. This does not mean have the same meal composition at each meal, but for a specific meal on different days. For example:

If your plan calls for 160g of protein, 60g of fat, and 100g of carbs per day (1580 kcals), your daily meal plan may look like this:

12pm, meal 1: 40g protein, 15g fat, fibrous vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach, etc.)
2pm, meal 2: 40g protein, 15g fat, fibrous vegetables
6pm, meal 3: 40g protein, 15g fat, 50g starches (rice, potato, etc.) and some fibrous vegetables
9pm, meal 4: same as above
11pm: sleep

Let’s put the above numbers into example foods:

Meal 1: 1 6oz container of Fage, plain Greek yogurt, 3 whole eggs, scrambled with 1 cup of broccoli, ½ mushrooms, and ½ red peppers
Meal 2: Two scoops of whey protein shake, 1 tablespoon of Chia seeds, 1 tablespoon of maca root powder, 1 tablespoon of raw cacao powder, half a serving of macadamia nuts (1/8 cup)
Meal 3: 8oz chicken thigh (or tofu for vegetarians), 1.5 cups of cooked white rice or 2 medium sweet potatoes, 1 cup of spinach with a teaspoon of butter
Meal 4: Similar to above

The key is to try your best to keep the above meal schedule throughout the week. It’s really that simple.

  1. Plan ahead and compensate. This is not something I recommend you do regularly. A prime example of compensating comes in the way of binge drinking. Many people will instinctively hold back on their food during the day in preparation for their booze-fest at night. While this strategy is better than adding booze on top of your current intake, it’s not something you should do all the time, particularly because I don’t recommend you binge drink all the time.
  2. If you screw up, don’t stress. Life goes on, even if you miss a meal.

 

Wrap-up

As always, I approach fitness and nutrition related things with an open mind. I experiment, test, and read to make sure that what I am talking about is as accurate as I can make it. I don’t feign ignorance or arrogance if there is an answer I don’t know. With that said, seriously consider your goals and starting point.

Are you a heavily muscled and chiseled gym-rat? Then you probably won’t do well on a 2-meal a day plan and may instead need to eat north of four.

Are you a heavily fat’ed and plump couch-potato? Then you probably won’t do well on a plan designed for the hunk-o-rama above and may need to eat south of four.

See where I am going? Your eating approach is predicated on your goals, starting point, preference, and lifestyle.

Don’t let any of this confuse you. Once you know how many calories you need, how to read labels, and become familiarized with the foods you eat regularly, this is all a cinch.

As always, I value your feedback. Drop a comment if you have one or shoot me a line.

Live life strong,

David

 

References

Piya, et al. Meal size and frequency influences metabolic endotoxaemia and inflammatory risk but has no effect on diet induced thermogenesis in either lean or obese subjects. Endocrine Abstracts. 2014:34;226.

Munsters MJ1Saris WH. Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males. PLoS One. 2012;7(6):e38632.

Ohkawara K, et al. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb;21(2):336-43.

Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101. Epub 2009 Nov 30.

Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Decreased thermic effect of food after an irregular compared with a regular meal pattern in healthy lean women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 May;28(5):653-60.

Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jan;81(1):16-24.