Category Archives: Nutrition

Calories In Calories Out Doesn’t Work, Here’s Why…

Thermodynamics is the primary reason you will gain or lose weight. Consume more calories than your body needs, you will gain weight. Expend more calories than your body needs, you will lose weight.

Wait, did I just contradict my own title? 

Sort of. Here’s the problem with the basic calories in/calories out ideology: most people don’t want to lose weight. They say they want to lose weight, but in reality they want to improve their body composition. They want to lose body fat while retaining muscle. Even the notorious group of women who fear that lifting a 5lb dumbbell will lead to them looking like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger will still say they don’t want to look “flabby.”

Losing weight is easy, just look at professional fighters. Through calorie restriction, water manipulation, and a few hours in the sauna they can drop upwards of thirty pounds in a few days. Of course this isn’t a healthy process, but it just goes to show how easily and quickly one could lose weight.

If you want to improve your physique you have to dive deeper than just counting calories. The overall calorie intake matters, make no mistake, but you have to be strategic with how you structure your macronutrients. While many people will stress out over low carb/high carb, low fat/high fat; protein is actually the most important macronutrient to consider. The foundation of your diet should be based around protein consumption.

Why is protein intake so important?

  1. Satiety Effect 

The most important component of any diet or training program is adherence. Meaning, you could have the best diet plan in the world but if you don’t follow it it’s all for nothing. Protein has a satiating effect, it fills you up and curbs your appetite. Simply put, the less often you are hungry the less often you will go off the rails and overeat. Dealing with hunger is a major hurdle that comes with calorie restriction, but eating enough protein is a great strategy to set yourself up for success.

2. Maintaining Lean Body Mass

This is what we’re talking about right? Not just losing weight, but losing weight in the right places in the right manner. A multitude of studies show that high protein intake is the best way to retain muscle and lose body fat on a diet. This is shown not just in obese individuals, but athletes as well. Protein is the only macronutrient that is used to build and repair tissue like muscle, hair, skin, among others. Fats and carbs cannot do this, they are simply fuel sources.

3. The Thermic Effect of Protein

It takes energy to digest and metabolize food. How cool is that, you get an uptick in calorie burning just by eating. Of course this will never result in a negative calorie balance, but it is something you can use to your advantage. In this regard, not all foods are created equal. The numbers vary, but all in all protein has a far higher thermic effect than fats or carbohydrates, upwards of 5x. Eating a proportionally higher amount of protein compared to carbs or fats results in fewer net calories consumed overall due to its thermogenic effect.

I’ve said the phrase a million times, so what exactly is a high protein diet?

This number varies wildly when it comes to the research. But what I tell my clients is that a good number to shoot for is one gram per pound of lean body mass. Remember lean body mass is not the same as weight (or else obese individuals would have to consume 300 or more grams per day!). Lean body mass is simply your weight minus fat mass. For me this would be:

185lbs (My Weight)- 22lbs (Fat Mass) = 163lbs (Lean Body Mass and thus 163 grams of protein per day)

To Calculate Fat Mass

185lbs (My Weight) x .12 (My Body Fat as a Percentage) = About 22lbs

You may not know your body fat but you can ask a trainer at the gym to do it for you, I’m certain they have the equipment to give you a decent estimate.

What about my kidneys?

This is a common misconception about high protein diets. The one caveat is if you have a pre-existing kidney issue, in that case it is something you want to speak with your physician about. In healthy individuals, this is not a concern. There is no evidence that a high protein diet harms kidneys in healthy individuals.

Fats and Carbohydrates

How should one distribute fats and carbohydrates? This is highly individualistic. Given what we know of the importance of protein, let’s say that 30% of your calories come from protein. That leaves 70% for fats and carbs. My advice would be to give them an even 35/35 split and self-monitor as many variables as possible such as: digestion, bloating, energy, workout performance, and hunger (even with the satiating effects of protein, carbs still cause a blood sugar response and thus potential cravings). From there it is your responsibility to make adjustments. Don’t stress out too much over it, there is certainly an element of trial and error when it comes to dieting.

I don’t want to give the impression that calories do not matter, of course they do. However, it is a bit irresponsible to think that our dream physique can be achieved just by restricting overall calorie intake. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t have a job, and there also wouldn’t be an entire section in Barnes N Noble dedicated to dieting. After determining the proper daily intake of calories, it is important to take the next step and fine tune your macronutrient intake to truly achieve the body you desire.

Want to Build Muscle? Look to Your Gut

There’s a silly assumption that every nutrient of every food you consume is magically extracted no matter what the circumstance. We spend so much time finding the perfect macronutrient ratios for our goals that food choices become no more than an afterthought. Of course I’m not saying food choices trump calories in/calories out, but they’re still vital.

Let’s think about this logically. If you eat a food and it makes you feel bloated, or sick, or sends you running for the bathroom, do you really think you’re getting all the nutrients out of that meal? Even if you have no nutrition expertise, you’d have to say no. It’s common sense. So why do people continue to pound protein shakes, dairy, and gluten if it makes their stomachs look like a pregnant woman? (Note: these are the most common culprits, if you have no problems digesting these foods, eat them)

We need to be more mindful of how we’re reacting to certain foods. Just because Kai Greene eats a baby steer for breakfast doesn’t mean you have to. Next time you eat a meal, see if you notice some phlegm in the back of your throat. This is an indication of a minor food allergy. Personally, I get it when I consume chicken or turkey. Is it bad enough where I would completely eliminate it from my diet? Probably not at the moment, but it’s still good to know.

After a meal, do you feel bloated? If so, there’s something in that meal causing distress. You may also be eating too quickly (trust me, I empathize). After a while we begin to think that this is just the way things are. But it’s not. Eat, feel bloated, lie down, be unproductive. This is no way to live.

You may reach a point where it seems like nothing is settling properly in your stomach. Luckily there are a few things you can do to help rectify the situation:

Fasting

Digestion is a stress to your body. A necessary stress, since we need to eat, but a stress nonetheless. Fasting removes that stress for a short period and gives the digestive system ‘a break’ to put things simply. There are many fasting protocols, the most popular being intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting separates each day into an eating window and a fasting window. Typically, the eating window lasts 0–8 hours and the rest of the day is spent in a fasted state, consuming only water, tea, or black coffee. I use intermittent fasting off and on, and will typically have one period per week where I fast for 24 hours.

Probiotics

Probiotics are hit or miss with a lot of people. In theory, probiotics help to replenish the bacteria in your gut which would aid in digestion and immune health. There are many different probiotic strains and the potency of each supplement/food will vary. As I mentioned, it can take some trial and error to find what works for you. I like to use fermented milk, or kefir, as my source of probiotics.

Glutamine

Glutamine is popular in the bodybuilding community as an amino acid supplement. However, the cells in your intestines use glutamine as a source of energy. Glutamine can thus aid in ensuring proper intestinal permeability, which means that not too much is getting through the cells lining the gut wall. Some nutrients must pass through of course, but too much may allow harmful substances to pass through as well.

I don’t like to give too many anecdotal examples because in the end it’s just n=1, but my physique was certainly suffering when I experienced stomach issues. The macros didn’t change, the training routine didn’t change, and the training intensity didn’t change. However, my muscles were flat, my stomach was chronically bloated, and overall I was exhibiting a look that I did not like.

I’m not saying the problem is completely solved, but utilizing the three tools listed above have certainly helped. I try not to use digestive enzymes, as I don’t want to become reliant on them. I’ve tried apple cider vinegar but did not notice a significant difference. Herbal teas are fine, nothing spectacular. The point of this article was to increase your awareness of your own digestion. In the end, you may be selling yourself short despite the countless hours in the gym.

An Unbiased, Objective Keto Breakdown: Is It Right For You?


I have no stake in the Keto game; I neither love nor hate the diet. I’ve done it for a few months, which I think is crucial when critiquing any diet. It’s important to experience something yourself before recommending or discouraging someone else from using it, particularly as a nutritionist. There are aspects of the diet that I like and aspects that I dislike. Keto is by far the hottest weight loss diet right now, and naturally every diet will have its benefits and drawbacks.

Dieting is both very simple and very complex. You have to find the right method of restricting your calorie intake. While the idea of restricting calories is elementary, the follow through is what most people struggle with. They know what to do, they just can’t do it. What is the easiest way for you to control your calorie intake over a sustained period of time? Could it be Keto?


Benefits

Weight Loss

The number one reason most people experiment with the ketogenic diet is for weight loss. As we mentioned, the number one key to success with weight loss is the person’s ability to comply with the diet over a long period of time. The ketogenic diet is restrictive… but also not. Hear me out. The diet is restrictive in the sense that you are essentially eliminating an entire macronutrient group, carbohydrates. No more fruits, bread, pasta, starches, grains etc. In that regard the diet seems very restrictive. But you have to consider what happens when you consume carbohydrates. You get a surge of energy due to a spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a subsequent drop in said glucose. This leads to low energy, more hunger, and cravings for more carbs. Hard to stay on a diet when you’re feeling ‘hangry’ every three hours.

Since you are not ingesting carbohydrates on the ketogenic diet, your blood sugar remains stable all day every day. Hunger pangs become much less frequent, and you’ll often find yourself going hours without the thought of food entering your mind. This is a huge plus for any dieter.

However, achieving a caloric deficit is still vital. If there is any metabolic benefit to the ketogenic diet, it is minor. You cannot simply remove carbs, eat pepperoni and cheese all day, and expect to lose weight. You have to eat responsibly.

Brain Health/Disease Prevention

Many people report improvements in mental clarity on keto. The brain can use both glucose and ketones (the energy derived from fat metabolization) to function. These reports are largely anecdotal, as it would be difficult to measure differences in mental acuity from glucose vs. ketones since there are so many other variables involved. In addition, would it necessarily be the ketones providing the improved brain function or is it the stability in blood glucose?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the ketogenic diet is its effect on neurodegenerative diseases. As mentioned before, the brain can use both glucose and ketones for energy. However, glucose is the preferred energy source. If glucose is available, the brain (and body in most cases) will use it. Many neurodegenerative diseases are based upon the brain’s inability to use glucose. By starving the body of glucose and consuming high amounts of fats, it allows ketones to become the main fuel source and gives the brain an alternate fuel to use.

This ideology applies to certain forms of cancer as well. Many cancer cells rely on glucose to thrive and grow. These same cells are unable to utilize ketones. Once again, starving the body of glucose and using ketones as its main energy source may be helpful in mitigating the effects of certain diseases. (Note: I am not a doctor, just telling you what I know).

Low Inflammation

Carbohydrates cause inflammation to some degree, largely based on the type and quality of carbohydrate. Inflammation has its place and function, but too much can lead to pain, disease, etc. Although I feel the gluten intolerance narrative is largely overblown, there are some people that truly have a hard time digesting gluten. The same applies to dairy. If you are a person with say, chronic joint pain, perhaps a low carb or keto diet can help alleviate the symptoms.

Endurance Athletes

The body has multiple energy systems when it comes to exercise. The energy system you use is based on both the intensity and duration of the activity. Endurance athletes use mainly the slow glycolytic (carbohydrate fueled) and beta oxidative (fat fueled) energy systems. Carbohydrate storage has a limited capacity, eventually the body will turn to fats for fuel. Fats are a robust energy source, they can sustain activity for a very long time. Unfortunately, most people are so reliant on carbs that they have a hard time making the transition to fats when carbohydrate stores run low.

Ever heard of a runner getting his ‘second wind?’ This occurs when they have made the switch from carbs to fats. An aerobic athlete can forgo this period of fatigue if they are running on fats from the very beginning.


Drawbacks

The Delicate State That is Ketosis

Your body wants to use carbs for energy. It’s dying to use carbs for energy. Carbs are truly the body’s preferred energy source. Anyone who has done the ketogenic diet for an extended period knows that it is not only hard to get into ketosis, it’s hard to stay in ketosis. The only way to truly know is to use a blood ketone meter, which I own. I can tell you from experience, blood ketone levels fluctuate all day every day, leaving you questioning what you’re doing wrong… or right. Point is, it can be a frustrating experience.

You may experience gut issues when making the transition from a carbohydrate-based diet to a fat-based diet. I’ll spare you the details, but you may become well acquainted with your lavatory.

The worst thing that can happen is being in what I call ‘no man’s land’, where you are consuming too many carbs to get into ketosis but not enough to fuel your day-to-day activity.

The Long Term Sustainability of Elimination Diets

Will you really be able to avoid cake, pizza, and ice cream for the rest of your life? Better yet, should you? The body wants to achieve homeostasis and thus will adjust to anything you do (within reason). If you avoid carbs for a long period you will lose the ability to tolerate carbs. You will produce less of the digestive enzymes to break down carbs. This is why I suggest cycling off of keto every few months and slowly re-introduce carbs back into your diet, just for a week or so.

Anaerobic Sport Performance

Earlier we touched on the keto diet’s application to endurance sports. We mentioned how endurance athletes utilize both carbs and fats during exercise. This is not the case for all sports. Anaerobic sports like football, sprinting, hockey, and mixed martial arts among others primarily utilize creatine and carbohydrates for energy. Rarely will the athlete utilize fats unless they are completely depleted. Even then, the beta oxidative system that utilizes fats will not be able to keep up with the high speed nature of the sport and thus the athlete’s performance will suffer greatly.

Included in these anaerobic sports is bodybuilding. If you are a gym rat looking to put on as much muscle as possible, then the keto diet is just not optimal. I’m not saying it’s impossible to add muscle, that would be an irresponsible statement. However, the lack of carbs will negatively impact anabolism and performance in the gym. The glycolytic energy system is a major component of bodybuilding.

Making the Mental Shift

This is rarely discussed but in my opinion is the biggest barrier to success with the ketogenic diet. We have been brought up in a world that heavily markets low fat or fat free foods, dressings, desserts, and meals. When you are bombarded with this for your entire life, it becomes hard to accept anything else as true.

I know fats are important for many aspects of overall health and wellness. Hell, I know saturated fats are important. But I must admit, it was hard to make the mental shift and accept the fact that I have to eat upwards of 200g of fat per day in order to get into a state of ketosis. All too often I have people come up to me asking for advice on keto and in almost every situation they are eating too much protein and/or not enough fat. They experience the ‘no man’s land’ state that I alluded to earlier.


Conclusion

Keto is MOST appropriate for:

  1. Sedentary people looking to lose weight and improve their health
  2. People who may be predisposed to certain diseases
  3. Endurance athletes

Keto may not be ideal for:

  1. Anaerobic athletes or people looking to gain maximal amounts of muscle
  2. People who live a lifestyle in which they cannot consistently consume meals that allow them maintain a state of ketosis.

Why Reverse Dieting is Nearly Impossible

Dieting for a bodybuilding show is one of the most challenging things a person can do. Life is stressful as it is, and during a contest prep there’s no junk food to turn to for relief when work and relationships are kicking your ass. A typical contest prep diet usually lasts about 12 weeks, with cardio making an unwanted guest appearance late in the process. The body does not want to be at low body fat levels, and it will do everything in its power to stop you from getting there.

After showtime has come and gone, many fitness coaches recommend that their client go through a reverse diet. A reverse diet is a systematic and slow increase in calories over a period of time to rebuild what is a now a slow churning metabolism. Metabolism is directly related to calorie intake; if your intake is low then your metabolic rate will slow to adjust to that level. On the surface, it may appear that a bodybuilding competitor has a furnace-like metabolism, but that is likely not the case. Aside from the genetically gifted, most competitors have to go through hell to be stage ready.

Reverse dieting seems quite logical. Slow increases in calories will allow the metabolism to rev up and minimize body fat accumulation in the process. A typical reverse diet will have the client adding about 10g of carbs and 5g of fat to their macronutrient totals each week. Sounds like a reasonable course of action aside from one thing; there is a huge margin of error when it comes to calorie counting.

Lets say you go to the grocery store and pick up a box of granola bars. The nutrition facts panel on the side of the box is an approximation. In fact, the FDA allows for up to 20% error on these labels. This revelation nearly throws the concept of reverse dieting out the window. You could be meticulous and perfect and weigh and track every food item, yet still be inaccurate. The only way to know exactly how many calories are in something is to put the food in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter. In a nutshell, this instrument burns the food and measures the heat generated to determine the calorie content. I assure you that many foods have not gone through this process. This is not what strict MyFitnessPal users want to hear, but it’s the truth.

So what’s the answer when it comes to post contest dieting? Personally, I have my clients go back to their pre-contest maintenance level. Will they put on body fat in the process? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No. No one will claim that bodybuilding is healthy. Walking around at dangerously low body fat levels is not optimal for hormone function and general health. Plus, I think it’s a bit irresponsible to have a client go on a 12 week reverse diet immediately after a 12 week contest prep diet. No one should be dieting for half a year.

I’m not saying reverse dieting does not or can not work. I understand the concept, but just believe the implementation is nearly impossible. Theory and practice are two different things.

How Do We Burn Fat? Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?

The process of burning stored body fat is often misunderstood, so why don’t we set the record straight right off the bat.  Your body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat.  Our adipose (fat) tissue is full of stored triglycerides that we would ideally like to oxidize to get the lean, sculpted physique we desire.  A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids held together by a glycerol backbone.  Interestingly, the fatty acids don’t have to be the same.  One triglyceride molecule can contain a combination of different saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc. fatty acids.

When a stored triglyceride is released, the glycerol backbone breaks off and the fatty acids enter the bloodstream.  However, it is important to note that the process does not end here.  You still have to oxidize, or burn the fatty acids, ideally via exercise (although we can still burn fat at rest as well).  Otherwise, the fatty acids can become a stored triglyceride all over again through a process called re-esterification.  What a shame it would be to release stored body fat only for it to return home again.  Remember when I said the body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat?  The cycle never ends.

So how can optimize this process and release and burn more than we store?  The primary method is by achieving a caloric deficit.  Boring answer I know, but hey that’s science.  A caloric deficit can be achieved by consuming less calories in our diet and/or burning more with exercise.  We can also increase our metabolic rate so that we burn more at rest.  The primary method of increasing resting metabolic rate is adding more lean muscle, which burns more calories compared to adipose tissue.

Where do fat burning supplements come into play?  How do they work, if at all?  They actually perform a little bit of each fat burning component; suppressing appetite and increasing metabolic rate.  This is achieved mainly through the stimulant-based ingredients.  Caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine can all help suppress appetite, thus leading to less calories consumed.  More important, however, is their hormonal effect.

Certain ingredients in fat burners can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine.  These hormones signal the release of stored triglycerides into the blood to (hopefully) be oxidized.  In addition, a quality thermogenic should have adequate doses of the amino acid carnitine, which helps fatty acids enter the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to energy.  This is why most fat burning supplements instruct you to take them prior to exercise.  Remember what we said earlier, fatty acids can be re-esterified back into adipose tissue even after being released.  If you’re not an active person, these supplements really won’t do much for you.

At the very least we can agree that the scientific theory is there, but is it worth the cost?  Thermogenic supplements generally range anywhere from $50 to $100.  In my opinion, while the logical mechanism to burn fat is somewhat evident, the research is still iffy at best.  Also, there is an unreasonable expectation that these supplements will cause massive changes in body composition.  In the end, you still have to put forth the effort in the gym, which most are simply unwilling to do.  If you have the disposable income to purchase a fat burner, along with the willingness to still train hard, then by all means do so.  If you have your doubts about the research and don’t want to fork over the cash, then I wouldn’t fault you there either.

Hopefully my concluding statement didn’t appear like a cop-out.  Thermogenic supplements are ‘okay.’  Personally, I usually go with an ephedrine/caffeine stack rather than purchase a supplement off a store shelf.  It is cost efficient and gets the job done.