Guest post by: Nate Miyaki
Let’s say I am a mixed martial artist going through a 12-week training camp to prepare for a fight. What would happen if all I did were Ron-Burgundy-style body sculpting exercises, but never did any sparring or conditioning drills?
I’d have an awesome moustache and a glorious gun show indeed. But in my fight, I’d gas out or get knocked out in less than a minute.
There is a principle in exercise physiology called the S.A.I.D Principle – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Good coaches apply it every time they design a targeted training program.
All it means is that your body adapts to the specific training that you do. You simply have to match your training program to the specific physiological demands of your sport in order to attain optimal results. It makes common sense sound a lot more cutting edge and mysterious than it actually is.
DIET & THE SPECIFICITY PRINCIPLE
The Specificity Principle is equally applicable to designing targeted nutrition programs — match your diet to your individual situation; metabolic condition; training program; and specific performance, physique, or health & fitness goals.
Yet in the state of the modern nutritional landscape, Specificity seems to get lost in the “slot everyone into one system” shuffle. The battle for diet supremacy reigns supreme.
Leave the propaganda behind and listen up. There is no single, Universal diet that works for everyone, everywhere. The next time someone claims to be king, punch them in the high-carb breadbasket or kick them in the low-carb nuts.
While there are some overarching guidelines that are good for everyone (emphasize real, whole, natural foods over refined garbage; favor nutrient dense juicy melons and long bananas — whatever you prefer –- over dried up fruit or small packages, etc.), the details of the diet need to be adjusted based on the demographics.
A 300lbs, obese, sedentary, pre-diabetic office worker trying to improve biomarkers of health and save his or her life DOES NOT have the exact same nutritional needs as a 175lbs, lean, fit, insulin-sensitive athlete trying to reach elite levels of performance or physical development. Neither does the relatively fit woman trying to turn it up for the next few months and crush a race, or rock a bikini come summertime.
Yet, that’s what you have to believe if you buy into the dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits all “diet system.”
THE HIGH-CARB + COUCH SURFING MISMATCH
Never is the disaster that can happen with a mismatched diet better understood than with the politically influenced Food Pyramid diet combined with a predominantly sedentary lifestyle.
I know I’m preaching to the choir on this one in the Paleo community, but don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be pissing off some of the congregation soon. And to be honest, I’d rather win big in Sin City than sing gospel songs.
Why is lowering Cocoa Puffs and other refined carbs a decent idea for modern cubicle dwellers?
Liver glycogen is what is used to regulate normal blood sugar, which in turn fuels the brain and central nervous system at rest. The body only uses about 5-6g/hour to fulfill this function, and can only store about 80-100g of carbohydrate in the liver.
Fatty acids primarily fuel the muscles at rest and during low intensity activity. Muscle glycogen is really only used to fuel the muscles during intense exercise. Couch surfing and mouse clicking doesn’t count. The body can store between 300-600g of carbohydrate as muscle glycogen across the entire body, depending on size (although Robb’s biceps probably hold about 700g alone).
A sedentary person is not exercising and burning through these muscle glycogen stores, so they do not need to worry about replenishing them with a high carbohydrate intake. High carbohydrate intakes (300g or more) are more appropriate for athletes that undergo the cyclical depletion and repletion of muscle glycogen stores.
What happens if you continually eat excess calories and carbs, day after day?
- Once liver glycogen is full, and once muscle glycogen is full, the excess carbs will be stored as fat.
- With chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin levels, the body has no need to burn fat as a fuel source. The body will never be forced to tap into its body fat stores as a reserve fuel (you won’t lose any body fat). Becoming fat adapted has nothing to do with downing butter bombs all day. Evolution has ensured your body can burn fat just fine. It has more to do with NOT downing sugar bombs all day.
- In addition, any dietary fat you take in will not get used as a fuel source. It will simply be stored as fat (you will gain body fat).
- Over time, some degree of insulin resistance can occur. Insulin can no longer properly do its job of clearing sugar (glucose) from the blood and depositing it into our cells, and sugar backs up in the blood stream (high blood glucose levels). This is exactly what happens with type II diabetes.
- Type II Diabetes is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease, and of course the most serious of all–MBMT–Man Boob & Muffin Top Syndrome.
This is why lower carb diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations. A plethora of research supports this stance.
THE EVOLUTION LENS & WHERE IT SHOULD END
In general, most of us would benefit by moving away from our modern Y2K eating habits of the high intake of processed, refined, man-made foods and returning somewhat to our evolutionary, ancestral, or cultural pasts by eating more real, natural, whole foods.
That’s why I love Paleo-style diets as a starting point for this specific demographic. The Caveman theme is simple to remember and practically apply, thus it is a great educational tool for the complete beginner that doesn’t know much about nutrition. That is unless we want to sit around further confusing people by arguing semantics and anthropological accuracy in an intellectual circle jerk.
I’d rather simplify to help give people actionable strategies.
So kick the Keebler Elves to the curb, up your animal protein, get about 100-125g of carbs from unlimited non-starchy vegetables and few pieces of whole fruit, walk more, burn a few additional calories with some sexy time with your significant other, and you’ll have yourself one hell of a fat loss/health enhancement plan.
An athlete or physique enthusiast, however, needs to understand where the benefits of this template end, and why.
Cavemen were highly active, but most of that activity was low-intensity, aerobic activity. Sure, they sprinted towards prey and away from predators, climbed trees, clubbed stuff, etc., but these were generally short bursts.
They weren’t doing the type of sustained, glycogen depleting anaerobic activity involved in training programs specifically designed for physique enhancement or improving sport performance.
They did not have to recover from the type of self-inflicted, muscular micro-trauma associated with high volume, intense strength training or cross training sessions performed multiple times a week. This unique metabolic environment necessitates unique nutritional considerations outside of the strict Caveman parameters, and warrants the inclusion of a few Exercise Physiology & Sports Nutrition principles.
Just like the sedentary person shouldn’t get caught up in following Food Pyramid dogma, the physique or performance athlete shouldn’t get caught up in following no-carb dogma. Why?
ENTER THE EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY LENS
The short summary is that anaerobic exercise (strength training, cross training, HIIT, intermittent sprint sports, professional bar hopping, etc.) creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients for 24-48 hours after completion of a training session.
So if you exercise 2-4 days a week, then your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time. It is in an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions 100% of the time, thus its nutritional needs are completely different than the average, sedentary office worker.
So as to not bore the shit out of you, lets narrow the long story down into some bullet points.
- The anaerobic energy production pathway runs on glucose/carbs. It can’t use fats or ketones. While the body can use fatty acids as fuel at rest, and even those who train only in the aerobic zone can become “fat adapted”, high intensity activity requires glucose.
- Low glycogen levels as the result of inadequate carbohydrate intake are associated with low energy levels, fatigue, lack of motivation, and decreased performance. Conversely, numerous studies have documented the positive effects of carbohydrate intake and elevated muscle glycogen concentration on performance, work output, and high intensity intermittent activity.
- Due to changes at the cellular level – GLUT4 translocation to muscle cell membrane, conversion of glycogen synthase to its active I-form, etc. – there is a “metabolic preference” to store carbohydrates as glycogen vs. body fat in the post-workout period. This is also why fat-burning rates remain high despite a high carb intake in the post-workout period. Not true in a sedentary state.
- Hard training can cause a temporary impairment of the immune system and increase susceptibility to illness. With consistent high-intensity exercise, adequate carb intake lessens the potentially negative changes in immunity brought about by training. Do you catch every cold that comes around town?
- Sufficient carbohydrate intake supports an optimum free testosterone:cortisol ratio IN RESPONSE to high intensity activity. Our industry focuses on how important dietary fat is for supporting natural testosterone levels in all populations, which it is, but carbohydrates also play a role specifically for athletes. If you’re hitting the juice or TRT to compensate (perhaps one of the reasons why so many MMA guys are getting popped – overtraining combined with no-carb diets), it doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re doing it naturally, you need a more informed approach.
- Low carb diets coupled with intense training protocols can impair thyroid production and sabotage normal metabolic rate. More specifically, it can impair the conversion of t4 thyroid hormone to its more active T3 form. Feel like your metabolism is shot, still flabby despite high amounts of training and ultra-low calorie levels?
- A carb-depleted state can effect natural production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood states and the ability to induce sleep. Suffering from insomnia? Are you grumpy, depressed, and just generally always in a foul mood?
If you are an athlete getting great results on a low-carb plan, awesome. Don’t change anything. But if you are suffering from any of the symptoms I mentioned above, be humble enough to admit that you might be making a big, mismatched dietary mistake. I am damn glad I did. No diet is worth a non-functioning wiener (or dried up papaya).
SPORTS NUTRITION RECOMMENDATIONS
The primary goal for most competitive athletes is to perform at the highest level possible. Since carbohydrates are the fuel for high-intensity exercise, most Sports Nutrition diet plans focus on carbohydrates first. And most research focuses on the optimum amounts to keep liver and muscle glycogen at near full levels to maximize performance — both during training and during competition.
What are some of the recommendations for high-level athletes? Here are a few snippets:
Burke, et al. Recommendations developed on behalf of the International Olympic Committee by experts in Sports Nutrition. Carbohydrate recommendations 5-7 g/kg bw during regular training needs and 7-10g/kg bw during periods of increased training. The recovery period should be no less than 24 hours (for glycogen restoration).
According to the NSCA, endurance athletes may need up to 10g/kg bw to maximize glycogen stores. Strength training athletes may only need half that, closer to 5g/kg bw.
A MIDDLE OF THE ROAD APPROACH FOR MOST FITNESS FOLKS
So we have low-carb diets recommended for sedentary demographics, and ultra-high carb diets recommended for high-level athletes looking to maximize performance.
With our natural tendency to go to, push everyone else into, and argue over opposite extremes, there is a huge middle ground that is often overlooked in our industry. Ironically, this is where most of the magic lies, at least for those trying to find some kind of sweet spot in the health/performance/beach-ready physique continuum.
We know why an athlete or regular exerciser can handle more carbs than a sedentary person. But it’s also important to understand that the needs and goals of high-level PERFORMANCE athletes are different than those who just want to look better naked without compromising their health.
The training of performance-based athletes tends to be higher in duration and frequency — they may train 2-4 hours a day, sometimes twice a day, six days a week. This is unnecessary for weight loss, physique development, or health enhancement. A traditional hypertrophy routine may consist of 3-5, 30-60 minute strength-training workouts a week. A decent plan for a busy professional to get some of the positive benefits of strength training is even less — perhaps 2 full body strength-training sessions a week.
So performance athletes obviously have much higher calorie and carbohydrate demands than either the health-conscious or purely vanity driven demographics.
And the goal of achieving high levels of performance is much different than losing maximum amounts of body fat. There can be overlap for sure. But there are also clear distinctions.
10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight for a 90kg (198lbs) male would equal 900g of carbohydrate per day. For a 60kg (132lbs) female, it would equal 600g of carbs. While you might have a ton of energy and perform well with those numbers, most would have a very hard time getting lean. And insulin sensitivity over the long-term may be compromised.
The goal would be to move closer to the middle ground — provide just enough carbohydrates to properly fuel and recover from strength training sessions without any excess being stored as body fat, or causing even worse havoc. How do you get there?
Well, there is a wide range of appropriate carbohydrate intakes based on specific activity levels, individual metabolic factors, and body composition goals.
A good ballpark starting point would be somewhere in the range of 1-2g of carbohydrate per pound of lean body mass or target weight (2-5g/kg).
Those with good insulin sensitivity, on the higher end of training intensity or volume, and/or looking to gain muscle mass would lean towards the higher end. Those with poor insulin sensitivity, on the lower end of training intensity or volume, and/or looking to lose fat would lean towards the lower end.
MERGING PALEO WITH SPORTS NUTRITION
And what about food quality in relation to carbohydrate intake? Well this is where I believe most Sports Nutrition plans go wrong. The advice is to just down a bunch of sugar-loaded drinks, and potentially problematic cereal grains, breads, and “health” bars. That’s not my style.
While Sports Nutrition is about adjusting the diet numbers (calories, protein, carbs, and fats) to the type and frequency of training and the specific physique or performance goals, Paleo nutrition is about optimizing food choices for overall health.
To the smart athlete, they are not mutually exclusive. When applied correctly, and with some semblance of sanity and flexibility, they can be complimentary.
Now if all you care about is how you look on the beach, there is some truth to the IIFYM (if it fits your macro’s) approach — as long as you hit your target calorie and macronutrient numbers, you can eat whatever foods you want and reach your physique goals. Many bodybuilders, bikini divas, fitness models, and twenty-somethings follow this approach with great success.
But if you care about the long-term metabolic, hormonal, digestive, mental, and overall health aspects of a diet, I believe good food choices leapfrog to #1A in terms of importance. Insulin sensitivity, cellular integrity, and digestive health can all degrade over time. It’s the accumulative effects of our diet over a lifetime that matter most, not any 12-week time frame. So eventually you’ll want to focus not just on food quantity, but also food quality.
While athletes and regular exercisers may benefit from the re-introduction of some carbs into their diets, it is critical they make the right choices in terms of carbohydrate type. In addition to a baseline of vegetables and whole fruit for vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, nutrient density, and satiety, I believe you should choose starches that provide the proper fuel for anaerobic training without all of the potentially damaging toxic compounds.
That’s why I recommend the majority of your added starchy carbohydrates come predominantly from root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes) and white rice.
White rice? Baby, that’s a whole other tale for another time…
THE TRUTH ABOUT CARBS
If you would like to know more about the details of carb customization strategies, including supporting research and more specific calculations, you can check out Nate’s new book
The Truth About Carbs: How to Eat Just the Right Amount of Carbs to Slash Fat, Look Great Naked, & Live Lean Year-Round
Or visit his website at natemiyaki.com