Given the fluidity and often polarized nature of the fitness industry, it’s no surprise people seek answers to complex questions spanning a variety of goals. Unfortunately, we’re often confused with conflicting messages, most of which largely under represent the dominant factors driving performance and health. The nuances of diet and exercise matter for individuals who have foundational principles dialed in and are seeking to capture a minor edge (~ 2 – 5 %) relative to the competition – who is also employing a similarly intensive approach.
With the seemingly infinite resources, it’s become increasingly difficult to cipher through the chaotic milieu of broscience and dogma littering the information platforms of this industry. Outlining all of the criteria required to effectively and comprehensively assess and evaluate the imparted content in publications is well beyond the scope of this post, and likely my capabilities to do so. But I want to at least impart some context in order to better prepare you to make a sufficiently educated decision when navigating elusive paradigms.
My Coach, Dr. Layne Norton (yes, even coaches have coaches) often eloquently explains a mental framework that is universally consistent over a variety of goals and objectives. Coining the term: “Hierarchy of What’s Important” in an effort to provide context for individual personalized programming needs.
The Hierarchy of What’s Important (nutrition focus)
First, to suggest highly specific protocols are completely ineffective would be misleading, however, when evaluating health in its’ entirety, these approaches are relatively less impactful than the fundamentals. One could even argue their irrelevant without the appropriate management of the basics first.
Although “Bio-Hacking” and “hormone manipulation” (via fasting, blood sugar management, etc.) are certainly provocative topics, they are largely misunderstood, often eliciting unsustained effects on weight loss in the long term. Further attenuating the benefits of such nuanced and complex protocols is our inability to control these factors beyond transient fluctuations, essentially mimicking the predicted oscillation of these hormones intrinsically. Or at most causing minor deviations that offer minimal effect with respect to marginal benefits proposed by engaging in the required stimulus. As such, there is an easy to follow criteria one can utilize to ensure the optimal approach is being leveraged, let’s take them one at a time. Naturally implying each subsequent topic is reliant on those that proceed it.
#1: Sustainability of Protocol
The number one factor contributing to the success or failure of any “regiment” is the adherence to the framework it defines. Consistency is king. Without it, no matter the scientific support of a method, it will result in fickle bouts of improvement followed by larger swings in the direction seeking to be avoided.
When picking a plan (or individual strategies within a plan) you must ask yourself one question: Can I see myself doing this 3, 6 and 12 months from now? The reality is, you have to. The body is incredibly adaptive and variety will be necessary, but before variability and progression can be considered, a threshold of consistency must first be established.
Take Home Point: Ask yourself if the plan you are on is consistent with the lifestyle you intend to lead long into the future. Not necessarily what is scientifically optimal, but rather what is optimally sustainable for you.
#2: Energy Balance (Energy In vs. Energy Out)
Although the composition of energy intake can have some meaningful impacts on optimizing nutritional regiments (discussed later), the reality is, we’re subject to the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. Particularly when it comes to fat loss (i.e. fat mobilization), the overall net energy of the system is going to dictate whether energy reserves need to be mobilized to support surplus energy demands.
This implies that, regardless of the foods you are consuming, weight loss will occur if you are consistently in a caloric deficit. Studies have demonstrated that independent of proportional modifications to macronutrients, if isocaloric conditions are maintained, the variation in energy source (macronutrient) is insubstantial on the corresponding effect (weight loss or gain). Clearly this theory has two sides of the equation, energy intake vs. expenditure, but in today’s modern world the readily available prevalence of food and consequently the capacity we have to over consume it, places a heavy burden on the former in this energy balance.
Take Home: Use traditional (unless access to superior forms of measurement) formulas to generally equate what your daily caloric intake should be. Once identified, hold consistently for 7 days and evaluate your body’s response (weight, waist measurement, etc.) to determine if you need to add or reduce calories to keep things moving in the desired direction. Always remember, when weight loss is the goal, you want to lose weight at the highest caloric intake possible while still allowing you to hit weekly benchmarks.
#3: Macro-Nutrient Intake
Considering everything I just explained, this might appear conflicting, but remember we’re discussing protocols in a hierarchy of what is most to least important, reflective of the degree to which it’s implementation warrants focus. We’re subject to the laws of thermodynamics, stating that energy cannot be created nor destroyed but rather changed in form; but since we are not isolated machines and this process has inherent inefficiencies perpetually moving us toward entropy, there is sufficient reason to believe we can leverage metabolic differences to better support our intentions.
Macro-nutrient intake can heavily influence body composition from the other predominant tissue, muscle. Providing your body with the particular substrates it requires for optimal performance (muscle building stimulus) and recovery (substrate availability and repair) can have meaningful effects on muscle protein synthesis and ultimately (presumably) muscle protein accretion.
Take Home: Once your caloric intake has been determined, it’s time to manipulate macronutrient quantities. Regardless the goal, I recommend starting with Protein and working out from there.
Protein Goal : .9 – 1.5g / per lbs (ideally lean body mass)
This ensures you reach adequate amino acid supply to support muscle protein synthesis, while additionally leveraging the unique characteristics of protein: thermic effect and satiety. Next, determine carbohydrates in accordance with activity level – which is often overestimated in my opinion. Carbohydrate metabolism is enormously varied among individuals. For those of you with perceived sensitivity to “high” carbohydrate intake, simply prioritize fat to meet caloric requirements while providing just the sufficient carbohydrate intake to support high intensity energy demands. Fat would fill in the remaining calories to support hormone function.
#4: Nutrient Timing
Rather than planning nutrition intake around physiologic fluctuations reflecting circadian rhythm, we’re implying timing intake around bouts of physical activity and, in some cases, relative duration between meals. Hopefully you know by now, that suggestions of avoiding entire food groups at various times of day – like eating carbohydrates only in the morning and never in the evening or they’ll be stored as fat – have been largely disproved. Your overall intake of nutrients will have the biggest impact on health and body composition over the long run. However, because of the dynamic physiologic response to extensive physical activity, there are unique opportunities to optimize the utility of nutrients at various intervals throughout the day – for instance before and after exercise. Individuals can choose to emphasize certain nutrients especially important to performance and recovery by planning the composition of each respective bolus.
Take Home: Although the “anabolic window” has been largely discredited1,2 in the context of a well balanced diet, one might still benefit from positioning nutrients around workouts to optimize the stimulus/recovery ratio. I would suggest 40% of your carbohydrates be consumed pre & post workout, respectively, incorporating at least 30g of high-quality protein (high leucine content) with each of those meals. A duration between meals of 2 – 3.5 hours seems to be optimal to leverage physiologic responses in muscle protein kinetics.
#5: Food Composition (Quality)
This one inevitably brings quite a bit of debate. Generally speaking, one can reasonably presume that there are slight differences in the bioavailability of nutrients when comparing two items on completely opposing ends of the food quality spectrum. I’ve seen no evidence that adequately supports the notion that this is more important than any of the previous protocols, in regards to body composition (fat loss, muscle gain) or long-term health. The evidence that does attempt to support such theories have dramatically confounding variables that make it nearly impossible to isolate the effects being observed. That said, if someone has the previous aspects covered, it certainly would be prudent to consume the majority of your nutritional intake from high-quality whole food sources, simply to capture any marginal benefit beyond what has already been realized from the aforementioned hierarchy.
Take Home: In most cases, the reality is if you’ve effectively implemented each of the previous points, this aspect will naturally take care of itself. As you become more conscious of your nutrition while seeking to maximize satiation and pleasure within your program framework, you’ll gravitate to more voluminous and nutritious foods and get a “bigger bang for your buck”.
As you embark on the continued progression of your own health by empowering your mind with knowledge, always maintain context. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What am I trying to accomplish? (objective)
2. What is the hierarchy of importance to achieve that objective?
3. Within this hierarchy, which protocols can I consistently follow?
If a new lifestyle is what you seek, temporary habits might get you there, momentarily. Well-established habitual patterns that are consistent with your goals will make it stick.