Should you take nutrition advice from a body builder?

For the sake of hopefully avoiding controversy, I’m going to begin with the conclusion. As with many questions, the actual answer is “maybe, it depends”. People tend to prefer black & white, yes & no, good or bad, blanket statement type answers… *shrug* sorrynotsorry if you’re disappointed.

The quality of advice should really be assessed on the basis of the quality of the advice, rather than the description of the person it comes from. Any specific individual trainer, bodybuilder, nutritionist, dietitian, or other person may give good advice or bad advice. We may observe that generally speaking, one profession is more or less likely to give solid, factual, reasonable and helpful advice than another… regardless, advice is good or bad based on how solid, factual, reasonable and helpful it is, not based on who it comes from.

Diplomatic enough for you? Everyone still happy so far? No one’s feelings hurt? Good. Let’s continue.

Now then. Let’s agree that it makes sense to assume we’re talking about people with a weight loss &/or fat loss goal. Who knows more about how to maintain lean mass and shed fat than a bodybuilder? Few if any.

Or so it would seem. Someone may have done a body building contest and achieved a lean condition under the instruction of their coach. Does that necessarily mean they understand how to assess another person’s requirements, understand their circumstances and coach them to a satisfactory outcome? Hardly. This is unfortunately a common, and problematic phenomenon especially related to instagrammers who get lean for a show or a photo shoot, and then start charging for “clean eating” meal plans and so forth. I would avoid anything of the sort like the plague.

So, let’s consider that particular variation of the question resolved. Should you follow dietary advice from a person on the sole basis that they’ve competed in a bodybuilding show, or are otherwise in impressive & athletic shape? Absolutely not.

What about bodybuilding coaches though? As with anything, it’s a mixed bag but I personally know a few who I’m confident are knowledgeable, competent, and usually have a few tricks up their sleeve that are more than merely starving and burning calories.

With that said, I’ll start my list of red flags with the following:

Do they understand that there’s a difference between “contest prep” and appropriate, sustainable eating habits & advice suitable for fat loss and more athletic condition in a normal person?

What might be necessary for and reasonably expected of people in the final stages of contest prep bares little resemblance to what’s reasonable or helpful advice for the rest of us who are looking for sustainable results towards a more athletic condition while actually enjoying the rest of our lives as well. If your coach doesn’t understand this, you’re in for a bad time.

Are they on the gear?

A lot of the times people will present their own physique or that of their clients as evidence to support their views on nutrition and the superiority of their understanding of science. That’s fair enough, but if they’re using steroids then all bets are off. I’d argue that differences in results between enhanced athletes are far more likely to be down to differences in dosage or choice of drugs than due to which carbs they feel are “clean” enough to eat. And if they’re on gear and talking about “discipline” and how people should want to do it the hard way rather than “cheating” with enjoyable foods on an IIFYM style approach, they can fuck right off as far as I’m concerned.

Bottom Line On Nutritional Advice

I’d ignore any advice from anyone that comes with the suggestion that adrenal fatigue or leaky gut are a concern you should have in mind with your dietary choices. I’d ignore any advice of the “calories aren’t equal” or “carbs are not equal” variety as well. Advice of the “this is what I did and it worked for me” nature is next to useless, and for advice of the “this is what everyone should be doing, even though it’s not actually working for me” variety it almost goes without saying.

Hmm what are some other red flags? “Sugar is addictive”, “fruit has too much sugar”, “artificial sweeteners will make you fat”, and any reference to Gary Taubes, Sarah Wilson, David Gillespie, or the various gluten fear mongers.

The best advice is based on the understanding that people have varying requirements, and unique circumstances, tastes, and idiosyncrasies which will determine what is reasonable to expect them to adhere to. Being expected to have the “willpower” or “discipline” to adhere to something that does not suit the individual is entirely unreasonable, and advice that fails to take this into account is inherently poor.

The approach and the selection of foods that best empowers and facilitates consistent adherence in meeting but not exceeding an appropriate provision of total energy from a suitable ratio of macronutrients is always what is best. Whatever approach that may be for each individual.

Whoever you go to for nutritional advice had best understand this, and ideally have both knowledge and experience in successfully coaching others to draw upon when issuing that advice.

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Strategy, Structure and Inevitable Success.

Real talk though you lot.
I talk a lot here on the blog and elsewhere on social media about how valuable and how crucial a STRATEGY is, and that’s legit. I talk a lot here on the blog and elsewhere on social media about how valuable and how beneficial it is to have STRUCTURED habits, particularly eating habits to ensure that you meet your fueling requirements across the course of the day. That is legit.

Big or small, just about anything you want to achieve in life is going to be a hell of a lot easier with a strategy, and with a structured approach. Those words are practically synonyms in this context.

A strategy! Not just random actions. A strategy and a structured approach rather than an erratic and inconsistent one. Just saying “well here’s what I’m trying to achieve, and here’s what I hope is going to happen… so like… uhh… some things, I guess?” isn’t really a very good bet. It’s pretty much what most people are doing though, isn’t it?

You need a strategy. What’s even more important though is to have an attitude that has you looking for ways to MAKE THINGS WORK rather than reasons why you’re screwed and might as well quit before you even get started. Right? Am I making sense? Of course I am.

Let’s recap though:

  1. You need to be looking for ways to make things work.
  2. You need… actually scratch number 2.
    “a way to make things work” is what a strategy is anyway.

OK, now PAY ATTENTION HERE because I’m about to hit you with your free strategy and all you gotta do is DO IT, right? Just do this stuff I’m about to tell you, exactly the way that I tell you to do it. That’ll work. Right?

NO. Well… yes, but not in the way you might be expecting.

Here’s why “just tell me what to do and what to eat” doesn’t work.

Imagine that I tell you “eat a small meal every 2 hours” or some such nonsense. However, you can’t do that because you have a job where you actually have to do work and can’t just vanish whenever you feel like it to warm something up and cram it into your face… so that’s that & you just can’t do it.

Or I tell you “these foods, not those foods” but you hate all the stuff I’m trying to force you to eat… so that’s that & you just can’t do it.

Or I tell you “fasted training at 5am before breakfast” but you work nights and can’t get up at that time or maybe you are just not a morning person. Morning person? Hell I’m barely a person at all that early in the morning. So anyway, that’s that & you just can’t do it.

Here’s what I’m driving at.

People out there… people who are a little lacking in imagination or empathy are always going to be like “why can’t you just do this? why can’t you just do that?”… and a lot of the time they’re a little judgmental and a little dismissive about it, as well. Well, this may be a revelation for them, but it’s a lot like Blaze Bayley said; “they don’t understand my life, or yours”.

When people start giving you generic sort of advice similar to the examples I gave above, really what they’re doing is suggesting options. They may actually be suggesting non-options, depending on your circumstances… but either way… these are suggestions of options that you might consider as a part of a strategy. However, they’re not “the one and only” much less “the morally superior” way to get it done, the way people tend to infer when they start helpfully letting you know all the things you should be doing.

Let’s wind this up. It’s not about doing what someone else did, or someone else hasn’t actually done but figures you ought to be doing. It’s about you, not them. It’s about your unique personal circumstances, and about taking you from where you’re at now to somewhere closer to where you’d like to end up.

Sounds horribly complicated right? Well fortunately, it really isn’t at all.

One: Start with what you can do.

Look at this as a balance between what you could potentially do, and what you’re actually prepared to do. Again, something inconvenient that you can only force yourself to stick to for a couple days until it just gets annoying is no use to you.

Here’s an example, very simply.
“Well… I could have three meals, six hours apart and a snack half way in between. Breakfast as soon as i get up before work, lunch at noon, and dinner after training in the evening.”

That’s something you could do. Maybe you’re someone who hates eating breakfast as soon as you get up though, and you’d rather train first thing in the morning. That’s fine too. Set the structure that best suits you though, and don’t be in the habit of putting off eating until you’re famished.

Two: Schedule it around what you have to do.

Obviously, right? No point scheduling things when you can’t actually take a break from work or some other time you’re unlikely to actually be able to do it. Take advantage of the most suitable opportunities, like someone who is looking for a way to be successful would do.

Three: Including what you’re likely to do whether you make it part of the plan or not.

Be honest with yourself. If you know you’re going to end up having those two chocolate biscuits at supper time with your cup of tea no matter what, don’t kid yourself. That’s the next thing you work into your strategy.

According to conventional wisdom, this is the stuff you’re supposed to be cutting out. The stuff you’re not supposed to want. The stuff you’re supposed to see as a problem that you need to overcome. Why though? Something is a problem if you make it a problem. We’re here as people who are looking to make things work, not looking for problems to get tripped up on.

Four: Take all that and shape it into something that will get the job done.

You’ve set the structure and the schedule to be the best fit of what you’re able to do, around the other things you have to do, and incorporating some things you were probably going to do anyway, but we’re seeing them as a part of the strategy that will be more conducive to good adherence, rather than making a problem of them unnecessarily.

Now we need to look at the specifics. We have a target range for an appropriate total energy intake that we need to work to, we need to meet an adequate amount of protein, our minimum recommended 2 pieces of fruit, 5 serves of vegetables, and I recommend 30 grams of nuts as well assuming you like nuts. Choose the foods you enjoy the most, in amounts to meet those requirements, at the times of the day that best suit your schedule.

That’s what flexible dieting is. It’s quite a simple concept, and there’s no good reason why it should be done any other way. Why would there be? To prove something to other people who want to see you doing it the hard way and not getting anywhere? Fuck those people if they’re not happy to see you happier and making progress towards your goals.

If you want to succeed where others have failed…

I shot a video blog in the gym but there was a bit of background noise from the radio and so on so here’s the text version to go along with it.

If you wanted to succeed where others have failed, what would you do? Should you do the same as everyone else, or something different? Do what hasn’t worked out for anyone, or do the opposite?

When it comes to dieting for weight loss, we know the statistics say that 95% of the time diets fail to result in long term, sustained weight loss. Worse than this, the reality of dieting in the conventional sense is that not only do people regain the weight they have lost, but they continue to gain weight and end up more over weight than they were in the first place.

Those are the stats and I might dig up the studies and add links later but really, you know this is true already. It’s a common story from people who’ve done whatever diet and “it was good, I lost 10kg. But then when I stopped I put on 15kg”.

Why this happens is pretty simple. All diets that result in weight loss do so by restricting energy intake. Either by using meal replacement shakes, low calorie meal plans, excluding certain foods, or whatever. The people selling them might try to tell you there is some other reason to do with the inherent goodness or badness of certain foods… but that’s bullshit. It is about energy intake.

Now the problem here is that these by definition are not sustainable approaches. You temporally reduce energy intake, and temporarily lose some weight. Then what?  You go back to your old eating habits and regain the weight. You go back to your old habits either because the diet has a duration built in, or just because you’re fed up with eating things you don’t like and missing out on the things you do like.

So, you return to your previous eating habits, your previous energy intake, and your previous weight. That’s best case scenario. Quite likely you actually over eat and go beyond your “normal” energy intake as a result of having restricted for so long. Worse still though, is that for however long you have been restricting energy intake you have actually been training your body to run on less fuel, to conserve energy, and prioritise the storage of energy within fat stores.

You gain weight, or more specifically you gain fat by habitually consuming an amount of energy that is in excess of your requirements. While dieting, you train your body to get by on less energy. Therefore when you return to your regular eating habits, they are effectively more excessive than they were previously.

I could bore you with the science on this, but do you really need it? You’ve observed this happening enough times already. You know it is what happens.

Now, this applies to people who are in training with an athletic condition goal too.

Active people have a higher energy requirement than less active people. People participating in sport, even more so. People training for a lean body condition need to provide a suitable amount of protein and energy so as to allow the body to priortise fueling the muscle at the expense of body fat.

In my observation over several years, people who are training but not seeing results are usually not over eating. If they are just training and not paying any attention to diet, maybe they are. If they are training and paying some attention to diet, especially with calorie targets or a “clean eating” approach, they are usually not eating enough to provide the energy and resources that they require to facilitate results.

So then. What happens?

Training regularly, not gaining any weight, not losing any weight, not leaning out or seeing any changes in body composition. Usually, people will start to talk about going on a cut. Cutting carbs, eating clean, whatever you call it, whatever method… it’s reducing energy intake just the same as people going “on a diet” would do. However in this case, we’re failing to see results at training due to not being adequately fueled, and we reduce even further.

This may result in some small change in condition, but it will be temporary at best as the level of dietary restriction is unsustainable. Or worse, upon failure to see further changes in condition the athlete may conclude that further restriction is called for.

This can, and frequently does spiral out of control with disastrous consequences.

Let’s cut to the chase here.

Dieting, in the conventional sense serves no purpose other than to train your body to run on less fuel and to conserve whatever it can. The very opposite of what you want you want if you have a long term weight loss goal.

In active people training with a performance or condition goal, your requirements are quite high and you will not see results in terms of improved body composition (aka more muscle, less fat) by slashing further and further below those requirements.

Rather, active people should do the exact opposite. The exact opposite of what most people do. When you want to succeed where others have failed, you do something different.

Therefore. Rather than slash intake for a temporary result, then eventually gravitating back towards your usual habits and usual (or worse) condition, maximise intake towards the uppermost, optimal amount of total energy that you could expect to utilise for performance, recovery, and positive adaptation to training.

Train the body to put more and more energy and resources into lean mass where you want them, enabling greater performance and improved condition. When you return to eating more in accordance to your appetite, you’ll still be at a suitable amount, but less than your body has gotten used to.

Where do you think it is likely to draw energy from to make up the difference?

Dieting trains the body to run on less, and then it doesn’t know what to do with a normal amount. Fueling up trains the body to put more and more to good use.

The Evolution Of IIFYM

Update: This is something I originally published on the formerly ‘official blog’ quite a while back, covering the Evolution Of IIFYM approaches, through Flexible Dieting and beyond. As to the “beyond” part… I’d like to think I’m one of, if not THE leading guy who has taken these approaches beyond the primitive “any amount that’s in deficit will result in fat loss, so just keep restricting further and further into deficit forever” applications.

I’ll include some graphics and links to my more recent articles expanding upon some of these points, and you’ll see just how far the concept has evolved since.

IIFYM.

If. It. Fits. Your. Macros.

You all know the back story already, I presume?

It all started on body building forums, where questions would be asked to the effect of for example “I’m bored of eating such n such, is it ok if I eat such n such instead while trying to lose fat and gain muscle?”. And the answer would be that it was fine, so long as total energy intake was still appropriate and macronutrient ratios were not negatively impacted. In other words, whatever you have a hankering for is fine, “if it fits your macros”.

They eventually changed it to “flexible dieting” because idiots would make strawman style “so you’re saying vitamins and minerals aren’t important? just macros?” arguments and so forth.

Obviously you do need to meet ALL of your requirements. However, it is neither necessary nor helpful to start obsessing over tracking and basing your food choices on micronutrient content. If you get a good mix of fruit, veg and other choices in accordance with the official Healthy Eating Guidelines you’re unlikely to be deficient in anything.

I would only very occasionally see anyone ridiculous enough to  suggest that we should be focused upon tracking micronutrients per se, but it was a common argument of a “false dichotomy” nature with the inference that if one pays attention to their energy and macronutrient intake, they must by definition also be going out of their way to neglect their micronutrient requirements. Clearly, a preposterous argument… although we’ll come back to this point briefly in the next installment.

So, certainly it is still important to ensure appropriate micronutrient provision in accordance with the Healthy Eating Guidelines, as discussed already. Strictly speaking though, for “results from training” including weight loss, total energy and macronutrient ratios are what makes the difference. Not “clean eating” or whatever arbitrary labels you want to slap on to individual food choices that mean they’re “bad” or “good” for weight loss, muscle gain or health in general.

For my own system I changed it one step further, from “flexible dieting” to “Flexible Fueling” because my people aren’t on a damn diet. We are fueling UP for best results and we know that means we have minimum requirements that we need to exceed… rather than trying to restrict to low levels of energy. I really wanted to emphasise the rejection of that “dieting” mentality, because what we do is the opposite.

Now you can do this macronutrient thing by percentage of total energy or by the gram. Most people seem to talk about percentages of total energy and that’s how I used to do it too, but as activity level and level of performance goes up, so too does total energy requirement. As this total energy requirement goes up, it becomes both unrealistic and unnecessary to expect a large percentage of this to come from protein.

As a side note at this point, to talk only about macronutrient percentages without also establishing an appropriate or optimal total energy intake is entirely pointless, as well.

For this reason… well, I decide on a case by case basis but increasingly I am basing my recommendations on a “by the gram” basis for what is an adequate protein provision, although my prediction of what might be optimal may be a higher target based on percentage of total energy. Again… experience and intuition starts to come into this and I wouldn’t say there is a hard rule on how best to interpret the numbers and work them into practical targets in every individual case.

Now here’s the trick though.

It does come down to calories, for the most part. But failing to see progress, fat loss or weight loss does not automatically translate to “not in calorific deficit” aka “still eating too much”.

People with a poor understanding still jump to the seemingly obvious “whatever you’re eating now, slash 500 calories as you’re not in deficit” line whenever someone reports a plateau or lack of progress. That isn’t “IIFYM” though, it is just “calorie counting” and energy restriction, and it is no better than any other form of crash dieting.

What IIFYM should mean and what Flexible Fueling certainly does mean is running the numbers to determine what this particular individual’s requirements are in total energy, protein, fats and carbs respectively to ensure results from training. What should be adequate, and what should be optimal. Cutting below what the maths and good sense tells us is “adequate” is quite literally “less than adequate” and therefore not conducive to ongoing results.

A little more on maintenance calories real quick.

cico maintenance
Is your lack of progress because your intake is too high to allow fat loss, or too low to facilitate improved performance and condition? Click the graphic for the full article that goes with it.

A lot of people are under the impression that if for example you are currently maintaining weight and not really seeing any changes in body composition on 2500 calories per day, increasing intake beyond 2500 would result in fat gain due to being “in excess of maintenance calories”.

However, this may not be correct.

If 2500 calories per day is a sub-optimal energy provision relative to your needs, increasing towards the optimal amount would mean more energy being made available and being utilised to perform, recover and adapt to training. This should not result in weight gain (unless that was your aim) and should in fact result in more energy being drawn from fat stores to fuel non exercise activity. It is for this reason that it is sometimes possible to actually lose weight after increasing energy intake.

Again, Calories In / Calories out is the rule… but it is about the most appropriate, most optimal energy intake relative to your needs, and not about just slashing calories ever lower to starve weight off.

Beyond Calories In / Calories Out.

Don’t get me wrong. CI/CO is a valid rule and no one with a shred of sense should really dispute this. However, the way this rule is often applied in real life leaves a lot to be desired. I would suggest more people move away from the “calorific deficit” model in favour of pushing upper, maximum usable calorie targets for optimal performance, recovery and results from training.

To facilitate improvements in performance at training requires MORE fuel, not less. To recover from more intense, more productive and more effective training sessions requires MORE fuel, not less. To build lean mass and change your body composition requires MORE fuel and in particular, adequate provision of protein. Not less. More.

Now, this is something to be built up to strategically as often referred to as “Reverse Dieting” elsewhere. What people fear when you start talking about increasing towards maximum usable intake is something to the tune of “but don’t I need to be in deficit to lose fat?”, and the answer is… technically yes, but let’s think about it a little differently.

Assuming you have any fat whatsover to lose. It becomes complicated to explain because every situation is different and there will be a time to dial in a more significant but still strategic deficit after having established and maintained maximum usable intake for a suitable duration of time. In this case we’d still be looking at a reasonably high energy intake, suitable for performance and recovery, but it will be somewhat less than we’ve gotten used to, encouraging the body to draw even more from fat stores to make up the difference. Certainly our targets at this stage would still be higher than many other people would be restricting to in similar circumstances with the other approach.

But that all comes later. Assuming we’re still in the “Reverse Dieting” stage though, we are building up towards the maximum, most optimal level of energy we can put to good use in fueling our lifestyle, performing at training, recovering, and adapting with creation and maintenance of lean mass at the expense of body fat. Clearly, however high this amount is, by definition it is still less than the amount it would take to fail to see improvement in condition and reduction in body fat at that level of activity.

Only in surplus, or excessive total energy intake would we fail to lose body fat. Maximum usable intake is by definition not “excessive”, as excessive would mean “more than we have a use for”. So while technically we are in deficit of what would be required to fail to see improvements in body composition, our focus is not on “being in deficit” which usually translates loosely to “under fueled and trying to force the body to burn fat to compensate”.

Interrupted Energy Restriction Strategies.

There are always various ways you could approach working towards and establishing the levels of fueling that best suit your needs and facilitate the best and most sustainable improvements in athletic performance and condition.

interrupted energy restriction strategy

This graphic represents the latest variation upon the Flexible Fueling approach, and you can read more about it on my blogspot, filed under Interrupted Energy Restriction Strategy.