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Hey guys, been a while since I’ve done a health post and they always tend to be very long-winded anyway. I’m currently on my lunch break so hopefully that restraint keeps this post more succinct.
I want to address two topics that I’ve had arguments about before with both people more and less experienced than I.
Contradicting information about exercise science:
This is a big topic that I’m going to just generalise as people giving different opinions about how exercise (or nutrition) should be done.
So why does this happen? How do you know what you should be doing if everyone keeps telling you different things?
Firstly, you need to understand that there’s two main reasons this happens. Every human body is slightly different and tempered by genetic predispositions. What works for someone may not necessarily work for you. That being said, there are paradigms that generally work to a good degree (which is usually what advice is). Second, exercise science is a junior field. By that I mean the field of medicine and anatomy, for example, are tried and proven fields with many case studies and lots of research. The studies done in exercise science are not always consistent and worst of all – the sample size is not statistically significant.
Those of you that studied stats at university might remember this term. When analysing a portion of the population using a sample population (i.e. test subjects), that sample population is not considered representative of the actual population if the sample size is not large enough. Without going into the maths, let’s consider that the vast majority of studies use less than 30 test subjects. Now consider that there are 7 billion people in the world. Yep – huge margin of error.
This is why you will hear a lot of conflicting info but don’t get confused – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to advice. It just means you need to learn who you are. This is something I promote as a part of becoming the best version of yourself, but it applies to physical health as well. I often encourage friends to experiment during their bulk/cut cycles to figure out what their bodies respond best to.
Finally, I just want to point out that the human body is highly adaptive. You should use knowledge you gain as part of your exercise vocabulary. Maybe 5×5 works best for you but someone keeps telling you to do 4×10. As Elliot Hulse would say, don’t get sucked into the religion of a certain methodology. Try both. In fact, you must, by necessity, do both anyway because if you stick to one methodology your body will adapt and you will plateau.
Ok, this post has already gotten a bit long but here’s the next part.
Another hot topic and popularly considered “impossible” in the sense that you cannot gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. In fact, I myself believed this for quite a while until I managed to lean bulk myself. May provide photos later but I’m at work right now.
Anyway, the common argument against lean bulking is quite scientific (on the surface). To gain muscle you require a caloric surplus to fuel growth. To lose fat you require a deficit to force your body to burn more fat for energy. I’ve gone into the body’s fuel sources before but in short – your body burns all 3 macronutrients at the same time but proportionally, much more carbs are burned and much less fat.
Now, we have to get a little technical, and this is where I’ve had most of my arguments. How do you build muscle whilst losing fat if it appears that they require conflicting caloric levels? Diet and meal timing.
“Meal timing doesn’t make a difference, it’s all about what you eat in 24 hours.”
Only half true. The other half is why lean bulking is possible.
As with all arguments, we will start from the simplest, most logical argument and build up (Occam’s Razor). Consider this scenario. You have fasted for a day. It is now night time and your body is completely depleted of glycogen and protein stores. You go for an intense steady state cardio session. Several hours after that session, right before bed time, you eat your entire day’s calories in one meal, comprised mostly of carbs.
Those of you that have studied nutrition/health science will know what’s going to happen. The rest of you can probably guess. First, you are engaging in catabolic activity with no glycogen or protein stores (all exercise is catabolic – in fact, living is catabolic). What’s going to happen? Well you still have fat so your body will burn that. Obvious right? What you might not know is you also still have protein. Your muscles contain it and your body will break down your muscle to fuel itself to allow you to keep doing your cardio. After exercise, you do not replenish your glycogen and your blood glucose remains low. EPOC continues to burn calories which will be taken from protein and fat (and protein burns in higher proportion to fat). Your body has no amino acids to repair muscle fibre so your neurological response is to let go of that muscle fibre to feed your body. Result? Muscle loss.
Now, you eat your daily 3000 calories in one go. IIFYM right? Wrong. Your blood glucose level spikes like crazy. Your insulin levels must rise rapidly in response (often leading to Type II Diabetes). The insulin shuttles the glucose through your body and replenishes glycogen stores but obviously you’ve eaten more than you can store in your muscle. What happens to unused glycogen? It converts to fat for storage. Fat is a long-term energy source – slow burning and 9 calories per gram (whilst protein and carbs are 4 calories per gram).
So obviously meal timing does play a part.
This post is getting really long now so I’m not going into what you should do – you can just ask me yourself. I’m just here to prove a point. And those of you that have heard otherwise from so and so – well that’s an anecdotal fallacy. Those of you that have heard otherwise from a scientific paper? More credible, but go take a look at the number of test subjects used in that study and refer to my first subheading above.
When in doubt, trust the most foundational, unshakable concepts in science. You can argue all you want about whether a plane or a rock falls faster depending on what angle they drop, but you can’t argue against the fact that gravity is what’s making them fall.
I’ve been meaning to simplify and broaden the health section of this blog and a friend recently asked about nutrition so it seems like a good time to start. I’ll try skip over the finer points and make separate posts about them later on. This will sort of be the parent directory with general info about how nutrition works.
If you break it down, there’s not that much to know. There are two types of nutrients you can consume:
These include carbohydrates, protein and fats. Macronutrients are your body’s fuel sources; they are converted to glucose and shuttled to your cells via insulin. More on that mechanism later.
There’s a bit of a misconception that your body burns these separately. You are always burning all three fuel sources, just at different rates. Fat, as you may have guessed, is burned the slowest. Carbs are burned the quickest as they are in a closer chemical state to glucose/sugars. That one fact will be very helpful if you want to watch your weight – glucose is essentially a type of sugar so anything sweet will always have a lot of carbs. Anything bread, pasta or rice based will also contain a lot of carbs.
Carbohydrates themselves are broken down into two different types: simple and complex. Simple carbs have a higher glycemic index and basically release glucose much faster and in spikes. Complex carbs have a lower glycemic index and are thus healthier. More on this later.
Protein is broken down into amino acids which are essential for muscle repair and growth. Unused amino acids can eventually be converted to glycogen (a more complex level of glucose – think of it as a few glucose molecules combined).
Fat is basically an energy store and contains more calories per gram than the others (fat contains 9 calories per gram whereas carbs and protein contain 4). Keep in mind essentially fatty acids like Omega 3 cannot be produced by your body so you must get them through food.
So what are calories then? A lot of people tout calories as the holy grail of weight gain/loss. Honestly, this annoys me. Calories are just a measurement of energy. True, you require a calorie deficit to lose weight and a calorie surplus to gain weight, but that’s a huge oversimplification of the process. Where are these calories from? Saturated fat? Simple carbs? Again, more on this later.
These include everything else you might eat besides the macronutrients. Vitamins are a big group. Calcium, iron and fibre are also important for the more serious body builders.
Usually people don’t measure their micronutrient intake – at least not as much as their macros. Micros are more of a long term thing that can boost your gains/losses a bit. Fibre deficiencies in particular are quite common and can help with absorption. For example, the carbs/sugar in fruit are mainly fructose, which is a simple carb, but due to the micronutrient content of fruit (fibre and vitamins), I would still consider fruit to be a healthy food (as would other nutritionists).
The Glucose-Insulin Mechanism:
All the “more on this later” bits were referring to this section. There’s a lot of study in this field so to be brief, basically glucose is the raw form of energy that all foods are broken down into eventually (at different rates). This glucose will be in your system (blood stream). In response to an elevated glucose level, your body produces insulin which causes cells to consume this glucose.
Diabetes suffers at times require insulin shots because their body is incapable of producing enough insulin on its own, meaning the glucose cannot be absorbed. Overconsumption of sugary stuff is often criticised as causing diabetes because sugary stuff is usually simple carbs and thus your glucose levels spike tremendously and your insulin can’t keep up.
Now there are some interesting points to mention. First, your insulin sensitivity is dependent on your health. People familiar with intermittent fasting and cortisol might skip breakfast for this reason. In short, breakfast can cause a glucose spike which will be responded to by an even greater insulin spike (because the person is healthy). This can cause your glucose levels to drop below what it should be (think overshooting the mark). The insulin aims to return your system to balance but it goes too far, causing you to feel hungry again very quickly. This can lead to overeating, or general discomfort.
Next, what happens to excess macronutrients? All macronutrients will eventually be broken down into glucose. What happens to the excess glucose? Well if it stays in your system long enough and isn’t used, then your body will store it. It does this by converting to glycogen and then eventually into fat (fat being the ultimate energy store). And this is why I get annoyed at people who always preach calories but never consider other factors. Yes, calories are the bottom line but they aren’t the only factor involved.
Consider this: a macro target of 2500 calories per day with a maintenance calorie level of 3000. Technically, if the target is reached, the person should lose weight right? Well they will but let’s consider how other factors can affect the weight loss. Say the person eats all 2500 calories in one sitting, and they’re all simple carbs (i.e. he eats two loafs of white bread). First of all, it’s very unhealthy, I know, but let’s take a look at the mechanism.
Simple carbs means huge glucose spike. Excess glucose will be converted to fat. If all the glucose is converted, then his body will have no more carbs. If his body has no more carbs, he has to break down protein (in a process known as catabolism) and fat for fuel. Good news right? He’ll still lose weight because he’ll burn more calories (3000) than he supplied (2500). Yes, but, fat burns the slowest. So he’ll lose weight but most of it will be loss of muscle. It’s entirely possible that he could actually gain fat while losing weight.
If that makes sense to you, you should realise that while calories are still the bottom line for weight loss, there’s much more to it than just that. This is just a general overview of how nutrition works but hopefully this understanding will help you make more informed decisions.