When considering any type of nutrition program, there are a few parameters that must be taken into consideration. I have prioritized them based on my goals when designing a program for a client:
- Rate Of Fat Loss/Rate Of Muscle Growth
- Food Sensitivity
- Glucose Tolerance
- Insulin Sensitivity
Health is by far my greatest concern, and should be yours as well. You can lose fat by eating nothing but dessert snacks and you can gain muscle by injecting steroids, but both approaches will sacrifice health. I know that many people focus on the notion of scale weight and are willing to do anything to drop their weight without worrying about health. What is the purpose of becoming lean if you do not live a long, healthy life to enjoy your peak physique?
Looking at scientific journals is one way to determine the impact of nutrition on health, but most studies are extremely isolated and do not translate well to real world situations. Even studies of "real world" situations are prone to gross error. For example, a famous study that followed the nutrition habits of thousands of nurses led to the misconception in the late 70's and early 80's that cholesterol in the diet (such as red meat and egg yolks) would lead to higher cholesterol levels in the blood. It was only in the past decade that a more critical examination of the study and further tests uncovered the fact that saturated fat is a larger culprit and most people can consume higher quantities of cholesterol without any significant impact on blood plasma cholesterol levels. The myth that cholesterol in the diet is the major cause of high blood cholesterol persists even to this day.
When focusing on health, I prefer to look to nature. I constantly read about how the oatmeal can lower cholesterol, oranges can reduce the risk of stroke, and tomatoes appear to help fight cancer. Instead of using only what has already been discovered, why not simply take in a variety of healthy, wholesome foods and benefit from all of their virtues, even the ones not yet discovered? It is important to consume several servings of fruit and/or vegetables each and every day. Carbohydrate sources should be as whole and unprocessed as possible - pick old-fashioned rolled oats over the highly processed, instant oats that are loaded with processed sugars.
Choose beans and whole grains over breads and tortilla shells. In her book, The Schwarzbein Principle, Diana Schwarzbein, M.D. says to find foods that you can pick, gather, or hunt for. Instead of relying on the latest study to support a supplement ad for a specific protein powder, choose a variety of proteins throughout the day to gain the full spectrum of benefits.
In a recent seminar presented by Ian King of King Sports (http://www.kingsports.net) and John Berardi, John discussed various studies about proteins. For example, studies show that whey protein can improve immune system function, allowing for greater recovery potential and less risk of becoming ill. Does this mean you need to drink whey shakes 3 times a day? The study involved only 20 grams of whey protein powder per day - most serving sizes today are over 40 grams! Another study that showed how animal proteins can stimulate more muscle growth than plant proteins involved only about 70 grams of animal protein each day. The morale is that you don't have to eat beef at every meal to gain muscle; instead, practice a balanced diet that provides a variety of meats from poultry to red meat to eggs, dairy, and plants.
Comfort is incredibly important. If you cannot stick with a nutrition plan, then you are not going to reap the benefits. Most people mistake comfort, however, with their immediate reaction to foods. If you are used to processed, packaged meals or eating out at restaurants all of the time, it is going to be uncomfortable switching to whole, unprocessed foods. However, you must give yourself the chance to learn to enjoy foods in their natural, unaltered state.
Just as the college freshman quickly "acquires a taste" for beer, you can gradually acquire a taste for raw vegetables, fresh cooked meats, and even hot rolled oats that aren't loaded with sugar. If you can't stand the taste of bananas then don't force them upon yourself, but if you can tolerate the taste of fish then consider adding more portions each week and experimenting with seasonings. You may grow to love it!
Satiety is another important aspect of "the perfect meal." Hunger is not necessarily a negative signal. Hunger means that your body is deprived of something it needs. If your goal is fat loss, then you must create a demand for energy to force your body to burn stored fat. This demand in itself may create "hunger signals" that are simply an indication that you have been successful with shedding some fat. If, however, you are "starving" all of the time or craving certain foods, following your nutrition plan can become a nightmare.
By eating high density foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber you will satisfy yourself without adding extra calories. I have found that consuming adequate healthy fats such as flaxseed and fish oils suppresses cravings for sweets. Eating whole foods such as black beans or rolled oats will keep you full much longer than highly processed meals such as breads and cereals.
Rate Of Fat Loss & Muscle Growth
Rate of fat loss and muscle growth are also important factors depending on your primary goal. I can't tell you how many people believe that if they are dropping x pounds of fat, they can cut their meals in half and lose twice as much fat. It is simply not true. There are specific processes in your body that must take place to burn fat and build muscle. These are limited to an extent by the nutrition you provide, certain vitamins and minerals in your body, recovery, and time. Most males can expect to lose no more than around 1% of their body fat each week, while women may lose maybe half of that. In other words, a 300-pound male may safely drop 3 pounds of fat each week, while a 100-pound female would be doing great to lose 0.5 pounds of fat in a week.
Muscle growth is even harder to come by because there are so many variables that trigger the growth of muscle tissue. Again, while males might gain 3 pounds of quality muscle mass in 1 - 3 months, women can expect to gain around half of that. Since these processes are limited, it makes no sense to cut calories beyond a certain point or over consume too many calories - cutting calories too far will only cause your metabolism to slow down and might cause other problems due to deficiencies with nutrients, while over consumption can easily lead to excessive storage of fat.
Metabolism is a factor that not only helps shape a nutrition plan, but also is shaped by the nutrition plan. Berardi mentioned in his seminar that some individuals have been shown to nearly double their resting metabolism simply by consuming a certain quantity of fish oils each day. Diets low in fats have been shown to decrease testosterone levels, which can decrease activities in the body that would normally keep the metabolism higher. Consuming nutrition designed to raise your metabolism, which means frequent meals and healthy fats, is paramount to keeping the metabolic furnace burning hot.
Imagine running a race with someone else who is your metabolism. You want to run ahead of them to lose fat. If you add exercise, you zoom ahead. If you decrease calories, you become lighter and run faster. Now, let's test the theory of reducing calories too far. You start out by reducing calories and you can lighten your load - let's say you were carrying a baton, and you get to drop it. If you try to reduce calories more, however, you've got nothing left to drop - so guess what? Your metabolism drops its baton, and is now catching up to you.
On the other hand, people become confused when they learn that consuming extra calories in the form of healthy fats can actually lead to fat loss. How is this possible? Back to our race, let's eat a donut. That's a baton that someone hands to you, so now you're weighted down and your metabolism starts to catch up. Less fat loss. What about a healthy fat such as flaxseed or fish oil? These healthy fats are used by your body to perform certain functions. Without these nutrients, those functions don't occur. With them? They take place, so there is more activity; in other words, your metabolism works harder and burns more calories. In the race, you grab the healthy fat "baton" but you get to pass it on to your metabolism, so while its busy fumbling with the extra weight, you move ahead in the race - more fat loss!
Healthy fats come from a variety of sources, such as nuts. Unfortunately, many people are allergic to varieties of nuts. Allergies to peanuts are extremely common. It is also common to be allergic to dairy products. What most people don't realize is that not all allergies create the Hollywood effect of gasping for breath and falling to the floor or breaking out in hives. While certain food allergies can kill (thousands of people die from peanut allergies each year), other allergies are milder. Sometimes, the only symptom might be a runny nose. The allergy results in a foreign substance entering your blood stream. When your body detects this, it releases antibodies to try and fight the "invasion".
This is also how your body deals with a cold. The excess material is excreted through mucus membranes. You feel like you might be catching a cold or you might possibly blame it on the pollen, but in reality you are allergic to something you ate! Mild allergies can have devastating effects in the long term. Even the slightest allergy will strain your immune system. Over time, this can lead to a higher risk of falling ill and shorten your recovery potential. Furthermore, allergies over time can aggravate your body to the extent that they might be triggers for more deadly conditions such as cancer.
A blood test can be ordered by your doctor to determine your tolerance and allergic reactions to certain foods. The test can be extremely expensive but is well worth the investment. While a mild allergy might not seem like much now, think about placing your body under the stress of a "mild" cold for the rest of your life - is it worth it? Dairy and peanuts are very common allergies. Gluten, a protein found in many wheat products, is also a common allergen. Invest in your health by determining what foods don't agree with your body, and remove them from your nutrition plan.
Glucose tolerance refers to the way your body handles carbohydrates. All carbohydrates, whether they come from vegetables, fruits, grains, or other sources, are eventually turned into glucose by your body. Glucose is a form of sugar that your body can use to process and store carbohydrate. Glucose is modified into glycogen when it is stored in muscle.
Glucose in your blood provides a source of energy. Too much glucose can have toxic effects on the brain. In order to protect your brain, your liver regulates blood glucose levels. If too much sugar exists in the blood, the liver converts the glucose into triglycerides, or fats, to be stored in your fat tissue. If too little sugar exists, then your liver releases some of its own reserve into the blood stream.
The body is not perfect at regulating blood sugar. If glucose levels rise too quickly, your body can just as easily overcompensate and drive blood sugar too low. This is what the "crash" is that most people experience after eating a high carbohydrate meal, such as a breakfast loaded with breads and cereals. Low blood sugar can also cause problems such as hypoglycemia. In order to maintain stable blood sugar levels, it has been found that eating frequently (every 2 - 4 hours) and eating carbohydrates that are ingested more slowly is beneficial.
When your body has good glucose tolerance, blood sugar will be pulled into muscle cells and used as fuel. When your body has poor glucose tolerance, your muscles may never get fully replenished from a workout. You may experience swings in energy due to rising and falling blood sugar levels, and you may be more prone to store excess carbohydrate as fat. Studies and experience show that eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates and always combining these with quality proteins every 2 - 4 hours will stabilize blood sugar and improve glucose tolerance.
The final category is insulin sensitivity. Many people are familiar with diabetes, a disease in which insulin does not function properly. Some people have bodies that don't respond to insulin and others have bodies that don't manufacture insulin correctly. When your body is extremely sensitive to insulin, a little insulin can cause tremendous changes, such as pulling blood sugar from the bloodstream. When your body is insulin resistant, even high insulin levels fail to trigger important processes. It is theorized that the ideal person will have muscle cells that are extremely insulin sensitive, so that any rise in insulin can trigger the movement of nutrients into the muscle cell. On the same token, having fat cells that are insulin resistant may help deplete stored fats and minimize the amount of additional fat accumulated.
Exercise promotes both glucose tolerance and better control of insulin. It has also been shown that managing insulin levels through nutrition can help "partition" nutrients so that calories are driven into muscle cells rather than fat cells and energy is pulled from stored fat rather than valuable muscle tissue. While the glycemic index is a great predictor of the insulin response to foods, a newer index known as the insulin index is more accurate. Some foods that are low on the glycemic index such as proteins are actually high on the insulin index. Traditional "bodybuilder" foods like brown rice and potatoes have a high glycemic index but relatively low insulin index. Again, it appears that the foods that are lower on the insulin index are whole, unprocessed foods in their natural state.
By combining these parameters and any others that are important to you, you can build a nutrition program that is not a "generic" system that fits the majority of people, but a truly specific, individual experience that is suited to your own needs. I am a firm believer of consuming meals every 2 - 4 hours for a total of 6 or more meals per day. I believe in having a quality protein at every meal, and consuming both healthy, unprocessed carbohydrates and healthy, unsaturated fats throughout the day. I like to see 4 - 5 servings of fruit and/or vegetables, and a post-workout shake to take advantage of the time when your muscles are the most insulin sensitive.
I don't pretend to be an expert who knows the exact way to eat to lose fat and gain muscle. I have, however, studied nutrition very intensely and both learned and practiced various programs such as the Atkin's New Diet Revolution, The Schwarzbein Principle, Body-for-LIFE™, The Greenwich Diet, The Memory Solution, The Zone, Sugar Busters, "Weight Watchers," and many other "systems" that exist.
Most of these programs do work, and no single one can be considered the final solution - instead, you must find the balance that is the perfect solution for you. Write down your goals, choose the lifestyle you are willing to live, and then build a program that is comfortable yet effective. By listening to your body, you can construct your perfect meal that will help you build your peak physique.