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Nutrition Keys - Limited Portions, High Quality, Stable Blood Sugar

By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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There are two goals to keep in mind so far as nutrition is concerned. First, you want a properly limited but high quality stream of nutrients available to help your body recover from workouts. Second, you want to keep your blood sugar stable. If you do this properly, you can burn fat and gain muscle simultaneously.

Research is clear that the best way to keep your blood sugar stable is to eat small portions, containing both protein and carbohydrate (and even a limited amount of fat, particularly "good" fats such as fish oil). In general, you want to fuel your body roughly every 2 1/2 to 3 hours. That works out to about 5-6 limited "fuelings" daily.  

There are several reasons to "graze" instead of having big meals. It's been demonstrated that athletes who eat 6 times a day have significantly lower levels of bodyfat than those who eat 3 larger meals a day. This is because limited portions, spaced fairly evenly, even out your blood sugar, so you don't have the peaks and valleys that cause your body to defend fat. As you'll see below, the body doesn't "store" amino acids, so the regular fuel is also helpful to ensure that the building blocks for muscle are present when they are actually needed. Don't get fanatical about this though. If you're 90 minutes late having one meal, don't force-feed another one an hour later. The point is to keep the nutrient stream relatively stable, not to choke down 6 meals regardless of the time-of-day or your physical comfort.

It's helpful to have both protein and carbohydrates in your portions. If you severely restrict carbohydrates, you'll "bonk" and slow down your metabolism. You'll also lose muscle. See, when you run too low on carbohydrate, the body first tries to burn fat, but if fat burning is too slow to provide enough energy, your body starts using protein for energy (gluconeogenesis). If you overly restrict protein, you won't build muscle, and you increase the risk that your body will feed on muscle mass. 

Many people do quite well measuring their portions simply by the amount of protein or carbohydrate they could enclose inside of their two hands cupped together. If that doesn't work for you and you're counting calories, figure that a gram of protein is about 4 calories, so is a gram of carbohydrate. A gram of fat is about 9 calories. In general, you should target roughly equal amounts of protein and carbohydrate (about 40% of total daily calories from each). Fat should account for only about 20% of your total intake. For a person with a lean weight of 150 pounds aiming to eat 1800 calories a day for weight loss, this breaks down to 0.4 x 1800 / 4 = 180 grams daily of protein and carbohydrate, and about .2 x 1800 / 9 = 40 grams of fat. So if you're having 6 fuelings a day, each one would be about 30 grams of protein, 30 grams of carbohydrate, and just over 6 grams of fat. Read the nutritional labels, and avoid carbohydrates in the form of "sugars" as much as possible. 

The amount of protein intake noted here is quite safe. When physicians say high-protein diets are hard on the system, they're really talking about wildly unbalanced diets like Atkins. Also, if your whole food meals are extremely low in fat, you can supplement with "essential fatty acids" or EFA's. In general, you only need 4-6% of your daily caloric intake from EFA's, which your whole food will generally provide anyway. There's more about EFA's on my Q&A page, but the average person probably doesn't need to supplement in this area. If you do, I prefer fish oil capsules to flaxseed - there's recent evidence that modest fish oil intake can improve the body's response to insulin, and helps to stimulate "uncoupling proteins" or UCPs that are responsible for thermogenesis. (Thermogenesis is really neat - the body burns fat in the mitochondria by expending heat, bypassing the production of ATP).

As a practical matter, most fruits and vegetables have quite low caloric content, so those are the things that you can use to fill your plate. They're typically more filling when they're warm. As long as you prepare them without adding fat, creams or high-carb dressings, you can eat practically all the vegetables you want. Seriously. As for fruits, you can't eat an unlimited amount, but they'll definitely help you to avoid those "tiny" portions of high-calorie disaster foods. A whole cantaloupe plus two plums have the same number of calories as four little "reduced-fat" SnackWell cookies. Make good choices, and losing fat doesn't need to be about deprivation.

The Glycemic Index

Except when you want to intentionally spike your insulin levels (only after a heavy-duty lifting workout and if you're not diabetic), you should choose carbohydrates that trigger a minimal release of insulin. These are called low-glycemic carbohydrates.

Low glycemic carbs are generally ones that are digested slowly. Think "unprocessed". Carbs that are detached from fiber are digested much more rapidly and cause that spike in blood glucose. Lack of fiber is also by far the most common cause of irregularity. Here are a few examples of low & high glycemic foods:

Low glycemic: apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, bananas (firm), grapefruit and other whole, low-sugar fresh fruits, oatmeal, brown rice, "Converted" rice, spaghetti and egg fettuccine (surprisingly), whole-wheat pasta, bran cereal, barley, bulgur, basmati, Kashi and other whole grains, beans, peas (esp. chick and black-eyed), lentils, whole corn, sweet potato, yams, milk (preferably low-fat), partial-protein carbohydrates such as yogurt and soy, and even "sugar" in the form of fructose (found in fruits) or lactose (found in dairy products), but not as glucose or maltose.

High glycemic: fruit juice, white bread, most "wheat" bread (which is usually just white bread with a little fiber added), white rice, baked white potato, bagels, croissants, pretzels, graham crackers, vanilla wafers, waffles, corn chips, cornflakes, cake, jelly beans, sugary drinks, Gatorade, beer. Note that high glycemic foods are often either white or highly processed.  See the Metabolism page for more on insulin.

There's increasing evidence that the same number of calories can have different metabolic consequences for muscle gain and fat loss. This effect is mainly related to high glycemic vs. low glycemic. The early studies were done on animals. For instance, a 1998 study in Journal of Nutrition found that high glycemic diets trigger significantly higher levels of fatty acid synthase (FAS) - an enzyme that increases the number and size of fat cells. High glycemic diets also lead to excessive insulin secretion, which increases fat deposits as well.

The two most interesting human studies appeared more recently. In one (Archive of Pediatric Medicine, 2000), patients were split between two diets - a low glycemic diet versus a low-fat diet (no exercise protocol in either). Those in the low glycemic group lost a significant amount of fat weight, while those in the reduced-fat group actually gained. Both results were highly significant statistically.

The other is from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000). Subjects were put on a reduced calorie diet which was either high-glycemic or low-glycemic. Now, as you know, when you restrict calories significantly, the body tends to respond by slowing its metabolism. What's interesting is that resting energy expenditure declined by fully 10.5% with the high-glycemic diet, but only 4.6% with the low glycemic one. Further, nitrogen balance was significantly more negative in the high-glycemic diet (negative nitrogen balance -> muscle loss), while leptin (which regulates appetite) was higher.

In short, there's increasing evidence that the same number of calories in the form of low-glycemic carbohydrate has significantly different metabolic consequences than high-glycemic carbs. High glycemic diets seem to result in more fat deposition, higher instability of blood sugar, greater appetite, and a tendency toward muscle loss.

The Importance of Calcium

A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition concludes that calcium is an important factor in fat loss. "Increasing calcium levels is an attractive target for the prevention and management of obesity. High calcium diets markedly inhibit lipogenesis (fat creation), accelerate lipolysis (fat burning), increase thermogenesis, and suppress fat and weight gain in animals maintained at identical caloric intakes. Notably, dairy sources of calcium exert a significantly greater anti-obesity effect than supplemental sources." 

What strikes me is the phrase "identical caloric intakes." If calcium intake reduces fat creation even holding calories constant, it must be that calcium is helping to raise base metabolic rate. It's well known that calcium is essential for muscle function, so that conclusion makes sense. For this reason, you may want to include two servings of low-fat dairy products daily (e.g. skim milk or low-fat cottage cheese). Cottage cheese is particularly good as part of the last meal of the evening since it's metabolized slowly. If you're lactose intolerant, use a good supplement like Citrical. For some reason, it's not quite as effective as dairy calcium, but you'll get much of the benefit.

Making Good Choices

Be creative! Use salsa, spices, lemons, etc. Make homemade soup by putting a variety of cut vegetables into chicken broth that you buy in a can. Or try baking a couple of partially skinned apples sprinkled with cinnamon and a little Equal. Try to choose water-containing carbs such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and oatmeal. Dry foods are much more dense in caloric value but still leave you hungry. As weight control specialist Dr. Howard Shapiro (author of the excellent book "Picture Perfect Weight Loss") advises, stay away from so-called "healthy" alternatives that actually keep you fat, including low-fat muffins, corn bread, yogurt raisins, fat-free cookies, Caesar salad, granola, oil-and-vinegar dressing, bagels (concentrated white flour), vegetable chips, egg salad and other high-fat or carb-overdose diet garbage. If you're a typical "dieter" and you haven't lose weight, it's usually not willpower that's the problem - it's uncounted calories (especially if you tend to prepare food for others. You may also be unintentionally wrecking your progress by having  relatively small portions of high-carb or high-fat disaster foods. And you've been convinced they're good for you! Also, keep in mind that a portion of lettuce, grilled eggplant, portobella mushrooms and salsa, spiced green beans, broccoli, steamed spinach, etc. can be fairly large without setting you back, as long as you're not adding creams, fats, or high-carb dressings to prepare them. 

Two of the best ways to create an honest caloric deficit are 1) to shift the composition of your meals toward more fruits, vegetables and other low-glycemic foods that naturally contain fiber, and 2) to include "structured meals" in your program, such as supplement shakes and bars. It's much harder make dramatic errors in intake this way. Meals that are less dense (more fiber and water content) are typically more filling, lower glycemic, and help to reduce hunger. There is absolutely no way to track your true caloric intake if most of your meals are unstructured or prepared by others, particularly at restaurants.

A recent study out of Germany tracked 100 overweight individuals for 12 weeks. Subjects were assigned to two groups. One group was instructed to eat significantly fewer calories over the next 12 weeks. The other was prescribed the same number of calories as before, but included 2 meal replacement shakes as part of their daily caloric goal. After 12 weeks, the group that tried to eat less in an unstructured way had lost just 1.5% of body weight. The group that included structured meals, including supplement shakes, lost an average of 7.8% of body weight. 

A similar study recently appeared in Nutrition Review, but in this case, the groups differed by the amount of fruits, vegetables and fiber prescribed. The study concluded that "diets low in fat and high in fiber may be the most effective low energy density diets for promoting weight loss."

So again, if your main goal is fat loss, and you're unsure, err heavily on the side of more vegetables and fruits, include water-based foods like meal replacement shakes and low-fat soups, and slightly on the side of a little more protein and a little less carbohydrate. You can also modestly restrict carbs in a couple of your portions, but never the one after a workout, and not if your energy level or lifting ability seems to drop as a result. Too much carbohydrate restriction leaves the muscles depleted of glycogen, and dehydrates them, which is absolutely counterproductive. The body also perceives a "fasting state" and starts increasing the enzymes that defend fat stores. So if you want to lose fat, you've got to short-circuit that process. You have to eat carbs - otherwise you'll bonk your energy and your body will start feeding on muscle, but keep them modestly limited and high quality.

If your main goal is mass building and not fat loss, just err slightly on the side of more. In general, a few extra servings of carbohydrate and a little bit more protein will allow you to feed your muscles without weight loss. You may notice that you break into a sweat after a large meal. That's your metabolism revving up to rebuild glycogen and dispose of the extra caloric intake, and it's a great sign. Now, there are some weight lifters who really overeat while training, and then go into a "cutting" phase with a very restrictive diet. Unfortunately, this strategy typically leads to significant loss of hard-earned muscle during the cutting phase, or to overfat lifters who are never seen in lean condition again. Just look at some of the guys in competitive Powerlifting (which could easily be made into a triathalon by adding a Sumo wrestling match and a pie-eating contest). There's some evidence that cycles of 2 weeks can be effective (see the "Anabolic Burst Cycling" system described in the "Sports Supplement Review" available at www.eas.com ), but not if the cutting phase is overly restrictive or extremely low in carbohydrate. My personal impression is that you don't need to overcomplicate the process. A daily caloric intake in the neighborhood of 1.5-1.7 times your Base Metabolic Rate (see below) should be right in the pocket if you want muscle gain without fat loss.

As Dr. Shapiro advises, don't make this about willpower. "Ask yourself what you really want. Is it the hot fudge sundae? Will a chocolate frozen yogurt do just as well? A craving can often be satisfied by a lower-calorie food of similar flavor and texture. But sometimes you just have to go for the sundae. By planning an occasional binge, however - by preceding it with thought and executing it in the context of a decision - you can get all the enjoyment you deserve without remorse." At other times, realize that you can eat enormous amounts of food and still lose fat if you're including low-calorie vegetables, fruits, soups and other staples and preparing them creatively.

IMPORTANT: The goal of this is to have a fitness program you can live with. If you find that you get into guilty self-destructive binges after you eat some kind of "fun food," then it's much better to include a specific and limited amount of fun food as part of your written nutrition plan for each day (but no more than 5-10% of your total daily calories). It's not the cookie that will throw your program off, but guilt, "all-or-nothing" thinking, and self-abuse that says "I ate the cookie! I've got no willpower! I'm a loser! I've ruined my whole day with that one cookie! It's a cheat day now! I'll never succeed at this!" followed by a self-destructive binge in which you rapidly eat 20 more cookies. This is called disinhibition - where you drop all the rules and say "Ah, what the heck!" Don't fall into this. My advice step away from the cookies. Breathe in, breathe out, smile, drink some water, go anywhere, do anything, but step away from the cookies.

Remember: you're always in control. You're never going to accidentally eat a cookie. So if you're about to eat one and no other alternative will do, at least realize it's a choice. Enjoy that choice, and then get on with your program. Work it into your plan, so that you'll eat a little less later today, or a little less tomorrow, to make up that tiny bit of ground. Let me say that again: if you eat something you feel is a "cheat", realize the choice you're making beforehand, and if you choose to go ahead, at least enjoy it, and then get back to work. Don't try to fool yourself and nibble off little corners of a 12-inch cake until the whole thing is gone. And don't turn a minor indiscretion into a self-destructive binge.


Related Articles

Post-Exercise Protein
The benefits of immediate protein intake (particularly the amino acid leucine) on muscle recovery and gain.

How Calories Work
A primer on calories and base metabolic rate (BMR).

Your Raging Metabolism
What "Metabolism" actually means, and how to affect it.

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