This is the first chapter of the “Foundations” PDF that science lab members get. The “Science Lab” is a service I offer Crossfitters that are looking to reach their body composition goals. The classes work in a similar fashion to the way Crossfit WOD’s work, they are scheduled and our coaches walk you through what you need to do to achieve your optimal physique. It is free for most people buy simply purchasing items through our links on this site. For a list of our free options click here.
I: Malnourishment and Why a Lack of Nutrients is the Real Problem
What would you say if I told you that diets have it backwards; what if eating less was actually preventing you from losing weight and attaining your goals? What if the solution was not to eat less, but to eat more, and better? It may not make sense at first, judging from the prevalence of obesity in the United States and other developed nations, but most of us live in a state of malnourishment; we eat too much of the wrong kinds of food and we’re just not getting enough of the right nutrients to function optimally or lose weight. This is the main reason our bodies send us confusing, nonsensical signals. When we eat a balanced diet composed of wholesome, nutrient dense foods (foods rich in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients) we give our body what it needs and we are no longer hungry; we’re no longer a slave to cravings. But the body’s needs are ever changing – hour to hour and week to week. Eating the same food day in and day out at the same caloric intake sets your body up for deficiencies. You just can’t supply everything you need with 5 foods, even if they are the most healthful foods in the world.
Nourishment is of course not the reality for most people because their diets are full of nutrient deficient foods. Instead of eating less, your new goal should be to eat in a manner that adds more to the body system than it takes away and helps balance your hormones naturally. Eating a bowl of cereal which touts ‘100%’ the daily value of a rack of vitamins and minerals is all great in theory, except for the fact that your body can’t absorb and put use to all that synthetically engineered ‘nutrition’. Thus, you are left off worse than you started; this is where diets get it all wrong. The term “dieting” implies a level of restriction, and for anyone that has a teenager out there, you know that when you restrict someone from anything the consequences tend to be fairly catastrophic.
Cravings are a normal response; when you cut out foods from your nutrition that you’ve developed a mental attachment to, you’ll miss them in the same way you’d miss a friend. On top of that, the foods you eat, no matter how processed, are still supplying your body with energy that it needs. Over time, they have literally become a part of your physiology, and when they’re gone, it’s as though a piece of you is missing. There are, however, alternatives to many of the foods we crave that will give us the nutrition we need without all of the chemicals, additives and guilt. Before we go any further and discuss how you can put this into action, we need to talk about some of the habits that make cravings worse. Here are a few messages drilled in our heads:
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”
“Your body runs on sugar, so make sure you eat a lot of it all the time!”
“Just get something in your stomach and get that metabolism going!”
“Look, if you’re serious about losing weight, the rules are simple. A whole grain breakfast is necessary.”
We’ve all been told over and over again about breakfast and all its perks. Part of this is true; eating breakfast can be a great way to kick off your day, but it doesn’t have to happen immediately after you wake up. Even more of a problem is that in the absence of a nutritionist who designs a meal plan for you (Actually, a lot of nutritionists preach this crap.), we go for the “ready now”, pre-packaged convenience foods. Really, who has time these days? A cinnamon raisin bagel topped with low fat double whipped cream cheese and black coffee was my go-to, “choke-it-down”, quick and easy breakfast. Heck, if the bagel has some heart healthy whole wheat in it, it’s a win-win scenario, a healthy “breakfast of champions.” I would typically eat this around 6 a.m. By 8:00, I was usually headed face-first into a bowl of oatmeal because the bagel didn’t sate my appetite; I was ravenous. In fact, I was usually so hungry that I had to have two packets of oatmeal. It’s a good thing oatmeal is full of fiber, because already the calories are starting to sort of pile up (if only I knew what I know…) and it’s only half past eight! I would spend the rest of the morning figuring out how to eat a light, low calorie lunch. This double breakfast, “bottomless-pit-of-a-stomach” was the story of my life (or at least my mornings) for years. I was no daily gym junkie either, because ya know, “Who has the time or energy for that!?” I was already preoccupied with tallying off a light lunch after downing two breakfasts! It was all a big mental game.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, then we have a lot to talk about, but first I want to clear this up: the aim of this blog is not to preach; my experience may not match up with yours and you’re going to have to figure a lot of this out for yourself (With my help of course!). Think of it as though you’re being taught to fish, rather than having somebody fish for you. There is no “best” way to eat for all people; in fact, the point of this collection of texts is to highlight that nutrient-dense, whole foods should make up the base of nutrition for everyone, from sedentary people to high-level athletes. No matter what your lifestyle, when you give your body what it needs and leave out the junk, you are less susceptible to cravings and you’ll be able to listen to the messages your body is sending you. I’m a fairly athletic guy, so my body demands a bit more from me than yours might.
Here’s what my breakfast looks like nowadays. It’s important to note that I eat breakfast around noon rather than shoveling food into my mouth at 8 a.m.:
10 ounces of grass-fed rib eye in a little clarified butter and sea salt
4 fresh eggs
A raw kale and spinach salad with carrots and peppers, chopped macadamia nuts and a little olive oil
Can you see the difference between this first meal and the bagel and oatmeal from above? This meal provides real foods packed with real nutrients. A meal such as this carries a high degree of satiety; it leaves me feeling full and energetic. It gives me the ability to tackle the day without worrying about being hungry. If you are eating the bagel and oatmeal combo like I was, you are not providing your body with the quality and composition of fuel it needs to get going. It’s akin to putting regular unleaded in a car that runs on super; the engine is going to go through hell. This is not an ode to a “Grass-fed Rib Eye Revolution Breakfast”. It’s just my experience. Your scenario may be completely different, but regardless of our differences, we all have the same basic requirement for nutrient-dense foods that provide us with energy and a sense of well-being. Many of those diet ‘rules’ you have heard and believe are just wrong. Small tweaks, like switching out the convenient, pre-made food for real, satisfying meals make a big difference.
I meet and talk with people every single day, and I can confidently say that I believe, by-and-large, that most folks are trying to do the right thing. People do care what they put into their body and would gladly eat steak and eggs with a spinach salad for breakfast if they only knew that it was okay. In terms of bang-for-your-buck, spinach and eggs won’t render dramatic weight loss like caloric restriction will, which is why Charles Barkley can sell you Weight Watchers, but your natural instincts get ignored. Product marketing and convenience play a big role in how we eat and quick fixes are extremely attractive, especially when a celebrity is telling us how well it all works. As someone who lost sixty pounds in one year, I completely understand the motivation to lose weight as fast as possible, but if I had to do it all over again it would be a whole lot easier if I’d just listened to my body.
Why Caloric Restriction is The Wrong Approach
Let me make sure I’m clear: if you eat in an unrestricted way without respect for food choices, the consequences are obvious; you will get fat and you’ll feel like crap. This is an adult conversation where I assume you will keep practicality and individual experience in mind. Also, I am not suggesting that you might not at some point consider a deficit strategy that specifically targets fat, but calorie restriction alone often wastes as much muscle as it does fat. Since muscle is important as it relates to staying alive and looking good (even for women), it’s kind of a big deal. Since most of us embark upon diets to improve our appearance as much as our health, calorie deprivation is full of holes. Let’s go over the scenario I talked about earlier and examine how it relates to a calorie counting scheme.
In the first scenario, I presented a standard breakfast from before I learned what I was doing. These choices took more from my body than they provided; they were “empty calories.” You could really make a case against every single thing I ate, even the coffee. (By the way I love coffee and I have some thoughts that I will get to later; it might surprise you how much coffee I drink.). Eating the typical low calorie “diet foods” and follow the standard suggestion of gobbling all these tiny little meals left me engaged in a battle royale against my body’s hunger signals. I was keeping my metabolism “stoked”, just to lose a pound! Clearly the violent cravings were an indicator of my success. Or not! Let’s be clear about this: no matter how many times you eat, your metabolism will only burn through as many calories as it needs to. There are cases that can be made for both sides of the argument, so rest assured; if you want to eat 18 meals a day, by utilizing the knowledge I provide you with, you will be giving your body with what it needs. That is the secret. No shortcuts, no bullshit.
Cravings and hunger are a good sign that you are stressing your body out. I do not know about most of you, but I have enough things stressing me out; I do not need to add food restriction or mental images of dancing cupcakes taunting me onto that list. When your body is stressed, it breaks down muscle for energy at an accelerated rate. This leads to poor muscle tone or your typical ‘skinny fat’ appearance. What we eat aids in the repair of our body from the wear and tear we put it through on a daily basis. Mental stress is just as damaging to your body as physical stress is, leading to even more hunger. Additionally, when you do not provide your body with the nutrients it’s clearly signaling for, you’re left with lethargy and fatigue. But that’s fine, right? That’s when you grab a 5 hour energy or another coffee like you’ve always done! Those are stimulants, and using them to make up for a lack of food is one of the worst ideas that we commonly put into practice. The nature of these “perk-me-ups” is to stress the body for a specific result; it is like pouring gas on a fire. Stress hormones run rampant and while you do get the energy they promised, a lot of it comes from muscle.
Remember this all started because you did not provide your body with what it wanted and one of two things are going to happen come nighttime: you are either going to negate whatever potential weight loss you could have achieved through calorie restriction and binge, or you’ll gut it out and go to bed starving (which isn’t favorable as far as maintain muscle mass goes). If you tough it out, well…Good luck sleeping that night. This is no way to go on, but this is the standard prescription we’re offered by the media and the mainstream weight loss industry.
Weight Watchers or calorie counting is a tool; it’s not inherently evil. Later in the blog, we’ll go over some calorie counting strategies that can set you on the right track if you use them correctly. No, the tool isn’t to blame; the way it’s used, however, ignores what your body is saying by trying to fit a lot of pieces into the puzzle that just don’t line up. Said another way, “No matter how few nachos you eat, it’s still not as effective as eating a nutrient dense salad.” You need to acknowledge and react to your body’s signals. That is why broccoli is a low point Weight Watchers food, and worked well until food manufacturers got wind of the diet and decided to capitalize with “one point” pastries and candy. This is essentially what all calorie restriction systems are; they allow you to disregard the natural signals your body gives you so you can “fit in” junk food. Now, I’m not saying you can’t have some junk food here and there. You can eat beer and nachos as long as you understand what it does to your body. My goal is to educate you so that you can get to a point where you’re eating right 80% of the time and that you understand some of the science, so beer or nachos can be guilt free. I want you to come full circle, from relying upon these foods, to enjoying them in context with your healthy nutrition plan.
What if there were no bad foods?
Ask yourself this question: “If you did not place judgments upon food as either bad or good, how would that change your perspective as it relates to food choices? Would your life be more difficult, or easy?” I have been ragging on oatmeal a bit, partly because it is considered to be a food that is “good for you”, and therefore “safe” to eat. Conversely everyone knows ice cream is “bad for you”, so it’s one of the first things they tend to drop when they start changing their nutrition. I want you to try and look at all foods with a level of scrutiny, but our goal is lose the attributions of “bad” or “good”. Food is not inherently good or bad for you; it’s how you apply it to your individual lifestyle that renders either a favorable or undesirable result. Those kinds of judgments don’t take you into context, and they have no place in the way we’re going to think about foods from now on. Demonizing food you love leads to bad decisions justified by a misunderstanding of basic principles; you can eat what you want as long as you make sure to eat what you need, and best of all, you can make it work to your advantage.
But What If I’m Not Fat?
For whatever reason, everyone responds differently to food, but in general everybody requires proper nutrients. If you’re 9% body fat and you want to get 5% body fat, understanding the basics I’ll lay out will help you simplify the process and make your life easier. Whether fat or skinny, it is important to understand the messages your body is sending you. Once you know what these signals mean, you will have cracked the code that has baffled you for so long, no matter what your goals are.
- Most of us are malnourished; we either eat too much of the wrong foods, or too little of the right ones. Both scenarios lead to dysfunction
- Cravings are a normal response when you remove foods from your diet. Getting the timing, composition, and size of your meals right is more important than restricting your caloric intake.
- Calorie restriction without regard for the composition of the food you eat (carbs, fat, and protein) results in unmitigated weight loss of bone, muscle and fat. The resultant outcome is a reduced quality of life.
- You can eat healthy and still have your favorite foods. There are no bad foods.
- A balanced, flexible approach to nutrition can benefit anyone, from sedentary individuals to athletes. There’s no need to drive yourself crazy to maintain health and a lean body composition.