A good shell game is magical... and a lot of fun. Which shell is the nut under? It works because we accept the rules of the game. What would happen if we stepped back and said, "The nut is under one of those three shells. I don't really care which one."? It wouldn't be any fun, but on the upside you'd be right... every time.
To me, focusing on macros (protein/fat/carbs) is like playing the shell game. Just look back over the past couple of years. Low fat... no, wait... high protein... no, wait... low carb... no, wait... high fat. The food companies like it when we play the shell game. It keeps us distracted from the real issue (processed foods) while spending money on their products. The health & fitness industry likes it for the same reason. Consumers like playing the shell game, too. It's more seductive and fun than practicing the basic principles of healthy eating.
So what is the dietary equivalent of saying, "The nut is under one of those three shells. I don't really care which one."? Eating only whole foods... all the time... any time you open your mouth. The human body is incredibly flexible and any diet consisting of whole foods (of a reasonable variety) is going to provide a sufficient amount of protein, fat, and carbs. More importantly, you will achieve energy balance and nutrient density in a manner that is sustainable. It isn't sexy. It can't be sold nor profited from. And for that reason you won't be given this message by most sources, but it works... and it is the only thing (in the absence of obsessive self-control) that works long term.
Supplements are synonymous with the fitness industry, and everybody always asks, "What should I take?". After a decade of going down every avenue in the health and fitness world, I have learned a simple truth. 95% percent of the game is eating whole foods, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, engaging in functional exercise, moving frequently throughout the day, and fostering positive relationships. Know what all these things have in common? They can't be sold to you. You have to make them happen yourself... through intention and daily practice. With that introduction, here are the supplements that I use.
Because I'm a health nut...
There has never been a study to show a benefit of taking a multi-vitamin except in the case of severely malnourished populations. Yet, almost every wellness practitioner admits they take one "just in case". I am no less of a hypocrite. I do believe in quality though, so I take this one.
2) Fish Oil
Solid research exists showing benefit for virtually every system in our body. Quality is important for two reasons. You want high levels of the active omega-3 compounds (EPA/DHA). Also, fish oil can go rancid, so you want to buy from a fast-moving supplier where shelf time is minimal. Refrigerate as soon as you get it home. Here's the one I use.
3) Vitamin D
Again, solid research exists showing several benefits. Sun exposure is the best way to get vitamin D, but most of us don't have that option due to climate and lifestyle. Most multi-vitamins don't provide an optimal dose. You want between 2,000 and 5,000 IU daily.
We now know that our health is tied to having healthy populations of friendly bacteria in our gut. It's such a new and complex subject that there simply isn't sufficient research, but I believe there is enough evidence to warrant hedging your bet by taking a probiotic. I like this one because it has a delayed digestion mechanism to help the bacteria get past the acidic environment of the stomach and into the gut. Of course, putting good bacteria into your gut only matters if you're also feeding them. Hello, veggies.
Over 300 enzymatic reactions require this mineral, and upwards of 80% of Americans are deficient. Veggies are the main source of this mineral. I learned from using a food tracker that it was often a struggle to get enough magnesium from my diet. There are different chemical forms of magnesium as a supplement. Magnesium oxide is the most common form but has poor absorption, so stay away from that one. This is the one I use.
Iodine is critical for our thyroid gland which regulates metabolism and other important hormones. The only good food sources are sea vegetables and fish. Most brands of table salt are fortified with iodine which is sufficient for most people. I use sea salt which is usually not iodized. Therefore, I take a kelp supplement to make sure I'm getting an adequate amount.
I think of turmeric as my "what the hell" supplement. There is no solid proof of its efficacy, but there are many purported benefits with anti-inflammatory topping the list. It's inexpensive, and I don't see any downside. Make sure you get one that contains pepper extract as that improves absorption.
And because I'm a meathead...
I've blogged about creatine before. It's safe and has been proven to help increase strength gains and muscular growth. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form, and it's also the cheapest.
Zinc is important for testosterone production. Did I mention I'm a meathead? Zinc also improves immunity. As with magnesium, there are several different forms. Zinc picolinate is reported to have better absorption.
BCAA refers to the three branch chain amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Because I train in the morning in a fasted state, I take it pre-workout to help prevent muscle breakdown. Dosage is 5 to 10 grams. If you're not a skinny dude (or gal) working out in a fasted state, don't bother. You're likely getting plenty from your diet.
Conspicuously absent from this list is whey protein powder. Like most people, whey was probably the first supplement I ever bought back when I was a newbie. Whey is the part of cow milk that used to get thrown out or fed to the hogs before it became a goldmine for the supplement industry. It would be impossible to consume pure whey without gagging so they have to add a ton of artificial sweetener and flavoring to it. It comes from cows that are pumped to the gills with steroids and antibiotics. And... it's totally unnecessary for most people. If you're eating two servings (palm sized pieces) of meat per day, you're getting plenty of protein.
Now, if you think that's a long list of supplements for someone who just said they are only 5% of the game... you're right. Health and fitness is my passion, so I give myself permission to go all in. If your interest and goals are more moderate just take fish oil and vitamin D. Those two supplements represent the biggest bang for your buck.
Our approach to nutrition is typically rooted in the question, "What am I missing?". What is the magical ingredient? This mentality drives the constant search for superfoods. The term is alluring. We all want to be superheroes... so give us the superfoods. I remember back when I got serious about fitness. I'd see the lists - salmon, blueberries, kale - and try to jam as many of them into my diet as possible.
By and large, the issue for most people is not one of deficiency... it is one of excess. After a decade of experience trying every diet under the sun, it's clear to me that there are no superfoods. All foods are super if they are whole and unprocessed. Why? Because a whole food diet is the most sustainable way to achieve energy balance... and energy balance is the most important aspect of nutrition. Simply put, when we eat whole foods we tend not to overeat.
Eating whole foods isn't sexy, and there isn't any way for the corporations to make money on it, so you will continue to get marketed all kinds of crap. Don't buy it. Just buy whole foods and make time to cook. That's the recipe to be a superhero.
An interesting thing happened the other day. My daughter came home from the gym, and I suddenly noticed that she was freaking shredded! She's been serious about working out for over a year now, so I knew it wasn't that. It had to be due to something more recent. We eat a whole food diet and have for years, so that wasn't it either.
I was concerned, so I asked her what was up. She confessed that she had always snacked on processed junk at school and after school at friends' houses, but that in the past month she cut that out and only ate the foods she brought from home. I laughed because I had been unaware of her little snacky snack ways. Kids hide a certain amount from their parents. They operate under the principle that the less you know... the better off they are. Haha. I was the same way.
I'm actually glad things went down the way they did. She learned a valuable lesson that she'll never forget because she learned it herself. Processed junk can really sabotage your efforts. Once you mindfully balance the pleasure and pain associated with a behavior it's easier to take control. Props to you, Maia. Oh... she is going to be sooo embarrassed when she reads this.
Water was a vexing issue for our ancestors. It was heavy and awkward to carry - no convenient containers except... their stomachs. So, upon waking they took a big, long draft from the nearby stream before heading out to hunt for the day.
Like other primal behaviors, there is wisdom in emulating this practice. Our bodies are accustomed to the rhythm of sleep followed by an influx of fresh water. While sleeping, our body is busy at the cellular level putting all the trash out onto the street for collection. Taking in a good amount of water (about 20 oz) allows all these toxins to be flushed out of our system. If we don't do this, our cells have to drag all those stinky garbage bags back into the house and wait for another opportunity to get rid of them. Yuck.
Bodybuilders follow this practice as do the Japanese. I find that interesting because I respect both groups - one for their attitude of self-experimentation in finding things that just work, and the other for the wisdom of their traditions. So, wake up, drink water, and go.
Chances are you take a fish oil supplement. Along with vitamin D, it's generally considered a supplement with solid evidence of health benefits. Ever gotten a bottle where one of the capsules had leaked? I have. Rrrrrripe. Unless you have the stomach of a turkey vulture, you won't be able to swallow them... and for good reason. Rancid fish oil is bad for you. Omega-3 fatty acids are delicate and oxidize quickly. Ingesting rancid fish oil unleashes a nasty dose of free radicals on your system for which your body has to use up its precious antioxidants to neutralize.
Here's the thing. Fish oil can go bad at any point from the factory, to sitting on a store shelf, to being in your house waiting for you to take them. Because the oil is inside a capsule, you can't really know. However, you can minimize your risk by taking the following precautions.
That should keep you in the clear. Another option is krill oil, which I'll be discussing in a future post.
I'm not a huge chocolate lover, but I've dallied in it over the years mainly for its purported health benefits. However, it became a daily practice when I started following a ketogenic diet because the dark stuff (85%) is high-fat, low-carb. Pairing it with macadamia nuts is a nice, little fat bomb.
Turns out this stuff may have benefits in the gym. Researchers did a study where they divided mice up into four groups.
The mice that exercised and were given chocolate developed more capillaries and mitochondria in their leg muscles. When they put them to the test, these mice were able to run 50% further than the control group. And here's the kicker - the mice who ate chocolate and watched TV performed the same as the ones who exercised but didn't get chocolate.
It doesn't look like you need much in order to get the benefit. The amount given to the mice would be the equivalent of 5 grams for us non-rodents. I typically throw down 25 grams a day. That's about a quarter of a standard size bar. Remember... chocolate first, and then Crossfit.
Hormones are the master switchers. They regulate every process in our body. We often think of insulin and cortisol as "bad" hormones, but that isn't true. Both are essential to our well being, but context is important. Cortisol ramps up the immune system when foreign invaders are present. Insulin is needed to convert T4 into the active hormone T3 used to regulate metabolism. The interplay between hormones is complicated, so it's important to minimize things in our diet that can disrupt their activity. The following foods either have direct or secondary impacts. It's best to avoid them.
I'll be honest. I used to eat all this stuff. I thought all that mattered were calories and macros, but that isn't the case. Anything that messes with your hormones undermines your health in unpredictable ways.
The ketogenic diet has risen in popularity lately. It can be very useful, but it's important to keep in mind that it isn't a natural diet. As such, you should view it as a tool rather than a permanent way of eating. At its core, the keto diet is a hack. It tricks the body into thinking you're in starvation mode by restricting carbs. This is a stressor on the body that triggers several positive adaptations. The main benefit is that it improves insulin sensitivity which can help to correct the hormone imbalance caused by a carb-heavy, processed food diet.
You have to be careful, though, because tricking your body into thinking it's in starvation mode permanently has some negative side effects. Cortisol (the stress hormone) levels will typically rise. Most importantly, keto can lead to a hypothyroid condition - low T3 hormone production - which will lower metabolism. The thyroid damage can be permanent, so this is a real concern.
Once you are keto-adapted (ketone bodies over 0.5 mM with low and stable levels of insulin and blood glucose) it's a good idea to introduce some weekly days where carb intake is high. This will help to avoid the negative side effects I detailed above.
If you workout daily at a fairly high intensity (ahem... crossfitters), you can try an advanced technique that takes advantage of a certain biorythm. In the morning fat cells are more insulin sensitive, while muscle cells are more insulin sensitive in the evening - especially if you have depleted them of their glycogen via exercise. Therefore, keep your diet ketogenic during the day, but for dinner enjoy a serving of carbs. This hybrid approach allows you to benefit from daily periods of ketosis while still providing the swag you need for your daily workouts.
I love everything about coffee. I love brewing it. I love the taste. I love the infusion of energy. And I love the health benefits. Coffee beans come from all over the world, and people drink coffee all over the world. When I have my morning cup of joe I feel like, in a small way, I am participating in being a world citizen.
I've tried lots of coffee in search of one that is both economical and good. I've bought beans from the grocery store, coffee shops, local roasters, the internet... you name it. A couple months ago I stumbled onto the best stuff that has ever come out of my trusty, little Mr Coffee maker. I look forward to it every morning. The first sip makes the taste buds on the back of my tongue do summersaults. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you... Trader Joe's Organic Breakfast Blend.
Look, I know coffee is extremely subjective. My best bud and I debated this recently while hopping between coffee joints in and around Union Square, New York. By the way, Everyman Espresso and Irving Farm Coffee Roasters are def worth a visit if you're ever in the area. But if you feel like you haven't yet found the one... I don't mind sharing.