Section 2.2: Tracking Energy in and Out

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part III — Eat Plenty of Carbs

The trend of vilifying carbs is hotter than the dot com boom and shows no signs of letting up. Yeah, and it’s totally wrong. Energy balance is the only thing that matters. You will lose weight if you burn more calories than you consume. That’s it. It’s the first law of thermodynamics. But notice, I said “weight” not “fat”. “Weight” could mean any combination of muscle and fat. I explained in part II of this series that the key factor involved in regulating the type of weight you lose (i.e. muscle vs. fat) is heavy resistance training in addition to an energy deficit. Technically, you could eat only Saltine crackers and still lose weight, and specifically fat.

Having a large proportion of your calories come from carbohydrates is really important while cutting because we know that it’s super important to keep lifting heavy and with a lot of effort during a cut. But remember, you’re going to be in an energy deficit, meaning that your capacity to move the weight will be diminished. The problem with cutting carbs while cutting is that your muscles will quickly become depleted of their favorite and most accessible fuel source, glycogen. If you reduce carbs, you reduce muscle glycogen and your capacity to move the weights right along with it. When lifting, if your body is depleted of glycogen, energy will come from fat. But fat and glycogen metabolism each occur through two mutually exclusive pathways. The bottom line is that the fat pathway doesn’t provide anywhere near the immediate energy that muscle glycogen pathway does. You will be at a real disadvantage if you rely on fat metabolism for the acute energy requirements of a set of heavy squats.

But what about the people who say carbs are different that the other two macronutrients (fat and protein) because they just somehow make you fat? There’s been a classic argument going on between Jillian Michaels (of Biggest Loser) and Gary Taubes (an anti-carb researcher); Jillian says carbs are just like any other food and losing fat is about energy balance, while Gary basically says carbs are the enemy. Check out this YouTube vid for some clips of the argument. The way I see it is that they’re talking right through one another and they’re both right. If you you eat lots of carbs, but accurately monitor your calories in and out and eat below your maintenance calories AND lift heavy, you will lose fat. I’ve done it many times while eating ice cream, cereal, fruit, potatoes, oatmeal and rice. So clearly this would indicate that Gary Taubes is wrong and Jillian Michaels is right, right? Yes and no. Taubes’ entire argument against carbs is based on the mechanism of autoregulation, whereby the body sends the appropriate satiety signals to the brain at the appropriate time. In essence, it’s the body’s natural “stop eating” signal. With a diet comprised of the right foods, this autoregulation mechanism works well, and people won’t become fat. I agree completely. Taubes says that when carbs–particularly foods made with refined cereal grains–are introduced into the diet, the autoregulation mechanism breaks because these foods create disproportionate insulin responses, which drives blood sugar through the floor and creates more hunger that is out of line with real energy requirements. That false hunger breeds more eating and potentially fat gain. I agree with all of this. I can feel this… like what happens to my body when I eat rice, which makes me hungry. I know this, but I like rice and I eat it with other stuff to buffer those effects and I also know what “false hunger” feels like and when to ignore it.

The point is that if you if you understand your body, if you understand how different foods work, if you calculate calories and maintain an energy balance, you can eat whatever food you want and override the autoregulatory inhibition that some carbs cause (although from the micronutrient standpoint, it’s not a good idea to eat refined foods). With the right carbs in your diet, you’ll have to do less overriding and more letting your body guide you.

High Fat, Low Sugar is Best, and Why Pinkberry Isn’t Healthy

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

It’s no secret that I’m not afraid of fat. Actually, I’ll qualify that. Trans-fat, yes, afraid. Fried foods, yes, afraid. Oils (except for non-heated extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil), yes, afraid. Naturally occurring saturated fat? Not afraid of it at all. Although I don’t consume them in enormous quantities, organic eggs, butter, milk, cream, cheese, lard and tallow are staples in my diet, and I make sure that around half to two-thirds of the fat I consume is naturally saturated. This works out to 60-80g of saturated fat per day, which is way higher than our government’s recommendation. Clearly, I take the government’s idea of what we should be eating with a grain of salt… or a gram of lard. There are many reasons why I believe saturated fat is not only healthy to consume, but necessary. My opinions have been shaped by a good deal of my own research. I won’t preach about it here any more than I already have, but you should feel free to do some Googling if interested.

Anyway, I do believe that simple sugars (especially fructose) are unnatural (and counterproductive at best, damaging at worst) in concentrations any higher than they might occur in fruit. That aside, I’m an ice cream freak, a condition at odds with my beliefs about sugar since ice cream contains, ummmmmmmm, sugar. What to do?

Read the label

Brilliant idea, right? If you take the time to compare the labels of different ice cream brands and flavors within brands, you’ll see that the sugar content varies massively between them. Calories tell almost none of the story. The difference in sugar content between one flavor in a brand and another can be double, but the calories might still read the same if the one with more sugar has less fat than the one with less sugar. This is very common with flavors that contain lots of mix ins, as well as with frozen yogurts, which are typically marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream. This can be potentially misleading because they tend to (or at least can) contain more sugar.

Pinkberry–A wolf in sheep’s yogurt

Take this example: I recently found myself in a Pinkberry (frozen yogurt seller) when on a short vacation in California. In my opinion, Pinkberry attempts to market its products as healthy, although they don’t say it outright. Maybe that’s just me reading into it, but I think when most people think of Pinkberry, they think of a food product that’s not bad for them, and with all the hype around the probiotics their products contain, maybe even good for them (there are plenty of better ways to get a dose of probiotics). Anyway, of course I had to download the PDF containing complete nutrition for Pinkberry’s entire line of flavors (it’s literally 44 pages). I discovered that the majority of its offerings contain inexplicably large quantities of sugar. I calculated that across 35 flavors the average sugar content per 100g (or 1/2 cup) is around 22g, yet there’s no fat in most flavors. Without a good dose of fat to buffer that sugar, most of Pinkberry’s products are efficient insulin bombs (although there is the notable exception of Pinkberry’s plain Greek yogurt with only 6g sugar). That’s without any toppings, nearly all of which are unabashed sugar missiles. One serving of, say, the chocolate chip cookie dough topping is 12 grams and contains 5g of sugar. “Ok, 5g isn’t terrible”, you say, but do you have any idea how tiny 12 grams of cookie dough is? That’s less than 1/2 of one ounce. You almost can’t see it when it’s in the cup! Drop a couple of ounces of those on and you can VERY easily hit 60g of sugar in your final product, if not more.

There’s another frozen yogurt company out there called Red Mango that offers true “frozen yogurt” that really tastes like yogurt (tart) and has much less sugar than what we normally think of as frozen yogurt. I have to admit that I’m not fond of the flavor of this “real” frozen yogurt (I prefer to eat regular non-frozen yogurt), but I think that their products (or at least many of them based on what I can see on their website) are actually healthy.

Eat Ice Cream (or at least something with more fat and less sugar)

So in light of my opinions about natural fat (like the fat in a quality ice cream) and sugar, you can understand why I prefer not to eat frozen yogurt unless it contains less fat and less sugar than its ice cream counterpart, which is rare indeed. When I buy ice cream, I look for something with 13-15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving and anywhere from 10-16g fat. I’m wary of ice creams with lower fat. Some companies create lower fat ice creams mechanically by churning air into their products (which then have to be called frozen desserts because they contain too much air to be legally deemed ice cream). Others add fillers, stabilizers and thickeners like carrageenan, mono and diglycerides, various gums, starches and who knows what else. I’m fine with extra air, but not with fillers. The frozen dessert in the image at the top of this post is awesome for several reasons. First, its base is coconut cream, which is exceptionally nutritious. Second, it contains 15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving, which is acceptable to me. Third, it has 14 grams of fat, which is very satiating and helps moderate the insulin rush. Fourth, there’s scotch in it, and boy, you can taste it.

Caloric Manipulation and Intermittent Fasting: Understanding Volume and Density

I touched on this topic in a prior post here:, but I wanted to spend a little more time on it because I’ve found it to be really important with respect to intermittent fasting.

I’ve mentioned in many prior posts that I practice a style of intermittent fasting (IF) that entails not eating for approximately 21 hours every day. This is my preference primarily because 1) it’s convenient not to have to think about food until the evening, a time when I can really enjoy it, 2) it produces a hormonal response favorable to retention of lean mass, and 3), it’s a really easy way to control calories.

For cutting fat, IF is a fantastic tool because it’s so easy to keep caloric intake well below maintenance. But there’s also another side to it: if you’re not careful with IF, you can end up squandering your hard work at the gym because it can be difficult to get enough calories in for muscle growth, especially if the eating window is very tight. I recently learned this the hard way when attempting to increase calories without regard for the energy density of the foods I was consuming.

Here’s what happened.

Last week I wanted to increase my caloric intake up to maintenance for a few days, so I figured I’d just eat more of what I normally eat. But I wasn’t at all thinking about the energy density of those foods. So in addition to the absolutely enormous salad I eat after my small dinner, I was pounding extra popcorn, then having an avocado banana protein pudding , then a huge bowl of oats and berries right before bed. My stomach was so astronomically full that I went to bed literally in pain on those nights. I also woke up with heartburn, a condition which I experience exceedingly rarely. My best guess is that I forced such a high volume of food into my body so quickly that the sphincters throughout my digestive tract couldn’t fully close, which might have allowed some digestive juices through to go places they shouldn’t have. With all that, I still didn’t hit my maintenance target.

The sliding scale: eating window vs. caloric density

There are two ways to address this issue. The first is to open the feeding window from three to, say five hours. But since I don’t like eating during the day, I prefer to keep my feeding window to around three hours. The second option is to eat more energy dense foods during the window while also reducing the intake of high volume foods. So now on days when I want to boost calories (like on lifting days), I decrease my salad size by half, replace popcorn with 1-2 servings each of cheese, nuts and eggs, replace the water in the avocado banana pudding with organic whole milk and add natural peanut butter to it, and replace the bowl of oats with a cup of ice cream (but NOT Ben and Jerry’s–something with less sugar per serving like Turkey Hill or Breyer’s). You probably realize that these foods are higher in fat; that’s where the energy density comes from. These are all low volume, high energy items that allow the intake of more calories while saving the stomach from splitting. While protein can also be great for curbing hunger, it’s not great from an energy density perspective. It’s not just the fact that a gram of it contains 4 kcal to fat’s 9, but it also requires far more energy to metabolize than fat or carbs, which further degrades its energy density.

Stew Cylinders: How to Accurately Calculate Servings, Calories and Nutritional Content in Recipes

Generally, I have no trouble tracking calories and nutrients I consume thanks to MyFitnessPal, which is a neat little application (Android/ iOS/ web) that basically does everything for you. It’s powered by an absolutely enormous food database. All that’s required of the user is to search for a food, enter the number of servings and submit. The process takes all of two or three seconds once you get into the swing of things. It’s easy enough to track the consumption of discrete food items, like grilled chicken breast or a tablespoon of coconut oil or 200g of sweet potato (so long as you have a food scale or are good at estimating). But things can get tricky when attempting to calculate the number of calories and nutrients in a recipe and even trickier when calculating the portion size of that recipe you might have consumed.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

For example, I might make a huge pot of stew, then eat a bowlful of it, but how do I know how much I’ve consumed? Well, for one, I could measure out a couple of cupfuls of stew into my bowl, but how do I know how many calories and macros are in those two cups? I’d need to know two other things: 1) how many calories and macros the whole pot contained, and 2) how many cups of stew are in the pot. That second part is actually a lot trickier than it sounds, especially when it’s a huge, hot pot of stew that I might not be inclined to measure out cup-by-cup into another pot to determine how many cups I’m starting with. So what to do? Here’s the process I follow; although it might seem complicated on first read, I promise it’s not in practice:

  1. MyFitnessPal includes a function that allows recipes to be created that are comprised of multiple food items. It also requires the user to enter the number of servings the recipe makes. Since I never know this (I make up recipes as I go), I always tell the app that it makes ONE serving. I’ll explain why in a minute. I then weigh out all the items in the recipe and enter them into the app. Once the recipe is created, the app generates a nutrition table for it that lists calories, macros and some vitamins/ minerals. Since I’ve indicated that the whole pot is a single serving, the table might show me something like “5,387 calories per serving.”

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

  2. Now I have to figure out how many cups are in the pot of stew. I could, of course just estimate. If I know my pot holds eight quarts I can come up with a reasonable estimate. But sometimes reasonable isn’t good enough, especially if what I’ve made is very energy dense. If I’m off by a few cups (which is likely), that can significantly throw off my individual serving calculations. To get an accurate answer, I first measure the depth of the food in the pot with a ruler (either on the inside with a plastic ruler I’d only use for this or on the outside of the pot). Say it’s six inches deep. Then I measure the interior diameter of the pot; say that’s nine inches. Since the pot is a cylinder, then so is the stew inside it. So now I know I have a cylinder of stew that six inches high by nine inches in diameter.
  3. Now all I have to do is calculate the volume of the stew cylinder. There are lots of online utilities that can do this, but I use Wolfram Alpha for virtually every mathematical calculation I have to perform in personal and professional life. You can enter what you want calculated in plain English, so I enter “number of cups in a cylinder 5.5 inches tall by 9 inches diameter.” Boom. Done. It tells me there are 6.06 quarts or just over 24 cups in my stew cylinder.
    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

  4. Remember how I told MyFitnessPal that the pot of stew was one serving? This step is where it comes in handy. I can now make my serving size whatever I want. So if I want the pot to be 10 servings, I know that’s 2.4 cups (24/10). Now I can scoop 2.4 cups into my bowl and log it in MyFitnessPal by selecting the recipe and entering a fractional serving size, i.e. 0.1 servings since I’m eating a tenth of the pot. All my nutrients are calculated and added right to my daily totals. If I want to only have a cup of the stew, I simply divide 1 by 24 and get ~0.042, so that would be the serving size I enter into the application.

Determining the correct calories could also be accomplished by weighing the empty pot on a food scale, and then weighing it again once full of cooked food and logging the difference. Then you’d weigh the portion you wanted to eat and convert it into a fraction of the whole and enter it into MyFitnessPal as described in #4 above. The problem is that 1) my food scale maxes out at 5.5 lbs. and most of the stuff I cook plus the cookware is much heavier than that, and 2) the hot pot might melt the surface of the scale (mine is plastic).