I’ll cut right to the chase with this post.
- You’re eating the wrong foods
- You’re eating too much
- You’re giving your body the option to stay fat
- You’re doing too much cardio
I’ll cut right to the chase with this post.
Like grains? So do I, but I don’t eat them because I believe they’re objectively not great for optimal health and just feeling good. I’ve experienced a host of positive changes in my body since I stopped eating them more than a year ago (except for the odd bowl of oats and an occasional helping of white rice). But if you’re lifting heavy and you’re thinking about dropping or heavily limiting grains, where are you gonna get those carbs? I’ll tell you where.
With a whopping 38g carbs per 100g serving, cassava is the king of natural, unprocessed, unrefined carb sources. It’s packed full of starches that go to replenishing muscle glycogen, and contains very little sugar. I personally love its dryish texture. Make sure to peel it, cut into large chunks, then boil it until fork tender. Cooking is very important because it contains cyanide-containing compounds that are destroyed in the process. I like to boil mine in salted water, drain and just eat like that, or dip in mayo mixed with sriracha, fresh lime juice, cumin and chili powder.
The classic. A 100g serving contains around 31g carbs, almost 85% of which is starch and the rest of which is fiber and a little sugar. I’m about easy, so I just wash it with soap (organic potatoes are better), pierce with a knife, microwave on high for 3-4 mins and eat out of hand like an apple.
Don’t get it twisted: yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing; yams contain more starch and virtually no sugar. At 27g carbs per 100g, yams get you those killer carbs you need to replenish after a session of big, heavy compound lifts. Pierce with knife a few times and microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.
I prefer yellow ones, but they do contain more sugar and less starch than the less ripe green version. Yellows contain around 30g carbs per 100g, about half of which is sugar (I don’t pay much attention to sugar content if the food is whole and completely natural without any refinement. Processed sugar and sugar naturally occurring in whole foods affect me in two totally different ways). They have an earthy-sweet-tart flavor that’s totally unique to them. Plantains must be cooked (unless completely black). The easiest way is to trim the ends off, pierce through the skin a few times with a knife, wrap in a damp paper towel, and microwave on high for three minutes. Once cooked, remove peel. I like to slice into 1/2″ discs, toss with butter and sprinkle with a little salt. It’s my favorite snack right before bed.
The dessert tuber. 100g of sweet potato has around 21g carbs, only around 35% of which is starch, with another 30% as sugar and a decent hit of fiber. While it’s not as effective for glycogen restoration as king cassava or the white potato, it’s great for fat loss, because it makes you full with a relatively light weight to calorie load. Pierce with a knife, microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.
Ok, you’ll have to eat a lot of kabocha to get a lot of carbs, but that’s only because it isn’t a calorie-dense food. Virtually all of the calories it does have come from carbs. It’s about a 50-50 split between starch and sugar, but you can eat an absolute sh*tload of it without breaking 200 calories. It’s another great fat loss option because it’s so filling, nutrient dense, and calorie poor, and lets you get some carbs in. My favorite way to prepare is to cut in half (need large sharp knife and strong arm), gut seeds, peel, cut into ~1-inch cubes, toss in coconut oil, kosher salt and cinnamon and roast at 400 degrees until tender (around 35-40 mins). The texture is soft/ fluffy/ pillowy and the taste is sweet.
Butternut squash is another winner–higher in calories than kabocha and packing three times the carbs with less sugar, it’s a very good non-grain carb option (10g carbs per 100g serving, two of which come from sugar). Same preparation as kabocha.
I really like combining flavors, especially Asian and Italian. I don’t have a photo of this Thai Italian Sausage Green Curry, but you’ll have to trust me, it’s excellent. Every time I eat it I tell my wife it’s my favorite thing ever.
I also have to preface this by saying that when I cook, I cook big. I usually make one huge thing on a weekend that will last four to five days and then one smaller dish during the week that will last for two. So be warned, the recipe below is for a gigantic load. Let’s all get ripped eating this together.
1 lb hot Italian sausage AND 1 lb sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing and pulled into chunks
700g eggplant (one large), cubed to ~3/4 inches
650g sweet potato (two large or three medium), cubed to ~3/4 inches
600g zucchini (a few medium), cubed same as above
1 large Vidalia onion, rough chopped
1 large red bell pepper, large diced (preferably organic cause the non-organic version is heavily sprayed)
180g or so carrots, sliced ~1/2 inch thick
1 large can (28oz or 790g) diced tomatoes (I prefer the Muir Glen organic variety)
2 cans lite coconut milk
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
2-3 Tbsp honey
1/4 cup arrowroot flour (you can use corn starch, but I’m not really into grains so much)
2 or so stalks of lemongrass, split and cut into 4 or 5 inch-long pieces
3-4 kaffir lime leaves (can be found in any good grocery)
1.5 or 2 Tbsp ground coriander
1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, minced
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 Tbsp Thai basil
2 Tbsp sweet Italian basil
2 Tbsp oregano
2 Tbsp Thai green chili paste
2 Tbsp Sriracha (or to taste)
1 Tbsp chili flakes (or to taste)
This can be eaten as-is, or served over rice, spaghetti squash, kabocha squash, rice pasta, or even regular pasta (I ain’t into wheat, but you do you, not me).
One serving is ~2.3 cups. ~420 calories, 15g protein, 20g fat, 35g carbs
I like melons. I do. All kinds. And until two days ago, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about them. I was wrong. At the grocery store the other day, I noticed a basket of these large, oblong fruits posted with a sign saying “Hami Melon” on it. It took me by surprise because 1) I’d never seen them before, and 2) they were $2.50 each, and I’ll buy any kind of melon for $2.50. Maybe even a rotten one. Anyway, this has become my favorite, favorite melon of all time. It tastes like a combination of a honeydew and cantaloupe and has the light, crispy texture of–wait for it–an Asian pear!! WhAAAAAtttt!?! Amazing.
This post isn’t about a diet–it’s about an approach to eating. Deep down in my heart, I know there is an objectively best way to eat. About 14 months ago, I decided to go grain-free because of the wealth of clinical studies I’d read that clearly demonstrate [at least to me] the detrimental effects of all grains on human health. We’re not talking about the carbs here–we’re talking about compounds within grains that trigger bizarre immune responses–compounds like phytates, lectins and saponins to name a few. And this doesn’t just affect individuals who might have overt sensitivities to these compounds (like those with Celiac disease to gluten)–from what I have read, it affects everyone. Even a modest immune response can produce symptoms you might never have realized were related to the consumption of grain.
Anyway, I maintained a grain-free diet for more than six months. But the demands of heavy lifting had me craving and needing carbs, so I let oats and white rice back in. Then I let corn back in because I love peanut butter Puffins so much (made with corn and oats). Never mind the fact that I wasn’t thinking so critically and missed the fact that there are plenty of non-grain foods high in carbs. When I went back on oats and [processed] corn [cereal], I absolutely noticed changes in my body, including water retention, less restful sleep, and mild bloating/ gassiness, slight eczema in my elbow creases after sweating (although I think that was mainly the processed corn. I’ve read that oats and rice elicit less of an immune response than other grains.). I began to realize that those physical issues I used to think were normal actually weren’t since I had my grain-free time to compare things to.
I’ve recently decided again to go grain-free because I objectively feel better without them. And along with that, I realized something else: I could eat anything I want as long as the answer to the question, “Will it rot in a month if left unrefrigerated?” is “yes”. This eliminates foods with long shelf lives, including anything in a box, chips, nuts, legumes, and all grains. These foods also happen to have the highest antinutrient content (those compounds I mentioned before). It’s true that many of the deleterious compounds in these foods can be rendered inert or at least less bad through soaking and fermentation, but I’m not into that cause of the prep time it takes (you can Google all this stuff). Anyway, I began asking myself that question and only eating those foods that resulted in a “yes”. Meat? Yes (organic). Dairy? Yes (organic). Vegetables? Fruits? Yes, yes. Let’s look more specifically at foods high in carbs–white potatoes? Yes. Potato chips? No. Sweet potatoes? Yes. Cassava (my favorite ultra-high carb tuber)? Yes. Plantains? Yes, definitely. Taro, spaghetti/ kabocha/ butternut squashes, carrots, parsnips, beets? All yesses. Pasta? No. Bread? No. Cereal? No. Popcorn? No. Peanut butter is a no also. Nuts? No. Wait, what? No nuts or peanut butter? What’s interesting is that the same foods that won’t go bad in a month if left unrefrigerated also tend to have higher concentrations of phytates, lectins, gluten and other stuff that’s likely not so conducive to optimal health. The only exceptions to my rule are coffee, 100% chocolate a.k.a. baking chocolate (fair trade only because child slavery is HUGE in the cocoa bean business), coconut oil and olive oil.
I think this is a really simple, maintainable way of eating that’s easy to remember and that forces your diet to revolve around foods that contribute to ideal health and well being. It also keeps you away from processed sugar.
Of course red wine isn’t important unless you want it to be.
I take time to schedule time to focus on savoring and engaging with the food that’s in front of me… but that’s only if the food in front of me is worth experiencing.
Here’s an example: tonight I might have a chicken breast with a heap of braised cauliflower, a few ounces of roasted kabocha squash and a baked potato. These are all foods I enjoy eating, and together they also present a nice nutritional profile; that’s great. My primary goals in eating are that 1) I’m consuming something that I think tastes good, and 2) I’m getting the right amount of calories from primarily whole sources. But the foods I typically eat for these purposes are also less complex from a gustatory standpoint. I’ve always referred to them as “face foods” i.e. foods that I can just pound into my mouth without really thinking about their flavor profiles, namely because they’re either sort of subdued or not exceptionally complex. Like rice pasta in red sauce with spinach and meatballs tastes really good to me, but I don’t consider the flavors to be exceedingly complicated or especially noteworthy. For me, a food that just tastes good is very different than a food that makes me stop and think about the way it tastes when I put it in my mouth–a food that creates an experience.
Foods that create the most intense experiences for me are those with very strong and/ or complicated flavors. 100% dark chocolate. A fine imported salty prosciutto with sweet honeydew. An ounce of fatty Italian salami. A few shavings of black truffle. A tablespoon of a small-batch, high-quality peppery organic olive oil, sipped as if it were never meant to be consumed another way. A three or five-year old Gouda. An espresso, black. A complex red wine like Rioja or a deep, inky petite syrah. I make time to eat these foods when I know I won’t be distracted and can focus on them alone and experience their unique scents and flavors. I don’t consider myself a foodie, but I can certainly appreciate when something has an exceptional flavor according to my taste buds. Sometimes I feel as if I fall into an almost meditative trance when engaging with food in this way. Not only is it immensely satisfying, but it’s also a way for me to satisfy my soul without going overboard on calories, since I’m slowly consuming relatively small amounts of food. If I can, I enjoy breaking my daily 21-hour fasts at least a few times per week through this experiential style of eating.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Calorie control is the name of the game; I had to understand this basic concept first to understand how to get ripped. It’s no secret that whole foods are typically less energy dense and more nutrient dense than processed foods. While the vast majority of my diet consists of unprocessed and lightly processed foods, there are several considerations I have to account for since I spend most of my day fasting, like not just eating the least calorie dense foods. I ate and still eat plenty of vegetables daily, but I do it strategically (see lethal vegetables below).
Here’s something interesting: I noticed some time ago that if I ate lean protein (like the breasts of flying animals) by itself, it made me feel the same way a straight bowl of plain rice would an hour later–i.e. pretty hungry and maybe a little lethargic. I did some web searching because I thought that was weird; I’d always been told that protein doesn’t stimulate much of an insulin response. It turns out that protein does indeed create an insulin spike, which is closely correlated with the protein source. Accordingly, different protein sources are associated with stimulating different hunger responses (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20456814). Although it might not be so relevant when fasting for 21 hours per day since insulin goes through the roof during the feeding window and it really doesn’t matter, it will be relevant when I switch back to fasting for a shorter period during a more pronounced strength and size development cycle. A longer feeding period = more time to overeat, even when “bulking” (which I have strong feelings about–see below). So insulin control becomes more relevant during this time. To buffer the insulinogenic effects of protein, I’d try to consume some fat with it (that is if I’m not eating a lot of vegetables with the protein) in an effort to smooth out the insulin response. I’ve found that consuming fattier meat like like higher fat cuts of beef or lamb or [prohibitively expensive wild] salmon assists with that. And in complete disregard for the Primal/ Paleo philosophy that practitioners need not monitor their calories because energy balance will take care of itself, I’d still watch them. In my opinion, that’s a dangerous practice.
Blogs are all about the hype, so the above heading is clearly necessary. Fasting + vegetables = death? No, not really, but fasting + vegetables could = trouble maintaining muscle mass. As I’ve increased my daily intermittent fasting window from 16 to 18 to the current 21 hours (9pm-6pm), my feeding window has contracted [very obviously] to just three hours. This is relevant for a couple of reasons that can work together against muscle and strength development. The first is stomach shrinkage; my stomach capacity has absolutely decreased since I began fasting more than four months ago, and especially since bumping up to 21 hours. The second is the space vegetables occupy in that smaller stomach. Although very nutritious, low-calorie and voluminous vegetables like lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, etc., take up precious space and digestion time, making it tougher to consume all the calories I need to maintain strength and muscle mass. One simple solution is to increase the feeding window. The other is to increase intake of calorie dense whole foods, like rice, potatoes and butter, oats and casein, cheese and sunflower butter or a serving of ice cream and a denser vegetable, like squash or sweet potato.
I mention a few times throughout this blog that I’m not a big fan of the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IFFYM) style of eating for a couple of reasons. If you’re not familiar, IFFYM permits an individual to eat literally anything he or she desires as long as macronutrient/ caloric targets are not exceeded (a macronutrient target is by definition a caloric target–request more explanation in comments if interested). I’ve certainly read about individuals who have gotten ripped eating whatever quality of food they choose, like donuts, fried chicken and pizza. Although I haven’t ever fully immersed myself in IFFYM, I experimented for a time with being more lenient about food choices, eating chips, pizza, mac and cheese, stuff covered in chocolate, more ice cream than normal, etc. While eating this way was extra fun, I found it to be counterproductive to my goals for a couple of reasons.
I also think IFFYM exposes an individual to more unnatural chemicals and substances that are used to stabilize, preserve and flavor processed foods.
I’m doing my level best not to speak disparagingly of others across this blog. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s to read comments on forums left by people who say they are “clean bulking.” What they really mean (usually) is that they’re getting fat eating oatmeal, potatoes and milk. For me, it’s not only completely lazy, but it’s counterproductive as well. Why the heck would a person who isn’t a competitive bodybuilder want to be fat, bloated and slow for a good portion of the year, and then ripped for a few months? Sure, it could definitely be fun to overeat for most of the year, but I other thoughts about that. Fat is fat. It’s not like, “Oh, my left love handle is the bad one. It came from triglycerides that were the end product of Yodel and potato chip metabolism, but my right one, well, that’s the good one. That one is made of triglycerides from rice and seaweed.” Being fat is not healthy, and that’s not my opinion. I’m not suggesting that I think everyone should be at 6% or 8% or even 10% body fat, no. I’m talking about guys (mainly) getting up to 20% and 25% fat when “bulking”. The negative hormonal and metabolic effects of that level of fat are palpable, but especially so when swinging weight so hard from one season to the next. I think the idea of a “clean bulk” is used as an excuse for overeating with the belief that it’s necessary to build muscle and strength. Overeating is never necessary for building strength. Proper eating is. Eating just the right amount is. Understanding what the right amount of eating is for one’s own body and lifting regimen requires some time and work that I think the “clean bulker” either doesn’t want to put in, or might not know how to put in. Clean bulking might be healthier than IFFYM (or dirty bulking) because “clean” foods contain fewer chemicals and sweeteners, but fat is fat. Fat is fat.