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.
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).
The secret insulin bomb
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.
The lethal combination of fasting and vegetables
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.
My experience with IFFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)
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 retained noticeably more water eating this way. I don’t know exactly why, but I have a feeling that the increase in sugar more than salt had something to do with it.
- My sleep quality was reduced. Perhaps something to do with elevated insulin levels or other hormone imbalances, but I won’t speculate beyond that.
- I was much hungrier more of the time. Granted, I had not begun fasting intermittently until later, so some of the hunger could likely have been attributed to blood sugar fluctuations that were the result of eating anything. But I’m almost certain that the hunger was closely linked to the poorer quality of the food I was eating. Specifically, my diet included more sugar and processed carbohydrates, which both elicit a significant insulin response (except for fructose, but that’s a whole other beast–request explanation in comments if interested).
I also think IFFYM exposes an individual to more unnatural chemicals and substances that are used to stabilize, preserve and flavor processed foods.
The Laziness of Clean Bulking
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.