What a Decade-Long Education in Health, Exercise, and Sports Nutrition Teaches You

My hope is that folks who come across my site leave with at least one new thing they can insert for the better into their day-to-day lives. The words of others give us perspective into worlds that aren’t ours, and if anything the internet has been a great gift toward understanding one another.

There were a number of reasons both practical and philosophical as to why I chose to depart from an exclusive focus on diet and exercise in my writing on this site. Given that this is a restart in many ways, I’d like to touch on those reasons briefly before jumping into an admittedly off-the-cuff summation of what I have learned over these past ten years in the fitness game.

I came to the realization a few years ago that while I could certainly add to the conversation on health and fitness, my path was different from the prototypical internet expert, writer, guru, or what have you. I got into what I would call ‘research-based fitness’ long before blogs existed, when legitimate conversations that were evidence-driven and focused on science were hidden on esoteric forums buried in the corners of the internet. Suffice to say, I came to understand that diet and exercise were but a small part of crafting a life full of meaning, a life worth living.

I wanted to reorient my focus to that larger topic of conversation, because, frankly, there are people out there who have the necessary background and education chops to speak with authority on the topic. Lyle McDonald was certainly the most prescient among us. Love him or hate him, the guy is brilliant and, whether it was directly or indirectly, he spurred the careers of innumerable bloggers and writers and contemporary experts that populate today’s online space. He’s fond of saying there isn’t much new under the sun, and ten years later I have to agree.

There are very few fitness experts I follow these days. Most people create noise in an effort to sell supplements or e-books or products, or use their platform to diary their own struggles and exorcise their demons. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with either of those approaches, but social media and modern e-publishing has only amplified the voices of those with the resources, time, and business inclination to make money off of laypersons looking to get a little healthier. What most fitness experts don’t seem to understand is how profoundly they can effect their readers with what they write.

That is real power and it should be taken seriously.

I guess I should caveat all this with the fact that I still find the human body incredibly interesting and will likely return to it regularly on this very site, but couch in within the outlines of a broader conversation on science. Rather than trying to be someone like Alan Aragon or Lyle McDonald, I’ll take the role of someone like Malcolm Gladwell. Rather than proclaiming myself an authority, you’ll find me referencing the work of others and serving as a liaison between the heady worlds of academia and research and the practicalities of day-to-day living, a science writer who can interpret and locate the lessons derived from research in a way that is meaningful and applicable to readers.

And with that, here is my ten years of reading, learning, and application, distilled into a series of bullet points.

My story I’m sure parallels many others out there. I started down the road of fitness geekdom back in 2003 and went through a radical period of weight-loss, followed by a still-continuing but moderated string of recomposition and muscle-gain phases. I wore size 42-44 pants beginning in the seventh grade and would continue struggling with obesity until my early college years, when I first put on running shoes and hit the road.

I lost way too much weight during the first year of disciplined exercise and eating. When I realized I couldn’t just keep jacking up my training volume and eating less, I dove into the science of sports nutrition and weight training to figure out what I was missing. The rest, as they say, was history. I did every diet, every training protocol, every permutation of every possible program out there, with varying results.

I have successfully “kept the weight off,” as laypersons might say, for these 10 years. For the more technically inclined, that means my body fat hasn’t gone above 13% since I first dieted down, which is quite the achievement given my seemingly impermeable state of fatness that had me at around 30% body fat until age 19.

So what does it all mean? Coming up on this 10-year anniversary, so to speak, I’ve realized there are few maxims in the fitness game. Again, I have to invoke Lyle, whose often response to some well-intentioned reader’s question is, “It depends.”

That used to frustrate me when I couldn’t wrap my head around all the variables that play into how lean, muscular, and healthy a person is. But today, it makes a lot of sense.

For those of you who are just figuring out how to exercise and eat, congratulations. It’s a journey few will endeavor upon. A difficult one, no doubt, but an intensely rewarding journey nonetheless. For those of you for whom this is old hat, I hope you can learn a few things from my successes and follies. And with that, here’s what I can say with relative confidence about things one should consider, do, and not do in an effort to find the body and life one really desires:

  • You can probably eat more carbohydrates. This, beyond all other measures, seems to be the prime variable in determining how crazy, depressed, or miserable you become on a diet, or how frustrated and angry you become in seeing a lack of muscular gains. The low-carb diet fad hit right at the time I was getting into training, and it was the worst possible thing to ever happen to me. Low-carb still hasn’t left us, and remains in more insidious, less obvious forms, such as “Paleo,” now being promoted by CrossFit as the “go-to” diet philosophy. I’ve seen eating disorders, metabolic disorders, and even psychological disorders spawned from chronic over-training and low-carb dieting. There’s a certain degree of self-trust that goes into reintroducing starches and other carbohydrate-rich foods into the diet, and with all the negative and anti-carb literature out there, I know how dramatic and scary this can be. But experiment with not denying yourself at every turn and see where it takes you. Finding my way back to grains was one of the very best changes I made in my dietary approach.
  • You can probably scale back on the protein. Closely followed by too few carbohydrates, I see way too much protein being eaten by fitness folks. Not that high protein is bad per se, but too many people, to their own detriment, displace carbohydrates in favor of protein. Yes, protein promotes satiety. Yes, protein promotes muscle growth. Yes, protein has a greater metabolic effect than other macronutrients, but it is not a panacea to all weight-related problems. I’ve watched and experienced myself the phenomenon of eating platters of meat and eggs and all variety of animal products, exceeding my caloric needs for the day, and yet still being hungry. The simple act of dropping protein and getting sufficient carbohydrates into the diet seems to mediate a lot of these hunger issues. Borge Fagerli, one of the smartest bodybuilders I know, discussed this effect on his blog recently. I’m pretty much right in agreement with him that a moderated approach to protein would be a good first step for the majority of fitness-obsessives out there.
  • You’re probably okay with fat intake, as long as it’s not insane in one direction or the other. How’s that for equivocation? Fat is the much unloved macronutrient, and everyone has their own opinion on what to do with it. Low-fat, high-fat, moderate-fat, omega-3s, omega-6s, CLA, MCT, saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and (oh no!) trans-fats! Unlike the previous two categories of nutrients, no broad-based agreement has emerged on how much and what kind we should eat. Even some of the Paleo adherents are now going low-fat, while I believe the Primal and Keto people still go high-fat. In short, getting fat in your diet through animal products, nuts, oils, and, of course, daily EFAs, without actively piling it on to each meal as an end in of itself, or actively avoiding or removing it from your diet, is a good starting point. From there, I think folks should listen to their tastebuds and adjust based on their tolerance to carbohydrates.
  • You’re never going to really ‘get it’ until you focus less on programs and methods and more on principles and education (i.e., how to come to know the power of good research). Everything changed when I started reading the studies (or lack thereof) that support Guru X and his methods. Much ado was made about nutrient timing during the early- and mid-2000s. Rather unsurprisingly, meal frequency and meal timing seems to have taken a severe backseat to other considerations, which brings me to Alan Aragon. He is in a class all of his own. He’s a researcher, writer, consultant, and nutritionist whose clients and readers are some of the smartest folks in the business. It’s rare that you find someone like him who could easily be at the top of any field of his choosing (and I do mean any field) and he, to our great benefit, chose nutrition and exercise. We’re all luckier for having him around. One of the best investments you could ever make is in purchasing an online subscription to his research review, which also happens to give you access to all back issues. The amount of information he packs into one issue equals or exceeds that of any mainstream fitness or diet book out there, and he is hilarious to boot. Trust me: This simple step will save you hours, days, potentially years of ‘wheel-spinning,’ not to mention a lot of cash on otherwise wasted supplements.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lyle McDonald, who, alone on the Internet, took on all the crappy gurus and their methods starting way back in the 1990s on Usenet newsgroups. So many folks owe so much to him for taking a look at the research with (1) the intention of applying it in the real-world and (2) discarding the biases and taking each piece of evidence and data point as just that, and examining claims with the objectivity they deserved. His books are invaluable resources that I still reference to this day.
  • You need to develop a degree of mindfulness over your thoughts and behaviors as they apply to diet and exercise. Matt Perryman and Borge Fagerli, amongst others, have used the term auto-regulation to describe what basically comes down to listening to your body, calming down your mind, and observing objectively the state you are in when you eat, train, or do anything else. This capacity to develop a mindfulness about your actions has benefits that go way beyond just getting into shape. Training yourself to engage in meta-cognition will get you back in touch with what you enjoy eating, how you’re recovering from training, what needs to be emphasized or deemphasized, and help you snap out of the obsessive compulsive drive to count calories or try to quantify everything in training life. Not to say that there isn’t a place and time for rigorous calculation and observation (if you are, say, training for a bodybuilding contest or have some other time-sensitive goal in mind), but in general, I think until folks can get to a point where they can objectively look at a record, they should seek to make the fewest changes in their daily routines possible.
  • JC Deen and Roger Lawson are the Truth. I love these guys, and for the past several years they have been producing stellar content. They are proverbially blowing up on the internet, and I’ll have a review of JC’s LGN365 product (not an affiliate link) up on my site soon.

So there you have it. The more I learn, it seems, the less I know. That keeps it fun and exciting, and I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my life and (potentially) yours as well. Thanks so much, and until next time.

What You See Is All There Is

The world doesn’t give us decisions to be made made like answering a multiple choice problem, though sometimes we may believe that’s the case. Nobel Prize Winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman and his collaborator, Amos Tversky, tackled the blind side of decision-making in their pioneering work on prospect theory. Their 1979 paper, Prospect theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk, illustrated humanity’s collective divergence from neoclassical economic decision-making. The two conducted a series of psychological tests that unpacked the heuristics and biases that influence how we perceive the costs and benefits of a given decision, and how our judgments are often incongruent with various decisions’ objective values.

I was talking with a friend recently about some choices he’ll soon have to make in his career. We spent a good deal of time on the phone and went through several scenarios and permutations thereof on how things might play out. When I got off the phone with him I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had missed something. Though we swarmed the issue he was dealing with aggressive and penetrating intellectual consideration, I had this sense that we had missed something important.

A few hours later it hit me. Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the notion of “What You See Is All There Is.” We tend to make decisions independent of outside considerations unless we go through the taxing mental exercise of developing counterfactuals. We simply fail to account for the incredible complexity of our world when making decisions and tend to rely on a small and not necessarily representative sample of observations when formulating conclusions or courses of action. Our brain can deal with the known knowns, but has a difficult time conceptualizing known unknowns, phenomena that is relevant to the problem at hand but for which our mental reserves have no information on. And it goes without saying we tend to immediately discount the unknown unknowns, the proverbial “black swans” of our world that Nassim Taleb has brought into so many contemporary intellectual conversations.

I ended up sending my friend a well thought out counterfactual argument to basically everything I had described during our phone call. I had been relying too much on intuitive judgment at the expense of exploring outside possibilities, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. The final course of action turned an otherwise myopic and short-sighted plan of action into one that was much broader and more thought through. We turned a yes/no question into a multiple-choice question, and in the process gained a far better sense of what was at stake.

Just remember, zoom out when something feels off and remember that your brain believes that what you see is all there is, especially since the truth is anything but.

The James Bond Paradox

The wife and I saw Skyfall over the holiday weekend, and I have to say we were pleasantly surprised. A lot of folks disliked Quantum of Solace, but I think that commonly held opinion ignores just how atypically good Casino Royale was. Skyfall continues the reboot’s emphasis on the development of Bond as a character, which the trope-heavy pre-Daniel Craig films failed to accomplish in any meaningful way.

After perusing a few articles on the sartorial persuasions of our favorite international assassin (can you blame me?), I stumbled across a citation for a piece published in the academic journal Individual Differences Research on, of all things, James Bond. Author Peter Jonason makes the argument in his article “Who is James Bond?: The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style” that, despite going through life as a high-functioning psychopath, Bond possesses a trait triumvirate which proves highly predictive of achieving success in life.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, and a University of Cambridge research psychologist, illustrates how some of society’s most effective leaders and professionals score uncommonly high on the clinical psychopathic spectrum. For example, of our former presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton exhibited the greatest number of psychopathic traits, findings borne out by a study conducted by psychologist Scott Lillenfield, who surveyed and analyzed the responses of a collection of presidential biographers and subsequently contributed to Dutton’s research.

Dutton notes that psychopathy, like many things, operates on a sliding scale, and that certain psychopathic traits have been shown to provide evolutionary advantages to those who possess them. WIth respect to James Bond, psychologists have deemed the personality make-up of of our favorite super spy The Dark Triad. Per Wikipedia:

The Dark Triad [of] Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, all of which are interpersonally aversive. . . refers to three theoretically distinct but empirically overlapping personality constructs. The term reflects the perception that these three diagnostic categories have at least some common underlying factors:

The narcissistic personality (in the clinical sense) is characterized by a grandiose self-view, a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and egotism. Some theories, such as those of Heinz Kohut, associate it with the protection of a radically weak, shamed, or damaged self.

The Machiavellian personality is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, with a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and deception.

The psychopath, or antisocial personality, is characterized by impulsive thrill-seeking, and in its “primary” form by selfishness, callousness, lack of personal affect, superficial charm, and remorselessness

The paradox here, of course, is that these three traits together in fact prove beneficial in spite of their being interpersonally aversive! Jonason’s paper teases out a story that shows that the high levels of openness, self-esteem, and extraversion Bond exhibits because of these personality constructs, when combined with his correlating low levels of conscientiousness and anxiety, give him an advantage in social situations and the wont to “persist in the face of potential social rejection and retaliation.”

As argued by Jonason, men with “a specific triumvirate of personality traits–the stratospheric self esteem of narcissism; the fearlessness, ruthlessness, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking of psychopathy; and the deceitfulness and exploitativeness of Machiavellianism–can actually do pretty well for themselves out there in the echelons of society.”

For the aspirational among us who drive toward success every waking moment of every day, there is a certain level of ‘crazy’ associated with such behavior. I couldn’t help but think of the inherent duality that marks great leadership when reviewing Jonason’s article, and the way in which opposing ideas and forces can lead us to ever greater heights despite intrinsic antagonisms.

As discussed in earlier posts, power and influence are necessary to get things done, but it is what you do with them that ultimately determines whether you fulfill your higher purpose and live a meaningful life. In the same way, the personality traits affiliated with the Dark Triad are in of themselves neither good nor bad, but rather are constructions for understanding the nature of why we do what we do. Humans are incredibly complex, and while psychology can give us clues, we have to ultimately bring a critical eye to these sorts of frameworks and avoid the temptation to take them as gospel.

Jonason concludes that, in a world where others may seek to manipulate to get what they want, the best defense is a good offense:

In a world where individuals want to avoid being taken advantage of, those high on the Dark Triad, like James Bond, who tend to be more agentic than others, have a particularly difficult task at hand. How to get what they want without rousing the suspicions or retaliations of others? The answer is to be extraverted, open, high on self-esteem, and low on conscientiousness and anxiety while being individualistic and competitive.

Food for thought, to be sure. Oh, and remember, you want your martini stirred not shaken, that is, unless you want cold water, some chipped ice, and a dash of gin and dry vermouth.

Realism and the Workplace

A word of caution to those of you who are just entering the workforce. The work world you encounter may differ from the one described in some of the popular management literature out there that advocates lifting wholesale its lessons with nary a concern for repercussions.

Checking email only once a day, for example, is a practice that will very quickly get you fired. Your job is to take such lessons and consciously integrate them into your reality by tempering them against real-world circumstances.

And it is up to all of us to make the lessons, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of how the world ought to be come alive by confronting and questioning with honesty, integrity, and critical thought, the counter-productive inertia that so easily develops in human systems.

Consider that good intentions without power are just that: Good intentions. Power lets us get things done, and without it we are useless.

We have to acquire power in a way that is congruent with our deepest values while maintaining a situational awareness that trade-offs may occur in an environment that does not reflect our deepest values. When we do have power, the onus is upon us to change the system to reflect those values for the betterment of those who succeed us.

Everyday Negotiation

Swathes of literature discuss the nuances and intricacies of successful negotiation. There is plenty of excellent advice out there, but today I want to discuss one technique that comes out of some of the excellent research done on cognitive biases.

In his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, amongst other things writes about how cognitive biases and heuristics affect how we behave under some of the most mundane of circumstances. In this excerpt, Daniel Kahneman discusses the powerful role of anchoring effects in negotiation and how to fight their influence.

We see the same strategy at work in the negotiation over the price of a home, when the seller makes the first move by setting the list price. As in any other games, moving first is an advantage in single-issue negotiations—for example, when price is the only issue to be settled between a buyer and a seller. As you may have experienced when negotiating for the first time in a bazaar, the initial anchor has a powerful effect. My advice to students when I taught negotiations was that if you think the other side has made an outrageous proposal, you should not come back with an equally outrageous counteroffer, creating a gap that will be difficult to bridge in further negotiations. Instead you should make a scene, storm out or threaten to do so, and make it clear—to yourself as well as to the other side—that you will not continue the negotiation with that number on the table.

Depending on the nature of one’s work or extracurricular persuasions, we are not apt to encounter such instances of overt negotiation with much regularity. But if we think about the myriad of interactions we go through in day-to-day living, often we are looking to get something from someone in exchange for something we possess, or the converse in which someone is looking to get something from us.

If we approach conversations as negotiations (where appropriate, of course), this knowledge may give us pause should we find ourselves working toward an agreement that began from an unfavorable starting point. In such cases we may have the presence of mind to simply walk away. I can’t help but think how contrary this is to our nature, where, when confronted with a challenge the natural instinct is to fight back rather than disengage, even if disengaging is our best course of action.

Behavioral science seems to play this out—we shouldn’t always trust our gut.

The Best Strategic Gift

Over the past week change has come at me hard and fast. My normal routines are gone along with the regularity they once brought.

So I’ve found myself turning inward. Not in an excessive, touchy-feely way, but in a way that has encouraged mindfulness and meditative clarity.

Lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to step back from all the doing and striving and goal-oriented behavior and am approaching things with a beginner’s mind.

Not judging or imposing my thoughts upon what I’m experiencing, but simply experiencing things as they come. It’s difficult to do, and when we’re children and everything is so bright and interesting and new, it requires no special effort to find that space. As we grow older, finding that clarity requires concentration and focus.

It’s easy to get pulled into our mind’s ongoing internal editorials, streams of consciousness of thinking and rumination that can quickly come to dominate one’s daily existence. That’s how we begin to lose touch with the reality of our situation.

Our success is often defined by our ability to act, not react. Establishing mental distance through mindfulness allows us to move beyond being a pawn on the chessboard. With focus, reflective clarity and inquiry, we become the grandmaster that sees the board of our lives from above.

Apple’s Secret to Success is Not What You Think

There is brilliance in execution, but how many times have we mistaken it for innovation or creativity?

Apple’s success lies not in its ability to innovate, though it certainly does that, but in its capacity to achieve supreme alignment in the products it produces. This is execution.

Diamond Multimedia released its portable Rio MP3 player in 1998. HP and Microsoft were showcasing tablet technology as early as 2001. Sony began selling ultra-thin laptops in 2004.

Execution is the ability to focus and discipline one’s efforts into making a product or delivering a service where all elements align into an elegant, effective whole that, by virtue of its quality, provides exceptional value to the customer or client.

The iPod, the iPad, and the MacBook Air are products greater than the sum of their constituent parts.

Sure, it’s sexier to talk about how prescient Steve Jobs is, how creative and unexpected the minds at Apple are. But what if Apple simply pays obsessive, neurotic, disciplined attention to every facet of what it’s doing, afflicted with a drive to perfect that goes beyond the competition, inspired by forces outside the market to execute brilliantly because there simply is no other way?

The technologies Apple has based its growth upon are not unique to the company. What Jobs & Co. did differently was to look at these technologies not as random bells and whistles but as notes on a musical scale that could work in harmony.

The next time you’re confronted with a problem, consider execution as much as you consider innovation. You might be surprised by what you find.

Note: This post was inspired by an interview with Jim Collins that can be found here

Thoughts on Planning (a.k.a. How to Avoid Facebook)

One of the best habits I’ve picked up recently has been to (before turning in for the evening) schedule and plan out what I’ll be doing the following day. I take fifteen or twenty minutes at night just prior to hitting the sack to review my master to-do list and block out recurring activities like weight training, writing, eating, etc., adding in well-timed boluses of administrative or one-off work as necessary.

I make sure to batch these tasks intelligently. I never sandwich administrative stuff between creative work. This approach keeps my mind nimble and uncluttered. The human brain is notoriously bad at parallel processing, so the less noise I have coming in from adjacent tasks the better.

I notice a significant decrease in productivity when I don’t plan.

There is an art and a science to planning. It’s not so important that you actually replicate the schedule you plan out, but it is important that you try your best to do so. When you’re using your idealized day as a reference point, it’s a lot harder to justify squandering time on social media sites.

What I’m getting at is that you shouldn’t feel guilty if the day as you envisioned it doesn’t go exactly as you hoped. This is to be expected and becoming an automaton is not the point of the exercise. The simple effort of trying to follow the schedule as best as possible puts you one hundred steps ahead of where you would have been had you left the day to chance.

I like a simple pad of paper and pen for mapping my schedule. I toyed with MS Outlook and Google Calendar but found them unnecessarily clunky. With more scientific evidence coming out that writing by hand stores things in memory better than typing, I stick to ink.

Happy planning!