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.