Those of you who follow this blog undoubtedly know about Alan Aragon. Fact is, there’s no one in the field of nutrition I respect more. Alan holds a master’s degree in nutrition, consults with a legion of famous clients (including Pete Sampras, Derek Fisher, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin), and serves as the nutritional expert for Men’s Health Magazine. He also edits the excellent newsletter, Alan Aragon’s Research Review.
Most importantly, though, Alan Aragon is the epitome of an evidence-based professional. First and foremost, he is a student of the literature; a veritable walking encyclopedia on nutritional research. Ask him a question about a given nutritional topic and he’ll answer not only by rattling off the results of relevant studies, but also cite the names of the authors and the year of publication as well. It’s quite amazing, actually.
Yet what really sets Alan apart from the pack is his keen understanding as to how research should be applied in practice. He has an astute ability to sift through the body of literature and provide practical recommendations based on a person’s individual needs. His approach is always thoughtful and balanced; a voice of reason. That’s why when I need a get an opinion on a given nutritional topic, Alan’s the guy I turn to for answers. I’ve taught nutrition at the university level. I stay abreast of current dietary research. But Alan is on another level. Call him the “Yoda of nutrition”!
So it goes without saying that I’m pleased to have interviewed Alan for this blog post. Here he shares his knowledge on some of the most controversial and heavily debated topics in nutrition today. As always, Alan is not afraid to speak his mind. Sit back, read, and enjoy!
First, thanks so much for consenting to this interview Alan. For those who might not be aware of your work, can you tell the readers a little about your background.
Thanks for inviting me to unleash hell on your audience, Brad. Anyone who doesn’t know who I am has not done enough trolling through the seedy corners of the internet…. In all seriousness though, I’m an educator more than anything else. I have a passion for getting the truth out and seeing learners find their way out of the dark, so to speak. My main vehicle for this is writing, so I guess you could say I’m like Gary Taubes, except I’m not afraid to report the totality of evidence instead of choosing the bits that fit my brand. I used to do fitness training and counseling full-time, but now I maintain a small stable of clients to keep a foot in the trenches while the rest of me is immersed in the research.
You have written about post-exercise protein intake and state that it might not be as important as some claim. But you also discuss that the relative importance is a function of a person’s goals. Can you explain your position?
Let’s first set the stage with some background. Postexercise protein intake has been promoted in both lay and academic circles as an urgent, universally imperative tactic, but it’s rarely ever put in the proper perspective. The origin of the postexercise “anabolic window of opportunity” began with research examining postexercise carbohydrate timing on the rate of glycogen resynthesis after depletion. Delaying carbohydrate intake resulted in significantly less glycogen replenishment, but this finding was limited to an observation period of only a few hours. On a related tangent, subsequent research showed no difference in the amount of post-depletion glycogen replenishment at the 24-hour mark, despite major differences in dietary fat content (originally presumed to impede the process).
Protein got lumped into the supposed ‘magic’ of the postexercise period after studies showed that protein expedited glycogen resynthesis when co-ingested with carbohydrate (particularly in the case of insufficient carbohydrate). Furthermore, research has also shown that protein consumed in the postexercise period can work synergistically with the trained state to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). However, these studies have two main limitations. First off, in most studies the protein was given to subjects who trained after an overnight fast, minus a pre-exercise meal. Secondly, the bulk of the research showing the benefit of immediate postexercise protein is acute (short-term). The majority of chronic (long-term) studies lasting several weeks has failed to corroborate the acute findings. Many people – even smart folks in the industry – are unaware of this, probably because the bulk of the research with null findings began in 2009 & onward.
This isn’t to say that the body of research on this topic is vast or comprehensive enough to be adamant about the unimportance of protein timing. However, it does provide grounds to assume a wider margin of timing flexibility as long as the total for the day is hit. Hopefully future investigations will compare the timing effects of carbohydrate co-ingested with larger protein doses that max-out acute MPS in trained subjects on diets that provide sufficient total protein that’s matched (including supplemental protein) between groups. Thus far, the research in this vein is scarce, but would help provide an important puzzle piece. In the mean time, hitting the total protein target for the day remains the primary objective, while timing and distribution of its constituent doses is the distantly secondary concern. At best, specific timing is the icing on the cake. But, you have to have the cake down-pat, otherwise the icing means crap.
Any benefit to consuming one type of protein over another (i.e. whey vs. casein)?
In the larger picture, the answer for the most part is no. Assuming that someone is consuming sufficient total daily protein from a variety of high-quality sources, then their bases will be covered, regardless of differences in protein type. Short-term data indicates the superior effects of whey (compared to casein or soy) on MPS at both the resting & postexercise periods. It’s been speculated that this is due to the greater overall rise in circulating amino acid (particularly leucine) levels yielded by whey. However, studies that dragged this type of comparison out for several weeks have shown equivocal outcomes. Whey, as opposed to casein or soy, has not emerged as the dominant winner for improving muscular adaptations to training. This serves to reinforce the principles that a) total daily amount of high-quality protein is of prime importance, b) differences seen shortly postexercise will not automatically translate to long-term adaptations, and c) the body of evidence is subject to evolve.
How important is macronutrient ratio with respect to weight loss?
People have varying total energy demands, and this can differently influence their macronutrient requirements. Ratios per se shouldn’t be the focus since they’re merely a default result of figuring absolute needs. For example, those with a moderate to high energy output (through formal training, non-exercise activity, or both), can typically consume a higher amount of carbohydrate and still lose weight. In contrast, sedentary or barely active folks have lower overall energy demands, thus a high carbohydrate intake wouldn’t likely be optimal. Nevertheless, there’s rather interesting, yet unreplicated research examining the effects of insulin sensitivity on weight loss (low-carb worked better for insulin-resistant subjects while high-carb worked better for insulin-sensitive subjects). Unfortunately, body composition wasn’t assessed, nor was there any structured exercise protocol. My hunch is that a well-designed, progressive training program would greatly diminish the influence of pre-existent differences in insulin sensitivity on weight loss.
Are you a proponent of cutting carbs for someone who wants to get really lean?
For losing fat past the initial stages, I’m a proponent of imposing a calorie deficit, and depending on the individual situation, this can involve a decrease in caloric intake, an increase in caloric output, or a combination of both. In the case of intake reduction, it doesn’t make sense to hack into critical nutrients – especially protein, whose requirement actually increases in a caloric deficit. So, for the most part, it’s carbs that will get the brunt of the reduction when it’s time to cut calories, while protein & fat remain somewhat stable (I typically set protein slightly higher than it needs to be). The degree of carb reduction varies individually, but the underlying aim is to consume the highest amount of carbs that still allow a satisfactory rate of fat loss. This approach accomplishes two main things – it enables the highest possible training performance (in terms of both strength & endurance), and also the lowest chance of undue hormonal downregulation from prolonged bouts of dieting. Carb reduction can then be strategically positioned as a trump card. In other words, carbs can always be incrementally reduced on an as-needed basis, depending on how results are proceeding. Starting off with minimal carbs from the get-go leaves fewer options in the toolbox to break through progress plateaus once training volume is maxed-out.
Intermittent fasting has gained popularity recently. What are your thoughts? Panacea or fad?
I think the popularity of intermittent fasting (IF) is, for the most part, a good vindication of science. Academics have known for a while now that research has not supported the lore of frequent, small meals to stoke the metabolism better than the equivalent in larger, fewer meals. Furthermore, research has not supported the idea that small, frequent meals are necessary for preserving muscle mass. The evidence as a whole has not indicated any threat to muscle preservation during dieting when meal frequency is reduced – either daily or intermittently through the week. In fact, some studies have shown superior lean mass retention with IF during hypocaloric conditions. However, this could have been due to measurement error inherent with bioelectrical impedance analysis. It should also be noted that the IF research thus far has not involved structured exercise protocols.
At the same time that IF has vindicated science, it also created its own over-zealous following who preaches its universal necessity for optimizing body composition and health. Viewed more objectively, IF presents an effective option for those who prefer the convenience and luxury of larger meals – not to mention, less preparation & transportation of meals through the day. Any special or superior metabolic effects of IF compared to conventional meal patterns are speculative at this point. While IF has consistently shined in the department of lean mass retention while dieting, its comparison to conventional meal frequency on gains in muscular strength & hypertrophy is uncharted ground, at least in formal research. There are plenty of hypotheses flying around this area, but nothing demonstrated under controlled conditions. For the time being, meal frequency for optimal size & strength gain remains mysterious. This mystery is likely to begin unfolding with short-term data that one camp will excitedly embrace. If history means anything, the acute data will be followed by long-term data that shakes the confidence in former beliefs. Either way it goes, I’ve got my popcorn ready.
On a final note, I’ve seen the greatest client success come from letting individual preference dictate meal frequency. Some people do great on small frequent meals, others do great on the opposite (and all points in between). The theoretical advantages of any given dietary approach go straight out the window if it’s at odds with someone’s personal preference & adherence capability.
Tell us a little about your research review and how you came to start the service.
In a nutshell, my research review (AARR) is a monthly romp through the current and past research on nutrition, training, and supplementation. I do my best to present both the theory and application of the concepts and findings. The idea to start AARR was born from my own dissatisfaction with my knowledge level despite having vast client experience, multiple training certifications, a graduate degree in nutrition, and being active in attending & presenting continuing education lectures. I felt like there had to be some way to further “force” myself toward the top tier of expertise. Putting AARR together each month was the logical solution for my self-directed learning tendencies. I’m now enjoying the process of sharing my ongoing enlightenment with like-minded folks inside and outside of the field.
Great stuff, Alan. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your views!
Check out Alan’s blog Here
Check out Alan’s excellent research review (AARR) Here
Beware the person selling Suffering as Dedication, Exhaustion as Virtue and Obsession as Health.- Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat
Check out the link above to see the results and findings from Dr. John Beradi’s experiences with different intermittent fasting protocols. He’s also published a free e-book on his findings and experiences that you can check out here.
In fitness circles, the concept of intermittent fasting (IF) is catching like wildfire, and it’s no surprise as to why. There is some intriguing new published research showing that IF may offer a host of health and body composition benefits. Additionally, a small but growing group of IF experimenters are swearing by these relatively new fat-loss techniques, techniques that include skipping meals and sometimes going entire days without eating!
I know, I know…the idea of fasting for a few extra hours every day seems to fly in the face of conventional nutrition wisdom, and many of you probably think that going entire days without eating is sheer lunacy–I get it. As a long-time proponent of grazing (eating smaller meals more frequently), I was a little skeptical of the concept too. Would I get moody? Experience blood sugar drop? Have muscle proteins dissolve and burned for energy? It’s enough to make any weightlifter run screaming from the room.
But here’s the funny thing. If you do intermittent fasting right, none of that actually happens.
How do I know? Well, first, there’s the research. In fasting-related studies, muscle isn’t lost like you’d expect, unless there’s a huge energy deficit and there’s no weight training involved. However, I’ll be honest…I don’t always believe the research. Even though I spent eleven years in higher education and earned a research-based PhD, I know how poorly research can be conducted. Furthermore, how many actual bodybuilders end up in research studies? Very few.
Check out the original FAQ posted here by Sol Orwell.
A phrase coined by Martin Berkhan, LeanGains is a diet/workout methodology based on intermittent fasting (IF) and lifting heavy weights. It is meant to be a way of body recomposition - losing fat and gaining muscle/strength at the same time.
What is Intermittent Fasting (IF)?
IF is essentially a self-contained cut-bulking cycle. You eat for X hours, and fast (no calories) for Y hours (with Y > X). For example, the Warrior Diet has you fast for 20 hours and eat for 4. Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) has you eat 24 hours, and then fast for 24 hours.
In LG, you fast for roughly 16 hours and eat for 8. For women fasting 14 hours and eating for 10 is recommended.
Having zero calorie gum, diet soda, and coffee is okay. The caloric load of anything you ingest should essentially be zero.
Why Bother with IF?
There are a boatload of health benefits from IF. See Page 2 of the PDF Guide. LeanGains is a system that incorporates a version of IF, extending it to include timing of calories (a majority to be consumed post-workout), macros (high protein), and workout (lift heavy). It is not the definition of IF.
You can add an IF schedule to most any other diet plan. It’s fine. Give it a shot if you want.
Okay so What is LG?
- Fast for 16 hours, eat for 8 (roughly. Fasting for 14 or 18 hours will not kill you)
- Lift heavy stuff using the Big 4 compound movements (deadlifts, squats, bench press, chinups)
- +20% maintenance calories on workout days, -20% maintenance on non-workout days. Varying your caloric amounts is important
- Martin prefers to lift 3x a week. He also likes Reverse Pyramid Training (aka RPT).
- For beginners Martin does recommend Starting Strength.
- High protein every day (say 3g per kg bodyweight). On workout days high carb low fat, on non-workout days low carbs moderate fat.
Some people rely heavily on cardio in order to maintain their leanness. This allows them to be somewhat more lenient with their diet. I am however no fan of cardio and don’t use it to stay lean. In my view cardio as a strategy to maintain a low body fat percentage is not only time-consuming, but also a sure-fire way to hamper muscle and strength gains. If nor time or muscle gain is a concern then by all means continue your cardio regimen. But considering my priorities and those of my clients, I focus on the macrocomposition of the diet to maintain the lean state.- Martin Berkhan
Never attempt to train yourself into a caloric deficit. Don’t spend hours on the treadmill. Diet comes first, cardio second. The dumbest fat loss strategy ever devised is used by people that wake up early in the morning before going to work to do cardio and follow that up with a “recovery shake.” Congratulations, you just wasted two hours of your life. Cardio is good for cardiovascular health, but most people use cardio as a fat loss tool - and force themselves through regimens that aren’t very conducive to their daily routine (or mental sanity). Next time, skip the shake and the cardio. Sleep two hours longer, but skip breakfast and fast until lunch time. This way you can create the same caloric deficit with the added bonus of feeling more rested and having saved more time. You’ll be much better off.- Martin Berkhan
By Martin Berkhan (via)
In part one of this article series I covered the basics of water retention.
This time I’ll list a few effective tricks that will help you deal with it when and if it occurs. Don’t worry, you won’t be sweating it out in a sauna and sucking on ice cubes. I’ll offer simple and non-intimidating strategies that don’t require a whole lot of thinking. They can be used in isolation or in combination.
The most common reason people hold water is due to shifts in sodium balance. Going from a low baseline intake of sodium to sudden and high intakes can have dramatic effects on your visual appearance (which any bodybuilding-competitor can attest to). Conversely, reducing sodium can have the opposite effect and cause water loss. This is all about relative and not absolute numbers; it’s not high sodium per se that cause water retention/water loss, but deviations from the habitual intake. The solution therefore is to reduce sodium to a level below baseline. So for a day or two…
* Ditch all canned or pre-packaged foods since they tend to contain a lot of sodium. A paleo approach to food choices is a pretty good model to use for your diet during these days since it’s relatively low in sodium.
* Reduce spices and table salt - make a conscious effort to use less than you’re used to. An easy way to reduce sodium without feeling deprived is to use a salt substitute, which contains only half of the sodium chloride found in regular salt.
* Drink a ton of water. Aim for 6-8 liters. You should be pissing like a race horse.
* It’s claimed that some foods have a diuretic effect and they’re often referenced as natural remedies to combat water retention - asparagus, celery, cucumber and watermelon, for example. I’ve yet to find some scientific backing for these claims, so take it for what it’s worth. I suspect that the proposed diuretic properties of these foods is related to their high water content rather than some other magical mechanism.
Get cortisol back to normal
Elevated levels of cortisol can cause water retention, potentially due to interfering with aldosteron (a hormone that regulates fluid balance). Excessive cardio, particularly of the more intense variety (HIIT), and low calorie intakes increases cortisol.
* Only do low intensity steady state cardio, such as walking or similar activities with a low perceived rate of effort.
* Increase calorie intake to a level that is no less than 500 kcal below maintenance (i.e if your maintenance intake is 2700 kcal, you should eat no less than 2200 kcal these days).
Have a drink
Alcohol has a quite profound diuretic effect, so drink a a large glass of wine (7 ounces/2 dl) or a large shot of vodka (2 ounces/6 cl) shortly before going to sleep. Caffeine-rich beverages are often said to have a diuretic effect as well, but this is actually a myth. Studies show that the fluids ingested with the caffeine more than makes up for the diuretic effect of caffeine itself. In order for caffeine to have a diuretic effect, take caffeine pills.
Look over your fiber intake
In my experience, both high and low fiber intake can cause water retention and a feeling of bloatedness. Look over your diet and it should be clear what the problem is.
Do a refeed
Do a carb-refeed, preferably after having depleted muscle glycogen. A full-body session consisting of 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps per body part will get the job done. Carb choices should consist primarily of starches such as potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. Keep fiber low, potassium high. The exact amount of carbs to be ingested depends on several factors, but I suggest playing it safe and not going overboard.
* 4-6 g of carbs per kilo lean body mass is a good starting point, preferably on the low end of that if you’re inexperienced with carb-refeeds and how you react to them.
* If you do it right, this will have the effect of pulling water outside the muscle cell into the muscle cell. Along with increased muscle glycogen, this will give you a lean and full appearance the next day - ideally also causing a “whoosh” over night.
By Martin Berkhan (via)
In an ideal world, weight loss would be perfectly linear.
You’d lose weight in a predictable manner, seeing small but consistent changes each passing day. But this is rarely the case, which my experience has proven me many times over.
If you’ve ever been on a diet and tracked your progress with the scale or the mirror, you’re probably familiar with water retention and long weight loss plateaus. Even though your diet is on point, nothing seems to be happening.
Stalling at the same scale weight for weeks is not unheard of - I’ve experienced it myself. Fortunately, these phases are followed by rapid weight loss seemingly over night. This delayed weight loss is often referred to as the “whoosh”-effect. Nothing for weeks…and then whoosh, 2-4 lbs lost over night. What triggers a whoosh? No one knows, but Lyle McDonald offered a hypothesis based on something his old exercise physiology professor said.
So what’s the big deal here? The issue with water retention is the frustration it brings while waiting for the whoosh.
Waking up every morning to see no progress on the scale can have profound effects on your motivation to maintain your diet and training regimen. Why put in all this effort when nothing is happening? Doubt creeps up. Maybe you’re eating too much? Maybe you’re not doing enough cardio, maybe your carb intake is too high? So you cut calories and increase cardio in the hopes that it will get the scale moving down again. If we’re talking water retention (and not an actual stall), this has the potential to actually worsen the situation. Dumbfounded you watch as your weight creeps up even higher despite your ambitious attempts to set things right.
So at times like these, it’s no wonder that people are likely to say “screw this shit” and go off their diet for a day. Or two. Or a week. In the worst case it triggers a binge that sets them back several days or weeks. Not good.
Given the negative impact of water retention on your morale, knowing the causes for water retention, and how to deal with it, can be very useful when you find yourself in this situation.
Water retention - what is it?
Water retention (or edema which is the term used by the medical establishment) is a common, concrete phenomenon that occurs during calorie restriction. It’s not just some trivial vanity issue unique to the fitness crowd.
The magnitude of water retention varies; most often it’s mild, but enough to obscure your fat loss results on a short-term basis. Sometimes it’s more prominent, giving you the impression that nothing is happening for weeks. More severe types of water retention are a common characteristic of malnutrition and life-threatening starvation; it can be so extreme that people will appear to lose no weight at all, as greater amounts of fluids accumulate under the skin. Jewish doctors often observed this phenomenon in the Warsaw ghettos during World War 2.
Water retention can take many forms, such as swollen watery tissue or as an accumulation of fluids in the stomach, chest, lower body and in between joints. You might notice it in the form of fat that feels “squishy” or in the form of red stretch marks when waking up in the morning. You can also notice it on your ankles when taking your socks off in the evening; the pressure from the socks leaves an indentation, which might be barely noticeable (no water retention) or big enough to fit half of your thumb in (an extreme example as told to me by a competitor after three days of post-competition binging and gaining 35 lbs). The latter is called pitting edema.
During starvation, inadequate nutrition depresses the pumping mechanisms within the cell that keeps excess salt and water out. The cell deteriorates and the distinction between in and out is lost. However, for the average Joe out there, water retention is more often related to daily shifts in water and salt intake.
There are a lot of people out there that don’t understand intermittent fasting or that want to disagree with something they don’t understand for no apparent reason. Most of those people have been sucked into the vortex that is misinformation from being misled by fitness/health magazines, websites, broscience or TV shows.
Don’t just listen to what is said and don’t just believe everything that is written. Ask why. Discover the facts for yourself and increase your knowledge on a subject if you feel skeptical.
Part of intermittent fasting is skipping breakfast. You might be thinking, “Hold the phone. I thought you had to eat breakfast to lose fat and be in better shape.” Not true and skipping breakfast is not a bad thing. Breakfast is neither inherently good OR bad. It just is what it is. Breakfast. The point at which you break your (overnight) fast.
Seeing as I have to explain intermittent fasting to a lot of people when they ask, I find no better source to quote other than Martin Berkhan, creator of Leangains. He’s not just the creator and writer of Leangains.com but also a nutrition consultant, magazine writer, fitness model, personal trainer and soon to be published author. The guy knows the ins and outs of the fitness world and backs everything he states by research.
The following is one of my favorite rebuttals directed to anyone that approaches me negatively after hearing that I am a proponent and participant of intermittent fasting.
The belief that a few hours without food will cause muscle catabolism is absurd.
Metabolic rate does not slow down during short-term fasting. It actually increases slightly. That’s probably the complete opposite from what you’ve heard, but this is an undisputed fact. It takes more than three days without food before metabolic rate is negatively affected via down-regulation of thyroid activity. That skipping breakfast or missing a meal affects metabolic rate, a myth still propagated in the fitness and health community, is ludicrous.
What about those studies showing breakfast is healthy and people that eat breakfast weigh less than breakfast-skippers? Those are all correlational studies. Skipping breakfast is connected to a certain dysregulated eating behavior that predisposes people to weigh more. The Average Joe or Jane breakfast-skipper is the personality type to grab a donut on the way to work, eat junk food for lunch and finish the day off with a big dinner and snack in front of the TV. Those studies have no relevance to the conscious dieter that skips breakfast as a fat loss strategy.
Your diet is where you fix things first and foremost. Adding more cardio when your diet is suboptimal is an inefficient and time-wasting strategy that will result in an increased risk of burnout and overtraining.- Martin Berkhan of Leangains
Smart Tip: Do NOT exercise on an empty stomach. The theory that you burn more fat with no available blood sugar is a myth. In fact, it can result in the loss of muscle tissue. So, make sure to get a healthy snack in you about 45 minutes before you train.
THIS IS COMPLETELY FALSE.
6. Myth: Fasting causes muscle loss.
This myth hinges on people’s belief it’s important to have a steady stream of amino acids available to not lose muscle. As I explained earlier, protein is absorbed at a very slow rate. After a large high-protein meal, amino acids trickle into your blood stream for several hours.
No studies have looked at this in a context that is relevant to most of us. For example, by examining amino acid appearance in the blood and tissue utilization of amino acids after a large steak, veggies and followed up with some cottage cheese with berries for dessert. That’s easily 100 grams of protein and a typical meal for those that follow the Leangains approach. We are left to draw our own conclusions based on what we know; that a modest amount of casein, consumed as a liquid on an empty stomach is still releasing amino acids after 7 hours. With this in mind it’s no stretch to assume that 100 grams of protein as part of a mixed meal at the end of the day would still be releasing aminos for 16-24 hours.
Few studies has examined the effects of regular fasting on muscle retention and compared it to a control diet. None of them are relevant to how most people fast and some are marred by flaws in study design and methodology. Like this study which showed increased muscle gain and fat loss, with no weight training or change in calorie intake, just by changing meal frequency. While I would love to cite that study as proof for the benefits of intermittent fasting, body composition was measured by BIA, which is notoriously imprecise.
Only in prolonged fasting does protein catabolism become an issue. This happens when stored liver glycogen becomes depleted. In order to maintain blood glucose, conversion of amino acids into glucose must occur (DNG: de novo glucogenesis). This happens gradually and if amino acids are not available from food, protein must be taken from bodily stores such as muscle. Cahill looked at the contribution of amino acids to DNG after a 100 gram glucose load. He found that amino acids from muscle contributed 50% to glucose maintenance after 16 hours and almost 100% after 28 hours (when stored liver glycogen was fully depleted). Obviously, for someone who eats a high protein meal before fasting, this is a moot point as you will have plenty of aminos available from food during the fast.
An example of severe exaggeration of physiological and scientific fact, not relevant to anyone who’s not undergoing prolonged fasting or starvation.