Fit to Ride Redux, Part 2 — Nutrition
Straight into it, then! Those who agree that we should — for practical reasons if not moral ones — endeavor to be as physically fit as possible in order to support our equine partners, must first ask how a person goes about getting lean and strong. Most people’s minds will leap immediately to exercise.
Here’s the bad news: You can’t out-exercise the effects of poor nutrition.
No matter what the editors of Runner’s World, the hosts of Good Morning America, or (heaven help us) Dr. Oz would have you believe, you simply cannot burn enough calories to achieve meaningful (that is, healthful and sustainable) bodyfat loss through exercise. In truth, at least 80% of body composition — the ratio of lean to fatty body tissue — is the result of what you put in your mouth.
But wait…is that news actually bad? If body composition is mostly about food choices, maybe it’s more important for me to pay attention to my meals than to pound out 90 minutes per day on the treadmill. Maybe, even if I’m injured or have other limitations on exercise, I can still make significant progress.
Notice that we’re talking about what we eat, not how much. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it is that food quality is immensely more important than food quantity. You see, body composition isn’t the result of the simple calories-in vs. calories-out equation with which we’re all familiar. It’s more complicated than that. Different foods induce different hormonal responses in our bodies, and different hormonal responses direct our cells to do different things — like to store bodyfat, or to release it.
Here’s one of the best allegories I’ve ever heard to explain why calories-in/calories-out is, at best, an incomplete model:
Think of your body like a bathroom sink. When a sink functions properly, water that comes into the basin through the faucet goes out through the drain at about the same rate. If you turn up the volume of water, it simply drains out faster, so the basin never overflows.
This is how your body is designed to work. When more energy (food) comes in, a healthy hormonal response directs the body to send more energy (bodyfat) out, and your pants don’t get tighter. Why doesn’t this always happen? Let’s go back to the sink:
If the drain gets clogged, the incoming water from the faucet has nowhere to go. It pools up in the basin. Turning the faucet up or down will influence how quickly the water accumulates, but it won’t remove the clog. The level in the basin will still rise, even on a restricted incoming flow.
That’s why going on a restricted-calorie diet doesn’t work. You might slow the rate of bodyfat accumulation, but you haven’t changed the unhealthy hormonal response — that is, removed the clog — to restore the naturally occurring balance between intake and outflow. So, the next time you indulge in Christmas cookies or a tailgate party, BAM! Bodyfat lands right back in your basin because your drain is still blocked.
If you want to win the battle, you must remove the clog. (Isn’t it nice to know that you’re not a huge failure because all those attempts at calorie restriction didn’t work?)
How do you remove the clog? By changing your hormonal response to food. How do you do that? By changing the foods you choose to eat.
Yikes. This is a huge topic. There are scores of books and blogs and podcasts and websites and articles on the subject. I’m not going to even attempt to cover all the territory here. Permit me to simply summarize what I have implemented, to great effect, in my own life. If you’re interested, you can chase down more information through the resources below.
This is the way I have eaten for 3 years now:
1. I eat for maximum nutrient density. This means vegetables (preferably organic), meats and fish (preferably grass-finished and wild-caught), some fruit, a little dairy, and plenty of healthful, naturally-occurring fats.
2. I avoid all grains. Yes, even “healthy” whole grains. Despite what the USDAgriculture (ahem) would like us to buy, grains actually offer relatively low levels of nutrition when compared to vegetables and quality animal products. And, they come with a number of downsides, including a wallop of carbohydrate that, as far as the body is concerned, is just sugar.
Excessive carbohydrate consumption induces a hormonal message to store bodyfat. Most people do well on 75-150 total grams per day, as compared to the American average of 300g or more. Relying on too much on poor quality carbohydrate comes with a variety of health impacts in the short term (hunger crashes) and long term (cancer, Type II diabetes).
Gluten grains also cause damage in the guts of a high percentage of people, leading over the long term to a broad range of health problems from Alzheimer’s to gout.
I also avoid legumes, including peanuts, for similar reasons.
3. I’m not afraid of fat. Cutting calorie-dense, nutrition-poor whole grains from my diet left quite a calorie gap. When you remove that much carbohydrate, you need to replace it with something. Your options are protein and fat. Our bodies place powerful, natural limits on the amount of protein we can consume (1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is good for most people), and many of us simply can’t eat enough protein to meet our caloric needs. That leaves fat.
This may be even scarier than ditching the “healthy whole grains.” But do your homework and decide for yourself. Is fat really dangerous? Yes…if you’re eating the unnatural, processed fats that clog our restaurants and grocery stores. All those fats chemically forced from non-fatty products — soy, canola, “vegetable,” etc. — are extremely detrimental to human health.
Natural fats, however, are an extremely efficient and nutritious energy source. As a bonus, the hormonal message they incite is one of satiety and safety. (Hey cells, we’re in good times. There’s plenty of chow. No need to pack on emergency stores.) So what fats do I eat, to the tune of about 60% of my daily caloric intake? Avocado, palm, coconut, tree nut, and grassfed animal fats (butter, some cheese, meat, fish).
Mind you, the transition from being a sugar-burner to a fat-burner can be rough for a while. Your body will demand carbohydrate, which for years has been its primary source of fuel. Most people get over the “carb flu” in 2 days to 2 weeks, though it took me a good 6 weeks to hit the crash-free cruising altitude that I now enjoy. I attribute this to the fact that I was coming off several years of what I thought was a healthful, mostly-vegan diet composed primarily grains and legumes!
But I digress…
4. I avoid all sweeteners, both natural and artificial.
5. I avoid all processed foods.
6. I don’t make this a religion. I eat this way at home. I take my own meals to the office. I’m pretty darn good at finding acceptable restaurant meals. But if I’m a guest, or it’s Thanksgiving and Great Aunt Millicent made her special pie, or I’m in ridecamp between two 50 milers, I’ll eat what’s served. No big deal. But that’s the exception — I don’t let it creep into becoming the rule.
Some of you will recognize what I’m describing as being “primal” or “paleo.” Indeed, those are the popular names for the kind of nutrient-dense, hormonally-healthful way of eating that I prefer. If you want to know more about it, here are some of my favorite resources:
I really appreciate that all of these sites are run by professionals who give away massive amounts of valuable information for free, because they care about the ability of the truth to help people live better. Equally impressive, they have shown over the years that they are willing to update their recommendations based on new research. It’s not about who is right, but about what is true.
A word of caution: most of the sites offer user forums. I recommend avoiding those until you understand what the experts are saying. The forums are packed with people who talk more than they listen, and are therefore rife with misinformation.