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Top 10 Diet Fallacies

Exploding Mealtime Myths and Nutrition Superstitions, Part 1

Ori Hofmekler is an exercise and nutrition researcher who has some very strong beliefs about diet. His mission is to expose some of the fallacies and misinformation that exist on the subject of proper nutrition and eating habits. While his views are controversial, and you (and many here at IRON MAN) may not agree with everything he says, Hofmekler's points are critical food for thought.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Contrary to what you may have been told, morning is the worst time to eat. When you wake up, your body is already in an intense detox mode, clearing itself of the endotoxins and digestive waste of the previous evening's meal. During the morning hours, when digestion is fully completed (while you're on empty), a primal survival mechanism known as the fight-or-flight reaction to stress is triggered, maximizing your body's capacity for generating energy, being alert, resisting fatigue and resisting stress. The survival mode is primarily controlled by a part of the autonomic nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS. When it's in gear, the body is in its most energy-producing phase, and that's when the most energy comes from fat burning. All that happens when you do not eat the typical morning meal.

If you do eat a breakfast of, say, bagel, cereal, egg and bacon, you'll most likely shut down this energy-producing system. The SNS and its fight-or-flight mechanism will be substantially suppressed, and your morning meal will trigger an antagonistic part of the autonomic nervous system known as the para sympathetic nervous system, or PSNS. The PSNS will make you sleepy, slow and less resistant to fatigue and stress. Instead of spending energy and burning fat, your body will be more geared toward storing energy and gaining fat. Under those conditions detox will be inhibited, and the overall metabolic stress will increase, with toxins accumulating in the liver, giving your body another substantial reason to gain fat: It stores the toxins in fat tissues.

The suppressing effects of morning meals often lead to energy crashes during the daytime hours, when you're working, bringing frequent cravings for pick-me-up foods and substances like sweets, coffee and tobacco. Eating at the wrong time severely interrupts the body's ability to be in tune with the circadian clock. The human body has never adapted to such interruptions. We are primarily programmed to rotate between the two autonomic nervous system parts: The SNS regulates alertness and action during the day, while the PSNS regulates relaxation, digestion and sleep during the night.

Any interruption in the cycle may lead to sleepiness during the day, followed by sleeping disorders at night. Morning meals must be carefully designed not to suppress the SNS and its highly energetic state. Confining morning food intake to fruit, veggie soups or small amounts of fresh light protein foods, such as poached or boiled eggs, plain yogurt or white cheese, will maintain the body in an undereating phase while promoting the SNS with its energy-producing properties.

Note: Athletes who exercise in the morning should turn breakfast into a postexercise recovery meal'small amounts of fresh protein foods plus carbs; for example, yogurt and a banana, eggs plus a bowl of oatmeal, or cottage cheese with berries. An insulin spike is necessary to effectively finalize the anabolic actions of growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor 1 after exercise, but after the initial recovery meal you want to maintain your body in an undereating phase by minimizing carb intake in the meals that follow. Applying small protein meals'with minimum carbs'every couple of hours will sustain the SNS during the day while providing amino acids for protein synthesis in muscle tissue, promoting a long-lasting anabolic effect after exercise. Breakfast isn't the most important meal of the day; that distinction goes to your postexercise recovery meals. It's when you eat that makes what you eat matter.

Eating before exercise will give your muscles instant energy.

It's been generally assumed that the human body operates like a machine, so in order for it to work, it must be fueled like a machine. Eating before exercise seems to make sense. But does it really?

In order to give the muscle nutrients and energy, food must be fully digested. Digestion is the process in which the body breaks food down into smaller compounds, yielding molecules of amino acids, fatty acids and glucose that are transferred to the body's tissues through the circulatory system. The digestion-and-elimination process, which occurs in the stomach, intestines, liver and kidneys, requires substantial amounts of energy. During digestion, blood flow shifts from the brain and muscles to the above organs, which profoundly affects the brain and muscle tissues, lowering their capacity to perform work and resist fatigue.

What about meals that require almost no digestion, such as those made from fast-assimilating nutrients? Fat is digested and assimilated more slowly than protein or carbs, but is a preexercise meal of fast-releasing proteins and carbs (such as whey and sugar) the way to go? In theory such a meal should nourish the muscle tissues with amino acids and glucose to inhibit muscle breakdown and provide instant energy. It all makes sense, but in real life things often work differently from the way they work in theory. ALL Recent studies have demonstrated that eating fast-releasing foods before or during exercise could be counterproductive, to say the least. Investigators at the School of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Birmingham, in England, found that eating carbs before exercise adversely elevated plasma cortisol levels. And there was a significant reduction in postexercise cortisol when subjects didn't eat carbs before exercise. Furthermore, there was a faster shift from carb burning to fat burning during exercise if there was no preexercise meal.

What has failed to reach mainstream nutrition awareness is the fact that protein-rich foods raise cortisol if applied incorrectly. Studies at the University of Lubeck in Germany found that eating fast-releasing protein foods, such as hydrolyzed, or predigested, proteins, before exercise has an even more profound cortisol-elevating effect than whole-protein foods. Note that chronic elevated cortisol has been associated with muscle waste and fat gain, particularly abdominal fat.

So a preexercise meal may rob the brain and muscles of energy due to the digestion process, but eliminating the digestion effect of the meal may only make things worse by elevating cortisol, compromising your ability to build muscle and burn fat.

Ironically, the same meal that appears to be counterproductive when eaten before exercise can be most beneficial when applied after exercise. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effects of postexercise recovery meals on total muscle recuperation'energy replenishment and increased protein synthesis. Recent studies at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, revealed that applying fast-releasing proteins and carbs after exercise had substantial anabolic effect on stimulating net muscle protein synthesis, even in cases of elevated cortisol.

Eating late will make you fat.

It's often said that night is the worst time to eat. The logic: Night is when the body typically slows down and, therefore, is more prone to gain fat. Makes sense, but is it true?

There are no conclusive studies or any evidence to prove that eating late causes more fat gain than eating early. Studies reveal that other variables, such as the frequency of meals, the glycemic index of food, calorie intake and hormonal balance are the real power brokers in the body's capacity for burning or gaining fat.

Even so, the notion that eating late causes fat gain is deep rooted. For most people, who typically eat several meals during the day, a late meal may be an additional meal, and any additional meal may be one too many. The result can be fat gain. Does it mean that eating late is a bad idea? Quite the opposite. If you plan your meals properly and the evening meal turns out to be the main meal, then eating late can be highly rewarding.

There's a substantial amount of evidence that humans have adapted well to nighttime eating. We carry the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who were busy gathering and hunting during the day and eating at night, when they were at rest. Indeed, our bodies are biologically programmed to work around the circadian clock'active during the day and relaxing at night. As mentioned above, our inner clocks are controlled by the two antagonistic autonomic nervous systems, with the result that our bodies digest and use nutrients better at night than during the highly stressful hours of the day. What's more, night is the time when growth hormone peaks (peak secretion occurs during non-REM, SWS deep sleep). GH is known to be a potent muscle-and-bone builder and a fat burner. Late meals, if applied correctly, can be highly anabolic.

Note that GH actions cannot be effectively finalized without the interference of insulin. Eating late may well help you take advantage of max GH spike during the night, promoting protein synthesis in the muscle tissues and fat burning by providing the nutrients required for facilitating GH actions. Do not betray your biological destiny. Don't deny yourself late meals. If you do, your body may come back with a vengeance to reclaim what was taken away from it. The effects often include chronic cravings for food at night, which may result in bingeing. Finally, late meals often have a relaxing effect on the body, preparing you for sleep. If nothing else, they can help bring a happy end to a tough day. FALLACY 4
Fat makes you fat.

The claim that 'Fat is fat and therefore makes you fat' isn't theoretically incorrect, but in real life it's misleading. Dietary fat consists of a huge variety of fat molecules divided into groups and subgroups; each plays a different role in the body. Numerous studies have demonstrated the critical functions of essential fatty acids (EFAs), phospholipids and cholesterol compounds in regulating such functions as blood pressure, inflammation, lipid metabolism, stress reaction, buildup of cell membranes, nerve functions, immune actions and steroid hormone production. It's clear that the role of dietary fat goes far beyond just being a fuel for energy or vehicle for storage.

The real question is, Do dietary fats convert efficiently into energy? Is the human body well adapted for using fat as an immediate fuel for energy? The answers aren't simple, but even so, they're yes and yes.

Studies at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge, England, revealed that different people respond differently to a high-fat diet. Some mostly stored their excess fat calories, while others experienced increased total energy expenditure and fat oxidation with no fat gain. Why are some people more prone to gain fat from eating fat than others?

There's a substantial body of evidence that certain variables profoundly affect a person's capacity for using fat for fuel. Gender, frequency and intensity of exercise, source of dietary fat and diet composition are all on that list. Recent studies done at the University of Southern Denmark, in Odense, discovered that women have higher levels of lipid-binding proteins, with a higher capacity to use fat fuel in the muscle tissue, than men. Interestingly, the same studies found that men's capacity for using fat in the muscles significantly increases when they increase exercise intensity.

The effect of exercise intensity on fat burning was further investigated at the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Studies revealed that fat serves as a most efficient fuel in the form of intramuscular fat, which functions as an important and most effective substrate source of energy, particularly during prolonged intense exercise.

According to the thrifty genes theory (Journal of Applied Physiology. 96:3-10; 2004), humans have primarily adapted to survive cycles of famine and feast (essentially, undereating and overeating); exercise and rest. It has also been suggested that humans have adapted better to primal foods'foods on the bottom of the food chain, such as nuts, seeds and fertile eggs'than they have to later, top-of-the-food-chain fatty foods that come from farm animals (lard and butter, for example) or processing (margarine).

Based on those points, it's been suggested that following a lifestyle that mimics primal feeding cycles and physical activity would most likely trigger the thrifty genes that help us better survive, making us more efficient at using fat and carb fuel with an increased resistance to fatigue, stress and disease. Primal-fat foods such as nuts and seeds are also good sources of amino acids and fat-soluble vitamins. In their raw state they contain phytosterols, which are cholesterol-like plant compounds that predominately support the production of sex steroid hormones.

To take advantage of nuts and seeds, eat them alone or with veggies and protein. Do not combine them with sugar or grains. Nuts and seeds are naturally low on the glycemic index, meaning that the nutrients are released slowly. Generally, the human body is better adapted to foods that have a low glycemic index number.

Thinking that fat can make you fat causes phobias that typically lead to extreme lowfat diets and severe consequences, including malnutrition, chronic fatigue, eating disorders, impotence, compromised immunity and fat gain. FALLACY 5
Carbs are your enemy.

Carbs are currently regarded as the culprit responsible for the obesity epidemic in our society. The belief is that carbohydrates are not essential nutrients and therefore can be severely restricted or even eliminated from the diet. Low-carb-diet advocates argue that insulin is a bodyfat-promoting hormone and should be tightly controlled by chronically restricting carbs. Thanks to the current popularity of low-carb diets, everyone thinks carbs are the enemy. But are they? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's examine the assumption that carbohydrate isn't an essential nutrient. That fails to recognize the two most critical biological functions of carbohydrate (besides being a fuel): 1) the activation of the pentose phosphate pathway and 2) the finalization of growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor actions, as well as the enhancement of androgens actions.

The PPP is a critical process that's responsible for the synthesis of DNA, RNA and all energy molecules, including ATP and NADPH, which are needed for all metabolic functions'in particular, recuperation (healing of tissues), immunity and growth. In addition, the PPP is a precursor for another metabolic pathway, the uronic acid pathway, which is responsible for steroid hormone transport, the production of proteoglycans (essential for connective tissue and cellular signaling), the synthesis of spingolipids (lipids that are necessary for neural protection) and overall detoxification. The pentose phosphate pathway, which occurs mostly in the liver, is derived from glucose, or carb metabolism. Here's the problem:

When a desperate need for energy occurs, such as during prolonged starvation or due to chronic severe restriction of carbs, the PPP shuts down its main function and instead switches into sheer energy production. It's likely that energy demand is a top priority for the body, and, therefore, in times of a desperate need for energy, the body would suppress certain important metabolic functions, such as the PPP, to accelerate immediate energy production. Note that 30 percent of glucose oxidation in the liver can occur via the PPP.

One may argue that glucose can be synthesized from fat or protein. Yes, but not enough! Since the synthesis of glucose from fat or protein, known as gluconeogenesis, is actually a very limited metabolic process that occurs mostly in the liver, any severe restriction of carbs, in particular in active individuals, may adversely suppress the PPP's critical functions due to insufficient glucose supply during an increased energy demand.

The PPP actions also decrease with age, a fact that may contribute to the decline in steroid hormone production and the typical muscle waste associated with aging. So dietary carbs are necessary for the full activation of the PPP and its critical functions. Severe chronic carb restriction'below 70 to 100 grams a day for active individuals'may lead to an adverse suppression of the PPP, with an overall decline in the sex hormones, compromised immunity, impaired growth and accelerated aging.

Besides playing a vital role in the activation of the PPP, dietary carbs also help finalize the actions of the most anabolic agents, including growth hormone, IGF-1 and the sex steroid hormones. Studies at Stanford University in California and Helsinki University in Finland revealed that insulin is a potent promoter of IGF-1 and the sex hormones' action. Researchers found that insulin helps finalize the anabolic actions of GH, IGF-1 and androgens by downregulating certain proteins that suppress both IGF-1 and androgen action, in particular in the muscle tissue. A recent study done at the University of Texas proved that postexercise carb supplementation taken with essential amino acids profoundly stimulated net muscle protein synthesis.

Interestingly, simple carbs had a more profound effect on enhancing anabolic actions after exercise than complex carbs. Nonetheless, as a general rule, the human body is better adapted to using complex carbs than simple carbs. Again, it's when you eat that makes what you eat matter.

As you can see, the biological functions of dietary carbs go far beyond energy production. Chronic carb restriction may lead to total metabolic decline in the long run, with severe consequences that would affect survival'lack of capacity to regenerate tissues and procreate.

Next month we'll have the remaining five of the top-10 diet fallacies that may be limiting your progress.

Editor's note: Ori Hofmekler is the author of the books The Warrior Diet and Maximum Muscle & Minimum Fat, published by Dragon Door Publications ( For more information or for a consultation, contact him at [email protected], or by phone at (866) WAR-DIET. IM

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