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Top Diet Fallacies

Exploding Mealtime Myths and Nutrition Superstitions, Part 2

In the conclusion of his myth-busting expos’, Ori Hofmekler, author of The Warrior Diet, tackles the final five controversial beliefs about nutrition.

Fallacy 6
The best way to control your weight is to count calories.

Calorie counting has been widely regarded as a reliable method of weight management. Some of today’s most established diet plans use calorie counting as a principal way of controlling energy intake. Yet, in spite of its reputation and wide appeal, calorie counting fails to provide the long-term benefit of staying lean and healthy.

The reason: Real life involves dynamic changes that aren’t included in the typical calorie-counting calculation. You cannot overlook the profound effects of life changes on your body. For that matter, humans (like other animals), carry survival mechanisms that regulate fuel use and energy generation, in response to changes in environmental conditions.

Your basal metabolic rate fluctuates according to changes in physical activity, food availability and overall calorie intake. For instance, lower calories generally promotes a BMR decline, whereas higher calories generally promote an overall increase in BMR. (Many health clubs provide machines that check BMR.) Since calorie counting is based on a fixed BMR, it often fails to provide a real-life measurement of energy balance; that is, the surplus or deficit of calories.

Athletes and bodybuilders who use calorie counting to improve body composition should be aware of the downside. A calorie isn’t a calorie. Calories coming from sugar cause more fat gain than calories coming from grains or nuts. The human body has adapted to use calories derived from certain food combinations better than from others. The same calories that cause fat gain in one food combination can induce fat loss in another (see fallacy 4 in the September ’05 IRON?MAN).

Timing is another factor that’s often overlooked by calorie counters. The same carb calories that could be very beneficial when eaten right after exercise to increase protein synthesis in the muscle may be harmful if eaten before exercise due to excessive cortisol release.

One of the most controversial diets today is the calorie-restriction diet. The CR is based on the assumption that chronic calorie restriction increases life span. That dietary approach has been endorsed by anti-aging advocates who are convinced that CR reduces overall metabolic stress and thereby increases life span. There are, however, a few concerns regarding CR.

1) CR can lower body temperature, which may be a sign of lower thyroid activity and a total metabolic decline.

2) CR may cause a substantial loss of libido. It’s often associated with declining sex hormone levels and an impaired ability to maintain vigor, potency or fertility.

3) CR compromises the ability to endure intense exercise and, for that matter, build muscles. ALL Recent studies on intermittent fasting’one day of fasting followed by one day of overeating’at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland found that such feeding cycles provided superior benefits to those gained with CR. According to Dr. Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience and head of the research team at Hopkins, intermittent fasting increases the resistance of mice to degenerative diseases’such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke’while improving body composition and increasing life span more than what occurs with mice that are fed a CR diet. More studies are required before we can fully understand the effects of similar feeding cycles on humans.

All that said, calorie counting can still be an accurate way of evaluating food-energy intake. If used correctly, it can help measure the effect of calorie intake on nutrient use. Indeed, studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have established that overall calorie intake affects protein use. A high-calorie intake (about a 20 percent surplus) maximizes protein use and vice versa. Low-calorie intake decreases protein use. Active individuals should take advantage of that by incorporating a specially designed high-calorie meal, preferably at night (see last month’s installment).

So you can use calorie counting as a standard measurement of food energy intake, but you shouldn’t apply it as your principal dietary approach if you want to avoid metabolic setbacks and impaired performance.

Fallacy 7
It’s okay to eat everything but in moderation.

The term ‘being moderate’ typically refers to the opposite of being extreme. Moderation is a buzzword when people talk about living a balanced lifestyle. Many health experts recite the moderation mantra to make people feel good: Everything is allowed in moderation.

The result is that millions of people who fail to manage their weight or sustain health are trying to figure out what went wrong. The answer is that it’s not okay to eat everything in moderation, and this idea is particularly misleading for athletes and bodybuilders.

Moderation does not go hand in hand with scoring and achieving. Real-life superiority requires extremes. Some of the greatest figures in history’including Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein and George Patton’had extreme personalities.

All classical training methods since the days of the Roman army have been based on one master principle: Adaptation to extreme conditions. It’s been established that the human body can adapt to environmental changes as well as to physical and nutritional changes. The more intense the change, a.k.a. the stimulant, the more likely it is to trigger the so-called thrifty genes, the genes that force the body to adapt and better survive.

The most important actions of the survival genes are those that lead to an improvement in fuel use. The capacity to generate energy from diet is critical for survival. Studies at the Food and Agriculture Organization revealed that the human body does better on food combinations than on a single food source. Researchers believe that humans have adapted to changes in food availability due to periods of famine or seasonal or climate changes. In other words, the body responds better to extreme feeding cycles that somewhat mimic cycles of famine and feast’undereating and overeating’alternating between fat fuel and carb fuel. Similar to physical exercise, such feeding cycles force the body to survive on either fat or carb fuel and thus improve the use of both. The idea that everything is okay in moderation typically refers to bad stuff, like junk food or alcohol. But is it okay? Not really.

What may seem to be a moderate serving does not translate into anything moderate when it hits the body. Recent studies at the University of Wollongong, Bandoro, Australia, reveal that even small (moderate) changes in the macronutrient content of the diet affect skeletal muscle performance. Small dietary changes in fat intake exerted a major influence on muscle cell membrane fatty acid composition. For instance, unbalanced high-fat diets that include large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and moderate amounts of hydrogenated fats’the trans fats abundant in junk food’can lead to severe deficiencies in muscle omega-3s. That type of deficiency is often associated with chronic inflammation, impaired recuperation and muscle waste.

Moderation doesn’t apply to real-life sport nutrition. An athlete who wishes to excel can’t afford to eat even small amounts of junk, especially before exercise, when it may adversely affect postexercise cortisol level. Insulin sensitivity is necessary for the maximum anabolic impact of meals. Note that even a single sugar binge can lower insulin sensitivity, compromising the body’s ability to recuperate and build tissues.

Do not fall for tricky words like moderation. Even moderate amounts of junk food can adversely affect your capacity for exercising, recuperating and excelling. Fallacy 8
Low-carb products will help you lose weight.

We’re living in an era that may be remembered as the dark ages of human diets. Even though more people than ever before are on diets, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are at all-time highs. Ironically, the worst time in human diet history involves the greatest production of purported health products. Among the most popular are low-carb foods.

Low-carb products appeal to those who desperately believe that carb consumption is the villain in the fat-gain scenario. Yet most low-carb dieters fail to maintain a lean body. Statistically, they suffer from a fat-gain rebound, gaining more weight than they initially lost. Low-carb products fail to promote fat loss for two reasons:

1) A low-carb intake adversely affects human capacity for generating energy, building tissue and maintaining optimum health (see fallacy 5).

2) Low-carb products are often made with low-grade carb-substitute chemicals, artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohol and/or hydrogenated oil. Low-carb products, in particular some protein bars, typically have a funky aftertaste’not to mention the fact that they often bring on adverse side effects, such as indigestion, bloating and nausea.

Due to their often inferior nutritional composition and high content of chemicals, low-carb products may increase the overall metabolic stress on the liver. That may lead to accumulation of metabolites such as coenzyme A and acetate, as well as estrogen chemicals, in the liver, which causes insulin resistance and the accumulation of stubborn fat with the former and the accumulation of abdominal fat with the latter.

Don’t attempt to fool your body. Stay away from products that are loaded with chemicals or cheap carb substitutes. They could be your worst choice, especially if you’re already fat.

Fallacy 9
To build muscles, you need to eat a fixed amount of protein based on your bodyweight.

One of the trickiest fallacies is the notion that there’s a fixed amount of protein, based on your lean bodyweight, that you’ll need to eat in order to gain muscle. Indeed, though the body requires dietary protein for the buildup of muscle tissues, that’s only one of several major variables that affect the body’s capacity for growth. In fact, it isn’t even the most important.

The amount of protein required for muscle gain depends on critical variables such as hormonal balance, intensity and frequency of exercise, timing of meals and the overall nutritional state, including protein biological value, or BV. Since protein requirements can change as the variables change, the idea of a fixed amount of protein intake just doesn’t work. Here are the major variables that directly relate to protein intake:

Hormonal Balance

The body requires a certain hormonal balance in order to build tissues. A low ratio of androgens-to-cortisol or a low ratio of IGF-1-to-bound IGF-1 may weaken the body’s ability to create the kind of anabolic state required for muscle gain. If untreated, hormonal imbalance can jeopardize any chance of gaining muscle mass, even if protein intake is high. Exercise Intensity and Frequency

Muscular development relates to the intensity and frequency of exercise. Numerous studies reveal that a high level of exercise intensity, such as occurs during resistance training or sprint intervals, increases levels of growth hormone as well as androgens and maximizes the muscles’ capacity for adapting, gaining mass and performing. A recent study done at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, reveals that intense prefatigue exercise (without a moderate warmup) boosts VO2 max in older individuals to near young-adult levels. Moderate aerobic exercise just doesn’t do it.

Long-distance runners would fail to gain total-body strength and muscle mass even if they took in a lot of protein. Furthermore, when the frequency of training is too high and trainees don’t get enough rest, the body may be prone to muscle waste. Recent studies done at the University of Alabama found that a hormonelike metabolite called IL-6 may be chronically elevated due to overtraining. That can lead to a long-lasting inflammatory process that may cause muscle loss.

Timing of Meals

Protein reaches maximum utilization when taken within the first 30 minutes after exercise. Any delay beyond that will gradually slow down the rate of protein synthesis in the muscle. Thirty grams of protein eaten right after exercise equals 60 grams eaten five hours later. So meal timing is critical, and the same protein that is so beneficial after exercise may cause adverse effects if you eat it before exercise.

Overall Nutritional State

To be fully used, protein must not be eaten on its own in large amounts. Studies by the FAO reveal that a high-calorie intake positively increases protein bioavailabity, and vice versa. The higher the fat or carb intake’effectively, the higher the calorie intake’the less protein is required for muscle gain. Besides being a source of energy, carbs and fats play additional important roles. Carbs are necessary for critical anabolic actions’enhancing growth hormone and IGF-1 impact’in particular after exercise. Fat is necessary for supporting a healthy hormonal balance.

So, while there is no fixed amount of protein required for muscle gain, protein intake is important and should be adjusted according to other variables. For instance, young people who have a superior hormonal balance require less protein than older people who have inferior hormonal balance. Another example: When protein has a higher bioavailability, the body requires less of it to build muscle than when the protein has a lower BV. If applied correctly, the strategy of eating small protein meals after exercise can yield the same net-protein use as double-size protein meals that are eaten either too early or too late.

Fallacy 10
Your diet should consist of certain percentages of protein, fat and carbs.

The suggestion that there is one set of macronutrient percentages that fits all humans is ludicrous. So is the notion that there’s an ideal ‘zone’ in which all humans reach peak performance. No scientific evidence substantiates that. Quite the opposite: There is substantial evidence that humans have primarily adapted to seasonal foods and, thus, different percentages of macronutrients. Furthermore, due to the primal necessity of surviving on accessible food sources’i.e., vegetable- and animal-based’humans were forces to cycle their diets and adapt to different macronutrient percentages. No one formula fits all.

It has even been established that people who live in different climates differ in their capacity for using foods. For example, due to their adaptation to the Arctic climate, Inuits do better on raw fish and blubber than Africans, who live in a tropical climate and survive better on grains or fruits.

The notion of fixed percentages of macronutrients is another attempt to oversimplify diet theory for people who are desperate for a quick fix. When it comes to nutrition, there’s no such thing.

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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