The Tao of Eating – One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Avoid the common misconception of applying universal diet plans to individualized nutrition.

J, who I commonly use as my guinea pig in the gym is a vegetarian. He originally was, like me, an omnivore. Culture playing a large role in dietary choice, the West Indies provided fertile ground for a wide variety of foods; animal and plant alike.

J, who I commonly use as my guinea pig in the gym is a vegetarian. He originally was, like me, an omnivore. Culture playing a large role in dietary choice, the West Indies provided fertile ground for a wide variety of foods; animal and plant alike.

Once J’s son was born, however, the once convenient omnivorous lifestyle needed to be discarded; his son had a laundry list of food allergies. As a supportive and proactive father, he changed his nutrition to an ovo-lacto vegetarian one. However, as he progressed in his fitness journey he hit a plateau that wasn’t remedied by a change in mechanical stimulus (namely resistance training).

In this article, I will detail out what nutrition is and isn’t, things that contribute to nutrition, resources that will assist your decisions, and how being a more adaptive eater and feeder may impact your training.

Please keep in mind that my intention in writing this article is not to change any viewpoints regarding nutrition with respect to religious values, moral and ethical codes. This is purely informational in intent and application.

What Is Nutrition?

Nutrition, according to the World Health Organization is: “the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs. Good nutrition–an adequate, well-balanced diet combined with regular physical activity–is a cornerstone of good health. Poor nutrition can lead to reduced immunity, increased susceptibility to disease, impaired physical and mental development, and reduced productivity.”

So, from this understanding nutrition is the what, where, how, and why with regard to ingestion of nutrients. Nutrients are: “any substance that plants or animals need to grow.” Why you eat should be based on the nutrients your body needs to survive and thrive, in whatever environment it exists in for the sake of a healthy lifestyle. Nutrition, by this definition, should be adaptive. The what, how, and where is based on what foods are available to you in your community.

The Role of Macronutrients

To preface this conversation, I will talk about the calorie as Dan Benardot, PhD, RD, FACS would. “In physics, the calorie is a measurement of energy, with 1 calorie representing the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. In nutrition, the term calorie is 1,000 times this amount, so it is referred to as a kilocalorie (kcal).” Which, for the sake of this article, we will talk about caloric intake and values with respect to kcals.

Macronutrients are essential nutrients that must be obtained from food and have a large daily minimum requirement. These are proteins, carbohydrates, fat, and water. Macronutrients have subunits with respective calorie count which are as follows:

  • Proteins yield amino acids. Aminos can be essential or non-essential where the former must be obtained from food or external source—your body cannot produce it. The measurement is 1 gram of protein is 4 cal/g.
  • Fats are also termed as lipids in the form of: mono or triglycerides, unsaturated or cis fats which can be mono or poly, saturated which can be mono and poly, as well and trans fat. The measurement is 1 gram of fat is 9 cal/g.
  • Carbohydrates yield sugars (simple, complex, sugar alcohols) and fiber. Common forms are glucose and fructose, cellulose, and starch. The measurement is 1 gram of carbohydrates is 4 cals/g. The caveat here is sugar alcohols, such as mannitol and sorbitol, which range in caloric count from as little as 0.2 cals/g to 5 cals/g while sugar from alcoholic beverages can be as much as 7 cals/g.
  • Water can be deionized, distilled, mineralized, and infused. Of all the macros we don’t ascribe a caloric value to water however the human body is made of 60 to 75% water (whichever textbook you read). Luckily, you don’t have to drink all your water, you can obtain it from fruits and veggies as well.

The Role of Micronutrients

Micronutrients are essential nutrients that are needed in lesser amounts than their big brother macro counterparts, however, despite the lower amount needed, they play as much a vital role to biochemical processes in the body.

This isn’t school, so I won’t detail out every process they partake in, but, I will list the nutrients and their key role in the body. For as we all know, without them you eventually can die.

Vitamins – Fat Soluble

You need fatty tissue and the liver to absorb them, yes, your 10% body fat has a use.

1. Vitamin A – Retinol, Carotenoids

  • Importance: night vision, color vision, immune support, bone health, skin, and reproduction.
  • Eat: eggs, spinach, broccoli, carrots, sweet potato, peaches, yellow and orange fruits, and veggies.

2. Vitamin D – Cholecalciferol

  • Importance: calcium, bone health, endocrine health, immune health
  • Eat: salmon, tuna, egg, mushrooms, liver

3. Vitamin E – Tocopherol

  • Importance: skin, hair, prevents excessive formation of free radicals and oxidative processes
  • Eat: seeds, nuts, oils

4. Vitamin K – Phylloquinone, Menaquinones

  • Importance: blood clotting, bone formation
  • Eat: dark leafy greens and black-eyed peas, Brussel sprouts

Vitamins- Water Soluble

1. Vitamin C– Ascorbic Acid

  • Importance: iron and bone health, collagen formation, vitamin E regeneration, immune system health, DNA, hormone formation, antioxidant
  • Eat: kiwi, pineapples, tomatoes, citrus fruit, bell peppers

2. Vitamins B1, 2, 6, 12

3. Folate – Folic Acid

  • Importance: blood formation, DNA, cell division, amino acid metabolism
  • Eat: legumes, wheat germ, liver, green leafy veggies

Major Minerals

1. Sulfur

  • Importance: liver detoxifying, maintain acid-base
  • Eat: eggs, protein-rich foods

2. Magnesium

  • Importance: muscle contraction, cell activity, over 500 biochemical processes, blood clotting
  • Eat: leafy greens, potatoes, nuts, seeds, legumes

3. Calcium

  • Importance: bone health, muscle contraction, nerve transmission
  • Eat: fatty fish, cabbage, kale, turnip greens (spinach has oxalates so it’s poor in calcium content)

Minor Minerals

  • Iron
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • Fluoride
  • Iodine
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Obtain these nutrients from food, as much as you can. Take powders and pills if you have deficiencies and or have difficulty absorbing and or retaining certain vitamins and minerals, getting sufficient protein, etc.

The unfortunate truth is that most of our food is stripped of its nutrients (Okinawan rice versus American rice as an example), and so the multivitamin industry can make lots of money as a result.

Like any supplement industry, it preys on the lack of information that people have and makes their products appetizing. What people do not realize is that these synthetic goods can tax the liver and kidneys because it’s not being broken down through proper chemical processes and often it is excreted in urine.

Factors That Contribute to Nutrition

  • Disease or Disease Disorders (psychological, physiological and anatomical)
  • Socio-Economic Status (access, finances, community, culture)
  • Activity Level (sedentary to highly active, including sexual activity)
  • Stress Level (eustress or good stress versus distress, bad stress, both increase cortisol levels, but what matters is the life of cortisol in the body)
  • Sleep, or the Lack of Sleep (not enough delta waves – the more one gets of REM sleep, the better they perform)
  • Sensitivity (carb sensitive, sodium sensitive, gluten sensitive, caffeine sensitive, allergies versus intolerance)

The Psychology of Eating

According to Ellyn Satter: “1) positive attitudes about eating and about food, 2) food acceptance skills that support eating an ever-increasing variety of the available food, 3) internal regulation skills that allow intuitively consuming enough food to give energy and stamina and to support stable body weight, and 4) skills and resources for managing the food context and orchestrating family meals.”

I believe people underestimate the value of separating these distinct concepts. Eating to live means to eat foods that are nutrient dense and satisfy the metabolic needs of the body in addition to its health needs. Health needs include, but are not limited to, recommended daily intake within the parameters of your food sensitivities or disease-specific meal plans.

Living to eat is, mindless eating and lacking a regulation in eating. Not only must one be mindful of the food they eat, they must be fully present in eating. Instead of eating in rapid succession to complete another bowl, wait a few minutes between having another serving to determine if you’re hungry. Savor food and enjoy it.

Nutrition for Competition and Athletics

Eating to prepare one’s body for the rigor of a competition such as bodybuilding, everything matters. One can become so ingrained in the thought process of calculations that sometimes we forget to enjoy the process of eating—it shouldn’t become a chore.

It shouldn’t be defined as “junk versus clean” but often this is the common sentiment among athletes. This play on nutrient timing, nutrient profiles, and the like may provide scholarly information but can (unless checked) cause obsessive-compulsive behaviors which can interfere with everyday sociability.

Athletics emphasizes being an optimal body weight and body composition for a role in a sport. This lends itself to each athlete having an individualized meal plan. This also allows us to understand how individual plans yield necessary and unique results. Adaptive eating yields the greatest rewards and does not have much (if any) psychological damage to the person.

When we eat, dopamine and serotonin, amongst other hormones, are released. Our hippocampus remembers the feeling that we have of enjoying certain foods and when. Next time you’re with your friends or with your teammates, learn to love being cognizant of what you eat and take time to be present at the table.

Why Diet?

Dieting is, in a nutshell, a form of restrictive eating that serves a specific purpose. The purposes may include but are not limited to, weight loss, weight gain, competition, reversing disease, etc.

Some pros to dieting may include ease of regulation and or supervision of caloric intake, regulating body composition, regulating metabolism, decreasing or increasing hormonal activity, the motivation to try new foods.

On the other hand, cons to dieting include restriction of macro and micronutrients, capacity for obsession, creating food sensitivities due to prolonged absence of certain food groups, emotional eating, metabolic yo-yoing, unintentional weight loss or weight gain, amongst other things.

Types of Diets

You name it there is a diet that describes what you’re doing right now. Unfortunately, most (not all) diets are bullshit. Like the idea of muscle confusion being unwarranted, dietary confusion needn’t be added to the mix.

Dieting is a choice, nothing more. If you’re healthy you needn’t follow a diet especially if your goal isn’t specific or addresses a problem. Diets cannot and should not be sustained for the remainder of your life. In the first scenario, stagnation and plateaux occur, your body no longer responds in a way that best benefits your current goals. Instead of turning back to food, its most common to turn to supplementation without a thorough understanding of what they do.

Nutrition reigns supreme were dieting does not. Adapt as your body does.

Nutritional Impacts on Training

Given that we learned the importance of food, how it affects us and the ways to eat. The important take away here will be how to apply it to training.

Exercise without excess is beneficial. It stresses the body mechanically and biochemically. As far as nutrition is concerned cortisol, the stress hormone, is released. The longer we exercise the longer it has an effect metabolically. Cortisol breaks down fat, protein, and glycogen to produce glucose for active tissues.

It begs the question, that if we do not have enough resources to fuel our work out what occurs? If our resources are specific, how do we adapt to meet our bodies demands?

Adaptive eating isn’t some new fad or craze that I’m trying to employ. We do it every day when we are limited to the foods in our community or something that requires less prep time, yet yields exactly what the body needs.

When it comes to training, we need to consider things such as:

  • Carbohydrate need and insulin sensitivity
  • Protein needs, liver, and kidney function
  • Caffeine and other supplement sensitivities
  • Vitamin and mineral need (electrolytes and trace minerals)
  • Nutrient timing and gastric emptying time
  • Training time and intensity

For example, on a typical day, J works 9 to 6 and chooses to head to the gym after work. He is vegetarian, therefore his protein sources are more limited, and furthermore, he is carbohydrate sensitive so having foods low on the glycemic index scale is important.

In addition, there is a great need to sustain him throughout the day until his post-workout meal, so we also need to consider slower digesting carbs such as brown rice, dark chocolate, or beans. Combining them with protein to give an even slower release as he works a labor-intensive job, but adding faster-digesting carbs when his day picks up such as an egg sandwich with avocado and white bread.

We need to consider his protein need. As a 90kg guy who trains four times a week, the grams of protein needed per kg of body weight is different from a person who is sedentary or does not workout at all. We have a rule of thumb for your average person at 0.8g/kg whereas the more athletic you are it can bump up to 1.5g/kg so that’s already 135g protein per day. However, this slows down carbs and as he gets closer to his gym-time he should be getting something easier to digest so his stomach is virtually empty by his warm up set.

Males in comparison to females have a urethra that is longer thus urine has a longer travel time and the bladder can store urine for longer periods of time (not including urinary and or prostate issues). Therefore, the water need is slightly greater in men than in women. For men, 3.7L is what is recommended per day in comparison to 2.7L in women.

However, some people have a tolerable level of water per day which is physiological and psychological response to water loading. J loves drinking a gallon a day so no problems here. In so far as training, however, the notorious water belly, is something we need to pay attention to as this disturbs the ability to create intraabdominal pressure during a lift.

J doesn’t enjoy caffeinated products, but if he did, caffeine has a role of being a diuretic and a major vasodilator so maintaining, that high volume of water as he’s sweating throughout the day becomes a game of sensitivity to caffeine. If he has a high sensitivity, this means it will linger in his system and have a longer lasting diuretic effect. In so far as blood pressure, higher amounts of caffeine during a workout can be beneficial to shunting blood to active tissues, but in persons with cardiac issues it should be avoided, luckily J is not one of these people.

Post workout nutrition plays a key role in gaining muscle, its retention, and/or loss. Some may need a higher antioxidant and electrolyte demand in addition to carb load and protein load. Understanding how this plays a role in muscle anabolism or muscle building will provide a much greater outcome for the long term.

Learn How to Balance Your Calories

Being able to calculate your basal metabolic rate and total daily energy expenditure makes caloric balancing so much easier. Body Mass Index (BMI) is also important with regard to making sure you stay healthy. However, performance, immediate changes in body composition, how you feel from training session to the next, taking stock of stress levels, and the like qualitatively present a better indicator of progress than just your BMI alone.

Training intensity, which is expressed as the taxation on the nervous system, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and respiratory system along with length of time determine the energy need of your body. Understanding that larger muscle groups require more energy to move and grow (amongst other things), will help with detailing out a meal plan.

Adapting based on these parameters will allow you to customize how you nourish your body.

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