Why Nutritional Dogma Dies Hard
Intro not really necessary
I’m fairly certain that most of you reading this are familiar with the veteran strength coach/author Mark Rippetoe, best known for Starting Strength and his collab with Lon Kilgore, Practical Programming for Strength Training. To say that these books are influential cult classics that get consistently glowing reviews would be an understatement. Given this, I had my expectations set pretty high regarding Mark’s general approach to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. But, it turns out I was wrong in my assumptions – at least about the nutritional aspect of his message board.
Having recently registered at the Starting Strength Forums, I randomly engaged in discussion with a member who was worried about combining carbs and fat in the same meal. One of the members stepped in and attempted to justify the carb-fat separation tactic. In Socratic fashion, I helped him discover that there wasn’t anything about his claim that he could substantiate from a scientific standpoint. But that’s not the kicker. After some browsing, I ran into a rather unique forum rule. Here are some key sections from a stickied thread in the subforum of the resident nutrition coach John Sheaffer (who posts as “Johnny Pain” on Mark’s forums):
“…there are many other places (where many of you may already be members) for you guys to post studies and talk about medline, and Pubmed, and argue the validity of someone’s research…”
“I am largely not interested in that sort of thing. It takes too much time away from the important stuff, and the people who are doing the real science in the gym and at the table. I am not into arguing with people on the internet.”
“I will continue to answer questions that are relevant to the board. I have been legitimately enjoying this so far, and have met some great people. Do not however, bother posting threads or individual posts that include discussion of or links to studies. They will be deleted.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate simplistic/no-brainer/default-based approaches to helping out forum members. But in this particular realm, isn’t it kind of odd to literally forbid scientific research-related discussion? If John is not interested in getting into scientific debates, then that’s fine. But to prohibit this from occurring in his subforum even if he’s not involved is, well, an interesting way to run a community.
Prohibiting discussion that includes citing scientific research shifts the bias too far in the direction of anecdote/personal testimony. Heck, there are dozens of methods out there with a ton of testimony behind them and very little actual merit. Published research is not, cannot, and will never be the end-all judge. However, it’s an indispensable tool that helps separate the empty claims from the ones backed by objective evidence (however limited that evidence might be).
Nutritional mythology 101
And of course, you always have to laugh when scientific research is cited when it’s convenient, and dismissed when it doesn’t match up with someone’s personally held beliefs/anecdotes. Funny how that works. Now, let me give you a perfect example of why research should be discussed on training/nutrition forums. Have a look at this quote from John:
“Separate your carbs and fats. In each meal, you will have a portion of protein in addition to either carbs or fats, but not both. In the earlier half of the day, your meals should be Protein + Carb (P/C) in order to fill your muscle glycogen stores for your athletic activities. Later in the day (afternoon to evening, depending on your individual metabolism), when you are more sedentary, your meals should be Protein + Fat (P/F). Since carbs produce an insulin response, removing the carbs at this time will decrease the likelihood that you will store your excess calories as fat. Your final meal of the day should be *only* protein. Also, your PWO meal, regardless of what time of the day it is, must be a P/C meal.”
The above quote is so packed with broscience, it’s enough to provide a strong case for more research-based discussion on John’s subforum. Regarding the “don’t mix carbs with fat” myth, I wrote an article debunking it here. As for warning against carbs at night, there’s nothing inherently fattening about night-time carbs unless they contribute to a chronic surplus of calories that isn’t used for building lean tissue. The ONLY reason cutting carbs out of the evening works for controlling fat gain in some folks is because it restricts total caloric intake for the day.
“No carbs at night” is nothing more than a calorie-cutting-for-dummies tactic. Can it work? Yes, it can. In the case of people who tend to overeat carbo-liscious foods at night, this can serve as a default solution, but it’s not a guideline that should be universally recommended. What works just as well is cutting back on an equivalent amount of calories earlier in the day. There are no night-time insulin fairies ready & waiting to store carbs in the fat tissue — at least not at any greater rate than they would do so during the day.
Is there research to back up the claim that shifting the majority of your carbs to the later part of the day won’t magically chub you up or make it tougher to lose fat? Yes there is – and this occurred despite exercise being in the earlier part of the day for both groups compared . For those who put a lot of stock in case studies, the lack of fattening effect of pre-bed carbs has plenty of examples - particularly in Martin Berkhan’s clientele .
Come at me, bro
If I had a chance to discuss these issues with John or Mark on the Starting Strength Forums, I would have gladly done so. However, it’s clear that Mark is not interested in discussing it with me, as seen in this thread. John hasn’t said a word about it yet, and I sincerely encourage him to do so. I’m easy to reach, and willing to field any challenges to any of the claims I’ve made. I won’t hold my breath, though. To relay John’s own words stuck at the top of his subforum:
“I am not into arguing with people on the internet. I think it’s gay to do so. I think it makes you a pussy. If people have a problem with the way I handle my board, please go to another forum and talk trash on me. It’s ok. People do it all the time. Better yet, catch up with me at an event that I am attending and voice your concern to me in person. That’s how it should be anyway, right?”
To the above quote, I would counter that there’s no way it can’t be productive to calmly & intelligently discuss any topic by presenting scientific evidence to support your case, while being open to research that perhaps you were not aware of. But hey, learning and staying informed about the scientific side of things takes considerable effort. And apparently, some people have no interest in delving into anything beyond their pre-existent beliefs. I personally think that there’s ALWAYS room for learning from scientific research, especially if you include science to justify your methods of practice. Disagree? Then come at me, bro.
- Keim NL, et al. Weight loss is greater with consumption of large morning meals and fat-free mass is preserved with large evening meals in women on a controlled weight reduction regimen. J Nutr. 1997 Jan;127(1):75-82. [Medline]
- Berkhan M. Client Updates. (note that in many cases there’s even some fat with the carbs in those large evening meals – shocking, I know) [Leangains]