Interviewed by Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University

2011 December 14
by Alan Aragon

It’s been more than a decade since I graduated from college, but the memories are vivid and most of them are good. I was recently contacted for an interview with Anoop Balachandran, coordinator of the Health & Fitness Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. This interview will appear in the Fitness Center’s newsletter. By the way, Anoop maintains one of the few blogs out there with useful, research-based information (exercisebiology.com). The questions I answered were a pleasant diversion from the ones I typically get from the more advanced/technically inclined audience. While the latter are also important, they only apply to the minority of the population. In the following exchange, more of a general college student audience is addressed. Without further ado….

_________________________________________________________________________

Are there ‘bad’ foods and ‘good’ foods? And is it ok to eat a donut?

First let me thank you for the opportunity to reach the students here. Answering the question, labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is a false endeavor from the start, mainly because it ignores context. All foods in isolation can’t be judged without knowing their proportional contribution to the diet. Even seemingly “bad” foods such as donuts can be perfectly neutral (& even beneficial in a psychological sense) as long as they only comprise a minority of the diet. There’s no compelling research evidence suggesting that a diet whose composition is 80-90% whole & minimally refined foods (with the rest coming from miscellaneous indulgent foods) is not prudent enough to maximize health, particularly in physically active populations. Moderation & not tagging any foods as taboo or off-limits is the best way to sustain good dietary habits in the long-term.

There are so many diets out there. But which one do you think is the best, and why?

In a similar sense that foods cannot be inherently good or bad, the same applies to diets. A universally superior diet really does not exist, since the goals, preferences, & tolerances vary with the individual. When examining the spectrum of low-carb to high-carb diets, the choice along the continuum mainly boils down to which one you can best adhere to. With respect to meeting supply & demand, those with a higher volume of training will tend to do better on more carbs, while those who are more sedentary with minimal training demands will do better on less. A blanket recommendation for diet type simply cannot be issued here due to variations in both lifestyle & genetic predisposition across individuals. What CAN be issued as a general recommendation, once again, is to strive for the majority of the diet to come from whole & minimally refined foods. By the way, there are exceptions to this (ie, high-quality protein powders, which are refined foods but still can impart health benefits), but it’s still valid as a generally applicable guideline.

What would you advise a 19-year-old female who wants to lose weight and look toned?

I would first have them focus more on body composition (indicated by clothing fit, comparison pictures, mirror feedback, & in some cases more specialized body comp tracking) rather than total bodyweight. 19 year-old women in many cases have not reached their full potential for bone density, so placing the focus on the scale could be counterproductive from a health standpoint. Not to mention, weight fluctuations due to their monthly cycles can also play serious head games if the scale is used as the main gauge of progress. I would have them honestly examine their eating habits and pinpoint the aspects they are habitually overdoing (ie, empty-calorie intake & oversized portions), and simply pull back on those, rather than taking the all-or-nothing approach of complete avoidance or drastic reductions in overall intake. A moderate caloric deficit should be sustained, along with consistent training and enough regular time off. I would also emphasize the importance of a well-balanced training program that includes resistance training with sound progression. The latter tends to be overlooked by women, yet it’s critical for optimally improving body composition & maintaining those improvements.

How about a 19-year-old guy who wants to pack some muscle?

Guys in their late teens need to first realize they won’t reach true skeletal maturity for another decade or so. Drugs & genetics aside, it’s no coincidence that the top-tier bodybuilders in the world are mostly in their 30’s, with a good handful in their early 40’s. These guys are skeletally mature, and thus have the underlying architecture to hold a maximal amount of muscle. What I’m getting at is that “packing on muscle” in your late teens is not a process that can be hurried, and most guys in their late teens will not be able to accumulate truly substantial levels of muscle mass until they break into their mid-20’s. That’s just the reality of the matter, like it or not. Sure, there indeed are massively muscled 19 year-olds, but they typically are the gifted (or drug-enhanced) exception rather than a realistic benchmark for goal-setting.

With all that said, novices with the primary goal of mass gain should strive to cover their protein & total calorie needs, and not be disappointed in slow but consistent gains. For a 19 year-old who’s just starting out, putting on 15-20 pounds of muscle per year in the first 2-3 years of consistent training is a very respectable accomplishment. Gains in the advanced stages (more than about 4 years of consistent progressive training as an adult) will typically slow down to half of that rate, at best.

With the holiday season coming up, do you have any tips for holiday eating?

My main tip is to relax and enjoy the food as much as the time spent with family & friends. Using the holidays as an excuse to stuff yourself silly for days on end is a bad idea, but so is the other extreme of trying to steadfastly adhere to a rigid diet. Use surplus calories from holiday eating as a time to set some personal records in your chosen sport or training activity.

What do you think are the three major nutritional mistakes people commit when they try to lose weight or gain weight?

The biggest mistake in either losing or gaining weight is not having realistic goals & expectations. Keep in mind, the following guidelines are general, and apply to the majority, so exceptions exist. For fat loss, roughly 1-2 pounds a week is plenty. For muscle gain,  roughly 1-2 pounds a month is plenty. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble who’s been watching the Biggest Loser or seeing how Joe Gymrat gained 20 solid pounds in 2 months (which is typically rebound weight gain after prolonged dieting). While progress can indeed occur faster in the initial stages of a program, expecting to exceed those benchmarks in the long-term puts most people at risk for experiencing frustration & dropout. There are always exceptional cases, but following these limits can prevent most folks from overeating while gaining & undereating while losing.

A common nutritional misconception for either weight loss or gain is the idea that there are “special” foods that will get the job done faster or better – and conversely, the idea that “bad” foods that will critically hinder the process. Another common mistake for weight loss is placing an over-emphasis on cardio & an under-emphasis on resistance training. Preserving as much muscle as possible while losing fat is important for long-term success. The preservation of muscle during weight loss can be indicated by how well you can maintain your lifting strength. If strength is dropping precipitously, then undue losses in muscle are likely to occur as well.

Where can we read more of your writings, Alan?

My most comprehensive & current material is in my monthly research review, and an ongoing index of the topics covered can be seen here.

Do you have any final comments or thoughts, Alan?

College students as a group should realize that the pursuit of physical fitness goals can be a good thing, but it can also be taken to obsessive levels that disrupt a healthy balance of focus on other aspects of life. Just remember that there are far more fulfilling rewards in life than merely having six-pack abs & bulging biceps.

 

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44 Responses leave one →
  1. JLB permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Ah, semi-annual blog post FTW. Great stuff Alan, sometimes it’s good to review the fundamental stuff and be reminded of how little of the general public actually gets exposed to this. I hope the students will take this info to heart. By the way, much of my college memories are somehow blacked out :p

  2. Jean Paulo Manalastas permalink
    December 14, 2011

    You are truly legendary, Alan. I learned so many things from you and Lyle M. Keep up the great work. Btw, I’m looking forward to the 2nd edition of your GC book.

  3. darkseeker permalink
    December 14, 2011

    *claps*

    Way to set those kids on the right path, Brofessor Aragon :)

  4. Jordan permalink
    December 14, 2011

    I love the final comments he made about college students. Being a college student myself, I find it sad to see many of my most intelligent friends become consumed with exercise or more focused on their 1-Rep Max than their Mid-term paper. As always, thanks for the informative interview Alan.

  5. RayCinLA permalink
    December 14, 2011

    WHOOT! Alan hits the blogosphere with more wizdumz. Loved the interview bro, I wish that I could have read this at the start of my college career and saved myself a ton of heartache and pain.

  6. Christine permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Alan,

    Excellent work as always. This might be just a review of the basics to you, but you might be surprised at just how many college-aged people (and beyond) DESPERATELY need to read this.

    By the way, would it be asking too much for you to do a blog post more than twice per ice age? :)

  7. December 15, 2011

    Hi Alan,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write, Alan! I definitely think it will help a lot of students.

    Honestly, I was surprised how well you dumbed down the topic and made it very practical. You would be a really good teacher. And I am glad that most of what I write agrees with what you wrote.

    Thanks bro!

  8. snorkelman permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Nice article. I am sure some college students will get their head screwed on straight after reading that. Sadly, I fear that many will not, because it fails to include lists that they are used to seeing in fitness magazines. I suspect many college bros and brahs will stop reading before completion because they don’t see something like this:

  9. The Man permalink
    December 15, 2011

    http://www.dangerouslyhardcore.com/851/synthetic-wisdom-equals-true-bullshit/ Thoughts on this Alan? If you look at the comments Kiefer basically says you don’t know sh*t about nutrition………

  10. The Man permalink
    December 15, 2011

    “This isn’t the first time someone’s pointed out that Aragon is not a fan. I barely even know who the guy is other than he’s still stuck to the calories-in-calories-out (CICO) methodology of nutrition. Come to think of it, for a guy who sells a Research Review Newsletter, I can’t understand why he doesn’t seem know what I know. There are only so many medical journals in the world-we must read at least one or two of the same ones. Weird.” -John Kiefer

  11. December 15, 2011

    The Man — All I gotta say about the Kiefer stuff is LOL :)… He’s just mad that I sided with Lyle, who apparently got him a tad butthurt during a brief debate on his site. In any case, I wish him all the best in 2012. As long as he doesn’t trademark the consumption of carbs, protein, & fat altogether, we should all be fine.

    Snorkelman — Check your email.

    Anoop – Thanks right back for the opportunity to dispense important info to the students.

    All — Thanks very much for taking the time to read the interview & drop some feedback. I agree that this type of content unfortunately does not get enough exposure to general audiences. Students in their early college years can be very impressionable, and too often they’re barraged with BS when it comes to fitness & nutrition-related claims. Some escape the clutches of Brodom, but most don’t.

  12. December 16, 2011

    Alan, thank you for this article. You are one of the few people in the fitness sphere whose opinion I respect, even when I don’t always find myself agreeing. That others attack your character instead of your words shows that the latter are usually grounded in worthwhile arguments. I’d just wish you’d update your blog a bit more often.

  13. December 17, 2011

    Great interview, and great advice. Anyone who is interested in Exercise and Nutrition Science should definitely be reading Alan’s Research Review. It is a great read that provides sceintific info. with a touch of the Aragon Style.

    Keep up the great work.

    jhale

  14. Shane permalink
    December 17, 2011

    Thanks for the awesome article, Alan. It’s amazing that sensible people like you actually exist in an industry loaded with extremists and wackos. AARR is the greatest thing ever, by the way. I just subscribed and cursed myself for not getting on sooner.

  15. December 21, 2011

    Thanks, everyone!

  16. December 21, 2011

    Are you gay? If not you should be.

  17. December 21, 2011

    Rant — No thanks, I’d sooner go vegan.

    By the way, Teen Misc —————————>

    :)

  18. darkseeker permalink
    December 22, 2011

    Trolls underestimate the power of Alan’s troll-fu. >:-0

  19. The Man permalink
    December 26, 2011

    Kiefer wants $89 for his carb bullshit-loading book . I’d like to see an Article from you on your thoughts on it haha. Happy Holidays.

  20. Jason Steele permalink
    December 28, 2011

    Great interviews, Alan. Knowledge and wisdom dripping all over the place. Keep it up!

  21. BMJ permalink
    December 29, 2011

    Great read as always, Alan!

    You are on the list of people who “just get it.” That will definately help out students who are pulled 20 different directions and lack the observational experience. Congrats on the CSUN position, i’d have loved to of had you there while I was attending.

    Thanks for the blog update, and the latest AARR was phenomenal as well.

    Have a fun and safe New Year, Alan.

  22. Jay permalink
    January 2, 2012

    Hey Alan,
    I recently picked up a copy of this month’s Scientific American and there was an article on slowing aging and it was basically about mTOR and autophagy. Preview here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-new-path-to-longevity I have seen this stuff around calorie restriction, intermittent fasting, and a newer approach on protein fasting. Basically I understand the idea to be that if you restrict protein for an extended period of time, it upregulates mTOR and turns on autophagy which basically recycles junk proteins and other damaging “stuff” as well as keeping cell growth and replication in check so there is a severe reduction in damaged cells and abnormal cells. This supposedly slows aging significantly, can substantially reduce the risk of cancer, endothelial dysfunction, and DNA damage. One of the new approaches to turning on autophagy is protein fasting. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it but essentially it works something like this: At breakfast you consume no protein, but you can consume carbohydrate and/or fat. At lunch and dinner and if you have snacks later in the day, you fit all your protein in there. So you are not restricting calories for a period of time like intermittent fasting, but you are restricting protein for 16-20 hours. This supposedly turns on autophagy without stressing the body like intermittent fasting can, and you still fulfill your protein requirements. I was wondering if you are familiar with this stuff, if you might be able to throw up a blog post or research review sometime about aging and the influence of mTOR, autophagy and the protocols by which you can turn it on and the different approaches to doing so?

  23. The Man permalink
    January 3, 2012

    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/239854.php Did you see this Alan?

  24. Alan Aragon permalink*
    January 4, 2012

    Jay — This sounds interesting, but far-fetched. I would imagine that most of the research in this area is on rodent, no? If so, this makes its application highly hypothetical – I haven’t looked into it, but if you know of human research in this area, feel free to send it my way. Also, regularly going 16-20 hours without protein would not likely be conducive to goals such as muscular strength &/or hypertrophy, which are legitimate goals for many.

    The Man — Yeah, I remember when that study was still on its way to publication. The thing is, a diet consisting of 25% protein is not staggeringly higher than the average Western consumption, and it’s actually less than the typical fitness buff’s consumption level. It would have been interesting if the authors included a treatment that was 35 -45% protein. I haven’t read the full text, but will be picking it apart in AARR.

    All — Thanks for dropping by & I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. Make sure you check out the link (to 3DMJ) at the end, which I recently added.

  25. Jay permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Hey Alan,
    Ya it’s all rodent data in the SciAm article on mTor/autophagy. That’s why I wondered if you’ve heard of any research, because I figured you’d know if it was done in humans. I’m almost 100% positive that the protein fasting trick is entirely theoretical (not even tested on animals) and the folks who employ it are simply guessing it will work. According to the article on mTor and autophagy is definitely a major pathway in the disease reduction and life extension benefits seen in CRON, but to my knowledge calorie restriction for life extension has only been tested in animals with the primate study being the most prominent. I may be a little different from your normal AARR subscribers in that while I definitely enjoy putting on some muscle mass, my primary concern is always health and longevity. I’m also quite new to your AARR so I’m sure I’ll have many more questions as time goes on. I also appreciate your reasonable price for subscription considering how much work you put into it and that you tackle questions for your readers.

  26. Sarah permalink
    January 4, 2012

    I recently stumbled upon your article about how you came into your current career and I have to say it really inspired me! I am very passionate about health and fitness and have always dreamed of opening my own practice as a hollisitic Nutritionist and personal trainer, with a natural approach to healing. I am a highschool senior and so im considering becoming a Regisitered Dietitian and then take a courses in hollistic nutrition. I have a great interest in nutrition, but I do not think I would be able to work in a hospital type setting, and I too am the type of person who would prefer to be self employed. I am not, however, a very good business person/marketer, I like working with people, and I like to do my own thing and work in untraditional settings though. I know a lot of business skills come naturally, but im not sure whether I should consider minoring is business or not. Right now I am just very frustrated with what career path to follow so that I can choose the right school to attend. I have a passion and interest for health and fitness, but I know a lot of people do, yet I am a very creative thinker and very talented artist. like Nutrition, I know that if I were to pursue a career in art or design, I would be happiest self-employed. Can you provide me with any tips on what it takes to make it in business or become a succesful enteprenuear. I also noticed you did an interview for UW-Stout, which is the school I will most likely be attending next year..If I decide on a certain major

  27. Dylan permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Solid interview… as well as your interview for 3DMJ (good guys over there!)

    Echoing your response to the first question, I saw this today:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00452.x/abstract

    Just goes to show that moderation is key!

  28. January 22, 2012

    Good read and solid information!

  29. February 2, 2012

    Forgive me if I am being impatient, Alan, but when do you think the next issue of AARR will be released? I’m dying from the suspense. :)

  30. February 2, 2012

    Nate – I just posted it. Now I gotta get things formatted into the AARR index of this blog, then I gotta announce it on email :)

  31. February 6, 2012

    Alan

    When will you and Muata Kamdibe ADMIT that scientific researchhas found that body weight in both humans and animals is INVOLUNTARILY regulated?

  32. February 6, 2012

    Razzy — I will ADMIT that you are omniscient & that I DARE NOT debate with you. Good enough? Best regards to you.

  33. February 6, 2012

    LOL Alan

    Best wishes to you , too :)

  34. February 28, 2012

    Hey Alan,

    Love your work, helped change my life around. I have to give props for that final thought, elaborating that exercises and fitness should never be taken to obsessive levels. There are definitely other pleasures in life.

    As for fitness, my hat is off to you. I have followed your word for years now on bb.com and you know your stuff.

    Nick

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