Why Nutritional Dogma Dies Hard

2010 June 15
by Alan Aragon

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.

Pubmed, Schmubmed

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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.

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References

  1. 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]
  2. 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]

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T

2010 June 5
by Alan Aragon

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Lyle McDonald over the weekend before he made his way off to compete in an inline skating event in Napa, CA. We met at BJ’s Brewhouse for some grub, then went for some Starbucks dessert beverages (well, at least I did). I knew that my kids would attack Lyle when we got to my house, so it was funny to see it actually play out, and Lyle was a good sport about it. The following day, we headed to Gold’s Gym and did our own separate training.

Common Threads

One of the things that struck me in discussing various topics was just how different the driving motivational forces are between endurance athletes vs others. He keyed me into the concept of “running from inner voices” – mostly in the figurative sense. Another thing that struck me was the ironic similarity between solo endurance athletes and other solo athletes such as bodybuilders, whose sport, at least in the precontest phase, is largely a matter of endurance. Both types of athletes tend to push themselves to the limits of physical and psychological tolerance for prolonged periods, just in different scales & contexts. Keep in mind that Lyle is the true athlete between the two of us. I mainly train to get attention from my wife, while Lyle trains to test his prowess against formal competition.

Intensity   

An interesting thing Lyle relayed to me was how he has been able to make his greatest gains in endurance by learning how to conserve his application of intensity when training for an event – as opposed to constantly pushing the envelope of high intensity intervals in the common “more is better, stop when you collapse” approach. More detail on methods of endurance training can be delved into with a multi-part series Lyle wrote beginning here (if you want to go straight to threshold training, it’s here in part 4). While I’m mentioning his reading material, anyone seriously interested in nutrition and supplementation for mixed sports (i.e., football, soccer, middle-distance events, etc) should check out his latest book/DVD lecture series here.

Individualization

While Lyle is exhaustively familiar with the various approaches to endurance training, he’s also keenly aware of how he personally responds. Having a solid grasp of the research has allowed him to synthesize applications that work best with his individual profile from both a psychological and physiological standpoint. One of the natural progressions of the advanced trainee is an abandonment of certain aspects of traditional/conventional wisdom, in favor of individual response. 

At the End of the Day 

I had a great time & learned a lot hanging out with one of the top minds in the field. But more than this, I just needed an excuse to post that awesome pic above.

UPDATE: Lyle won the race.

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Fatherhood & Freedom

2010 May 31
by Alan Aragon

Reflecting upon the path

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of Summer, elicits a lot of reflection upon the path I’ve walked and the path I’m creating. Undoubtedly, it makes me thankful to those who made the freedom I enjoy possible. The picture above was taken yesterday after church; that’s my 3 year-old (going on 13) son. In reviewing the pics within the small format of the camera, I initially mistook him for my 6 year-old, since I normally think of him as the baby, but apparently, that perception is already disappearing.  Time seems to accelerate with each passing year. I’d like to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger recalling a particularly hectic time in his life (1975) right after he filmed Stay Hungry and was in the midst of filming Pumping Iron:

“What it came down to was this: You have 24 hours in a day, and you have so many years to reach your dreams. I utilized the 24 hours more than anyone I know. You snooze, you loose. So what are you gonna do?”

Our time is limited, but do we really get that?

Fatherhood has been one big wake-up call for me. Before the kids hit the deck, the passage of time was a slow-to-nonexistent grind. However, seeing my kids grow and change on almost a daily basis reminds me that time is whizzing by whether we like it or not, and squandering the time we’re given is downright criminal. You might recall from the career series that I’ve cut my in-person client days at the office down to 2 per week, and work from home the rest of the week.

Necessary roughness

Some of you may have also noticed that I’ve had to resort to putting prospective clients on a 2-month waiting list to work with me. This is great in the sense that my expertise is in demand, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel bad for those who I’ve had to put on hold. But alas, managing my time is an ongoing learning process, and an art that might take me forever to master. During my lifetime, I want to be able to look back and be satisfied with the amount (& quality) of time I put into being the best dad I could. This, among other things, involves being physically & mentally present when hanging out with the kids. And yes, it also involves putting the brakes on how much work I think I’m able to do each day without disrupting the balance in my work & family life. Controlling the quantity of my work will also inevitably improve the quality of it. And that’s really what matters.

For those of you who aren’t parents

I know that for me, my kids are really the ‘hourglass’ that lights the fire under my feet to wring the most out of my time on this planet. For those of you who do not have kids (or don’t plan to), let me suggest you find your own metaphoric hourglass that reminds you that the clock is ticking away relentlessly. This is also the perfect time to remember that our forefathers have shed much blood, sweat, and tears to allow us the freedom to be the architects of our own lives and accomplish great things. So, let me encourage you all to get out there and do more stuff that matters and less stuff that doesn’t.

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JP Fitness Summit 2010: A Highly Biased Review

2010 May 22
by Alan Aragon

Another Year Elapsed…

…And I’m left to ponder it through. The JP Fitness Summit helps me contemplate my personal universe. It’s also a barometer for where I’m at in this whole fitness industry thing. Are folks benefitting from the information I dish out? Apparently so. Am I enjoying the hell out of it? Yes.  Therefore, everybody wins. The best parts of the Summit are the new & old friendships that get cultivated, and of course the memories that linger like sweet perfume (well, most of them).

The Attendees & Organizers

Let me just clear the air for a second and give credit to the beating heart of the JP Fitness Summit:  The vets & the admin. The Summit simply wouldn’t exist – much less run smoothly – without Nick Bromberg & the crew being on top of all the operations. Jean-Paul Francoer (founder of the JP Fitness Forums) gets credit for starting the whole thing. A unique aspect about the JP Fitness Summit is the Mahlership (named after veteran member John Mahler), where charitable individuals pitch in to build a fund that facilitates attendance for those who wouldn’t have had the means to make it there. This past Summit, enough funds were raised to sponsor 6 attendees. What other conference has this sort of selfless outreach? None that I know of.  

The Speakers

First up was Lou Schuler, whose trademark is a really sharp sense of humor and wit. He has a way of tying fitness and non-fitness concepts together that’s very unique and engaging. This time around, he drew parallels between the journey of a fitness professional and the  monomyth (also called the hero’s journey) as described by writer Joseph Campbell. I’ll admit straight away that I’m a hopeless fan of Lou’s talks, so I was captivated the whole way through, despite a deficiency of caffeine in me at that early point in the morning.

I was up after Lou, who quite eloquently introduced me in this clip. I discussed a variety of nutritional topics which included marconutrients, the placebo effect (demo on Lou with a parody of a strength test, depicted above). I ended off with a case study of a talented natural bodybuilder named Kelechi Opara, who I recently prepped for a contest without succumbing to any of the typical bodybuilding bro-dogma. As usual, I got a real rush out of presenting, and I had a blast interacting with the audience.

After me, in arguably the toughest spot (right before lunch) was my long-time friend Ryan Zielonka. He discussed his personal story and the lessons learned while going from extremely overweight, to maintaining a healthy/fit body composition – and most importantly, a healthy perspective. You could hear a pin drop while Ryan spoke; his narrative style was poised and polished. Although most of the crowd was ravenous (well, at least I was), no one shifted an inch in their seats as they listened intently the whole way through & asked lots of questions afterward.

Bret Contreras hit the fitness conference stage for the first time in his career, and did quite well considering this fact. I sensed some freshman jitters at the beginning of his talk, but I feel like he held it together and finished strong. He presented some great concepts, sound justifications, and innovative progressions for glute work. I got a chance to talk to Bret for about 2 hours straight at the airport while we waited for our flights to arrive. I must say that this guy has a truckload of knowledge in a wide range of training aspects for various sports. Bret is a true student of the game, and I see nothing but good things happening for him. He’s got a knock-out sense of humor, too.  

Nick Tumminello simply wowed the audience with his highly informative and eye-opening presentation on myofascial release. Nick’s extensive speaking experience really shined through in his flawless delivery. People were just in awe, eating up his information & insight. I’ve seen endless amounts of presenters at various conferences, and Nick ranks up there among the very top. It was really a treat to have him in the lineup this year. Nick and his lovely girlfriend Alli are a very classy couple that hit it off instantly with the JP Fitness crowd.

Post-Workshop Nutrition

One of the unique aspects of the JP Fitness Summit is that the attendees and the presenters are all on the same playing field. The speakers don’t huddle up together in their own corner the whole time while the audience keeps their respectful distance. It’s quite the opposite. Everyone has a blast hanging out & having fun throughout the entire weekend. Aside from the lecture & workshop, it’s really one big party.  This is an annual thing, so start saving your pennies for next year’s event, which I’ll be speaking at again. More than the opportunity to present educational material, it’s the fellowship and camaraderie with the attendees that keep me returning to the Summit each year. I hope to see more of you at the next one so I can put some faces to the names I’ve known online for so long now.

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Are you a real T-MAN?

2010 April 16
by Alan Aragon

WARNING: This article contains links to a website whose images might be a little too hardcore for your workplace.

In my daily stroll through the internetz, I stumbled upon this article by fitness journalist/dating expert Nate Green who interviews fellow staff writer Dr. Lonnie Lowery. Before I get into this, let me first thank the good fellas at Tmuscle for providing a relentless source of entertainment. Not to mention, they always come through with great pics & vids of super-enhanced fleshiness. Nate’s article embodies so much of the Tmuscle ideals in a single swoop, that it deserves a little shine here on my Super Secret Blog™. Here are some key quotes from the article, followed by my two cents.

“If guys would simply load up on carbs and protein before their training sessions, take in high-quality amino acids during their workouts, and have another solid meal post-workout, they’d take advantage of the most anabolic time of the day and build serious muscle.”

The above isn’t a counterproductive recommendation. In fact, for most trainees, it’s a good idea to sandwich the training bout with protein & carbs. However, if a protein-rich meal or shake was consumed near the start of the training bout, intraworkout amino acid intake is redundant, especially for typical-length sessions lasting about an hour. The preworkout meal is already being digested, and amino acids are already being absorbed into circulation. One little wrinkle:  if what you’re drinking during the bout can improve your mood, this can potentially drive better performance. But most of all, nothing screams “I’m hardcore!” like walking around the gym with your chest puffed and lats flared, clutching a jug of bright pink fluid.

“Well, when it comes to protein synthesis — the necessary reaction that must happen to build muscle — the hormone insulin plays a huge role. Simply, the higher you spike insulin, the more protein synthesis will occur, and the more muscle you can build.”

The above statement is a combo of oversimplification and exaggeration. Even when amino acid levels are kept elevated, insulin’s ability to max-out net muscle protein balance has a ceiling that’s easily reached by a normal-size protein/carb meal or shake. A large mixed meal or shake can cause insulin levels to far surpass this limit. This is why researchers have alluded to insulin’s role in furthering net protein balance as more permissive than it is stimulatory [1]. On a sidenote of trivia, insulin has been seen to cause protein synthesis on its own when intravenously raised to 1000 times normal basal levels [2]. But alas, we’re talking about orally ingested/nutrient-mediated insulin elevations, not intravenous super-dosing for pharmacological effects. 

Think of it this way: if you buckle down for two hours, feed your body high-quality protein and carbs, spike insulin, train hard, and re-feed your body afterward, you’re almost guaranteeing that every amino acid is getting pumped straight into your muscles. You’ve created the ultimate anabolic environment, and, if you’re following the super-effective Anaconda Protocol, you’re taking in a whopping 1,157 calories of muscle-building nutrients and 167 grams of protein.

This is where Tmuscle takes the more-is-better principle and exploits it to an explosive end, literally. Linked in the quote above, the Anaconda Protocol is a true test of maximal human stomach capacity, which isn’t the best test to run during a hard training session. If the user feedback in this thread means anything, we should all hope that stain-free versions of the supplements are in development. There’s really no technical criticism needed here; just picture consuming a half-day’s worth of calories plus an entire day’s worth of fluid within a couple of hours. And somewhere within that timeframe, you must complete an intense workout before having to run to the sink or the toilet.

“I have no idea where that notion came from,” says Lowery. “My guess is that they took a 180-pound guy, gave him one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, and divided that by six meals to get 30 grams per meal. And for some reason, people seem to think that it’s the ‘magic’ number. It’s just not correct.”

Well, its refreshing to see them get something right. The problem is, Lowery appears to be contradicting the more-is-better mantra in a fairly recent article where he says, “I’ve actually cut back on the amount of protein I eat at any given time. I just make sure I spike it with leucine. I usually put a scoop and a half, about 7 or 8 grams, of leucine in just 20 grams of protein. But I’ve stopped sucking down 50 or 60 grams of protein at a time. I just don’t do that anymore; I don’t think it has that much benefit. Plus this prevents me from becoming a protein oxidizer or burner.”  This makes you wonder just how genuinely supportive Lowery is of the 167-gram  protein dose in the Anaconda Protocol.

The Perfect Carbs: According to Lowery, the perfect blend of carbs to consume before a workout should be insulinogenic (spikes insulin), but not anything containing straight sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. “I’m all for special dextrins [like the rice oligodextrin found in FINiBAR™ that will support high-level performance,” he says. “You can’t just sit down and have a giant bowl of Applejacks.”

The above passage contradicts itself. Finibars have been marketed as a product that provides a steady release of carbs. “Fuel for the finish” is the product’s tag line.  The bar’s primary ingredient is isomaltulose (also called palatinose), which has been demonstrated to elicit a low-glycemic, low-insulinemic response [3]. With all their hype surrounding the prodigious spiking of insulin, it seems they chose the wrong carb to drive their point. Personally, I’d rather have a bowl of Applejacks in milk over a Finibar.

The Perfect Protein: For protein, Lowery’s a fan of hydrolysates [like the casein hydrolysate found in ANACONDA™, which are proteins that enter the blood stream quickly and significantly increase the rate of protein synthesis.  “Remember, the faster the amino acids hit the bloodstream and more protein synthesis you create, the better off you’ll be,” says Lowery.

Like the erroneous use of Finibars as an example of the “perfect carb” for spiking insulin, touting casein hydrolysate as the “perfect protein” has its own caveats.  While one study showed that casein hydrolysate is more quickly digested and absorbed than intact casein [4], another study found that the faster absorption of casein hydrolysate isn’t necessarily superior for muscle anabolism [5]. Compared to intact casein, its hydrolyzed form was preferentially incorporated into the intestinal tissue instead of skeletal muscle (more discussion here). Given this sparse and equivocal data set, calling casein hydrolysate “perfect” is a perfect example of unsubstantiated hype.

And, you can’t drink chocolate milk and eat sugary cereal to get the same effect. That’s not the 3rd Law of Muscle. That’s eating crappy food. You need quality nutrients from specialized carbs like rice oligodextrin, and specialized proteins like casein hydrolysate.

So, what does it mean when the crappy food  is more micronutrient-dense, and has equal or more supporting research than the perfect stuff? 

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References

  1. Phillips SM. Insulin and muscle protein turnover in humans: stimulatory, permissive, inhibitory, or all of the above? Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Oct;295(4):E731. [Medline]
  2. Hillier TA, et al. Extreme hyperinsulinemia unmasks insulin’s effect to stimulate protein synthesis in the human forearm. Am J Physiol. 1998 Jun;274(6 Pt 1):E1067-74. [Medline]
  3. van Can JG, et al. Reduced glycaemic and insulinaemic responses following isomaltulose ingestion: implications for postprandial substrate use. Br J Nutr. 2009 Nov;102(10):1408-13. [Medline]
  4. Koopman R, et al. Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):106-15. [Medline]
  5. Deglaire A, et al. Hydrolyzed dietary casein as compared with the intact protein reduces postprandial peripheral, but not whole-body, uptake of nitrogen in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Oct;90(4):1011-22. [Medline]

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What the fulk?

2010 April 2
by Alan Aragon

That was then (left), this is now (right)

The above pics are of a client and friend of mine named Phillip. For the sake of illustrating a point, I’ll let you guess his weight in both pics (hint: they are not the same). One thing that is almost universally agreeable is that he looks better in the right pic. Some of you might disagree, but most of you won’t. Another thing that’s hard to dispute is that he’s probably healthier in the right pic, as far as blood chemistry might show.

Bring on the pounds

To achieve the look of the left pic, Phillip fulked. That’s a word I made up that means he fat-bulked. Prior to my supervision, he perused the bodybuilding message boards and adapted a plan whose objective was to gain lots of size & strength quickly. His daily consumption was a pretty standard maintenance diet, but with an entire gallon of whole milk on top of that. Lots of strength was gained, and yes, a lot of weight was gained as well.

After the gain…

After the fulking stint, Phillip lost a bunch of weight due to an extended hiatus from the gym. This is when he sought my help. I put him through a progression that kept him within 10-15 lbs of his post-fulk deflation, but looking worlds better. I’d like to emphasize that Phillip is not genetically blessed in the muscle gain or fat loss department. He’s only had his monstrous work ethic to rely upon for results. I know I said I’d have you guess the weight difference between pics, but surprise, I’ll give it away right here: Phillip was 216 lbs in the left photo, and 176 lbs in the right one. That’s 40 fricking pounds!  Does he really look 40 lbs lighter? I’ll let you be the judge. What’s more easily apparent is five inches less waist girth, and a magic chest lift.

Men: afraid to lose?

Everyone’s familiar with the common scenario where female trainees can gain a few pounds and start panicking, regardless of positive changes in body composition. Well, a lot of men have the opposite but equally irrational fear that weight loss automatically equates to unsightly results. This makes them seek out the fulking route, finding comfort in seeing pounds rapidly pile up on the scale. This can be a good or bad thing — depending on how you look at it, and of course, depending on the individual situation.

Keep in mind that I am not blanketly condemning rapid weight gain.  What I’m trying to convey is that more isn’t always better when it comes to racking up pounds.

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Starting to look back a lot more.

2010 March 22
by Alan Aragon

 /></p> <p><strong>Let's talk about haystacks for a second</strong></p> <p>The beauty of this forum is that I can talk about whatever the hell I want, without reproach. Or something like that. Anyway, I'm in a sentimental mood for the moment. It might just be a side-effect of being dangerously close to turning 40. I remember almost exclusively looking ahead when I turned 30. But now, as I approach what statistically is likely to be the halfway point of my life, I find myself constantly looking back - thinking about what I can do <em>better</em> moving forward.</p> <p>That pic above, taken last week, is me & my two sons at a neighboring farm. Standing atop that pyramid of hay held a special type of significance. Just last year, my youngest one was too fearful to climb past the first step, and this year he made it to the second to the top row. Next year it's virtually certain he'll ascend to the top with no trace of apprehension in sight. This is the hope and anticipation of all parents - and of anyone in a position of nurturing young minds.</p> <p><strong>Career coach for a day</strong></p> <p>Just yesterday I presented at the annual career symposium at California State University, Northridge. First off, I think it's amazing that I get continually get asked back to present to a college where, during my undergrad, one of my professors incredulously asked, <em>

The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t always a model student. My original objective for getting a degree in nutrition was pretty frivolous – to have a unique credential among personal trainers. Amazingly enough, I intended to make a life of personal training – which didn’t end up panning out. Based on the evidence, I was destined to be glued to the computer rather than hands-on client work at the gym. Anyway, the point is, my underlying goal for the nutrition degree was to just get it over-with, so I could be more marketable than most personal trainers. In contrast to my lackadaisical waltz (& mediocre performance) through the undergrad, I got straight-A’s through my master’s degree in nutrition because I was actually interested in the topics. Timing is important; interest can’t be forced.

The class that shaped my future

The most profound change in my educational enthusiasm occurred during my graduate work in nutrition, in a research methods class. I had a professor in the late 1990’s named Brian Koziol, who had a brief stint as a part-time professor at CSUN. At the time, he was employed at Amgen, and as far as I know, he still is.

Brian Koziol’s passion was research — more specifically, dissecting it. What makes a good study? What makes a not-so-good one? What constitutes a true butcher-job of a study in terms of external and/or internal validity? Koziol actually tried to get the class interested in picking apart the strengths and weaknesses of studies. I’d say he succeeded with a handful of the class, but the majority were sort of lost on the point. In my opinion, he forgot to get across to the class why this exercise was important in the first place.

If I were to teach his class, I’d begin with the philosophy of science, and then move into the continuum of evidence. Heck, I’d even burden the class with the philosophy of evidence. I’d sincerely ask the class if they believed that science as an underlying philosophy is important, and why. I’d also belabor the elements of scientific thought, and why this is important in the battle against the bullshit products and protocols that pervade the health & fitness industry.

Perhaps not too surprisingly for those who’ve followed my work, Koziol’s research methods class was my single greatest career influence. There were other catalysts (such as the work of Lyle McDonald) that led to the materialization of my research review, but Koziol’s class – which I took more than a decade ago – was the foundation for that.

Notes for the students

Back to my presentation at the career symposium… Each year it forces me to introspect upon what makes me tick, and what makes my career something I happen to be very happy with. Here’s a relay of some of the important bits of advice I threw at the students:

  • Come to grips with what it is you’re absolutely nuts about (not just vaguely interested in). This is what you should be doing as a career.  Try to recall the last time you did an exceptional job at something you couldn’t give half a crap about, and my point becomes clear.
  • It’s ideal to match your interests with your talents, but skill can always be developed; whereas the desire for a particular job cannot always be developed. Do not pursue a career merely because you think it’s a prudent or safe choice. This naive capitulation has been the kiss of death for many.
  • There’s a market for EVERYTHING, but just be aware of how large or small that market is, in order to estimate your earning potential.
  • Experience builds confidence. Don’t expect to be polished right off the bat. Get in the trenches, get dirty, but try to learn as much as you can from the mistakes of your predecessors. The career series I wrote to kick off this blog should give anyone contemplating a fitness career ample food for thought.
  • Your perception of success will change over time.  Your interests & goals will evolve over time. It’s crucially important to be aware of this metamorphosis and act upon it regularly. We get so caught up in the mind-numbing routine of our work week, that it’s easy to lose touch with where we are, versus the direction we need to be moving. The solution? Do a “blank sheet day” at least once a year. This is an idea I got from a highly successful friend of mine, Daryl Wizelman. What you do is block out an entire day once a year to be by yourself. The whole day – with no one around you. I know that this is a horrifying concept, but bear with me.  Get a paper notebook (not something with internet access), and get yourself out into a secluded area  (a park, abandoned wherehouse, etc – whatever it takes to be alone), and VERY SPECIFICALLY write out your dream lifestyle. I’m not talking about compromising here, I’m talking about having the balls to actually fantasize for a moment about what type of life would make you truly happy. This obviously is gonna vary, but in all cases, be honest with yourself about what it is. Answer questions like: Where do you want to live? What do you want to spend your day doing? How many days a week do you want to work? What kind of life & career have you always dreamed about having, and what SPECIFIC steps can you take to get there if you’re not there yet? What sacrifices do you need to make? How do you want to give back charitably once you get the means to do so? How do you want to be remembered? Then, review your plan regularly through the year. I’ve been doing this “blank sheet day” exercise annually for the last 3 years now, and suffice it to say that I can’t even begin to tell you how much it has helped me personally. I’m also consistently entertained by how much my goals & general perspective changes.
  • If you are enjoying the process of pursuing your goals and crafting your career, you can consider yourself successful. This principle is hammered so very eloquently by Robert Hastings in his essay called The Station. As cliche as it sounds, the destination is far less important – and certainly far less real – than the journey. Life is merely a succession of days. What you do with each day determines the kind of life you’ll create, and ultimately the kind of life you’ll look back on.

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It’s okay to disagree.

2010 March 13
by Alan Aragon

Disagreement leads to investigation, investigation leads to learning.

The photo above was taken by a friend of mine with a great sense of humor (note this post here). He knows full-well that I’m not a proponent of supplemental BCAA on top of a preexistent high-protein diet typical of the fitness population, so this pic is an inside joke for those who are new to my writings.

One of the things that people miss is that most professionals in a given field tend to agree on the majority of fundamental principles. For example, I may disagree with some folks on the amount of fructose that can safely be incorporated into a diet, but that probably represents 10% of the whole picture, 90% of which I’d probably be preaching to the choir.

Another example is supplemental BCAA. There are some highly intelligent, well-educated folks that disagree with me on the lack of justification of its use under the aforementioned conditions. Guess what? That’s okay. Disagreement occurs throughout the lowest to the highest levels of research & practice. If there was no dissent, there would be little motivation to push forward with investigations that can yield more definitive answers to the grey areas of knowledge.

While I might disagree with some folks about the use of supplemental BCAAs amidst abundant high-quality dietary protein, I probably agree with them on the majority of all other topics. In any case, I took an in-depth look at the applications & limitations of BCAA supplementation in the latest issue of AARR.

If you disagree with anything I write, that’s fine with me. What’s the worst that can come from debating a topic? One or both sides acquire new knowledge…that’s a good thing.

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A retrospective of the fructose alarmism debate.

2010 February 19
by Alan Aragon

Three hundred…

After 300 comments and counting, it’s safe to agree with Nigel Kinbrum that my recent critique of Dr. Robert Lustig’s fructose lecture “has caused a bit of a stir in the nutritional blogosphere.” The intense debate (& discussion) that ensued inspired me to re-cap some things I feel were most interesting. There was plenty of learning to be had on both sides of the fence. Here are the highlights as I see them:

  • Dr. Lustig showed up, to the excitement and anticipation of all, including me. He went 3 rounds with me, which was actually more than I expected.
  • In round one, he defended his position using  survey data that was contrary to the ERS/USDA data, which is well and good. I don’t disagree that survey data in general is pretty messy and equivocal, not to mention, incapable of establishing causal relationships. He then repeated his claim that the Japanese diet contains no fructose outside of fruit. Perhaps due to hasty error, he says, “That is what we are talking about here; added dietary sugars; not endogenous ones.” I’m going to assume he meant to say intrinsic sugars, not endogenous sugars.  In any case, this idea that the Japanese do not add sugar to their diets is completely false – regardless of which regional or traditional aspect of Japan you’re talking about (this actually was never specified). He also mentioned the revised recommendations of the American Heart Association (AHA), which David Gillespie follows up on towards the end of the discussion, where the full picture is omitted until I post it up (I’ll get to that).
  • In my rebuttal to Lustig’s initial comment, I first point out the limitations of epidemiological data, as well as Lustig’s neglect of the numerous factors that have contributed to a reduction in energy expenditure, such as, “an increase in sedentary occupations; an increase in two-income households and single-parent households; transportation and infrastructure changes that discourage physical activity; a decrease in PE classes and extracurricular sports programs in schools; an increase in sedentary forms of entertainment (i.e. TV/movie viewing, video games, internet, etc.); demographic changes (i.e. aging population, immigration, etc.); a decrease in food costs with increase in food availability and changes in food consumption patterns” (study here).  I  finish off by pointing out the error of the claim regarding the Japanese diet, and mention Lustig’s omission of giving concrete numbers in his lecture regarding the dose-dependent safety of fructose in the diet.
  • Lustig’s 2nd round defense was merely a cut/paste of the abstract of a 31 year-old epidemiological study showing that, “a high fat, high simple carbohydrate, low complex carbohydrate diet and/or reduced levels of physical activity increase risk of diabetes.” My rebuttal to this was simple. I pointed out how Lustig was not only using uncontrolled data to support his stance, but he was being selective about what the observational data showed. I used the study he posted plus two more recent studies to show the common thread among each of them: an increase in fat, an increase in sugar, and a decrease in physical activity was associated with adverse health effects. Clearly, it’s incorrect to selectively scapegoat the single factor of your personal choice.
  • In Lustig’s final defense, he first cites as study wherein roughly 150 grams of fructose (the equivalent of 6-7 cans of non-diet soda), increased visceral adiposity and reduced insulin sensitivity in overweight & obese subjects. Does this surprise anyone? The study he cited used a fructose dose that’s 3 times the average American intake. He then goes on to cite rodent research despite his acknowledgement of my demand for human interventions using non-stratospheric doses of fructose. All this, after my multiple citations of human research showing the contrary.  To top everything off, Lustig cited his Youtube popularity as a basis of accuracy and credibility. That was not a good move. My rebuttal to Lustig’s final comment is right here.
  • I emailed Lustig, thanking him for the discussion, and he responded by preaching to me more of his gospel. I politely asked that he take his argument back to the blog since the purpose of the whole discussion in the first place is to educate the public. He would have none of that, quipping that “real scientists” don’t go tit-for-tat on blogs, they go to journal clubs to discuss research with other “real scientists.”  If his case was as strong as he thinks it was, he wouldn’t have gotten embarrassed by the opposition.
  • As I mentioned in response to a straight-shooting article by Martin Berkhan, Lustig probably has more education and native intelligence than he knows what to do with. However, as he demonstrated, you can be the most brilliant guy in the world & still find yourself fumbling over groundless claims.
  • Comments by Ryan Zielonka (here), RG (here), DSD  (here), and Rob (here) illustrate the regional heterogeneity of the Japanese diet, and how it can’t be simply pegged as fructose-free aside from the fruit intake.
  • Fred Hahn brought his classic carbophobic flair (here), which was well-rebutted by Mike Howard (here) and Leigh Peele (here).
  • Ganine asked the question of whether or not HFCS has different metabolic effects than regular sugar (sucrose). James Krieger came in with a follow-up response stating that, “The only practical difference between sucrose and HFCS is in the bonding. The glucose & fructose in HFCS is mainly free and unbonded, while it is bonded in sucrose. However, this makes no *meaningful* difference in regards to metabolism in the body. The bonds in sucrose are quickly broken when sucrose hits the acid environment of the stomach. This means that once sucrose hits the stomach, it’s no different from HFCS. Once you get to the small intestine, metabolism is *exactly* the same. This *little bit of difference* does not lead to the problems Dr. Lustig talks about. The fact is, HFCS and sucrose are identical as far as your body is concerned. The difference in bonding wouldn’t make a shred of difference in regards to your health.”
  • Speaking of James Krieger, I’d like to direct anyone interested in fructose metabolism to this fine tutorial here.
  • In response to Mike K’s advocacy of food avoidance, I posted research indicating an association between inflexible, all-or-nothing eating habits and adverse conditions. To quote Stewart et al, “The study found that individuals who engage in rigid dieting strategies reported symptoms of an eating disorder, mood disturbances, and excessive concern with body size/shape. In contrast, flexible dieting strategies were not highly associated with BMI, eating disorder symptoms, mood disturbances, or concerns with body size.”
  • Here’s a quote from a similar study by Smith et al: “Subjects were administered questionnaires measuring dietary restraint, overeating, depression and anxiety. Measurements of height and weight were also obtained in order to calculate BMI. Canonical correlation was performed to evaluate the relationship of dietary restraint variables with overeating variables, body mass, depression and anxiety. The strongest canonical correlation (r=0.65) was the relationship between flexible dieting and the absence of overeating, lower body mass and lower levels of depression and anxiety.”
  • Indeed, correlation doesn’t automatically equal causation, but the two studies I cited above build a far better case than the baseless assumptions of folks who assert their dietary perfectionism onto the world around them.
  • Ardent sugarphobe David Gillespie presented some very engaging arguments. However, he ignored all other posters, as well as the evidence I presented. He correctly pointed out that John White’s HFCS article contained a citation of research that did not support the point he was making (good catch, David!). However, he went on to dismiss reams of data on the grounds of funding source. He also incorrectly accused a study of being funded by the Coca Cola company, when in fact, Coke funded the travel expenses after the study was already complete. As James pointed out, the study was funded by a scholarship, two fellowships, and a grant from the Canadian government. Beyond that, studies should not be judged solely on funding source; the weight of their scrutiny should rest on their quality of design.
  • David responded by citing the AHA’s recommendations, which I’ll quote him as saying, “Of particular note is their final recommendation that an adult male should consume no more than 144 calories (38 g) per day in added sugars (which would be 19g of fructose).” The problem with this is that it omits the range of doses the AHA listed for various populations, which went as high as 19 teaspoons of sugar per day for active males, which is double the figure that David emphasized. Of course, it’s convenient to leave out the higher end when you’re building a case that’s biased toward sugar avoidance. Go here to see my response to this, which includes a screen shot of the chart in the AHA paper.
  • In my final rebuttal to David, I explain what discretionary calories are, and how their intended use further supports the point I made in my original article. To quote my response, “The discretionary allotment for an active male is 512 kcal, and a sedentary one is 290 kcal. The average of this is 401 kcal. Technically, it wouldn’t violate the AHA’s recommendations if someone’s entire discretionary kcals came from sugar, which in the case of 401 kcals is about 100g, which equates to 50g fructose, which brings us right back to the exact number I listed as the upper safe limit in my original article.”
  • An honorable mention is deserved for the most epic comment, by Jamie Hale.

I want to give sincere thanks everyone who contributed to this discussion. To end off, I encourage anyone interested to check out the following scientific reviews for further information on the topic of fructose:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19592634

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18996880

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20047139

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20086073

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2991323/

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The JP Fitness Summit: It doesn’t get any bro-er than this.

2010 February 12
by Alan Aragon

It’s goin’ down like this.

Right after the completion of my MonaVie vs Two-Buck Chuck article, a wise friend of mine told me that I need to shorten my blog posts, post more often, and save the technical stuff for my research review. She feels that people visit my blog for human-interest purposes more than to get a physiology lecture. Obviously, she underestimates the nerdiness of my readership. 🙂

In any case, I’ll run with her advice for a quick second and alert y’all to the JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City, MO on May 14-16. I’m being 100% sincere when telling you that this is easily one of the most fun & gratifying events on my calendar. I get to wear the hat of a teacher during my presentation, a student during the lectures of the other presenters, and a regular guy when it comes to relaxing & stuffing my face with greasy food and beverages of varying fructose content.

Aside from the awesomeness of meeting online clients and the wonderful  ol’ core group of JP Fitness forum regulars, I’m particularly excited about the speaker line-up.

  • Ryan Zielonka has been a close friend of mine for years now, and it’s great to see his talents recognized with a spot on the Summit podium. Ryan attended last year’s summit, so he knows what he’s in for this time, and I’m sure he’ll deliver.
  • Bret Contreras is someone I don’t know personally, but instantly admire for a couple of reasons. For one, he created the video below. Perhaps most importantly, this guy is dead-serious about perfecting the structure & function of the glutes. I’d go as far as saying that he is arguably the world’s foremost butt-spert. Check out this product he developed. I can’t wait to see the kind of hurtin’ he’s gonna put on the brave Summit attendees during his workshop.
  • Nick Tumminello is another guy who I haven’t met yet. I’ve only heard good things about Nick from industry folks & enthusiasts alike. Given that the online community never pulls punches with its honesty, that’s saying a lot. Nick and I are both contributing editors to Men’s Health magazine, so you know this guy keeps it classy.
  • Lou (Fricking) Schuler! Lou is my inspiration to tell it like it is, and get the point across clearly by any means necessary. Even if it means dropping an occasional F-bomb now and then. There is never a dull moment with Lou, on or off the speaking stage. He has been a Summit favorite since its inception, and the rep is well-deserved. I learn something new from Lou with every conversation.
  • Alan Aragon gives continuing education lectures to dietitians and physicians, on the seldom occasions he lectures at all. He seems to be a smug prick, and I don’t really like the cut of his jib, but I’ll give him a fighting chance at pulling off a decent showing.

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Summit 2010 factoid: all the presenters have written for the lovely publication we call T-mag. How perfect is that? Like I said, it doesn’t get any bro-er than this.

Go HERE to register. It’s 200 bucks for 2 full days of picking the brains of the presenters and hanging out with a great group of like-minded fitness folks.

In the mean time, enjoy the video.

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