I realize that there are some things I should get out in the open right away from a nutritional perspective.
Within the industry, there exists a plethora of different perspectives on how one should be approaching nutrition. It’s almost as if you find the way you believe and then go find someone that believes in the same things as you and then poof, you have a match (I think they call this confirmation bias or something).
That’s why I feel it’s important my readers or future readers/followers know what I believe so it’s clear. My principles on nutrition are quite simple:
Eat real food, not too much, mostly vegetables. Practice everything in moderation INCLUDING moderation.
It’s literally that simple. 14 words simple. But I’ll break it down.
Eat Real Food
This one can seem overly simplistic but it’s actually not that hard. As a rule, use the idea of shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. Very little of what you find in the aisles of a grocery store has any nutritional value and should be treated as such. That means hitting up the produce section for fruits and vegetables, the meat section for your protein sources, then maybe grabbing a few items from the fridges when it comes to dairy products to top things off.
Quite simply if it comes in a can or a package, we don’t want to be making these things a staple of our diets with a few exceptions. Things like bacon, cheese, yogurt, butter all have a place in your diet depending on how you’re eating but items such as pop tarts, granola or cereal simply don’t unless they are an occasional treat for you that isn’t a mainstay in the cupboard.
Not too much
This is much harder than our first principle. It’s the practice of knowing how much you should be eating for your particular day and not going over it.
We operate through a macronutrient based prescription. With each client, we go over how many calories on average you should be taking in per day and break it down when it comes to the amount of fat, carbohydrates and proteins.
This can vary completely on the individual. An online calculator may tell you you’re able to eat 3,000 calories or MyFitnessPal might tell you dieting on 1,400 is where it’s at but honestly, they can be sometimes as much as 50% off your actual caloric intake. It can take some time and coaching to find out how much fuel you need to put into your tank to see the results you want and know that we are putting enough gas in to get where we want to go but not so much that it’s spilling over the sides either.
This one is rather simple. If it grew out of the ground, let’s eat as much of it as we can. No I’m not recommending you go vegan or vegetarian and swear off protein (unless that’s a personal choice you want to make for you) but I am recommending when it comes to preparing your meals that you put as many plants, particularly green ones, on that plate as humanly possible.
I saw green vegetables because these are the foods that are highest in micronutrients that we are looking to eat on a daily basis. One of the practices I’ll often tell my clients to work through is to try and get a variety of different vegetables each time you go the grocery store. This means that if it’s asparagus and green beans one week, try to mix it up and get say broccoli and brussel sprouts next week. And yes, there are ways to make brussel sprouts taste appealing.
Everything in moderation, INCLUDING moderation
While I definitely believe in the power of eating meats and vegetables and filling your plate with as many real foods as possible, I’m not naive enough to think that’s all people should be eating. Let’s be honest, at those anniversaries, parties and birthdays, they aren’t serving up kale sandwiches. It’s cakes, baked goods, sweets and alcohol.
So why are we trying to pretend it’s any different by restricting our choices?
The answer is that we shouldn’t be. At Refocus Nutrition, we’re focused on an 80/20 ratio where 80 per cent of the time we’re aiming to make strong nutritional decisions with real foods and 20 per cent of the time, we’re allowed to eat more of the things we often consider bad foods or junk foods.
Let’s face it, a restricted diet hasn’t worked for anyone long term in probably the history of the world. It may work temporarily but after restricting yourself from sweets, I’m sure you fell of the wagon at some point and binged on what you thought would make you fat and kill your progress and further damaged your relationship with food.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Find a way to put those “bad foods” into your diet consistently but in moderation. It might not mean having an entire pint of ice cream, but why not a small bowl? No it WILL NOT prevent you from losing weight, gaining a six-pack of abs or hitting a new PR in the gym, no matter what anyone else has told you.
And lastly, know that even moderation, at times needs moderation. There will be days within the year that you want to go completely off the deep end and eat way beyond what you should in one day. The fact of the matter is if you were to do that four days a month for the entire year, it would only account to just over 10 per cent of the year. That’s nothing. You can create a lot of success in the other 90 per cent that means a lot more than a couple days a month.
It’s 8 o’clock at night, you’re sitting there binge watching your latest Netflix series and your stomach growls at you.
Damn, you’re hungry but you know you ate everything in your day already. All you can think about is sweet foods though. Oreos, cheesecake, pop-tarts, ice cream—-"ALL THE CARBS," as one of my clients would say.
Quite simply, these are the crazy cravings coming on. We’ve all had them but few of us are actually able to understand why we have them, if they’re normal and more or less, what to do about them when we get them.
First of all, let’s get the initial question out of the way—are they normal? The answer is a resounding yes. Cravings are just one of many ways that are bodies are trying to speak to us. One of the things about the human body that we should always keep in mind is that it is constantly trying to maintain a set-point or homeostasis. Our bodies hate change so when able to, they’re always trying to make sure that things more or less stay the same.
Thus, our bodies could be telling us to eat for a variety of reasons. If dieting and on a caloric deficit, the cravings are telling us the body needs additional calories to get back to maintenance or homeostasis. If we’re tired, it wants to maintain energy levels (more on that later) and if we’re nutrient deficient, our body is craving additional calories in hopes of meeting that need. It’s a pretty simplistic explanation but it’s also the truth.
Hormonally, when it comes to cravings or hunger, we are typically referring to both ghrelin and leptin that is secreted by our guts to regulate hunger. These two chemicals act through a yin-yang approach to balance our satiety and hunger responses. Ghrelin, is the signal sent from our gut that tells us we are hungry. Desperately hungry and we need energy yesterday. Leptin on the other hand is a hormone predominantly made by adipose tissue (fat) to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger.
It’s important to know how these two hormones interact when trying to understand why you’re experiencing the cravings you are on any given day.
Now, the first thing you should be thinking about when it comes to cravings is whether it’s hunger or just a craving. Hunger can obviously come from the stomach, growling at you (sometimes viciously) whereas cravings are that inner dialogue within your brain of going for the bag of chips or not going for it.
Once you have determined it’s a craving, ask your body why it might have a particular craving.
Working with clients, I would say two of the top reasons are stress and sleep deprivation. Starting with stress and the accompanying hormone cortisol, ask yourself if you’ve ever experienced stress eating?
For me I know the answer is definitely yes. I know there are times when I’m stressed out and simply just want to eat everything. Typically when we are in that state, we’re craving foods that are high carbohydrate and or high sugar. The reason for this, at least hormonally, is because of it’s insulin response which can act to shut off our cortisol receptors and temporarily relax our nervous system. In English, if cortisol is the fire, insulin or carbohydrates can act as a fire hose to help shut it down and eliminate the stress. Do it over time and we can develop a chemical pathway within our brains that, when our body sees stress, immediately craves carbohydrates.
Seriously it’s that simple.
Onto the second portion, sleep and you can see once again how a simple explanation will help you unearth a wealth of information about your eating habits. Back to our hormones, a 2004 study revealed that simply decreasing your sleep from 8 hours per night to 5 hours can increase the amount of ghrelin your gut secretes and decrease the amount of leptin in your body. What this means is that your body will be emitting more signals of hunger throughout the day and less signals of fullness or satiety.
Make sense why you’re crushing your second bag of potato chips and still don’t feel a thing on your hunger?
So what can we do about these cravings?
The first step is awareness—simply knowing that these are cravings. Second, it’s having a mindful discussion with yourself about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Are you hungry? Are you stressed? Are you upset? Are you just tired? Have you maybe not had enough vitamins and minerals today? What is your body trying to tell you?
From a coaching perspective, it’s one of the things I would work with you to try and figure out.
One of the hacks around this however could be….get ready for it….eating dark chocolate. That’s right. Researchers have found in a study that eating small amounts of dark chocolate 75% cocoa and above actually have an ability to suppress circulating ghrelin levels because of its bitterness and can slow the rate of your stomach emptying. Not only that, it is higher in fiber and is an excellent source of magnesium which is one of the largest nutrient deficiencies in North America that your body may be calling out for anyways.
Sure, this is a simplistic approach to what you should do about your cravings. There’s more you can go into, but this will help you with a general understanding of why you feel the way you do and hopefully provide some insight on where to go with it to create better eating habits to achieve your goals.
So I decided to do a show.
That’s a sentence I never thought I would be writing down, but I guess here we are. Getting into my health and fitness journey, it’s been clear that my life has been dominated by CrossFit as both a workout modality and a lifestyle. I still coach CrossFit at an affiliate and I love it.
So why on earth would I do a physique show?
Attending the Nutritional Coaching Institute certification in Washington D.C this past April, I got a far different perspective on health and fitness than I had ever expected. Going into it, I knew Jason Phillips and his team at iN3 worked mostly, although not exclusively, in the CrossFit realm but I came across tons of people that worked in all areas of the fitness industry. Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, boot camps—the whole nine yards were represented at the certification. Although I had been in those other camps before, it was an eye opener for what I would do if I ever had the chance to work with a client as a nutrition coach who was a weightlifter, bodybuilder or whatever athlete.
How would I handle their needs because ultimately that’s why I decided to become a nutrition coach to begin with—finding a way to help others achieve their aesthetics, performance and health goals for life.
That’s when it struck me that I needed to undergo this journey myself. That I would actually have to try something out in order to learn about it so that someday I could help someone in my position because if I wasn’t willing to cut calories to the extreme and lose as much fat as humanly possible, why should someone listen to me about that?
Here I go then. October 20, I will be in Edmonton for the INBF Natural Physique competition.
I can hardly believe I’m actually going to do it, but here it is. Along the way, I’m going to document anything and everything that I deem to be relevant when it comes to my preparation phase.
When I told some of my close friends around me that I would be doing a physique show, I definitely got some mixed reactions. One being, “don’t you think those people are kind of unhealthy?” And, “aren’t you worried about the relationship you’re going to have with your body?”
Both of these questions certainly have some validity. For the first, yes, when doing a prep phase to get ready for a show, there are no shortage of ways that you could go about doing it in an unhealthy way. Starting manipulating water intake, sodium levels, starving to poverty calories and screwing with your hormones are just some of the possible outcomes of getting ready for a physique show. But that’s why I decided to hire a nutrition coach myself in Ange Hauck who recently earned her Fitness Pro card so that I can not only do this in a healthy way but learn from her to help others do it healthy in the future.
Really, if I tried to avoid the fact that people are going to do physique shows and then not learn about it, I would be doing a disservice to all the people who need help. Let’s face it, there are plenty of people who are willing to try doing this alone and if done improperly, you really can do some damage to your metabolism, your self-esteem and maybe most importantly, your hormones.
When it comes to my expectations going forward, I know the prep phase is going to be incredibly difficult. Going from CrossFit workouts where I intentionally leave the gym dripping in sweat, it’s going to feel weird and different to leave with a ‘pump’ rather than a bucket of water.
Also, when it comes to my hormones, I can only expect those are going to take a hit because to get to that lean of a body, (sub eight per cent body fat), you’re going to have to leverage things such as cortisol, testosterone (yes that means a sex drive decline) along with energy and sleep quality (I’m already a pretty poor sleeper).
One of the things I’m going to analyze along the way is my relationship with the mirror and my body. For years I’ve been self-conscious of taking off my shirt in front of other people, particularly women. Even if you think I’m a “fit guy,” the memories of being 12 years old and hiding neck deep in water at the pool so as to not show my chest is still fresh in my mind. Is it going to be hard to stand on stage with just boardshorts on? Can I do that? Will I still have those memories? Will I be willing to return to a normal level of body fat post show?
This doesn’t even go into mentioning posing, which, after practicing to try and get a few photos done, seems like the most ludicrous practice in the world. I have zero concept on how to spread my lats in order to look big. My problem was usually trying to find a way to look small so that no one would notice me.
These are all things I’m looking to experience along the way. Will it be easy? No. But nothing worth doing ever was easy right.
Going into the first week, my maintenance calories (the amount of calories required to maintain my body weight each day) stood at 3,350 per day prior to my prep. If you’ve ever consistently ate that much food, it’s a lot.
When it came to my macronutrients for the start of my prep though, those calories were cut down to 2,762 with 174g of protein, 123g of fat and 242g of carbs. It certainly is a healthy amount of food but I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate so little. Along with this, I need to eat 40g of fiber per day.
This also fails to mention that I am going to be drinking 30g of BCAAs per day so to avoid distressing my gut with more protein (I may have overdone this in the past), meaning that I’m likely going to be less satiated than I would be if I was able to use those extra 30g of protein in chicken or lean beef. When it comes to my other two macronutrients, I know I won’t have any issues hitting those numbers as I’ve done both high carb and high fat in the past with ease.
So…..here we go. Let the science experiment begin.
So you’ve heard about these things called macros? People say they’re going to go on the “macros” diet even, but what in the actual hell are macros and how can they help me achieve my health and fitness goals?
When it comes to macros, or macronutrients as they are actually called, there are three that make up most of our food. Each macro has unique functions and should comprise a different percentage of the total caloric intake depending on an individuals goals.
These three macros are protein, fats and carbohydrates and I will break them down for you here.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that is used by the body primarily to create muscle growth and muscle retention but can also be used as energy through gluconeogenesis. At the smallest level, they are called amino acids that when joined together form peptides that will make up the primary structure of the protein we ingest on a daily basis.
Without going too in depth into the structure of each protein molecule, it’s important to know that we use each of these amino acids to build new things within the body, therefore we judge a protein source based on its amino acid composition, which is why it's important to eat things like steak and other red meat in order to get the best bang for your buck (sorry vegans).
Due to the diversity of amino acids within each protein source, it’s important that we consume an array of protein sources in the diet to maximize our individual amino acid profile. This is why, although protein supplements such as whey protein powder will help, it’s always recommended to get your protein through whole food sources such as meats, poultry, seafood and dairy before relying on your daily Cliff Builder Bar to get you through the day.
When it comes to intake for individuals, it can vary depending on several factors such as overall caloric intake, body weight and composition, age and someone’s training modality. For example, the needs of an elite level bodybuilder or CrossFitter would be far different than a 300 pound overweight middle-aged male looking to lose body fat.
Most studies indicate that 0.7-1.2g/lb of body weight is preferential, however using the lean body mass of an individual for someone who is overweight can often be the more accurate measure.
For those of you looking to build muscle, know that more is not always better with protein. Through this thing called gluconeogenesis, if you go overboard on your protein, your body will actually be able to transfer this excess protein into glycogen to be used as energy. This essentially means that you will be paying far more for an energy source like chicken compared to say oatmeal when your body treats it the same way as energy. Not only that, excess amounts of protein can be hard on the gut for digestion so when you’re going over-and-above there just for THE GAINS, it does come at a cost.
Also known as tryglicerides, fats are the essential macronutrient that has several functions in the diet including a long-term energy source, hormonal production, formation of cell membranes along with nervous system support and essential fatty acids.
When it comes to the different types, it’s important to get a balance of saturated fats (beef, lamb, pork, full fat dairy etc) along with monounsaturated (nuts, avocado, egg yolks) and polyunsaturated (walnuts, mayonnaise, chia seeds) within your daily diet.
When it comes to fatty acids, this is where there is a larger emphasis on what you should be eating. Omega 3 fatty acids seem to be getting the brunt of attention these days for the sole purpose that these fatty acids are important for normal human metabolism and have anti-inflammatory effects. They help dilate blood vessels, decrease pain and reduce inflammation throughout the body. This is one of the areas where people with achy joints can definitely go to work.
When it comes to Omega-3-fatty-acids though, it’s important that you spent the time balancing them with your Omega-6-fatty-acids. Within our bodies, we lack the ability to break down Omega 6 (inflammatory fatty acids) into Omega 3’s and for this reason it is recommended we consume a diet that is balanced or closer to 1:1. Now, the way we currently eat with the way food has been produced creates us closer to a ratio of 20:1. The only way to move closer towards the 1:1 ratio is through strong food quality choices with supplementation that can help.
When it comes to intake, it’s important to know that fat carries with it more calories per gram than any other macronutrient. While carbohydrates and protein each carry 4 calories per gram, fats pack more than twice the punch at 9 calories per gram. This means that although it’s harder to overeat fat, people say, it is much more calorically dense.
Typically it’s recommended to keep fat intake between 20 and 50% to maintain your hormone profile and also energize your body. As a rule of thumb, the more you have to rely on high intensity work in your workouts, the likelihood of you needing more carbs and less fats there is in your diet. That being said, it’s entirely up to you where you want to put that in your diet.
Ahh, the fun part, carbohydrates. We all love ‘em but claim we don’t.
Without going too in depth on the different types of carbs (monosaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides) and giving you a science lesson, carbs are typically the source of energy for most diets in North America and arguably the world at large.
Imagine basically any tasty food you’ve had that isn’t meat and there’s a good chance that it had a good deal of carbs in it. Throughout the years carbs have vilified as either good one day and bad the next while our entire society has been told to eat more complex carbs and less simple ones to avoid, “getting fat.”
While I could go down the rabbit hole on that for thousands of words on end, I’ll save you the time by simply saying that neither of those terms helps quantify the micronutrient content of these carbs nor the blood sugar response from ingesting them. Like the glycemic index, it matters far more what you’re eating these carbs with than the actual carbs themselves.
This is when it comes to things like fibre which we have been told for years to consume. Have a hard time going to the washroom? Good chance you’re cutting it too low on fiber. Fiber, unlike most carbs, is indigestible meaning that it cannot be digested by the body. It comes in two forms being solvable (attracts water and dissolves in water) and insolvable (doesn’t dissolve). Soluable fiber is found in foods like oats, nuts, seeds and some fruits and vegetables while insoluable fiber is found in things like wheat bran, root vegetables and vegetable skins and help us feel more full and boost our overall gut health.
When it comes to carbohydrate intake prescription, this is where things can get kind of foggy because . . . . it depends. For an elite level athlete like Michael Phelps, he needs carbohydrates and lots of them--probably in excess of 500g per day when he’s getting ready to break world records at the Olympic Games. When designing your own prescription however, it should be noted that once you fill your intake for your two primary macronutrients, carbohydrate intake will take care of itself. Carbs are NOT an essential macronutrient and while I do think you should enjoy them in your diet, they do have to be earned and consumed in moderation as well.
Basically fill the rest of your macronutrients with your carbohydrates and don’t get lost in the minutia.
A former journalist and sports blogger, I've turned my writing prowess and love of fitness and nutrition into a personal blog where you can find anything you are looking for on the world of health, nutrition and fitness.