I thought it would be fun to end the year with a series of posts on issues I got wrong, or at least on which I’ve changed my mind over the course of 2011. Trouble is, for most of the things I want to discuss, I have a hard time pinpointing exactly when I went from “flip” to “flop”. This one, though, I can identify pretty damn precisely.
For a good long time now — longer than I’ve been writing this blog; probably about six or seven years — I’ve subscribed to the “many small meals” theory of nutrition. The idea here is that keeping a slow, steady trickle of calories and macronutrients rolling into your bloodstream maximizes their uptake into useful processes — muscle growth, say — and minimizes waste (storing excess glucose as fat, pissing out extra vitamins, &c.). It just makes sense, right? So for those years I did my best to eat something small (or, often, tell myself I was bulking and eat something large) about every three hours.
Further to this point: Because sleep is so damn important, I don’t want to wake up twice in the middle of the night for a small meal. Therefore, when I wake up, my body’s been in zOMG STARVATION MODE for a whole nine hours and is recklessly cannibalizing my hard-earned muscle for energy in order to preserve adipose tissue for the long famine ahead. Thus, my first priority upon waking should be
pissing making coffee eating a large breakfast to claw my way out of that dreaded catabolic state. “Eat breakfast; breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” is pretty much unquestioned dogma in the sports-nutrition world, which you’d think would have made me suspicious.
At no point in the last six or seven years did I ever wonder how a metabolism that slipped into zOMG STARVATION MODE every goddamn day would be an evolved adaptation. I think I just wanted an excuse to eat a lot of meat on a regular basis.
Anyway, fast forward to this July. I’d been lifting with a buddy since last October, and my friend — being as much of a nerd as I am — was reading everything in sight on lifting and nutrition, especially if “in sight” evaluated to “on Reddit”. (It’s paying off for him in spades, too: he got as strong in one year of following a basic Starting Strength-type workout as I did in four years of less-directed fucking around. Next year I’ll introduce him to Dinosaur Training and blow his mind.) He kept bringing up this weird diet called Leangains, which Redditors apparently like to use when they want to look good nekkid. It involved fasting for sixteen (!!!) hours and then eating like a fiend for eight. Uh huh, sure buddy.
Then I came across this article at T-Nation:
I recently received a very interesting voice mail from Adam, one of my current group of “lab wabbits.” He said he’d lost over 20 pounds of body fat between November and July, dropping from 17% to 12% bodyfat while adding over 4 pounds of lean mass.
Skeptics among you are likely thinking, “Yeah, big deal. It’s called the newbie effect.” Well, keep in mind that Adam has been training hard for over 10 years and is a world record holder in grip events, so he’s about the furthest thing from a gym green horn as you’re going to find.
Now add to the equation that Adam was reportedly consuming plenty of “evil” carbs, red meat, and beer as he achieved these results – and that his results were about average in the group of test wabbits.
Drop body fat, add lean muscle, eat meat, drink beer? You have my attention!
It’s not much of an article from a prescriptive perspective, but it has a few good references and got me thinking along new lines. (I’ve been receptive to the idea that losing fat and gaining muscle is mostly a matter of hacking one’s metabolism since about 2004, when I started squatting seriously rather than doing the usual bench-and-curl routine.) So I dug into Leangains a bit more seriously, and it turns out that their suggested 16/8 strategy looks like a pretty painless way to crank up metabolic flexibility.
“Bah, humbug!” some of you are snorting right now. “Diet isn’t that hard. Calories in < calories out = you lose weight, dumbass!” Well, fair enough (although chopping off a leg is a quicker way to lose weight, if that’s all you care about). The other thing about Leangains that I found attractive was that it looked like something I could stick to: basically it involves taking my existing preferred eating habits and lopping off everything between wake-up and early afternoon. It also doesn’t entail any particular hardships that might have scared me off from actually doing it, like noticeable changes to the meals I make or cutting out beer, so it’s easy to just start doing rather than just think about doing for a while before deciding that I should really do it… later, maybe in a few months.
So back in July, I quit eating breakfast. (Yes, even on deadlift day: turns out I can pull 95% of my PR on nothing more than most of a protein shake.)
I haven’t lost any strength — hell, I set a new squat PR earlier this month — and I haven’t lost a noticeable amount of weight, but my waist is (a bit) smaller and my arms and back are (a bit) bigger. Which is consistent with this result from the Journal of Nutrition:
To conclude, ingestion of larger AM meals resulted in slightly greater weight loss, but ingestion of larger PM meals resulted in better maintenance of fat-free mass. Thus, incorporation of larger PM meals in a weight loss regimen may be important in minimizing the loss of fat-free mass.
(Hat tip: Patri.)
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to everyone — surprise surprise, your habits and metabolism are probably not identical to mine — but it seems to work for me.