Rambly Nutrition Thoughts 08-14-19

Some nutrition ramblings

Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting makes consuming less calories easier by taking advantage of the appetite-suppressing effects of fasting. It also burns fat (ketosis), and induces autophagy (thought to be beneficial to overall wellness, especially long-term). As soon as you consume calories (“breaking the fast”), you drop out of ketosis and lose the appetite suppression, fat-burning, and autophagy benefits.

Some people advocate working out fully fasted. Through experience, I’m too much of a wuss to consistently work out fasted. I don’t like feeling weak and nauseous, especially when lifting. However, I do want to have the benefits of intermittent fasting. So what’s the solution? Just shift the eating window forward and consider the fast broken when you eat before your workout. There’s not a great deal of reason why you can’t have the feeding period start an hour earlier and end an hour earlier. The benefits of intermittent fasting don’t depend upon the time of day, to my knowledge, just the duration of the fast. (Although having the fast go overnight simplifies everything greatly).

So if you initially were following an eating window of 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM, just shift that to 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM, and eat something an hour before working out to deal with the weakness and nausea. (This is assuming a workout around 12:00 PM). An hour is a bit early anyhow, and you could probably get away with eating something closer to the workout (like a half hour before). Hard-and-fast rules are less important than the general idea.

What to eat when breaking the fast before lifting heavy things

So what to eat before a strength-training workout? Well, it would be optimal from the fasting perspective if this food item were quickly metabolized so that it affected the fasting clock less. This means, for example, that casein protein and very fibrous things would be poor choices (they are absorbed more slowly). It would also be optimal to keep the total amount of calories down so that a higher percentage of the workout day’s total calories are consumed after the workout. This means it would be best if the food item were low in fat (since fat has more calories per gram than carbs or protein).

Carbs would work, but so would whey protein (which is fast-absorbing). I’ve elected to go with whey protein. Drinking protein is an easy way to get more of it, and whey is also rich in BCAA’s (most notably leucine) that are important in muscle synthesis. Whether or not you need essential amino acids and/or BCAA’s before working out fasted to prevent muscle catabolism (not settled as far as I’ve seen), whether or not you need essential amino acids and/or BCAA’s before working out fasted for optimal anabolism (also not settled as far as I’ve seen), or whether or not drinking whey protein before a workout leads to greater anabolic and metabolic effects than after (timing also being something much discussed but little agreed upon), I need to get some calories before my workout since I’m a wuss, and whey protein fits the bill. If any of these other things happen to be true (making pre-workout whey protein scientifically beneficial, vs just being a good possible choice), then all the better.

There is also one other reason that makes me think going with the whey protein over something carby like an apple is beneficial, and that is simple macros. I’m shooting for a very high protein intake (above 60% of all calories), and avoiding carbs in the pre-workout food lets me worry about my macros less later in the day. Going out to eat with your friends is less stressful, having dessert with your family at dinner is less stressful, and you can more liberally use carbs and fat to make food more appetizing (most condiments and other things that add flavor are primarily carbs and fat). In other words, having whey here rather than carbs simply makes it easier to hit the macros for the rest of the day.

Macros, protein, fiber, and watery food

Speaking of the macros, why so much protein? The general idea comes from the leangains approach. Protein has several highly beneficial attributes. In general, protein takes more energy to digest than carbs (cf. dietary induced thermogenesis) – those nutrition labels are actually deceptive. You may get 4 calories of energy per gram of protein, but since it takes somewhere around 1 calorie to digest that gram of protein, you actually only net 3-ish calories. Carbs and fats do not benefit from this effect nearly as much as protein, and for this reason protein is just straight up superior as a macronutrient. You feel more full (mediated through the process of chewing/eating, stomach distention, hormone regulation relating to these things, etc.), but you simply end up netting fewer calories overall for the same degree of satiation. In fact, fiber has a very similar effect (being low calorie by weight, but still taking up space and leading to fullness), as does eating things that have a lot of water in them (such as fruits and vegetables). Unfortunately, just drinking water before meals doesn’t have the same beneficial effect even though it too takes up space; evidently there is some mind-body “perception of eating” stuff going on. But eating things high in liquid – like the aforementioned fruits and vegetables, as well as liquid based things like soups – does lead to fullness with minimal calories.

Eating a diet high in protein, fiber, and fruits and vegetables (“edible water”) makes maintaining a lower-calorie state – particularly one wherein you are sustaining a calorie deficit – much more effortless. Why? You simply don’t feel hungry. Eating things that digest more slowly while netting fewer calories just makes it easier to eat less. And since sustainably eating less while exercising is how you get rid of unwanted body fat, you can see how things begin to come together.

Ketogenic diets, building muscle on a calorie deficit

An astute reader might raise a hand and inquire about the ketogenic diet. Keto done right is also big on fiber and does have a fair bit of protein, but has far more calories coming from fat. Keto’s big idea too is appetite regulation, but keto’s appetite regulation uses a different underlying mechanism (ketogenesis = burning fat for energy). I think keto might be a superior option for people who are highly insulin resistant (as it improves insulin sensitivity more than a high-protein diet that still includes carbs), but to my mind, keto is inferior in general since it’s too easy to fall off the boat and knock yourself out of ketosis by eating too many carbs. I’m greedy. I want to be able to eat whatever I want in moderation while still having good appetite regulation. A very high protein diet gives me that. Keto does not. You can never have anything carby when doing keto. Ever.

There is a reason even more fundamental than this for favoring the high protein diet, and that is building muscle on a calorie deficit. Typically, maintaining a calorie deficit is catabolic! Building muscle and stoking anabolism (rather than simply retaining muscle) are thus big challenges when operating on a calorie deficit. Of the macronutrients, protein is by far the most muscle-sparing, and also the most anabolic. So the best way to build muscle on a calorie deficit is to eat lots and lots of protein. In this regard, a high protein diet obviously blows a ketogenic diet out of the water.

Body composition vs weight

As more and more body mass shifts into muscle, resting metabolism is also raised, making it even easier to keep fat off. Since eating less doesn’t take more willpower on a diet that regulates appetite well, once you achieve a body composition you are happy with, maintenance is a breeze. Note that weight is a much worse predictor of overall success than body composition (muscle to fat), and for that reason it’s best to focus not on weight but on bodyfat percentage as you metric of choice. Harder to measure, but more meaningful by far.

What to eat, and how to make it edible with minimal work

So what to eat? I’m lazy, and prioritize minimal preparation time. However, I also value high quality ingredients like grass-fed beef, grass-fed dairy products, pasture-raised chicken/turkey, pasture-raised eggs, wild-caught salmon, organic vegetables, and so on. Not only are these things better from an ethical perspective (animal welfare), they are also more nutritious, and are produced more sustainably. The combination of these things means I must cook for myself since there is not any pre-made frozen food that checks all the boxes. If there were, I would no doubt make use of such food options some of the time, but I would probably still cook for myself some for variety (unless the number of pre-made options exceeded 10 or so, in which case I would happily never prepare food ever again). Variety is an important variable since it helps make diets sustainable. For example, while a grilled chicken breast and boiled broccoli every night might meet the goals of the diet as I’ve outlined it, it would be hard to eat this every single day for years and never have problems with diet compliance. It’s much easier to stick with a set of macro and nutrient requirements if you have variety in your diet.

OK, so what does all this translate into in the real world? While I love myself some steak, hamburgers, grilled chicken, and so forth, I want my daily meal preparation time under 20 minutes. This is possible to achieve by packing lunch from things that require close to zero active preparation (cold-cut meats, hard-boiled eggs, raw spinach salads, steamed broccoli, protein pudding, canned sardines, bean chips, stevia-sweetened Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and other lowfat cheeses, peanuts (in moderation), carrots and celery, etc.), and then using a pressure-cooker (like the Instant Pot) to make dinner within an hour. Tossing food and spices into a pressure cooker takes minutes, and steaming vegetables (my preferred way to eat broccoli and kale) on the stovetop also takes very little hands-on time. You could hypothetically replace pressure-cooking with slow-cooking on a timer that starts before you get home from work, but the pressure cooker takes much less energy overall (saving money on electricity and making you a better eco-conscious denizen of the world), and as a rule of thumb, the shorter cooking time preserves more heat-sensitive nutrients. Pressure cooking also helps reduce antinutrients like lectins and phytic acid (making beans – high in protein and fiber, and therefore an excellent choice for our high-protein diet – more attractive). Finally, the short cooking time allows for dinner-prep to occur after work, not before. Since lunch-packing occurs before work, having dinner-prep occur then too is suboptimal, in my opinion, as it invariably increases activity-dosed boredom. (Spreading out like work is less likely to lead to boredom than concentrating it). Perhaps more importantly, putting dinner-prep in the morning also prevents you from having a de-stressing and calming activity between your workday and your evening. For all these reasons, I favor pressure cookers for time-efficient meal preparation over normal slow-cookers.

Cycling chicken/turkey, beef, fish, lamb, eggs, etc. along with various added ingredients (like grains, rice, potatoes, onions, peppers, etc.) leads to protein-rich meals that don’t get boring. I also throw a big handful of spinach in with just about everything in the pressure cooker. Spinach, kale, and broccoli give you the most nutritional bang for your buck (although I do eat other vegetables like cauliflower and asparagus occasionally), so they are important to include regularly for an optimal diet, in my opinion. I like the taste of steamed broccoli and steamed kale better than steamed spinach, which is why spinach goes in with whatever is getting cooked (with other ingredients and spices). I typically have steamed broccoli for lunch and steamed kale for dinner, although you could reverse the two as you see fit.

Most protein shouldn’t be whey

I avoid whey protein except for the dose right before lifting. While the fast absorption is good in that circumstance, it is actually better to have slower digesting protein the rest of the time. Why? Because slower digesting protein leads to less hunger over the day and makes it easier to stick with the diet. Casein protein makes a good “dessert” when whipped and chilled (especially when combined with berries, high-protein Greek yogurt, stevia, cacao powder, and a fiber source like psyllium husk powder), and its ultra-slow digestion makes it a staple of my lunches. There is usually a bigger gap between lunch and dinner than dinner and bed,1 so putting the casein at lunch makes more sense for keeping hunger at bay when it matters more. Additionally, casein towards the end of the eating window would lead to a longer trickle insulogenic effect when fasting, and increase the time it takes to get into ketosis, leading to less time that fat-burning and autophagy are operational. You can’t really get away from eating meat, fat, and fiber at dinner (nor would it be a good idea to attempt to do so “to make intermittent fasting better”), but since casein is so reknown for its slow release, it makes sense to avoid it towards the beginning of the fast, in my opinion.


Well there you go – a long rambly version of my current nutrition thoughts, without citations for a bunch of assertions I throw out. I’ll try to remedy the lack of evidence as I get the time.

  1. Most people’s work situation will lead to them getting home at least 5 or more hours after lunch, and if you follow a 16/8 intermittent fasting scheme, you should naturally find yourself eating dinner within the eating window. Let’s say you have a typical 40 hours per week job, being at work 8-9 hours a day. If you want to be at work at 8:30 AM and it takes a combined 30 minutes to get ready and make your commute in the mornings, then going to bed a full 10 hours earlier (which is what I aim for for optimal health = 9+ hours of sleep every night) puts bedtime around 10:00 PM. If you first eat around 11:30 AM, finishing dinner before 7:30 PM keeps you in the eating window. This eating schedule (which is typical for me, although YMMV) has around a 7 hour gap between lunch and dinner, but less than three hours before bed. [return]

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