Lever #2: Nutrition
Understanding nutrition, its five sub-levers, the simplest way to escape the Standard American Diet & the cult-like mentality around dietary restriction.
We can say with near impunity that all humans would be healthier if they implement both sleep practices and an exercise regimen that encompasses all of their respective sub-levers. However, when it comes to Lever #2: Nutrition, our approach must change as similar to Lever #5: External Compounds, there is no one right answer that applies to everyone. As humans, we like clear-cut black and white solutions to problems, but the world of nutrition is coloured grey due to the widely varying biochemical individuality from person to person. To adjust my approach to this topic accordingly, I’ll discuss the levers you have at your disposal and what they have the potential to achieve, but it’s up to you to experiment and, through trial and error, determine what feels and works best for you.
The Five Sub-Levers of Nutrition
A crucial but widely overlooked factor. This is one of the most important components of our health yet it’s rarely discussed. On average, men should drink at least 3.7 litres and women at least 2.7 litres of water per day. Adjust accordingly for activity levels and climate. Note that in the future I’ll generally reference nutrition as only having four sub-levers (the four below) as it is assumed you are always hydrating properly.
Time Restricted Feeding (TRF)
Limits when you eat. TRF, commonly mistaken as intermittent fasting (IF), is the practice of limiting the window in which one eats during a 24-hour period. For example, a 16/8 split means that one consumes all of their calories for a day within an eight-hour window, say 12pm to 8pm, and nothing else, other than calorie-free liquids, for the remaining 16 hours. There are many benefits to TRF ranging from weight loss, reduced insulin resistance, decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, and even potential anti-aging benefits and cancer prevention.
Dietary Restriction (DR)
Limits what you eat. In other words, the removal of something from your diet (i.e., keto, vegan, paleo, Atkins, Mediterranean diet, avoid white flour, white sugar, white milk). It’s certainly not necessary to venture to the extremes, whether that means eating a diet that consists of 70% or more fat (keto) or strictly consuming only plant-based food sources (vegan). In fact, deciding to go to these extremes warrants caution as you must be very careful in measuring how your body responds to such diets.
As we’re all very different, the same ketogenic diet that makes one person thrive may cause another to be deficient in nutrients, lack energy, or contribute to other negative health impacts. Measuring the appropriate biomarkers to determine if a diet is truly beneficial on a molecular level is a more in-depth topic that I’ll cover in the future. For now, I’ll suggest a few DR rules that are broadly applicable and likely to benefit everyone.
Rule #1: Don’t drink your calories. Replace caloric or sugary drinks with water, sparkling water, herbal tea, and coffee.
Rule #2: Avoid “white” carbohydrates. Instead, stick to complex carbs such as legumes, beans, oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and other plant-based foods. The less processed and refined, the better.
Rule #3: Limit fruit consumption. Although fruit can be an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, its principal sugar, fructose, can be converted to glycerol phosphate more efficiently than almost all other carbohydrates. This is detrimental as glycerol phosphate → triglycerides (via the liver) → fat storage. Instead, focus on eating a high volume of diverse vegetables throughout the day.
Caloric Restriction (CR)
Limits how much you eat (i.e., measured by calories — 2500 calories per day or by macronutrients — 220g protein, 70g fat, and 250g carbs). We all have a unique basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is the number of calories required to keep our body functioning at rest. Although there are many online calculators, the most accurate method of calculating BMR is believed to be the Mifflin-St Jeor equation:
BMR = [10 * weight in kg] + [6.25 * height in cm] – [5 * age in years] + s
where s is +5 for males and -161 for females
Unless your name is Jabba the Hutt, you will of course expend more calories than your BMR based on the activities you engage in on a daily basis. To go from BMR to maintenance calories, which is the number of calories you must consume in a day to support your energy expenditure and thus remain at the same bodyweight, multiply your BMR by an activity multiplier.
Sedentary and do not exercise, x1.2
Exercise lightly 1-3 days per week, x1.375
Exercise 3-5 days per week, x1.55
Exercise 6-7 days per week, x1.725
Exercise 7 days per week and also have a physically demanding job, x1.9
If a daily caloric surplus or deficit in comparison to your maintenance calories is sustained for weeks at a time, weight will either be gained or lost, respectively. I recommend calculating your BMR and maintenance calories using the formula and multipliers above as opposed to using online calculators. Feel free to play around with the different calorie calculating websites, but in my experience, I often find wide variances and inaccurate results from site to site.
Estimate your BMR and maintenance calorie levels with the method outlined above and then adjust based on how you feel and how your body responds to certain daily caloric intakes. You don’t need to track calories, but having a rough idea of these numbers will allow you to better gauge and understand the food you’re eating. In general, a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day (maintenance calories minus 500), and thus 3500 calories per week, will equate to one pound of weight loss per week. And vice versa for weight gain. Keep in mind that all calories are not created equal, hence the need for dietary restriction. It’s possible to lose weight by eating Oreos all day, given that you are in a deficit, but this will negatively impact the internal functioning of your body and how you feel.
Caloric Restriction Case Study: My Numbers
In my experience of vigilantly tracking caloric intake, my maintenance level of 3,000 calories per day has been extremely accurate (see calculation below). Back in my bodybuilding days, I would purposely bulk, a period of eating in a caloric surplus and gaining weight, in order to put on muscle, and then cut, a period of eating in a caloric deficit and losing weight, to shred the fat gained during the bulking phase. During a cut, I would track my calories with an app such as MyFitnessPal. Using this 3,000 calorie benchmark, I would start a cut around 2,900 calories and slowly taper downwards as the weeks progressed. I would end my cut around 2,400 calories, 600 below maintenance, having successfully shed the fat I gained during the bulking period.
Height: 6’1 / 185cm
Weight: 198lbs / 89.8kg
BMR = [10 * 89.8] + [6.25 * 185] – [5 * 23] + 5 = 1,944 calories/day
Maintenance = 1944 * 1.55 = 3,013 calories/day
Note: I’m using 1.55 as my multiplier as even though I exercise rigorously 5-6 days per week, I have a desk job that leaves me sitting or standing at my desk for at least eight hours per day.
Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Specifies a duration of time, a regular frequency, and a percentage of caloric reduction (i.e., a water-only three-day fast once per month, the fast mimicking diet which specifies eating 34-54% of your maintenance caloric intake for five days once per month). IF can be thought of as a function with three variables: duration, frequency, and percentage reduction of calories. For example, a water-only, three-day fast repeated once per month could be represented by f(3, 30, 100%). The main benefits of extended fasts are derived when the body enters a state of autophagy, which literally translates to “self-eating”. It is a process in which the body cleans out damaged cells in order to regenerate newer and healthier cells. Some of the benefits include extended longevity and delayed aging, decreased inflammation, weight loss, and the potential prevention and treatment of chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative disease which combined kill roughly 80% of people in the Western world. One of my previous articles covered IF in greater depth, check it out here if interested in learning more.
The Sweet Escape (No, not the Gwen Stefani song)
The Standard American Diet, appropriately acronymed SAD, is characterized by high amounts of processed foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugars, refined fats, high-fat dairy products, and red meat. SAD is the devil. As far as diets go, it can't get much worse than the SAD unless you start mainlining blended up Krispy Kremes as your exclusive energy source. Step one of any nutrition plan should be to find a healthy and sustainable way to escape the SAD, given that is your starting point. I advise caution in attempting to completely overhaul your current diet at once, regardless of what it is, as it will be extremely overwhelming and difficult to adhere to, likely resulting in failure.
To escape the SAD, I suggest two alternate paths that can be used in isolation or concurrently. Path one is to implement time restricted feeding (TRF) and path two is to implement dietary restriction (DR). Once we’ve used TRF or DR to escape the SAD, we can introduce caloric restriction (CR) and intermittent fasting (IF) to further enhance our nutritional practices. But for now, if your diet is resemblant of the SAD, focus on TRF and DR.
Escaping the SAD: Path #1 — TRF
Using TRF as a pathway to escape the SAD stems from the idea “If you choose to subside on a bag of crap, a smaller bag of crap is probably better”, which is a quote I picked up from one of Dr. Peter Attia’s talks. Although TRF doesn’t directly enforce the consumption of fewer calories, whereas CR does, a compressed eating window increases the likelihood that you will eat less as you will feel more satiated within the eating window.
Additionally, TRF prevents compulsive or reactionary eating, and negative eating habits in general, at all times of the day as you are limited to only consuming food during the feeding period. This creates some space for us to step back and realize potentially negative associations to, or relationships with, food. For those who appreciate an analogy: if a crack addict wants to stop smoking crack, the first step would probably be to limit the amount of time they spend smoking crack in a day.
Escaping the SAD: Path #2 — DR
As the second path to escape the SAD, DR in any way, shape, or form will work wonders. As it’s nearly impossible to make the SAD worse, adopting any other way of eating will be an improvement. Whether it’s keto, paleo, vegetarianism, veganism, the Mediterranean diet, or the vertical diet, it will be a world of improvement from the SAD.
I advise caution in the way by which you approach modifying your diet since, as with any lifestyle change, it can be difficult to successfully modify behaviour for the long term. Instead of deciding to adopt an extreme diet regimen, such as keto or veganism, I would suggest starting with the three DR rules I laid out near the beginning of this article.
The Battlefield of Dietary Restriction
The reason that there is such cult-like behaviour on the Internet surrounding DR, alluded to above, is that any form of DR is a drastic improvement from the SAD. If someone switches from the SAD to veganism they will feel substantially better on a daily basis, attributing this change to their new vegan diet. This forges a deep loyalty in them to that diet for which they feel the need to let everyone else know that their diet is superior to others. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into these debates. They’re pointless for two reasons; 1) There is no one right diet for everyone, and 2) There’s no chance in hell you’re going to change the other person’s mind.
The fact of the matter is that any form of DR adopted after eating the SAD will make you feel healthier, give you more energy, and improve your performance in mental and physical tasks. It’s not the diet you adopt that matters, but the elimination of the SAD that has a positive impact. Frankly, no one knows what the “best diet” is because it doesn’t exist. There are an immeasurable number of factors at play and corresponding theories supporting different ways of eating. DR is something I’m constantly playing with to see how it impacts my strength, endurance, energy, and cognition. Listen to your body, follow the three DR rules I laid out at the start and block anyone on social media who try to tell you that their diet is the best, and you’ll have won half the battle.
The aim of this article was to expand our understanding of nutrition beyond the simple, and most widely discussed, view of good versus bad foods. We now have four different modalities (TRF, DR, CR, IF) to guide our nutrition practices and a basic understanding of how to pull these key levers to make a positive impact. Start by ensuring that you are hydrating properly and then, after self-assessing your current nutritional practices, play with the other four levers in isolation or concurrently. Experiment with different foods and eating patterns, and pay attention to how your body responds. Everyone is unique in this domain and no one rule or lifestyle will work for all. Just remember, one of the most important principles of nutrition is being able to gauge how you feel based on the things you put into your body. Learning to pull these levers in a way that works for you will create a life full of energy, health, and improved performance, both physical and cognitive.
Next week we’ll cover strategies to improve decision making, become more mindful, and maintain a proactive and resilient mindset while living to optimize for longevity.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Twitter or by hitting reply to this email.