Metabolic Flexibility for Athletes – Part 3

Originally I didn’t intend to include a third part to this series…but the peeps asked — and so they shall receive. A number of folks had some specific questions and thus I feel compelled to address these insightful queries from the Lifetime Athlete fam.

One more time, what is metabolic flexibility and why is it important? This is basically the ability to use the energy-oriented macronutrients of fat and carbohydrate most effectively to fuel athleticism and preserve health. The value is bang for nutritional buck, or return on investment with food ingestion and utilization. Producing the most energy, using and storing it efficiently, with as little waste of resource or waste product creation, is the goal.

Can I improve my metabolic flexibility with diet and will this help my performance? You can absolutely and powerfully impact your metabolism with diet, and perhaps to a greater degree than training alone. Put diet and training together, though, and you start to exponentially increase the metabolic gains. Having higher, more stable levels of overall energy, greater output capacity, and more rapid recovery…can all be enhanced with a healthy, flexible metabolism.

Is there any definitive data that a protocol such as the one proposed here is both safe and effective for humans? First of all, the main premise of the Metabolic Flexibility for Athletes approach for the month of March is to eat the Planet-based Diet (PBD). This primary focus is to consume whole, fresh, natural foods that are not overly processed and that do not contain excess sugars, refined grains, and seed oils (these are the main ingredients in processed, packaged, junk food). Consuming the PBD in and of itself is a proven health promoter. To the best of my knowledge and study, there are no randomized controlled trials on humans eating a meal plan that reverses macronutrient concentrations as the day progresses (at least in the specific way we are doing it here), but there is much anecdotal evidence in support of doing so.

How do I eat according to this plan with regard to weight maintenance and supporting my training? OK…so the major emphasis is to restrict carbs, or even eliminate them, in the a.m. feedings, and then to consume a moderate amount of carbs but very little fat in the p.m. Protein should always be ample at 30+ grams per serving and with a rough target of 1g/lb bodyweight per day. In trying to maintain weight, you simply determine (by trial and error more so than estimation) the amount of food that keeps you weight stable and feeling energized and recovered. I do, however, recommend initially using food tracking software to know exactly what is going in the pie-whole for a while so you eliminate guesswork. It’s often staggering to see that most people eat way too little protein and way too much carbs for their specific bodily health and performance needs. Once you have a rough idea of your isocaloric level, decide whether you feel and perform your best on 2-3-4 meals per day. If you are training upwards of 90 minutes in a session, and perhaps doing multiple workouts each day, you definitely need 4 meals. But if you only do a moderate workout under an hour with some general daily activity thrown in…2-3 feedings are really all you need.

What if i want to leverage this approach for weight (lean body mass) gain? Easy-peasy. Just maintain a small daily caloric surplus of several hundred calories, keep the protein up, and emphasize the resistance training in your workouts. If gains are slow, eat more…if the muscle mass is being overshadowed by fat gain…eat less.

How about if my focus is on cutting and shredding? Keep calories in a small deficit for most of the week, also with high protein intake, and watch out for too much high intensity cardio, which can backfire on you if you do too much. 

Coach JZ, what does your current diet look like? As the asker of this question knew, I’ve had great fun doing lots of dietary experiments on myself. I’ve engaged in eating a specific way, examining body composition and performance markers, as well as tabulating bloodwork and other health measures. I’ve done paleo, keto, carnivore, raw foods vegan, and several other explorations. Right now, in keeping with the Metabolic Flexibility for Athletes program in March, here’s what I’m doing. 

  • I’m eating three meals per day, which are a low-carb breakfast and lunch, and a moderate carb but low fat dinner. 
  • Total calories are around 3000 per day, and I’m training around an hour daily, with 2-3 sessions per week having some higher intensity in them. 
  • I really don’t eat any carbs until evening, but then I don’t limit them. I just make sure to get my protein in at every meal. Breakfast might be eggs and sausage, and lunch is usually a steak or burger. Lots of water and plenty of salt. Dinner has been looking like a slab of white fish or a large chicken breast, along with either a baked yam or white rice as my starchy carb and broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower as my fibrous carb. I’ll occasionally have a piece of fruit for dessert. Because I’m not eating junk, I have to eat large platters of food to get all my calories in, so I’m never starving, usually quite full, and very satisfied. It’s delicious. The one challenge I’m finding is that on this plan I can’t slather my veggies in oil or butter (which I like) but I’m using seasoned vinegars and spices which are quite nice.

Do you have any biases towards diet? I’m glad this question got asked, because I have several and I want to offer these up in full disclosure:

  • I’m very much an advocate for an adequate-protein diet. Many folks will consider 1g/#bodyweight to be high, but the best research suggests this is optimal.
  • I’m also a great believer in the superiority of animal-based nutrition and the consumption of red meat. There is a lot of marketing to convince people otherwise, because there are dollars (actually billions) to be made. I enjoy robust health and high athleticism because of — not in spite of — the fact that I eat a lot of meat. I’ve got the data to prove it. N=1 is true here, but I’m not alone.
  • I’m also a proponent of a low-carb diet for most people, including athletes. I eat veggies and fruits because I like them. I enjoy the taste, color, and texture they add to my plate. But I don’t eat them because I believe them to be absolutely necessary in my diet, and are carrying essential nutrients and fiber. I’m more of the belief that plants are OK if I don’t eat too many of them. This makes evolutionary sense to me. If I was a primitive human and I had to choose between a mastodon steak or some tubers, I’m going meat every time. But between megafauna harvests, I’d eat leaves and roots if I had to. Sure, I’d pound berries or honey when I found them, but that wouldn’t be very often. An athlete with a frequent, high training workload is actually a modern contrivation, and thus we can use carbs strategically in this condition. But adequate isn’t necessarily high when it comes to carbs. Most athletes (not talking about sick obese individuals here) can do a lot with just a couple hundred grams of carbs. Because processed carbs are hyperpalatable and highly addictive, we have to be very wary of this slippery slope. Athletes don’t get a free pass to just indiscriminately gobble pasta, cereal, bread, cookies, etc. Biology applies to everyone. And even when carbs are “healthy” varieties (mostly unprocessed, low glycemic, etc.) that bell-shaped curve of consumption must be respected. A little can be good in some circumstances, but it’s really not too much. 

What do your macros look like? Well, you can tell from the foods I mentioned earlier, that breakfast and lunch for me runs about 60/40 fat/pro with practically no carbs. Then, in the evening, my dinner plate comes out at about 10/30/60 fat/pro/carb in terms of percentage of calories. In a 1,000 calorie meal that makes for about 75 grams of protein and 150 grams of carbs. It is delicious and feels almost decadent. 

How is your training going? I’m recovering well and waking up energized. Hardly any soreness and great output and fatigue resistance in the gym. It seems like this greater attention to protein is really helping the muscle recovery. And the moderate amount of carbs are certainly restocking my glycogen stores. I’m staying weight stable, although I’ll intentionally cut down a few pounds by summer. I almost feel like I’m eating more carbs than I need. It has been my experience that the more fat-adapted I become, and the less carbs I eat over what is now 5 years, the less I need. It’s very interesting. I want to see what happens when I start running some hard anaerobic sprint sessions in a few months.

Can you sum up how to best do the Metabolic Flexibility in just a few sentences? Yup. Eat enough high quality food. This is the PBD. Use the Just Eat Real Food (JERF) principle. Buck convention and don’t eat a “balanced” plate. This is merely an invention of modern humans, based on ideas not facts. Eat an UNBALANCED PLATE. When you have your carbs, don’t have them with fat. 

Can I get more help and information regarding meal planning and timing? Sure! I’m doing a Zoom meeting on Monday, March 9th at 7:00am. This was originally set to be on Friday the 6th but several folks requested an alternative. If you want to join in this discussion, just email me and I’ll put you on the list. All you need is to have Zoom (free) installed on one of your devices. You’ll receive an invitation and we’ll chop things up. 

Thanks for reading and good luck with all your training, diet, and health endeavors!

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