My Nutritional Journey

Continuing the thread I started last time, this post will summarize my various experimentation and resulting experiences…this time regarding nutrition.

Growing up, I ate the Standard American Diet (SAD) – cereal and skim milk for breakfast, cold cuts or peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and a home-cooked meal (cheeseburgers, chicken and veggies, pasta, etc.) for dinner. When I got home from school I’d have two microwaveable pizzas, an entire box of cookies, or another less-than-optimal snack. On weekends we’d order pizza or go out for dinner and, on more nights than not, my dad and I would make ice cream sundaes. It was enjoyable…but I was chubby, suffered from severe acne, and wasn’t particularly active.  

I continued this way of eating until I discovered the world of bodybuilding in college. I learned about “clean” eating according to the governmental standards of our country. This meant I ate tons of carbs (over 50% of my daily calories), a moderate amount of protein, and low fat. I was still new to the health-world and impressionable so, every time I read a news article about risks of fat, cholesterol, salt, or meat, I’d cut back even further on these. Finally, by senior year of college I was a vegetarian – eating egg whites and oatmeal in the morning, then meals comprised of rice, quinoa, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, soy, dairy, or legumes for the rest of the day. I was miserable. I was bloated, had indigestion, suffered migraines, and experienced mood swings if I went more than 3 hours without eating. It got to a point where I was soaking my beans to remove excess salt from them and choosing medium-grain brown rice instead of long-grain because it had 1 more gram of (incomplete) protein per cup!

Two years ago, my mentor (who had been a “high-carb, low-fat” advocate) admitted he had been eating a “Paleolithic Diet” for over a year and was healthier than ever. His blood markers improved, his performance increased, and the aches-and-pains that were considered a side-effect of aging all but disappeared. I purchased The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf, to learn some of the science and rationale behind this alternative approach to nutrition. Robb is a strength and athletics coach with a degree in bio-molecular chemistry. I started consuming as much information from as many sources as possible and the science seemed to check out. I learned: eating cholesterol does not necessarily raise bad cholesterol levels in the blood; naturally occurring saturated fats do not “saturate” the blood resulting in blocked arteries and death; properly raised meat does not cause cancer.

 I decided to have my blood work done before making any changes, and then have it done after 30 days eating “paleo”. It’s possible to cherry-pick studies to make an argument for or against anything but a blood lipid-panel would show what’s truly happening in the body. After years of eating a doctor-recommended diet of high carb, low protein, fat, cholesterol and sodium, my LDL and triglycerides were “borderline high” and my HDL was “poor”. I’ll talk more about these terms and specific numbers another time but clearly, an American Heart Association (AHA) recommended diet was not working for me. After merely 30 days of eating paleo, my LDL and triglycerides lowered to “optimal” and my HDL went up to “best”. Not only had these markers improved but my digestion was perfect, my energy levels were stable, and my body composition was better. I’ve been eating paleo for over 2 years now. I check my blood regularly and my HDL is still on the rise and my triglycerides are still dropping – both very good signs of cardiovascular health.

I don’t want to turn these posts into short stories all about me so I’m going wrap up here. In my next post I’ll talk a little bit more about optimal eating habits and the pros and cons of different nutritional approaches. I’ve certainly experienced success using the paleo diet as a starting point, but, my goal on this blog will never be to push anything onto my readers. My only intentions are to provide a combination of personal experience and science so people can have an idea of what may improve their health and well-being.

Thanks for your patience over these past two posts! I wanted you all to have an opportunity to get to know me and my history in this world of physical health. Keep in mind, health is a lifelong process and I have many years to learn and experience even more. I hope you all take the journey with me and can find some value on this site.

See you soon!

My Training History

Eventually this blog will consist of more up-to-the-moment information…discussion of new studies, changes in nutrition that can affect body comp and health, training techniques, recovery protocols, etc. But, for now, I just wanted to catch you all up on my experiences!  This post will summarize my fitness training and activity level.

When I got serious about lifting in college, I started with the typical “bodybuilding” programs from magazines and websites. These consisted of 9 sets for big muscle groups (chest, back, etc) and 6 sets for smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, etc), with repetitions in the 8 to 12 range. The frequency resulted in each muscle being worked once over the course of 5 training days per week. The rest periods between sets were short (less than a minute) and the weights were heavy (70-90% of maximum) so every set was carried until failure (technique failed before the last rep).  This did NOT work for me.

What did work were more focused workouts, still with high volume, but never pushing to the point that technique faltered. I switched to 4 sets of 15 reps, one movement for each muscle group, and a weight that felt manageable. I trained upper body on Monday and Thursday and lower body on Tuesday and Friday. This workout, coupled with a healthy increase in calories, helped me grow from a spindly 140 lb novice to a 180 lb weight-lifter.

My current focus is strength so I have been using the “5/3/1” program by Jim Wendler. I would recommend ordering the book from Jim’s website but even an internet search will result in comprehensive discussions of the routine. Basically, there are four training days, each based around a primary strength movement – bench press, squat, military press, and deadlift. I find 3 days a week seems to work best for me. I can handle 4 days a week but I don’t feel the same eager anticipation before each workout. The most valuable feature of this program is what is referred to as the “training max”.

Strength is often determined by a 1RM (1 rep max; the maximum weight you can lift, properly, for one rep). If you take 90% of your 1RM, you’ll have a much safer and effective “training max”. This means that, when you are on the heaviest week of 5/3/1, lifting 75% of your 1RM for 5 reps, 85% X 3, and 95% X 1+, you are never actually lifting more than 85% of your 1RM (95% X 90% = 85.5%). The second key to 5/3/1 is the plus-sign next to the “95% X 1+”. For the last set of the primary lift, you can try to get as many reps (with proper form) as possible. These two features give you enough wiggle room so you can vary the intensity of any given workout, based on how you are feeling that day. Working at your maximum, day after day, will do nothing but burn you out physically and mentally. Conversely, the body can benefit from high intensity output on occasion.

In terms of conditioning, I perform one high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session a week…sprints in the warmer months and Concept2 rowing during the winter months. These workouts consist of a warm-up, anywhere from 5-20 intervals of high intensity work with short rest periods, and a cool-down. I also stay active as much as possible during the day. As a personal trainer, I spend a lot of time on my feet and demonstrating exercise technique. I also try to go for a one-mile walk outdoors whenever I have fifteen or twenty minutes of free time.

In conclusion, I do not think you have to beat yourself up or view workout as torture to reap the benefits. Lifting something heavy a few times a week and staying as active as possible in everyday life is adequate for people focused on general fitness. Finally, throw in an occasional session of short but intense work to improve body composition and function.

On a personal note, at every step of the way on my path to fitness, I was mentored by an amazing personal trainer working in Providence, RI. The guidance of a reliable trainer is invaluable and necessary for continued success. That being said – please e-mail me to arrange consultations, program tailoring, training sessions, etc. Sorry for the shameless plug! This blog and all the information on it will always be free but, heck, I need to make a living too right? Haha.

Hope you’ve all had fun strolling down memory lane with me! The take-away is: I’m not an athlete by nature and I’m not physically built for bodybuilding or powerlifting. If you are not genetically gifted, not everything will work for you…but with enough experimentation, an effective trainer, and some dedication and patience, your goals are possible!

Stay tuned for the next venture later this week…through the many nutritional approaches I’ve tried!