What I’ve Been Up To: Nutrition


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Before I return to my typical health tip lists, discussions of a healthy lifestyle, and analyzing articles / studies, I thought I’d fill you in on what I’ve been up to in the last year. This will be a 3-part series, detailing my changes in diet, exercise, and daily life.

Today, let’s dive into my last year in terms of my nutrition!

I left you at the end of summer, one year ago. I was leaning out by reducing my carb intake. Meals were built around vegetables and protein, cooked in healthy fat, with 1-2 pieces of fruit a day and 1 large sweet potato (usually post-workout).

As I went into fall / winter, I transitioned to building new muscle. I did this by increasing calories, over many weeks, from my maintenance level of 2,500 a day to over 4,000 a day. Every time my bodyweight plateaued for more than 2 weeks, I would bump my calories up another 250-500 a day.

It is very difficult to consume 4,000 calories a day without relying upon calorie-dense but nutrient-lacking foods like liquid sugars (Gatorade / fruit juice), refined grains (bread / cereal), or junk food (ice cream / fast food). Sure, I could consume these foods on a daily basis and probably gain 5 pounds a week – but it would be all fat!

paleo pyramidSo instead, 3 meals a day  would contain about 1 pound of starch (white or sweet potato), half a pound of protein (eggs, meat, or fish), 1 serving of healthy fat (an avocado or large handful of nuts), 1 cup of vegetables, and, if I could fit it, 1 serving of fruit.  Then I would also have 2 shakes a day, containing either coconut milk or raw cow/goat milk, full-fat Greek yogurt, avocado, honey, cocoa powder, a banana or plantain, and 1 scoop of whey protein powder.

For the first time in my life, my bodyweight reached 200 pounds and I was still able to see my abs!

No matter how nutritious the foods are, and how slow the gain, some of the weight will be stored fat. With spring starting, and summer – the season of beach trips and shirtless runs around town – around the corner, I slowly brought my calories back down in order to lean out once again.

To avoid losing any muscle I had worked so hard to build, I kept my meals based around the same half pound of protein. To create the calorie deficit I needed to lose fat, I eliminated the multiple servings of fuel (fats/carbs) at every meal. I would still use fat to taste when preparing my meals, but I no longer had sides of avocados and nuts. I also reduced my carb intake similar to the previous year.  

Once I reached maintenance, I slowly replaced every carb calorie (not counting veggies) with fat calories, transitioning into ketosis for one month. For a refresher on what this is and the benefits, click here!

sports-nutrition.jpgAnd that brings us to the present. I weigh about 185 right now. I have maintained my strength and my arms / legs are the same size, so I can safely say I didn’t lose much muscle.

I try not to obsess about numbers so I can only guess my body-fat is just below 15%. Once I reach my desired level of leanness (maybe 10%?), I’ll return to building more muscle.

I’ll discuss the reason for this back and forth between periods of gaining weight and losing weight but, for now, here are the objective numbers from my own process:

In December of 2014 I weighed 190 with maybe 25% body fat. At the end of 2015 I weighed 200 with a body fat of about 20%. I weighed 10 pounds more but had 5 pounds less of fat.

I had gained 15 pounds of muscle from one year to the next!  

I hope this gives you an idea of how a “health-nut” such as myself eats, as well as how to adjust your eating habits to ensure specific outcomes.

Next I’ll talk about the different exercise programs I’ve done over the last year, what weaknesses I discovered, what records I broke, and my opinion of how to best balance training modalities for general health.

See you very 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!