Real World Lessons in Nutrition

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I am currently finishing up a strength and conditioning handbook for my clients. I have been working on the nutrition section and that prompted me to type this post. I am always amazed at the number of diet books that litter the shelves at the bookstores. There are so many different recommended approaches. It’s baffling that we can be well into the 21st century, and have little agreement on the optimal nutrition approach. One book recommends being completely grain free while the next one will tout a whole grain based diet. One book recommends the paleo approach while the next tells you to ban all animal products. A guru will recommend revolving your diet around green smoothies and juicing, and the next will explain the benefits of a whole food diet. Should you eat raw or cooked? No carb, low carb, or high carb? Gluten or gluten free? Eat one meal a day, 6 meals a day, or do some intermittent fasting? The opposing recommendations go on and on. I have said this before, there is probably more than one approach to optimal nutrition, but each optimal approach probably has a few things in common. I am approaching this from a goal of wanting to be lean, muscular, and healthy. Instead of looking at the recommendations of diet gurus, let’s look at two opposite groups that get real world results with their nutrition plan. Sumo wrestlers want to weigh as much as possible, and that means a high percentage of body fat. According to the previously mentioned goals, we would want to do the opposite of what they do. Competitive Bodybuilders are known for dropping their body fat to extremely low levels while maintaining a high level of muscle mass. While it’s not realistic for them to hold these extremely low body fat levels beyond their competition, we can learn a lot from how they get so lean and muscular. Both groups exercise and engage in hard workouts, it’s in their nutrition strategies where they differ the most. Let’s look closer at both of them.

Sumo wrestlers are one of the few people on the planet who are looking to gain as much weight as possible, and increase their body fat as much as possible, especially in the abdominal area. Since their are no weight divisions, being as big as possible can be an advantage. The current world sumo wrestling champion, Byamba Ulambayar, stands 6′ 1″ and weighs a hefty 360 pounds, and reportedly eats a 10,000 calorie a day diet. The average male is recommended to have 2,000 calories a day, so Byamba eats about 5 times that amount. A large majority of their calories are consumed from a soup known as chanko nabe, which includes a bunch of meat, tofu, vegetables, and eggs. Beer, rice, and noodles can be added, and often are, to boost the caloric value. It is actually a highly nutritious food, but the broth based soup allows the sumo wrestlers to down a massive amount of calories and the carbohydrate count can be quite high. Another interesting fact, the stew is quite low in fat. The low fat total probably allows them to eat more since it’s not as satiating. Sumo wrestlers consume a majority of their calories in 1 to 2 meals that are eaten after training in the morning. They train before eating which helps strengthen their appetite. Alcohol consumption helps keep cortisol high and contributes to the accumulation of belly fat, which is seen as advantageous in sumo wrestling. A study from 1976 that appeared in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that sumo wrestlers had a higher incidence of diabetes, gout, and hypertension, while also having increased levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. Byamba claims to have had 11% body fat at the age of 18, and a weight of 330 lbs. Chank nabe appears to be a very nutritious food, but I would suspect it’s the higher carb content in the side dishes and the sheer volume of calories consumed in a easy to digest form (liquid), that is most responsible for the body fat gain. That’s just my opinion. Also, you don’t necessarily have to be huge, to be good at sumo wrestling.

When it comes to getting lean and ripped, probably no one knows how to go about it better than a competitive bodybuilder. While bodybuilders utilize carbohydrates in the early phases of training to pack on as much muscle mass as humanly possible, they commonly reduce carbs along with calories in the cutting phase. Generally speaking, they reduce carbs while they keep their protein intake high, or even increase it to help maintain as much muscle as they can during the cutting phase. Bodybuilders usually cycle their nutrition, so they don’t constantly maintain a reduced carbohydrate diet, just when it’s close to competition time. A cutting phase is usually maintained anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, a fairly short period of time. Here is a sample of a bodybuilding diet during a cutting phase, from Bodybuilding.com.

Meal 1- Oatmeal, 5 egg whites, and 1/2 a grapefruit

Meal 2- Protein shake and a banana

Meal 3- Chicken, 1/2 cup brown rice, and a 1/2 cup cottage cheese

Meal 4- Salad

Meal 5- Protein Shake with flaxseed and banana

Meal 6- 1 potato and flaxseed

Actors who star in superhero films are often asked to become as muscular as possible while keeping their body fat levels rock bottom. A great example of this is Hugh Jackman’s transformation into my favorite comic book character, the Wolverine. Here is a sample of his diet plan according to Bodybuilding.com.

Meal 1- Oatmeal and eggs

Meal 2- Steak, sweet potato, and broccoli

Meal 3- Chicken, brown rice, and spinach

Meal 4- Fish, avocado, and broccoli

A person who is neither a competitive bodybuilder or movie screen hero would not have to be as drastic with their nutrition if they were looking to maintain it over a longer period of time. They wouldn’t necessarily have to reduce their carbohydrates and calories as much, and not have to increase their protein intake to sky high levels. Beyond losing weight and getting lean, low carb diets have shown some favorable results in regards to blood lipids in a number of scientific studies. You can see those studies here, here, and here. As a bonus, you can see some improvements in health.

Throughout my life, I have managed to stay fairly lean. Part of that is due to my genetics. However, for a good portion of my life, even though I was thin, I wasn’t very lean and carried a majority of my body fat in my belly. In 2004, I experimented with Men’s Health Abs Diet, which was really a reduced carb/high protein diet. For the first time in my life, my body fat was low enough that I could see my abs. After spending some time experimenting with raw, vegan, and vegetarian diets, and seeing an increase in my body fat due to the increase in carbs, I have settled into a low to moderate carb, paleo diet. I have maintained a low body fat percentage and have seen improvement in my fasting glucose and blood lipid numbers. I have never counted calories. I just recently read an article debunking the “calorie is not a calorie” hypothesis. We learned above from sumo wrestlers that we can’t discount the amount of calories we take in, I can’t argue that, yet I worry that people will take this as a reason to eat poorly. If their focus is only on calories, they could potentially eat things that are very unhealthy, but just focus on starving themselves with less calories. I don’t believe we can discount the type of calories we take in and how they affect our hormones, specifically insulin. I have seen clients who eat a calorie restricted diet, mostly carbs, and yet they are very overweight. How can this be explained? So be aware of both the nutrient content and the calorie content. The diets of both sumo wrestlers and bodybuilders have been tested over long periods of time and we can see the results for ourselves. If we want to gain weight, our diet should somewhat resemble a sumo wrestlers diet. If we want to be lean and muscular, our diet should be somewhere in the vicinity of a bodybuilders nutrition plan. And that my friends, is real world nutrition.

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