Every generation of bodybuilders has its unfounded fear of certain foods. The current generation takes the cake.
Here's what you need to know...
- Dietary prejudices have expanded. Today's lifters want foods that are sugar-free, low-sodium, low-carb, non-GMO, organic, fructose-free, non-dairy, non-processed, wheat-less, and gluten free. The trouble is, much of their prejudices are baseless.
- It's probably impossible to get all the nutrients required for health each and every day; we'd all have to eat way too much. We should instead look at our nutritional needs from a weekly basis.
- Every day, 10 to 20% of your diet can satisfy wants, while the remaining 80 to 90% should satisfy needs.
A relatively new eating disorder has surfaced. It's called orthorexia, and most lifters, including me, exhibit at least some symptoms of it. While anorexics avoid pretty much all food, orthorexics refuse to eat anything that doesn't fit their definition of healthy food. They avoid going out on dinner dates because they might be faced with foods that don't fit their rigid guidelines. They avoid parties or holiday dinners because they fear they won't have any control of what's going to be on the menu.
If they slip up and eat something that isn't on their intensely short list of approved, clean foods, they feel intense loathing and might even try to punish themselves, presumably by whipping their body with an organic, gluten-free stalk of quinoa. The particularly sad thing is that their definitions of clean eating change all the time, and hardly anyone questions or reflects on what it was about that particular food or food group that caused all that butt-clenching anxiety in the first place.
I've been dealing with orthorexics as long as I've been wrapping my calloused hands around barbells. Every decade, new versions of these neurotic eaters emerge out of the under-armour ether like some sort of dietarily-restricted cicadas, so let's take a look at their evolution, or maybe more accurately, their devolution over the last thirty or so years to see if there's any logic to the foods they've chosen to avoid and see if we can come up with some logical, non-neurotic guidelines to healthy or clean eating that we can all abide by.
Baggy clownish workout pants were in, but dietary fat was out – any kind of fat. Eating fat was thought to make you fat. Bodybuilders ate nothing but whole grain, mostly rice and rice cakes, and meat. This is when the practice of throwing away egg yolks, which for some reason is still common today, began.
No one even knew what the hell omega-3 fatty acids were, and they didn't want to know because that three-letter F-A-T word was lodged in the middle of it. Sure, bodybuilders suffered from orthostatic hypotension and had skin that would have looked more at home on a rhino, both from a lack of egg yolks or dietary fat, but I guess they were at least able to keep their calorie counts down.
In 1995, I was a "celebrity" host during a Caribbean cruise for bodybuilders sponsored by Muscle Media 2000 magazine. During our first group dinner, we were all served baked chicken that not only came with its skin intact, but was served in some sort of cream-based sauce. The guests were aghast. Virtually everyone, while making a face that looked like they were picking up dog turds, methodically dipped each piece of chicken into their water glasses to wash away the wicked fat.
Clearly, while bodybuilders had just barely started to accept the idea of omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fat and cholesterol were still on the list of unclean foods. Likewise, the sewers were still full of egg yolks and the most pious of the orthorexics avoided red meat of any kind. Grains were still accepted, but now you had yokels like me talking about the glycemic index and how you should eat multiple small meals to keep insulin levels steady. If you didn't eat multiple small meals, you were dismissed by orthorexics as someone who wasn't serious about bodybuilding.
The Early 2000's
Peace was made with saturated fats, as well as cholesterol and even, for some, egg yolks. Omega-3s, specifically, achieved holy status. With no one to hate, orthorexics turned their ire to carbs, particularly sugar, which was now thought to feed cancer, among other things. Never mind that sugar is the common metabolic intermediate of all energy demands and cancer mitochondria are adept at acquiring it, but try to stop all sugar intake and everything else suffers before cancer starts to starve.
The Current Whacky Decade
The orthorexics still don't like carbs very much, but their dietary prejudices have expanded quite a bit. Their ideal menu would contain nothing but sugar-free, low-sodium, low-carb, non-genetically modified, organic, fructose-free, non-dairy, non-processed, wheat-less, gluten-free foods. Most people wouldn't want to eat at that particular restaurant because, well, there wouldn't be much left on the menu. Let's take a look at some of those categories and see if they hold up to some logical heat.
Ever since the book, Wheat Belly, came out, wheat has been demonized as being a root cause of obesity. It talked about an unnatural protein called gliadin, that was supposedly created by genetic research in the 60's. The protein supposedly binds to opiate receptors in the brain and makes you crave additional calories like a zombie craves brains. The trouble is, gliadin is found in all wheat lines, and ancient grains contained more than modern ones. And who knows where the author got that bit about genetic engineering.
Wheat Belly also told us that the starch in wheat is different from other carb-rich foods and that it raises blood glucose more than potatoes or certain other vegetables. Uh, not so much. There are only two kinds of starches found in plant tissues and wheat is no different. And bread actually elicits a smaller blood sugar response than an equivalent amount of rice or potato. So much for those arguments.
And as long as we're talking about wheat, we need to at least give a passing nod to gluten. Somehow, being gluten free has become emblematic of enlightened eating. It's true that about 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease and as such can't ingest gluten. It's also probably true that roughly 15% of the population is gluten sensitive. However, upwards of 30% of Americans are actively working to reduce gluten intake, somehow blaming the protein for all manner of perceived medical conditions. However, the science just ain't there.
When nutritionist Barry Popkin released a paper in 2004 suggesting that we need to take a long-term, research-based look at fructose, the orthorexics declared war on the sugar. While there's definitely some evidence to suggest that it can cause a fatty liver, we have to take a look at the way fructose is ingested.
No one really eats pure fructose. Instead, they eat it in the form of HFCS, otherwise known as high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is a blend of sucrose and fructose, with fructose comprising between 45% and 55% of the product. Sucrose is a blend of fructose and glucose. That means that if you were to drink 100 grams of a HFCS product with 55% fructose, you'd be ingesting a meager 5 extra grams of fructose, hardly enough to fret over.
Furthermore, you have to look at the bulk of the research. It shows that when portion sizes and calories are the same, fructose does no more harm than glucose. It is in fact a carb with very little effect on insulin, hardly worthy of all the demonization.
Genetically Modified Food
Anti-GM people often cite the alleged fact that there's no evidence that GM foods have helped save lives or make anyone's life better. They seem to forget Dr. Normal Borlaug, the man who's credited with perhaps saving more lives than anyone in history.
Back in the 1940's, scientists tried fighting world hunger with nitrogen fertilizer. The trouble was, it made plants, specifically wheat plants, grow so tall that they fell over, which spoiled the wheat. Along came Borlaug, who transferred a gene from an unusual short, stubby wheat plant into tropical wheat plants. The result was short tropical wheat plants with enormous heads of wheat that wouldn't fall over. The same technology was later applied to rice. As a result, Borlaug made a serious dent in world hunger.
The goal of genetic modification of foods is of course profit, but its other goal is to create plants that are immune to insects (thus cutting down on the need for pesticides), have a greater tolerance to soil alkalinity, and are tolerant of heat and drought. Granted, we need regulation of GM foods, but the orthorexics fear of GM plants is based more on ill-founded beliefs rather than facts.
I love the idea of organic food, the practice not so much. Most people eat organic presumably to get away from pesticide. However, it seems that more than 99% of the time, the level of pesticide residues in non-organic fruits and vegetables were below the very conservative limits established by the EPA and the FDA.
Besides, a food that's organic isn't necessarily free of stuff that could be toxic. Many organic farms use "natural" pesticides and fertilize with possibly pathogen-laden animal shit, which could easily make consumers sick, not to mention also being linked to cancers and other diseases.
Fraud, too, seems to be a problem. Farmer's markets, in particular, are home to organic hucksters and one study said that approximately 50% of fruits and vegetables sold there were in actuality conventional, non-organic fruits and vegetables.
Food author Michael Pollan has long railed against processed food, and for a long time I agreed with him... until I thought about it a little bit. I still agree with him, mostly, but there are huge exceptions. Consider the best tool in the bodybuilder nutrition box, protein powder. Wheys and caseins, for example, are heavily processed (by nature, they have to be so that you can isolate the protein), but they score higher in bioavailable protein than any natural foods. Furthermore, whey, in particular, contains a host of beneficial immunoglobulins that supplement the immune system.
And while they're not generally considered to be processed foods, oatmeal is processed, as are frozen and canned vegetables and canned salmon. Clearly, processed foods are another area where orthorexics need to broaden their definitions.
The Real Problem
Ultimately, the trouble with eliminating entire food groups or categories of foods in a neurotic quest for health is that, paradoxically, you run the risk of hurting your nutritional status and hurting your health. I've read studies that suggested bodybuilders only allowed themselves roughly 20 "safe" foods a week, which purely by logic suggests impending deficiencies of some kind. Likewise, studies with male and female competitive bodybuilders show deficiencies (differing by sex) in several nutrients, including Vitamin D, calcium, copper, zinc, and magnesium.
Orthorexics, or anyone who tries, with insufficient understanding, to eat healthy or clean is at risk for some sort of nutrient deficiency, or perhaps going batshit crazy from the stress of such a regimented approach to eating.
Some Suggested Guidelines
So how can we eat healthy or clean while still preserving desired body fat levels? Some suggestions:
- It's probably impossible to get all the nutrients required for health each and every day; we'd all have to eat way too much. Perhaps we should instead look at our nutritional needs from a weekly basis and strive to eat a huge variety of foods each week rather than stress about eating them all on the same day.
- Processed foods aren't all inherently bad. Some, like whey and casein, are in some ways equal to or better than their unprocessed sources.
- We still don't understand fats completely, but saturated fat is not the devil it was once thought to be. Also, some trans fats, contrary to what you hear from 9 AM TV news anchors, are good. CLA, for instance, is a trans fat which has been shown to improve heart health.
- Allow yourself some leeway every day. For instance, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that you could get roughly 20% of your daily calories from refined sugars and it wouldn't visually affect your body comp or the nutritional status of your diet. Yes, I mean you can eat Cocoa Puffs in moderation and not worry about it. Perhaps a better way to look at it is this way: Every day, 10 to 20% of your diet can satisfy wants, while the remaining 80 to 90% should satisfy needs.
- Above all, flexible eating has been scientifically associated with the absence of overeating. On the other hand, overly strict eating has been associated with overeating and increased bodyweight as it's linked to mood disturbances and anxiety.
- It's possible that high amounts of fructose, eaten for relatively long periods of time, may cause fatty livers, but realize that, in general, it's probably no worse for body comp than glucose. Besides, no one really eats pure fructose; it's usually blended with other sugars and a HFCS product might, at worst provide 5% more fructose than you'd ingest if you were eating a product that was 100% sucrose.
- Eat organic meats when possible, but realize that organic (when it's legitimate) isn't always better when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
- While it's a no-brainer that GM foods should be labeled as such, keep an open mind and realize that not all of it is Frankenfood. Some of it may actually save the world.
- The power of suggestion is powerful. If wheat or gluten truly makes you feel crummy, avoid it, but realize that wheat and grains containing gluten are nutritional powerhouses.
- Oh, and stop throwing away your egg yolks.