Dr. Bowden weighs in on whether you can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, the least-horrible fast foods, and drinking your own urine. Yes, really.
Zone In, or Zone Out?
Q: The original Zone diet was published in June 1995. In the 14 years we've had to debate this issue, is there anything we can say about macronutrient ratios that's definitive? Is there a ratio that works better than others for most people in most circumstances?
A: Barry Sears was on to something when he came up with his original 40/30/30 formula. There's been a fair amount of research where the experimental diet tested was close to the one advocated in The Zone, and the results have been impressive: significant reduction of insulin resistance within a matter of days, improvements in body composition, better glycemic control — all good stuff.
The only definitive thing we can say about macronutrient ratios is that everybody's different. I've had many off-the-record conversations with Barry, and he'd be the first to tell you that some people will respond better to even lower carbs, while some will do better with a higher amount. He'd probably dispute my assertion that some would do very well on an Atkins-type diet, but it would be a friendly argument.
That said, I think a ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat is as good a place as any to start a diet plan with clients. It's certainly light years ahead of any cockamamie standard recommendation by the flatliners at the American Dietetic Association, who still think we should be eating 90 servings of bread a day.
Oh, wait. Did they change that? Whoops! Sorry!
Q: You mentioned in Question of Nutrition Volume 5 that fruit is important for a guy who's trying to balance out an overly acidic diet — a diet with a lot of meat. Does that apply to a guy trying to lose weight? Will too much fruit lead to too much fat? Are some fruits better than others for fat loss?
A: Actually, you can balance out an acidic diet with vegetables or fruit, or a combination of both. Vegetables have fewer calories and a lower glycemic impact, so if that's a concern, load up with the green stuff.
You only have to worry about "too much" fruit if you have a real problem with insulin resistance or blood sugar, and even then the low-sugar fruits like berries, cherries, apples, and grapefruit should be just fine. In fact, one study at the Scripps Research Institute showed that eating half a grapefruit before a meal contributes (slightly) to weight loss.
I understand that at the moment you're only worried about fat loss and building a great body, but it's worth noting that a 26-year prospective study of men in Sweden showed that fruit intake in general is associated with greater longevity. (1)
Remember, no one ever got fat on apples. If you're trying to lose fat, it's not the fruits and veggies that you have to worry about.
How to Navigate the Food Court without Losing Your Abs
Q: I'm on the road a lot, and I sometimes end up in places where the only choice for food is a McDonald's. What do I order that's filling but doesn't destroy my chance for visible abs this summer?
A: A few years ago I drove cross-country from New York City to Los Angeles. I figured out pretty quickly that unless I wanted to starve, I needed to learn how to use food courts and fast-food restaurants without ruining my physique. It's not easy, but it's doable.
With McDonald's, the best-kept secret is the breakfast burrito. You can also do the scrambled eggs or Egg McMuffin during breakfast hours. (They stop at 10:30 or 11 a.m.). For lunch or dinner, try their Premium Southwest Salad with grilled chicken, or even better, the Premium Caesar Salad with chicken. Or you can go for burgers without buns, plus a side salad.
If you have choices beyond the Fallen Arches, I think you'll do better with Quiznos, Baja Fresh, Chipotle Grill, or Subway. If you're in Southern California, Nevada, or Arizona, you can try Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill or El Pollo Loco (which is expanding out of the Southwest into places like Illinois and Massachusetts). You'll find lots of grilled chicken, guacamole, and salsa. (Chipotle advertises free-range, no-hormones-added chicken and beef.)
At Subway, you can do the turkey or roast beef and load up with veggies and avocado. Order a six-inch sandwich (never choose the 12-inch option) on a honey-wheat roll. Ask them to pull out the doughy inside of the roll and toss it. Dress with their oil (which is a mix of olive and disgusting canola oil, but still ...).
Too Good to Be True?
Q: As a nutritionist, do you think it's possible to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously? If so, how would someone do it? The conventional wisdom says you have to add calories to build muscle, and then cut calories to drop fat.
A: According to my friend Charles Poliquin, the whole business of bulking and cutting is obsolete. Here's what he told me: "I can take a 200-pound guy with 20% body fat down to 6% in 8 weeks, with no change in body weight." That would represent a loss of 28 pounds in fat and a gain of 28 pounds in muscle.
You'd better believe there's a catch. He'd have to train twice a day, and this is how Poliquin describes the nutrition strategy: "I usually give them 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, and the carbs come from 10 licks of a dried prune."
Not sure I'm totally in line with that recommendation, but who am I to argue with the master?
Urine Trouble Now!
Q: More than one UFC fighter believes that drinking his own urine has a medicinal effect. Is there any truth to this?
A: The idea of drinking your own urine for health benefits is not as insane as it sounds, which is why the UFC fighters you're talking about are hardly alone in their choice of hot beverages.
People have been drinking their own trouser tea for thousands of years. The Bible, in Proverbs 5:15, seems to make a cryptic reference to it: "Drink waters out of thine own cistern." (Okay, it's probably talking about marital fidelity, but it's not like the original author will sit down for an interview.) There's a Sanskrit text that contains no less than 107 verses on the benefits of "pure water or your own urine." And in 1978, Morarji Desai, the prime minister of India, told Dan Rather that urine therapy was the perfect solution for the millions of Indians who can't afford medical care.
Urine is both sterile and devoid of any pathogens, unless you have a kidney or urinary infection. It's 95% water; the rest of it is urea, salt, and dissolved and suspended non-toxic solids. So drinking your own urine is perfectly safe. If you're really, really, tempted, pour some in a glass and give it a try.
Are there any health benefits? No one really knows. Urine contains small amounts of hormones, proteins, and antibodies, which are probably the source of the belief that it has medicinal qualities.
That said, just because we don't have any Western science that supports the health claims doesn't mean there aren't any. For starters, how would you get funding for a study like that? Go to the National Institutes of Health and ask for money to do a clinical trial on urine-based therapies?
Not going to happen.
And even if you found private funding, and by some miracle got approval from the university's human-subjects committee, what would you give the control group? Apple cider vinegar?
Spice of Life
Q: I've heard some amazing health claims made for cinnamon. Does it really increase insulin sensitivity? And if so, does that mean I can put apple pie in my diet, as long as it has some cinnamon on it?
A: Two very promising studies by USDA scientist Richard Anderson and colleagues did in fact show that cinnamon extracts could lower blood sugar.
In a 2003 study, as little as a gram a day helped people with type II diabetes lower their fasting glucose, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol after 40 days, with levels continuing to drop for 20 more days after that. And in another study, water-soluble compounds from cinnamon called polyphenolic polymers increased sugar metabolism twentyfold in fat cells.
Other studies, alas, haven't found such promising benefits.
Nonetheless, cinnamon is high in antioxidants, on top of the fact it makes everything taste really, really good. Adding some cinnamon to food and beverages couldn't hurt, and may even help inch you to gain a tad more insulin sensitivity.
But by itself it won't cure type II diabetes, but it sure can't turn apple pie into health food.
- Strandhagen, et al, "High fruit intake may reduce mortality among middle-aged and elderly men", Eur J Clin Nutrition 2000; 54: 337-341