Dear Dr. John

A few weeks back I received a surprising email. Here's how it read:

From: Dave Tate
Subject Line: Nutrition Help
Dear Dr. John,

Listen, you told me a while back that if I ever had any questions or needed any help I could get a hold of you. Well, let me know some good times to reach you this week. No, I'm not dying or anything serious.

Love always,
Dave Tate

This email, the first of what Dave and I call the "Dear Dr. John" letters, had me staring at the screen in disbelief. And no, not because it's signed "love always" – I made that part up. No, my head shook in disbelief because I couldn't imagine Dave Tate coming to me for nutrition advice.

Dave Tate, infamous for his ridiculously bad eating habits, well-known for taking pride in eating the worst foods known to mankind, the king of relentlessly mocking those of his friends who opt for lean meat, low GI carbs, and vegetables.

Dave Tate, who has publicly stated more times than I can count that "Nutrition is overrated." Dave Tate, who has also stated, "I don't give a shit about science at all!"

And now, Dave is coming to me, a nutritional scientist, for advice. Did Ashton Kutcher put him up to this? Am I about to get punked?

About Dave Tate

Okay, perhaps I should take a step back. I'm assuming most of you know who Dave Tate is. For those who don't, here's a quick bio.

Dave Tate, who's a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), has been in the strength field as a coach and consultant since 1986 and has been involved in the sport of powerlifting since 1982.

He's logged more than 10,000 hours of personal training and strength consulting sessions with novice to elite athletes, and he's published hundreds of articles on strength development. For all his work in the field, Dave has been presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Weight Training Injury Specialists.

Dave is a world ranked powerlifter, his best lifts being a 935 squat, a 610 bench press, a 740 deadlift, and a 2205 total. For you mere mortals who don't have any idea how to interpret these lifts, let me put it to you this way, these lifts are insane.

Dave has a B.Sc. in Exercise Science from The University of Toledo with a minor in nutrition. (Yes, really.) And he does have subscriptions to the NSCA and ACSM journals as well as the International Journal of Sports Nutrition. So don't let him fool you; he's well read and does have some academic training in his background, despite all the science-bashing he does.

Dave's a successful businessman too. He's the co-owner and founder of Elite Fitness Systems, a world renowned provider of strength training products and services.

So, Dave Tate is a helluva guy. He's hilarious, educated, intense, committed, knows how to overcome obstacles, has a great family and circle of friends, and is a guy you want to turn to when you need a straight-shooting, no BS opinion.

The First Phone Conversation

So, after I got over my disbelief, Dave and I set a date to talk on the phone. It went something like this:

"JB, I want your opinion on something. Here's the deal: Right now I'm about 290 pounds and my ortho tells me that I have to lose some weight. My shoulder is fucked and will need reconstruction if I don't lose about 40 pounds. Also, with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high liver enzymes, and a mess of other problems, it's about time I took care of this shit. But here's the problem... "

This is where Tate lowered his voice a bit, chuckled, then said:

"I can't eat clean."

"Pardon," I said. "You can't eat clean?"

"Seriously, the last four times I tried to eat clean, I ended up throwing up multiple times by lunch."

Now I was chuckling. "What do you mean, Dave?"

"Each time I try to clean my diet up and eat like a bodybuilder, it only lasts about half a day. I'll eat the egg whites and oatmeal for breakfast, and I'll have a protein shake a few hours later. For lunch I'll eat chicken breasts and a salad.

But I'm not kidding when I say that by 1:00 I'm puking my ass off, not to mention that I've been shitting all morning. Wanna laugh your ass off? Picture this: One day I actually strained a trap puking my guts up. By 2:00 PM I was sitting on the couch with an ice pack on my neck, my asshole on fire from shitting a half dozen times that morning, and puke stains on my shirt."

Now I was cracking up. And trying desperately to close my mind's eye.

"So what should I do, JB? Seriously, it seems like my body rejects anything healthy I try to do."

"So, just how bad are things?"I asked.

"Well," Dave said, "I haven't eaten a vegetable in years. I eat very little protein. Most of my meals come from McDonalds. Really, I'm like that guy from Supersize Me."

"It can't be that bad, Dave."

Famous last words. Little did I know what I was in for...

A Little Help From Dave's Friends

Within the next week, I heard from four of Dave's close friends and colleagues:

"Good luck, dude. I stopped trying to help Dave a long time ago. He just won't listen to me. Perhaps we need a full-blown intervention."

"Thank God! He needs the help! I just hope that he sticks with it."

"JB, between you and me, I'm worried about my friend. Don't tell him I said this but his habits are so awful. He needs some serious help."

"I hope you can help him. That boy's notorious for his bad habits. He's gonna die if you don't fix him up – and soon. Jesus, he's only 38."

Now, on one hand, I was encouraged that Dave was telling his friends about our little project. When it comes to goal-setting, it's critical to tell people about your goals. It's easy to bail if you're the only one who knows what you're after. However, if others know what you're trying to accomplish and there's the possibility of you looking like a chump if you bail, there's a higher level of motivation.

Heck, with this article alone, I'm telling tens of thousands of people about Dave's goal! Now, if he doesn't stay committed to making some lifestyle changes, he'll not only look like a chump in front of me and his friends, he'll look like a chump to all of his customers and readers. Talk about accountability!

Don't be a chump, Dave!

Yet while I was encouraged by Dave telling his friends about the changes he wants to make, on the other hand, I'd became quite concerned with the things they were telling me. Just how bad had this guy been living?

See Tate Eat

Over the next few days, I discovered just how bad things have been – and they'd been that way for a very long time. Here's an entry out of the diary Dave's been keeping for me:

5:00 AM: Wake Up

Ate 4 Pop-Tarts and drank three cups coffee

5:00-7:00 AM: Work

Answered emails and worked on the EliteFTS site

7:10 AM: Pre-Workout Meal

McDonalds #5 with 2 apple pies and 1 large coffee

7:30-8:30 AM: Train

First 20 minutes was dynamic warm-up and mobility work with very aggressive stretching. I then did some sledgehammer and arm work. I drank the coffee during the session.

8:30 AM: Post-Workout Drink (2 Ultra Fuels!!!)

8:30-12:00 PM: Working at the Gym

I spent this time preparing the weightroom for a photo shoot, answering emails, and reviewing business indicators for the week.

1:00 PM: Went Home

On the way home to take care of my sick son for the afternoon, I ate a Burger King chicken sandwich meal with extra mayo. I hate chicken breasts and only eat the breaded stuff. I also ate onion rings and a Snickers pie. I drank Dr. Pepper along with my meal.

1:00-5:00 PM: Worked on a Presentation and Napped

During this time, I knocked out 6 mini-Snickers (no idea where they came from, but they were on the kitchen counter and in my book that makes them fair game). I also ate 5 lunch size bags of chips. We buy these so we don't eat so many at one time. Oops. I also had a few packs of Disney fruit snacks (we get them for the kids but I eat most of them).

5:00-6:00 PM: Make Dinner for the Kids

All hell breaks loose as we try to make dinner for the kids. With one sick and the other one ornery as hell, it was not good times. I forgot to eat until they were done and then I was hungry as hell. I popped 4 hot dogs in the microwave and ate them on 4 pieces of whole wheat bread with ketchup. I also had 3 lunch bags of chips and 3 glasses of sugar-free Tang.

7:00 PM:  Put the Kids to Bed

Of course, I got hungry again. I fired up the oven and cooked up 6 giant cinnamon roles with icing. Yes, I ate all of them with a huge glass of milk.

9:00-11:00 PM: Emails and Work on Seminar

During this time I ate 4 Pop-Tarts and drank a big glass of milk

In the end, today was a good eating day. I have no idea what tomorrow will be like. However, tomorrow is squat day. We train at 9:00 and I'd like to go to Bob Evans restaurant beforehand to load up.

Oh. My. God. Dave ate around 10,500 calories today with around 450g of fat (38%), around 1450g of carbs (54%), and around 190g of protein (7%). And this was a "good" day.

A Few Notes on Calorie Intake

Now, before you start thinking that this level of intake is absurd, before you start thinking that no one could possibly eat that much, and before you start wondering whether Dave is just a big, insane, gluttonous man, let's put this into perspective.

Dave Tate trains nearly every day. He weighs between 290 and 300 pounds. He's a world-class powerlifter, and powerlifting success depends on having lots of muscle mass and lots of body weight.

Seriously, folks, if you honestly think you can get really big, strong, and muscular without eating large amounts of food, you're very mistaken. Nearly every really big guy I know that's packed on lots of muscle mass eats big – really big. If you want to be over 200 pounds, you'd better be doing the same. And if you want to be over 300 pounds, you'd better be eating all freakin' day long.

Need another example? From ages 17 to 21 I went from 135 to 230 pounds (at a height of 5'8") by eating literally all day long. By the time I was 230, I was eating over 7,000 calories per day. And during this time I had three part-time jobs and was a full-time student. So yes, it's possible to do this and still have a life.

Me at 135lbs

Me at 220lbs

Me at 195lbs

In the end, you've gotta eat big to get big – and you have to eat really big to get really big. And perhaps that's why guys like Dave Tate and Louie Simmons are notorious for dissin' what guys like me do. Here are some examples:

"I asked Dave Tate what he thought about nutrition. He rolled his eyes at me and walked away... Later he said, 'Nutrition is overrated!' Louie Simmons added only this, 'Cholesterol turns into Testosterone!'"

— Doug Jackson from "Getting Schooled Westside Style"

"The nutrition thing has been blown way out of control. While you should eat healthy foods, you don't have to eat like a bodybuilder. I'd bet most of the lifters we have get less than one gram per pound of body weight of protein, and eat whatever they want. The cleanest eating people I know are also some of the weakest. This is why we don't say a lot about it. If it was important as the mags say it is, then I'd have the information all over the site. We're here to help you get better, not feed you a bunch of supplement and nutrition BS."

— Dave Tate from the EliteFTS Q&A

"I don't like to write about the overrated topic of nutrition. Training is 99% of the battle."

— Dave Tate from the EliteFTS Q&A

You know, from one very limited perspective, it's actually pretty easy to understand Dave and Louie's mentality. When it comes to getting really big and strong, to getting in six, seven, eight thousand calories per day, it's very difficult to do when you're eating strict and clean. Seriously, how much chicken breast, oatmeal, and broccoli would you have to eat to get in 10,000+ calories per day? Trust me, you couldn't do it.

So when Dave says that the cleanest eating people he knows are also some of the weakest, it's probably true. If they don't plan out their intake well enough – and few people do – they simply don't eat enough calories to get bigger and stronger.

But, Dave's blatant disregard for his intake; his avoidance of any foods that might be roughly construed as healthy; his accumulated decades of eating a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and garbage, is flat-out irresponsible.

For starters, it's disrespectful to his own body. The freakin' guy inhaled eight Pop-Tarts, six cinnamon rolls, two fast food sandwiches, three fast food pies, about 64 ounces of soda, and a bunch of other garbage foods in his example day above. That alone is disturbing. But even more disturbing is what his blood profile looks like. I'll share that with you in Part II of this article series.

Beyond his own body, recommending this type of intake to his readers and fellow lifters is also irresponsible. As I told Dave in a recent e-mail:

"I'd like to do an article on the blood and physique changes that occur with your new program. There are a ton of guys eating like shit and screwing their bodies up without thought of the consequences. You, my friend, are the consequences."

You see, I fully appreciate what it takes to get really big and strong. However, eating an all junk food diet of 10,000+ calories isn't the only way to accomplish that goal. What about eating a few good carbs? What about a vegetable from time to time? What about some protein? How about some good fats? And an antioxidant or two wouldn't hurt ya, now would it?

Guess what? With proper dietary planning, you might just be able to get your six to ten thousand calories per day without needing blood pressure and diabetes meds by the time you're 40, without ruining your liver health, and without destroying your gastrointestinal integrity.

What an idea!

Dave Tate: Strong on the bench, weak in the kitchen

Dave's Plan

After about a week of negotiation and discussion, Dave and I decided on a plan. First, Dave was going to collect a set of baseline measures. Here's what we, in conjunction with his physician, Dr. Eric Serrano, were going to measure:

Blood Measures:

Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
Lipid Profile (LDL, HDL, Total Cholesterol, Triglycerides)
Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (glucose and insulin at each time point)
C-Reactive Protein
Total Antioxidants
Vitamins/Minerals (Iron, D, B12, Folate)
Sex Hormone Profile

Girth Measures (Take two measures of each girth and record both):

Neck
Shoulder
Chest (nipple line)
Stomach (belly button)
Upper arm (halfway between acromion and elbow)
Hips (maximal protrusion of gluteals)
Thigh (halfway between iliac and patella)
Calf (halfway between patella and lateral malleolous)

Skinfold Measures (Take two measures of each skinfold and record both):

Triceps
Chest
Mid-Axillary
Abdominal
Subscapular
Suprailiac
Thigh
DEXA Scan

Next, Dave would do four sets of follow-up measures. The first follow-up would be 30 days after the first. Each follow-up beyond that would be 60 days after the last. Our little experiment is designed to last six months and we're going to track exactly how Dave is improving.

Also, based on a few specific measures above, I'm even going to be able to keep track of Dave's adherence to the plan. Cool, huh? I'm like the medical police!

Now, before moving on, I want to comment on the need for the DEXA scan listed above. DEXA scans are quickly becoming the gold standard in body fat testing. This is due to the fact that these scans offer the ability to peek inside the body to account for all the fat that's in there, not just the fat between the skin and the muscle.

Why is this so important for Dave? Well, Dave recently sent me the results of a seven-site skinfold test he'd done on himself. The verdict: 290 pounds and 12% body fat.

I don't believe it. Don't get me wrong, for a 290 pound guy, Dave is surprisingly lean. Yet take a look at this picture:

Although Dave's skinfolds might say he's only 12%, that abdominal region tells me something very different. As you can see, most of Dave's body fat is central adiposity, or fat between his abdominal organs.

Since skinfold tests only measure subcutaneous adiposity, or fat between the skin and the muscle, I think the skinfold test is a poor one for someone like Dave. Therefore if we want to measure true fat loss, we'll need to use a DEXA measure.

It's also important to note the following: central adiposity is the worst kind; it's the kind that leads wives and children to bury their husbands and daddies young. You see, there's a high correlation between the fat in your abdominal region and your heart disease risk. So, needless to say, we're going to work on getting Dave leaner here first.

My Biggest Challenge

Now, I'll admit it, at the beginning of this project I wasn't sure what to expect. Here's another excerpt from Dave's food log, providing further evidence of just how messed up Dave's habits really are:

5:00am: Wake Up

Coffee and 3 big fudge rounds

5:00-7:00am: Work

Answered professional emails and did admin work.

7:30am: Pre-Workout Meal

Ate 2 microwave breakfast burritos and drank more coffee.

7:30-1:30pm: Work and Child Sit

We decided to keep my kids home from school because one of my sons was still recovering from strep throat. During the next few hours I dealt with Thomas the Train Engine cars being tossed around the house and one kid hitting the other in the head with whatever he could find. Basic chaos! I did find time to get more emails done and sort though pictures (we had a huge photo shoot yesterday). I know I did eat some Little Debbie Star Crunches and Nutter Bars during this time. I'd say 3 of each.

1:30-5:45pm: Errands and Meetings

My wife finally gets home around 1:30 so I bolt out the door to do my list of errands. It was 45 minutes to my first meeting so I stopped off at McDonalds and had a number 11 (buffalo chicken sandwich with fries, Coke, and two apple pies). I spent the next four hours running from one meeting to another.

5:45-7:00: Spent Time with the Kids

When I got home I had dinner: 3 bagels with butter and peanut butter, and a glass of milk with 3 more giant fudge rounds (finished the box).

It's 7:00 now. I'll spend time with the kids for the next few hours. My wife is heading out to meet some friends so I'll have the kids for the night. Around 8-9pm I'll get them to bed and start working.

I'm not sure what I'll eat the rest of the night but I can pretty much say it won't be an apple. There are more Star Crunches calling my name.

It should be clear by now that Dave lives a life on the go. He's a husband, a father, a businessman, and an athlete. And his nutritional lifestyle is one of convenience. Yet however hard it'll be to break these poor nutrition habits, there's an even bigger problem I'm concerned about. Here's what I said to Dave about it:

"Dave, I know that the last few decades of your life have been devoted to being big. Well, that's come at a cost. Now we're trying to pay off some of that debt. I assure you, no matter how much you think that getting smaller is good for you, virtually all of your being will rebel against getting smaller. Don't give in. Shut the voices up and just stick to the plan. We'll adjust as necessary. Just let me know when stupid thoughts pop into your head."

You see, Dave likesbeing big. In this respect, he reminds me of another big guy I've had the pleasure of getting to know and advising on nutrition: the director of strength and conditioning at the University of Texas – 370 pound James Madden, nicknamed "Mad Dog." Mad Dog prefaces nearly every sentence with the following:

"You know, John, I'm a big man... "

Yep, Mad Dog, we know...

You see, men like Mad Dog and Dave identify with the big guy they see in the mirror every morning. That big body defines a big part of who they are. Ask those guys to get smaller and you're asking them to kill a part of their identity.

A few month's back, Dave wrote an entire 3000 word article listing 27 reasons he likes being big. It contains gems such as:

  • I like having to think, "Is this really worth getting up for?" before doing anything.
  • I like having to roll off the bench press instead of sitting up.
  • I like taking an extra few minutes in my car to catch my breath from walking across the parking lot.
  • I like having to put my belt through my belt loops before I put on my pants.

So I know the biggest challenge Dave and I will face is the following:

  1. Dave likes being big. As he starts to lean out, he's going to become afraid, very afraid, of losing muscle mass and strength. He's going to be afraid of being able to put his belt around his waist with his pants on. He's going to be afraid of no longer being Big Dave Tate. Yet he's going to have to learn to be okay with killing off this small part of his identity, even if it's just 40 or 50 pounds of it. Because that's the part that's going to kill him in the next decade if he isn't careful.
  2. Dave has developed atrocious eating habits over the last few decades. Dave needs to establish a new normal along with some new habits.
  3. Dave still needs a lot of calories. Now, while he probably doesn't need 10,000 per day any longer, he's still going to need between 5,000 and 7,000 if he's going to keep his training volume up. To this end, we're going to have to find some creative ways to get in a lot of nutrition without it costing Dave a ton of time.
  4. Dave needs a nutrition re-education. Everything he does right now is based on his current thoughts on how to eat a lot for size and strength. He needs to be re-educated on a new method.

Here are some tips and strategies that I shared with Dave right from the start:

  • Reaching your lifting totals, creating a successful business, balancing family, training, and business – none of these are easy. But you do them anyway. Likewise, this isn't necessarily going to be easy – do it anyway.
  • From now on, don't go longer than 2-4 hours without eating. And try to stick to the energy intake guidelines laid out in your plan.
  • Start making better choices. I've described some of them in your program. You can come up with some also. It's okay to occasionally eat differently than the plan (about 10% of the time) but even during these times, make better choices than you're making now.
  • Get most of the shitty food outta your house. This week! If it's not there, you won't be eating it. If it is, you will be.
  • Over the next few weeks, this dietary change may cause GI distress and other issues. That's okay, stick with it. If you have any real allergy problems, we'll address them over time. For now, let's get that gut of yours healed up with the introduction of better foods, detox supplements, and GI supplements.
  • Let's say it's time to eat and you're woefully unprepared. What do you do? Grab a decent meal or snack, making better choices than you have been up until now. Here are some ideas:

1 – Fast Food

These are better options than what you've been doing.

Wendy's:  Cup of chili, Mandarin chicken salad with almonds, small amount (2 tsp) of oriental sesame dressing, cup of ice water

McDonalds:  Chicken McGrill sandwich (without the mayo, throw out the bun), California cobb salad with grilled chicken, small amount (2 tsp) of low fat balsamic vinaigrette, ice water

Subway:  Grilled chicken and baby spinach salad, turkey breast wrap, soup or chili, ice water

In the end, don't eat a ton as you know your next meal is coming in 2-3 hours.

2 – Snacks

Make sure to always have some fruit, bars, and mixed nuts with you.

Grab a Finibar bar and some fruit and mixed nuts. Bring shakes with you in a cooler. But not just any old protein shake with whey and water. You need nutrition in there.

3 – Preparation

Once a week, make up a big batch of chili (from my Gourmet Nutrition book), and grill up a few pounds of lean meat on your grill.

Keep your chili and your grilled meat in the fridge in Tupperware and grab some when you're on the run.

I also sent Dave a copy of my Precision Nutrition kit. The five manuals, the audio discs, the DVDs, and the Gourmet Nutrition book will give him tons of other ideas about how to get it done without having to visit his friendly neighborhood McDonalds drive-thru server daily.

The Next Step

At this point I'm going to wrap up Part 1 of this article series. Over the next two articles, I'll show you the results of Dave's initial testing, exactly what types of changes we've made to Dave's nutrition and supplement intake, and what happens after his first month on the program.

Of course, as we've just started the Dave Tate Project, you'll have to wait a while to see the final result. However, Dave and I will keep you up to speed on his progress. And remember, part of the purpose of this article series is to hold Dave accountable to what he's set out to do. His friends think it'll take a miracle. I don't believe in miracles; I believe in hard work and social support.

So Dave, get to work. Everyone else, reply below and let Dave know that you're pullin' for him.