A noted nutrition guru tackles the topics of food allergies, fasting, bulking diets, and that crappy weight-loss supplement your wife wants to try.

Bulking Diets: Bashed!

T Nation: Most strength coaches agree that you need extra calories to build muscle. The question is, how much extra? On one side you have those who say to eat a few hundred calories per day over maintenance levels. Others say to just eat a ton and train hard. What do you think is best for the bodybuilding male?

"Train hard and eat a ton" sounds like a great philosophy ... if you're training to be a Sumo wrestler.

I think the "eat a ton and train hard" school is kind of like practicing skeet shooting with a blindfold on. You might hit the target, but you might also pull a Dick Cheney.

I think it's way smarter to start with a controlled amount of extra calories and see if that's enough to do the trick. Ask yourself how you're performing, what your energy is like, and if you like the results in the mirror. If you're not coming up with positive answers, adjust the calories some more until you do.

If you're a bodybuilder, you're going to train hard anyway, so all that's on the table here is how much to eat so that most of that extra food goes into making muscle as opposed to fat. "Eating a ton" is way too unscientific for most bodybuilders these days.

The Scoop on Fasting

T Nation: What do you think of intermittent fasting? I've read about some plans that involve fasting for 24 hours every so often. Some plans call for alternate-day fasting. It's said to improve insulin sensitivity and increase longevity, among other benefits. Any thoughts?

Many, actually. Are you surprised?

Fasting as a strategy to enhance health has been around since the days of Hippocrates, the dude considered to be the father of modern medicine. It's used by religious orders as a spiritual discipline, and many high-end spas have some form of a fast – often called a "detox" program – as part of their rejuvenation retreats.

"Fasting and detoxification is the missing link in Western nutrition," says my pal Elson Haas, MD, author of The New Detox Diet. Haas has been running detox programs as part of his medical practice for more than 30 years.

"Fasting is the single greatest natural healing therapy I know," he told me. "People need to take a break from their substances. A fast or detox can give the body a rest so it can rebalance."

But a true fast – even for one day – can be really hard on the body. "A more common and liberal definition of fasting would include the juices of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as herbal teas," says Haas. "Fresh juices are easily assimilated, require minimum digestion, and still supply many nutrients. They also stimulate our body to clear wastes. Juice fasting is safer than water fasting since it supports the body nutritionally while cleansing and maintains your energy level."

fruit juice

You probably heard about the whole "alternate day" stuff because of some mice experiments done at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers basically fasted (read: starved) the poor mice on alternate days, and then allowed them to eat whatever they wanted on the non-fast ("feast") days.

"We found that fasting can reduce cell proliferation rates in skin and breast," lead researcher Krista Varady told me. "That's equivalent to a decrease in both breast and skin cancer risk."

I won't bore you with the details of the research, but they actually found out that you didn't need to do a full-blown fast on the "fast" days to get measurable benefits. You could still consume about 25 percent of your normal food intake on those "fasting" days – about the equivalent of one meal – and still get value.

But don't use fasting as a weight-loss strategy. It never works. Even in the mice experiments, the mice overcompensated for their fast days by overfeasting on the eating days, so that at the end of the week they had consumed the same amount of calories as they normally would.

Since the only strategy that's ever worked to extend life in the lab is calorie restriction, and since some theorists reason that downregulating insulin signaling may be part of the reason, eating fewer calories within the context of a high-nutrient diet makes sense in general.

If you want to take a day off from regular eating every so often and give your digestive system a rest, it's not a bad idea.

Food Allergies and the Elimination Diet

T Nation: Is it true that if you eat a certain food all the time, you can develop an allergy to it?

It's true that both allergies and food sensitivities (which are much more common) can develop later in life, even with foods you've been eating for a long time without any apparent reactions.

The problem tends to be more common with what I call "ubiquifoods"– foods or food ingredients (like wheat) that are everywhere and that we consume in far greater quantities than were ever in the human diet before now.

One great low-tech way to see how your body reacts to a food, or to identify a possible "suspect", is to do an Elimination Diet, which I discuss in my book, The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth.

It's real simple – detective work 101. You simply take the potential offender out of your diet for a few weeks. If a symptom – like a headache, brain fog, or tiredness – goes away, bingo, you've discovered the culprit. It's often possible to "rotate" that food back in by eating it, say, once every four days.

An Alternative Sweetener?

T Nation: I recently heard that something called Xylitol powder can be used as a sweetener. What is it and do you suggest it?

Xylitol is often called birch sugar because it's made from birch tree bark. It's my favorite sweetener, not counting a real food like blackstrap molasses, which has a very specific taste. Xylitol has no real downside (unless you count knowing how to spell it).

It tastes like sugar but has 40 percent fewer calories, you can use it in hot beverages like coffee, and it has almost no glycemic impact. Plus it has the added health benefit of helping to prevent bacteria from adhering to tissue, making it the perfect sweetener for a "healthy" chewing gum.

You can also bake with Xylitol, using it in the same quantity as you would sugar. This makes it a perfectly healthy sugar replacement for diabetics and low-carb dieters.

Is My Microwave Trying to Kill Me?

T Nation: Are microwaves really dangerous, or is that just sky-is-falling nonsense from the tinfoil-hat crowd?

I'm on the fence. The conventional wisdom is that they're perfectly safe, but that's also what the conventional wisdom says about cell phones ... and I don't think the jury has come in on that one yet.

It's kind of a given among the natural-foods crowd that microwaving changes the "energetic" nature of food, but this is really hard to prove, and easy to dismiss as the ramblings of the tinfoil-hat crowd, if you're so inclined.

There was a lawsuit in 1991 concerning a hip-surgery patient who died from a simple blood transfusion after the nurse heated the blood in a microwave. (Blood is usually warmed for transfusions, but not in a microwave.) This added fuel to the argument that more goes on when we heat with microwaves than we might have previously believed. But who really knows?

It's hard to get really good info on this – much like cell phones – but a good summary of the arguments against microwaving can be found here. Most of the citations are of obscure European studies that are next to impossible to locate, but still, it's pretty creepy.

I do think food that's cooked in microwaves tastes pretty awful. If heat from any source is all the same, a microwaved potato should taste the same as a baked one, and it doesn't, supporting the argument that more might be going on here than we realize. You can prove that for yourself by microwaving a sweet potato. Ugh.

Personally, I hardly ever use microwaves for cooking, but they do make a great place to store junk mail.

Fish Oil for Depression

T Nation: Do fish oils really help with depression? I'm not clinically depressed (no meds), but who couldn't use a mood booster?

Yup. There's some good ongoing research on using fish oil for depression in bipolar folks, much of it by Dr. Andrew Stoll at Harvard. They're using really big doses – 10 grams – but lower doses may have an effect, especially when combined with other nutrients like folic acid and a low-sugar diet

Good for lots of stuff, but depression? It appears so!

Though this isn't proof, the fact is that virtually every behavioral and cognitive disorder that's been investigated, from ADD to aggression, has shown really low levels of omega-3s in the bloodstream.

Since omega-3s get incorporated into the cell membranes, making them more porous and flexible, it may make it easier for "feel good" neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to get in there, translating to better mood.

Alli and Crap: Same Dif'

T Nation: My wife is insisting on trying that Alli weight loss supplement because it's "FDA approved." Looks like crap to me. What's the real deal with Alli?

Well, no one ever accused me of being a marriage counselor, and certainly no one ever accused me of being politically correct, so let me not mince words: You're right and your wife is wrong. Alli is total crap. (Sorry, wife.)

But it does present a "teaching moment" for us. Sales people, including drug manufacturers, love to use percentages because you can be accurate but dishonest at the same time.

Suppose, for example, you have a one in 10 million chance of winning the lottery, and I have a system to sell you that I can guarantee will increase your odds of winning the lottery by 100 percent. What I've just done is up your odds from one in 10 million to two in 10 million!

Think of that the next time you read that people taking a weight loss drug lost "43 percent more weight." Or someone taking a bodybuilding supplement gained 37 percent more muscle. Accurate, but bullshit. Often it means that the control group lost one pound a month and the people taking the drug lost 1.43 pounds.

Alli is actually the non-prescription, lesser-strength version of a drug that's been around for a while called Xenical. (The generic name is orlistat.) It didn't work all that well when it was Xenical and full-strength. I'm not sure why changing the name and making the dosage smaller would fix the problem, but hey, what do I know?

Alli is a member of a category of weight loss drugs that might be called "digestive inhibitors." It blocks some of the fat that you eat from being digested and assimilated. It does this by blocking the digestive enzyme lipase, which breaks down fat.

The result? As much as 30 percent of the fat you eat doesn't go to your hips. A side effect of the drug is euphemistically called "anal leakage," which describes what happens to the fat you didn't digest. Questions, anyone?

How 'bout this one: "What does it do to the fat that's already on your hips?"

Answer: zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

The first big study to put Xenical on the map was a two-year European study, which showed that patients on Xenical lost between two and three percent more weight than those on a placebo. A second two-year European trial put obese patients on a reduced-calorie diet and gave them 120 mg of Xenical three times a day. At the end of the year they'd lost about nine pounds more than the placebo group.

Read that carefully. Nine pounds a year – which translates to three-quarters of a pound a month. A similar study in the US produced one-half pound per month for Xenical users.

People lose weight on Xenical – 'scuse me, Alli – because it essentially lowers caloric intake automatically. If you, for example, were eating a nice, hefty 2,500 calories a day and 30 percent of them happened to come from fat, you'd normally be taking in 750 fat calories. By taking Xenical with a fatty meal, about one-third of those fat calories aren't absorbed, so the 750 calories becomes, theoretically, 500 calories.

You've "saved" 250 calories while eating the same meal. (Note the operative word: theoretically.) Stick to that plan for a week and you've "saved" 250 times seven calories, or a grand total of 1,750 calories, or ... let's see ... one-half pound?

Of course you could just cut calories and crappy carbs and skip the Alli, but there isn't a $150 million marketing budget for that idea.

So is Alli the answer? Hardly. Unless maybe you're a stockholder in Glaxo.

Brown Rice: Healthy?

T Nation: I don't do well with carbs so my diet is pretty carb-controlled. However, I've thought of adding brown rice. What's the real story on brown rice: good for you or overrated?

Not the worst thing, but overrated.

The glycemic index and glycemic load are both within spitting distance of white rice, and overall brown rice is pretty thin nutritionally. It does have more fiber, which is good – 3.5 grams per cup vs. just over a half gram for white rice – and a tiny bit less carbs and calories.

Other than that, it's no great shakes. The dietitians love it, but they also love "whole-wheat bread," which is virtually the same crap as white bread.

But brown rice isn't the worst thing in the world. If you want to add some carbs, small portions are okay, especially when it's not the main course and is combined with fat, protein, and vegetables in a relatively low-calorie meal.

Just don't think you're getting a free lunch if you order one of those gargantuan Chinese-takeout-size portions of food served on top of a quart of the stuff.

Apple Cider Vinegar: Quackery?

T Nation: Any truth to all the hype surrounding apple cider vinegar? I've heard everything from weight loss claims to acne prevention.

Ah, apple cider vinegar. You can be sure that if it had been invented in the days of the multi-level marketers it would be sold for $40 a bottle with claims that it can do everything from cure cancer to grow hair on bald heads.

I wrote about apple cider vinegar in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Why? Because foods (or medicines) that have held on to their reputation through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years of use should be paid attention to, even if there isn't any hard "proof" of their value. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

So here's the thing: It's probably good stuff. But there's hardly any science to back that up.

That's not to say it's not valuable. First of all, the real stuff, made authentically, is going to be loaded with a lot of the same phenols found in apples.

Second of all, a recent study in Diabetes Care suggests that it may actually help with blood sugar and insulin. My friend Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, a highly respected researcher, suggests a salad with vinegar on it at the beginning of every meal for its potential help with managing blood sugar.

Unpasteurized vinegar itself is loaded with nutrients, as many as 50 different minerals, vitamins, and amino acids, depending on the starting material for the vinegar.

A cure-all for everything? Probably not, and almost definitely not a "weight loss" cure. But I keep it in my refrigerator anyway.

Make sure you look for key terms like "unpasteurized," "unfiltered," "traditionally fermented" or something along those lines. The pasteurization kills many of the heat-sensitive vitamins and enzymes that make it a good food in the first place.