Return of the Warrior Nerd

Interview with Lonnie Lowery, PhD

Lots of people have been described over the years as "the thinking man's bodybuilder." We like to think bodybuilding requires a lot of thought, and that it's hard to succeed – absent once-in-a-generation genetics and/or a well-stocked Chinese pharmacy – without putting some serious brainpower into the effort.

Still, if anyone were to confer such a title on a musclehead, Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D., would be in the running. An exercise physiologist, registered dietitian, and assistant professor at the University of Akron, the 40-year-old Lowery has been toiling away in academia almost as long as some Testosterone Muscle readers have been alive.

He's also a former competitive bodybuilder who approaches the training and nutrition commitments of bodybuilding with intelligence, passion, and intensity. In short, Lonnie Lowery is Testosterone to the core.

We caught up with the "Warrior Nerd" during a well-earned break from his normally crowded schedule as a teacher and research scientist.

T Nation: Dr. Lowery, you were a regular around here, and now we never hear from you. No letters, no phone calls, not even a postcard! What have you been up to?

I like to tell people I've been fighting the pitiful trend toward pseudoscience and ignorance. What I mean is, I've been spending a lot of time teaching, lecturing, and writing academic book chapters, primarily on dietary fats and proteins.

T Nation: You're still the big fat guy, huh?

Dietary fats and proteins are the two things I find most interesting, partly because everybody else in my position still seems so infatuated with carbohydrates.

To be fair, I've also delivered some talks on fructose and the very fattening nature of high-fructose corn syrup. But mostly I focus my attention on my beloved fats and proteins. In fact, I recently wrote book chapters for the NSCA and the ISSN on the impact fats and proteins play on athletic performance.

T Nation: Would you say that in some of these bigger certification programs the pendulum has finally started to swing away from carbs, and more toward the primacy of fat and protein?

That's an interesting question. I think for most Testosterone Muscle readers this is all really old news, but you'd be surprised at how often even the most enlightened academics still see fat and protein as kind of second-rate. I'm hoping my most recent work will help start to remedy that.

T Nation: Explain.

I just wrote a scientific review about the huge disconnect that exists between academic textbooks and the actual published scientific literature when it comes to protein and athletes. This is the first time anyone has ever objectively looked at the anti-protein messages out there in some textbooks and certain personal-training manuals.

I was absolutely shocked at some of the language that's been used: Protein is hard on the kidneys, it weakens bones, it's high in saturated fat – you guys have heard it all before.

But when you actually sit down and look at the literature, there is very little support for any of those dramatic claims.

T Nation: Surely there must be some scientific basis for the authors to make these statements.

I've done quite an exhaustive review, and I can say that I've come across a grand total of two studies that looked at the issue of protein safety in athletes.

T Nation: Two studies? You're kidding, right?

No, I'm not. These two studies used a grand total of maybe 40 guys. So everything that we know about protein safety for athletes is based on 40 guys. And suffice it to say, neither of these studies could find any trouble at all. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing next.

Because there's so much dissuasive language being bandied about, and so little science to back it up, I'm conducting a few little studies of my own, just to try to get some meaningful data. So far I've got about 22 guys signed up, and using their diet records I'm going to compare the weight trainers that seek lots of extra protein with those that don't eat a lot of protein. I'll be looking at bone density, kidney function and a bunch of other health markers.

I want to know for myself, once and for all: Do the guys who for years have been eating in excess of a gram per pound of body weight in protein [per day] have reduced kidney filtration? What about weaker bones? Do their diet records suggest that they're eating too little fiber, or too much saturated fat and cholesterol?

Science has based so much upon mere speculation. I'm finally going to provide some hard, factual data.

Again, I know all this sounds really old hat to your readers, but you have to understand how dissuasive the anti-protein language is in both academia and the dietetics setting.

Just like there's racism and sexism, there appears to be a kind of "nutrientism" held against protein that should be applied to carbs and fats as well. I've actually heard very well-respected educators say things like "those dumb weight-training meatheads and their extra protein."

T Nation: Glad I'm not in that class. So why is this going on?

The only explanation I can think of is that these textbook authors are just reading and quoting each other's work in this dogmatic, circular logic about how risky protein is.

They are also all erroneously applying data from other populations. Look, if you feed old ladies red meat and withhold calcium, you might have more of a fracture risk. But to apply those findings to weight-training young males with high Testosterone levels, who eat their fruits and veggies along with the protein, is extrapolating wildly.

But I'm going to verify it, and if I see anything like weakened bone density or impaired kidney filtration in the lifelong meat eaters, I will report it. But I highly doubt I will.

T Nation: So why is Dr. Lowery so pro-protein, when the majority of his colleagues are not?

There are so many advantages to a high-protein diet. There's the huge impact on the metabolic rate, and then there's the satiety perspective, the fullness that a protein-rich diet provides. And that isn't just important to physique athletes. In a country where seven out of 10 people are obese, to say "no" to eating protein is a huge mistake.

As to why my colleagues won't get behind protein, well, I'm not going to get "grassy knoll" here. But there may be some commercial interests to be had from dissuading people from eating more protein. You can see commercial interests even in the scientific arena, or at the very least personal interests. So it's high time we get some real data out there, and that's what I'm doing.

Whew, you got me on a soapbox here!

T Nation: No need to apologize – you're preaching to the choir. So as a researcher and bodybuilder, what would you consider to be the ideal macronutrient breakdown?

That's actually a tricky question.

The newest thing down the pipeline is something called nutritional genomics, which is the theory that everyone responds to nutrients in their own way. For example, I can tell you that because of my family history of obesity, glucose intolerance, and type 2 diabetes, I choose a much lower carbohydrate intake, especially now that I'm over 40.

But if you're going to pressure me for a number recommendation, I think for the most part that 50 [percent] carb, 25 [percent] protein, 25 [percent] fat is fine, maybe lower in the carbs, depending on the goal.

But really for protein, a lot of the time it's best to shoot for a daily dose in grams, as opposed to percentage of total intake. I shoot for the age-old suggestion of one gram per pound of body weight, and that usually isn't that far off from the ideal. But the trick is to time protein intake around the workout. With protein, the total dose is not nearly as important as timing.

So to sum up: set protein at a gram per pound, be sure to time it around the workout, set fat at 25 percent of calories minimum to keep Testosterone at optimal levels, and manipulate carbs according to your goal. Simple, but effective.

T Nation: What's new with fat? Any cutting-edge information we should know about?

There's actually some very intriguing stuff happening with lipids, but as the research is still ongoing I can't really say much at this time.

Basically, there's one dietary lipid out there that shall remain nameless for the time being. It's anabolic in a very strong way, especially when combined with resistance training. Now, the data isn't cause-and-effect – at this stage it's just a research relationship.

What's interesting is, this is a lipid that's often condemned as "bad" by nutritional theorists. Yet when weight trainers consume it, especially older guys, they get bigger and stronger than the guys that don't.

T Nation: Okay, I'm intrigued. What is it?

Sorry my friend, no can do at this time. But I can tell you that there's also a ton of cool research coming out of Japan lately with regards to special mixed triglycerides.

T Nation: You mean like medium-chain triglycerides, from the old Parillo days?

Not exactly. MCTs didn't really pan out in the way they were hyped up to, especially when lifters started to replace carbs with MCTs for energy.

But I predict that structured lipids that have both long-chain and medium-chain fatty acids will be a big deal. You'll be able to consume these in decent amounts without suffering the gastric upset that you see with straight MCTs.

And if you feed people these new fatty acids throughout the day, you can get a thermic effect that's far superior to just fat. In other words, you oxidize far more fat than you actually store.

The Japanese research shows some very clear benefits from consuming these mixed triglycerides, so it's got me very interested.

I see something of real value to weight trainers in both of these fats, so I'll keep you posted.

T Nation: Sounds good. Moving to fats that are actually available, is there anything new with EPA/DHA?

There's a mountain of literature out there on the wonders of EPA/DHA, but I've seen a few more papers recently suggesting that DHA in particular may be a bit more important for men. There's a suggestion that Testosterone drives down DHA concentrations in the body, and the science is starting to indicate that it might be smart for men to take a higher-DHA supplement.

T Nation: At the risk of shamelessly plugging a Biotest product, I know that Flameout™ is significantly higher in DHA for this reason.

Yes, I've noticed that. Again, while it's still early to make blanket recommendations that guys need more DHA, the science is pretty clear in this regard. DHA is also so concentrated in brain tissue and the eyes that it can be argued it alone should be an essential fatty acid.

I think both EPA/DHA are essential, simply for their mitigating effect on low-grade inflammation and to help counterbalance the grain-based diets many of us live on.

T Nation: Is there anything new in the literature on branched-chain amino acids?

Ten years ago, people were pretty down on BCAAs, but currently there's a real BCAA renaissance happening out there.

The most interesting thing I've seen lately is more and more data that leucine, in particular, has anabolic properties. Nutritional scientists have played with leucine for years to get an anabolic effect, going back even before the HMB days. I can remember reading about leucine 20 years ago as an undergrad.

What's interesting about leucine is that it works along the mTOR pathway, the same as insulin. So we're talking about a real pharmaceutical agent here, and that's one of the reasons drug companies and the FDA don't appreciate supplements like fish oil and single amino acids on the market. These supplements have real anabolic properties, but nobody is paying for a doctor's visit and pumping money back into Big Pharma.

Anyway, I've seen some studies that involved spiking protein drinks with up to 16 grams of leucine to get an anabolic effect. That sounds very intriguing. I'm looking at spiking my own protein drinks with five grams, and maybe working up to a 16-gram dose just to see what happens.

I've seen stuff in graduate-level textbooks about how the transporters in your small intestines tend to prefer leucine. It appears, on the surface at least, that perhaps people evolved to get that leucine in.

T Nation: Changing directions, I heard an account of a lecture you gave about managing your key hormones to manipulate weight and body composition. Care to elaborate?

Hormones are under nutritional control much more than many people realize. Take Testosterone, for example. It's been well documented that if you eat a really low-fat diet, you can drop 10 to 15 percent in serum Testosterone. That's not a big deal for a guy on anabolics, but for a natural, it's huge.

And hormones like insulin are under huge dietary control. Managing insulin effectively can help out a physique athlete in several ways. A moderate insulin level throughout the day is handy, not only for protein synthesis, but because insulin in the blood tends to free up bound Testosterone in the body. That's why a higher carb intake helps for mass gains. There are positive hormonal changes when you up your carbs, and those pan out over time.

As for cortisol, coffee and caffeine have been well documented to increase the cortisol response to emotional stress. Getting seven or eight grams of fish oil can reduce the cortisol stress response. There's a hormonal mechanism behind all of this.

T Nation: What about managing growth hormone?

Growth hormone is more of an "abstinence" hormone. For Testosterone, eat fat. For insulin, eat carbs. But GH is more of a "don't." Fatty acids and carbohydrates can be inhibitory upon GH release.

That being said, exercise plays a role in GH release, at least for the younger set. In young people, exercise can cause a real nice GH spike, but for the 30-somethings and beyond, it's more like a sad little blip.

Exercise aside, two-thirds of all the GH in a man is released about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Avoiding sugary and fatty meals right before bed, plus allowing one hour to fast before retiring, may help to maximize a GH surge.

But all that being said, GH and muscle growth is hugely overblown, at least GH by itself. Now, GH plus Testosterone and insulin is extremely anabolic. So get enough sleep to get GH, get enough fat for Testosterone, and get enough carbs to get insulin.

T Nation: Then get a new wardrobe! So Lonnie, now that we know you're still out there, are we going to hear more from you?

I've always loved T-Muscle. I mean, what a gigantic library of information! I spend a lot of time in the academic setting, and while 30 people might hear me in a classroom, 30,000 might read an article on the site. It really is an important resource.

T Nation: Thanks for this, Dr. Lowery!

My pleasure.