Nutrition Myths That Make Fitness Less Satisfying
A British study found that the average shelf life of a new hobby was 16 months.
Whether your new-found passion involves mainstream diversions like photography or bicycling, or lesser-known pursuits like competitive dog grooming or Hikaru dorodango (a Japanese art form that involves polishing dirt into smooth little balls), most people give it up after a year or two.
And while I'm not aware of any studies specifically targeting how long it was before people who took up lifting gave it up, I'm betting it's not that much more than that of other "hobbies."
But let's be charitable and say that most people stick with weight training for five years. For many weak-willed souls, that's probably how long it takes for the passion to dissipate, for frustration to set in after believing in any number of myths and consequently making minimal progress.
That, or all the ridiculous dietary restrictions – restrictions so severe that a third-world refugee, given the choice of the myth-follower's diet or powdered milk, would stick with the effin' powdered milk – ended up being too much to handle.
So, they hang it up. Another "generation" of lifters slides into their place, another generation equally ignorant and equally vulnerable to adopting the vampiric myths that just won't die.
It's why I feel compelled, every now and then, to post a new "top nutritional myths" article and hopefully increase the chances the new generation will find lifting and body recomposition to be a more satisfying experience and stick it out for longer than they would otherwise.
Here's some ridiculousness I've been hearing or reading about lately.
Having a drink of milk doesn't automatically make you start coughing phlegm balls like some Deadpool-esque supervillain.
Researchers proved it. They gave 125 people either cow's milk or soymilk and disguised it with chocolate mint flavoring. Both groups swore their tongues felt like they'd licked a banana slug, but regardless, neither drink affected sinus congestion, breathing, coughing, or postnasal drip.
As far as the alleged dairy/cancer link, blame it on that infamous and annoying China Study. It suggested that dairy, and specifically the milk protein casein, causes cancer. In addition to cherry-picking their results and conclusions, it seems odd that casein, a major component of human breast milk (along with the milk of most mammals), would cause cancer.
Man, you think you know a person, in this case, your mom, and bam! Out of nowhere, she whips out a poison boob. Oh mama, why? Why?
And really, why would Mother Nature make such a major blunder? Short answer, she didn't.
Then there's the milk-is-chock-full-of-growth-hormone lament. People fear that if they drink a lot of GH-tainted milk, their heads will swell up like Barry Bonds', and then other smaller heads will start orbiting around it.
No, no, no. Growth hormone is a protein, a big-honkin' protein made up of 191 amino acids. And what happens when you ingest proteins? They get cleaved up into smaller peptides or individual amino acids – peptides and amino acids that would no sooner cause you to grow a giant head than a serving of chicken McNuggets.
If you like milk, drink it.
Back in the 1940s, engineers thought the sound barrier was impenetrable, that once you approached it, your plane would start buffeting uncontrollably and you'd lose all control. The sound barrier, it was said, was "a farm you can buy in the sky" (as in, "bought the farm").
That was until Chuck Yeager, a non-engineer test pilot who didn't believe the sound barrier existed, proceeded to prove it by pushing his X-1 plane straight through it, causing the world below him to hear the first-ever sonic boom.
I can't help but think of Yeager when I still hear some trainer or armchair nutritional expert caution against eating more than 30 grams of protein in a single sitting. What do they think happens if you attempt to break this "barrier," when you eat 31 grams or, shudder, more? It knocks its head against the intestinal wall repeatedly until it gives up and takes the poop-Uber out of town?
No one I've talked to can figure out where this mythical number originated, but you can maybe see how it came about when you start examining the different ways your body uses protein. If you ingest 30 grams of protein after a workout, it'll increase muscle protein synthesis by about 50%, but that percentage is where it pretty much gets stuck.
You could triple your protein intake to 90 grams in one sitting, but it wouldn't do much of anything to increase muscle protein synthesis. That might not be true for steroid users, but we're talking about people who have a neck.
That's not proof that the 30-gram-per-sitting people were right. They're forgetting that protein is needed for a whole lot of other stuff, too, and the body gives priority to that other stuff.
Protein is an essential nutrient. It's broken down into amino acids, and the body can't get them from fat or carbs, no matter how tasty they are. These amino acids are used to make hormones, enzymes, immune factors, and other non-muscle tissues. Once the protein requirements for all that stuff are met, the body can use the surplus to increase muscle protein synthesis.
In other words, you can't rob Peter's hormone and enzyme requirements to pay Paul's muscle protein synthesis wants, so eat as much protein in one sitting as you like. It all goes to good use.
Once the exclusive purview of epileptics (to control seizures) and madmen bodybuilders, the keto diet is now the "it" diet of the masses, having completely trounced Weight Watchers.
It's easy to see how it happened. The keto diet lets people eat all the fat they want, and they can practically see themselves shrinking day by day. But the keto diet isn't all sunshine and deep-fried daisies. It has some drawbacks, some of which are serious, and it's not the best diet for lifters.
Here are some of the problems with the keto diet that make me get a little itchy:
Keto dieters jettison entire food groups, often making them deficient in vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and essential fatty acids. Keto dieters can take care of a lot of those problems by taking multivitamins, but that's a poor and uncertain replacement for the nutrients in real food. Beyond that, missing out on dozens or even hundreds of the polyphenols found in grains, fruits, wine, and even beer is like playing Super Mario Bros. and not bothering to pick up all the super mushroom power-ups.
Bad for Strength Athletes
There's some evidence that keto diets might work well for endurance runners and Alaskan sled dogs, but if you're a weightlifter who relies on short bursts of power, forget it.
Bad for Bowels
Ditching carbs means ditching fiber. Any long-term reductions in actual body weight may be offset by the weight of the steadily accruing reservoir of impacted feces in your intestines.
Despite the alliterative name, keto crotch is not the newest member of the Marvel Universe (Peter Parker, Matt Murdoch, Jessica Jones, etc., etc.). If it were, I doubt her superpower would be of any use in fighting crime, except maybe in some highly unusual and specific circumstances.
Apparently, all the meat-eatin' changes vaginal pH, and the lower acidity creates a welcoming environment to undesirable bacteria, leading to possible infections, an unpleasant odor, and probably infestation by raccoons.
The dangers of high cholesterol are inconclusive, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all, and high cholesterol is what you get when you eat saturated fat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But the worst part of the keto diet, at least for people who want to pack on muscle, is that going into ketosis steals amino acids from muscle to fuel other stuff. Oh, and low carbs lead to high cortisol, which also affects how well you put on muscle.
The idea of relying on multivitamins to fill, like Bondo, all the holes in your diet (like the keto diet), makes sense... until you tease it apart. Here are a few problems associated with multivitamins as nutrition woe cure-alls:
The one-size-fits-all philosophy
It's largely agreed that there are 24 vitamins and minerals essential to human life. Various organizations have come up with an alphabet soup of acronyms (RDA, DRI, etc.) that tell us just how much of these nutrients we all need to function and live. The trouble is, they're all based on a bell curve, and while they may hold true for a 150-pound municipal worker named Phil who lives in Akron, Ohio, they might not hold true for sweaty athletes, bigger (or smaller) people, or you.
So many possible interactions
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and, as such, are best taken with food. Iron shouldn't be ingested with coffee or tea because tannins interfere with absorption. Likewise, iron interferes with the absorption of zinc and copper. Vitamins E and A can counteract K.
And then there's the problem of phytates, which are compounds found in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They're problematical in that they interfere with the absorption of trace minerals. In regions of the world where phytate consumption is high but consumption of meat and seafood is low, you see epidemic mineral deficiencies that manifest themselves as developmental delays, mental deficiencies, dwarfism, and hypogonadism.
That means that if you're one of the millions who takes your multivitamin with their phytate-laden morning oatmeal, you're pooping out some exceptionally high-quality fertilizer every day.
Cherry-picking and not seeing the big picture
As mentioned above, science has established that there are pretty much 24 essential vitamins and minerals, so it's easy to see how some simplistic, two-dimensional thinking would lead to the assumption that you just have to isolate these substances, stick them all in pills, and feed them to the world.
However, we've seen that it usually doesn't work. People don't get healthy or stay healthy from ingesting multis. Maybe, just maybe, these nutrients aren't supposed to be isolated and taken by themselves. Maybe they need to be taken in whole food form to be truly effective. Maybe the nutrient needs to work in conjunction with some (or maybe even all) of the micronutrients and phytochemicals intrinsic to the whole food source for it to work.
So try to forget the multivitamins unless you're a professional gamer and you subsist largely on Red Bull and Cheetos.
Red meat contains large doses of heme iron, which is typically absorbed at a rate of 7 to 35%, compared to the 2 to 20% of the non-heme iron found in plants. Without adequate supplies of iron, blood cells can't make enough hemoglobin to carry adequate supplies of oxygen to the cells. Weakness ensues.
Steak, or red meat in general, also contains appreciable amounts of vitamin B-12, which combats adrenal fatigue and ordinary fatigue. And if you eat a 2 to 3-pound steak, you'll give your body roughly 5 grams of creatine.
Based on all those strength-promotin', muscle-growin', yippee ki-yay properties, it's only natural to believe that steak is nutritional magic, but let's put everything into perspective. Sure, steak contains comparatively large amounts of iron and B-12, but not enough to single-handedly cure any deficiencies.
Besides, you could eat a handful of raisins and a bowl of Lucky Charms and be similarly fortified, and if you were really serious about getting your nutrients, you'd opt for organ meat, which is infinitely more nutritious than a steak or any other muscle meat.
You'd gnosh on liver or go Daenerys Targaryen and choke down a bloody heart. Okay, maybe not the latter, but eating liver is a good idea. (Inuits, in their dietary guidelines, regard liver as nutritionally equal to fruits and vegetables.)
As far as the creatine contained in a steak, did you catch what I wrote? You'd have to eat 2 to 3 pounds – a gargantuan 40-ounce steak, with or without a tater and all the fixin's – to acquire a measly 5 grams of creatine, which you can easily (and far more cheaply) ingest by mixing a mere teaspoon of supplemental creatine in a glass of water.
Clearly, there's no biochemical or nutritional reason steak should make you stronger, but is there a mental reason it might? After all, "real men" eat steaks.
Maybe it's the blood that makes us associate it with manliness. It stains the lips and dribbles down the chin. It turns us into wolves and makes us think of the hunt and the prey. It makes us feel alive and wild. It makes us feel strong.
Only that red liquid isn't blood. It's just a protein called myoglobin that turns red in the presence of oxygen. Its purpose is to transport oxygen to muscle cells. The redder a steak is, the more myoglobin it has. Any blood the meat has is microscopic and invisible, the vast majority of it having been drained out of the carcass at the slaughterhouse. So even the possible psychological power of a steak is based on misinformation.
The average large egg contains 187 mg. of cholesterol, which is a lot, especially when medical science recommends you limit your daily consumption to 300 mg. or less.
Since eggs contain so much cholesterol, it's always been assumed that they impart a bunch of that cholesterol to your blood, but the findings have been inconsistent. While some studies have shown them to elevate blood levels, a lot of them have shown that egg consumption doesn't affect cholesterol at all.
Eat one egg a day, zip. Eat two eggs a day, also zip. Even eating four eggs a day, in some studies, has shown that eggs are largely benign when it comes to clogging your pipes.
The authors of a recent study (Kim, et al. 2018) think they may know why. They believe that the cholesterol in eggs isn't well-absorbed by the human body. According to them, a couple of phospholipids found in egg yolk (phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin) influence intestinal lipid metabolism and decrease the lymphatic absorption of cholesterol. Then there's the egg white itself. It, too, appears to limit cholesterol absorption by inhibiting the micellar solubility of cholesterol in the intestine.
If these theories prove to be correct, it looks like nature has equipped eggs with a built-in failsafe method to protect the humans who eat them. So, until we hear some concrete evidence that suggests otherwise, eat 'em up.
Somehow, a lot of protein consumers have gotten it into their heads that all protein powders are pretty much the same and that all that counts is cost and protein-per-serving.
Sure, why not use protein powders made from the exfoliated skin strained from the bathwater of fat ladies (higher yield)? It's cheap and has notes of psoriasis cream and lavender Calgon.
Plant-derived proteins, however, are probably the fastest growing sector in the protein business. At first glance, it makes sense they'd be selling well.
Anything associated with plants is instinctively thought to be healthier, but the thinking is a bit two-dimensional in that these plant-protein fans aren't actually eating plants, but the amino acids that are left over when the water, fiber, chlorophyll, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals – just about everything else in the plant – is extracted.
But there remains another truth, this one particularly inconvenient: the amino acid profile of plants is not the same as what you'd find in human muscle. Sure, most of the amino acids are there, but usually not in the amounts you'd need to support optimal growth of muscle.
Beef and chicken-based protein powders aren't all that common, but they seem to have a loyal base consisting mostly of Paleo-type dieters. The assumption is that these proteins, being made from the meat of actual animals, are highly suited to building muscle in people who use them.
Not so much. These proteins contain a lot of the skin, bone, tendons, and other connective tissues. What you're getting is boiled down collagen, the same stuff in the Jell-O dessert with the floating, suspended-in-space marshmallows your grandma used to make on Sunday before she mercifully died and took that recipe with her.
That's not to say collagen doesn't have its merits (healthier joints, skin, etc.), but it's not exactly the best for building muscle and it's lacking in BCAAs.
Whey isolates and milk proteins (casein, specifically) appear to be the best for muscle-building purposes, regardless of what scale you use.
Traditionally, whey protein isolate has been used for peri-workout periods as it's absorbed rather quickly, whereas casein is often preferred for all other times as it digests slowly and supplies a steady stream of amino acids. Of course, whey protein also contains some interesting immunoglobulins that appear to contribute to human health.
Given all that, it looks like a blend of fast-acting whey protein isolate and slow-digesting casein (like Metabolic Drive®) is best for strength athletes and physique athletes.
William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, scared the hell out of people who read nutrition best-sellers. For one thing, he said that bread made with modern wheat was full of gliadin, a supposedly addictive protein that turns normal humans into bread-seeking zombies who will stop at nothing to gnosh another bagel.
He also wrote that the amylopectin (a type of glucose) in wheat is different from the amylopectin in other carb-rich foods like potatoes and vegetables. According to Davis, the type found in bread is converted into sugars very quickly and eating it often enough causes a person to turn into a Type II diabetic whose life consists of mainlining jelly donuts and Metformin.
Here's the deal: Those supposedly addictive gliadins are present in all grain lines, and some seeds of ancient grains contained more gliadin than modern lines. Besides, the human gut doesn't appear to even absorb the opioid protein fraction of gliadin. If you're "addicted" to bread, it's because it tastes so damn good.
As far as amylopectin, the type or amount in wheat isn't any different or more prevalent than that found in any carb food. So phooey on the Wheat Belly guy.
The truth is whole-grain breads reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. They actually help people maintain healthy weight (Karl, 2016). The polyphenols in them are likely responsible for a slew of health benefits. Ditching them is almost like ditching fruits or vegetables.
While some research shows that nighttime eating contributes to making you a chonk, other studies aren't so sure. Of course, you have to weigh munching on a leftover chicken leg against what's known as "hedonic hyperphagia," which is how nutrition academics refer to eating for pleasure when you're not hungry – like mainlining a tub of Ben and Jerry's while watching "Young Sheldon."
But forget about hedonic hyperphagia. What aspiring meatheads should do, almost without fail, is to have a bolus of protein before bed because tons of studies support that it increases muscle protein synthesis (MPS) dramatically without leading to any increases in fat.
A few years ago, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center reported that diet sodas made people fat. In fact, they got pretty damn specific about it. They said that every can of soda you drink increases your chance of being overweight by 41%.
I'm not even sure exactly what the hell that means. Should we infer that drinking two and a half diet sodas at a Mets game would make our chance of being fat 102.5%, which means that it's a mathematical certainty and we should stop at the tailor on the way home to have our pants let out because the fat be-a-comin' soon?
Probably not. Anyhow, they had several theories as to why diet drinks might make you fat.
First, they said that exposure to sweetness (in artificially sweetened drinks) might increase the psychological desire for sweetness. Second, they figured that maybe people, upon feeling all proud and puffy-chested about having banked some calories, would then overcompensate by eating an entire Bundt cake or something.
Others thought that the artificial sweeteners, despite lacking any calories, might have an insulinogenic response and cause people to physically crave more sugar. All their guesses had the taint of plausibility around them. Too bad they were all wrong.
I won't bore you, but subsequent studies (Sorenson, 2014, Rogers, 2018) have found pretty much the opposite of the Texas study – people who drank diet sodas lost more weight than the sugar drinkers.
Bottom line, the calorie reduction you get from drinking diet drinks as opposed to sugar-sweetened drinks is more important than any of the theories about how diet drinks could supposedly make you ingest more calories.
- Dehghan M et al., Association of egg intake with blood lipids, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in 177,000 people in 50 countries. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020 Apr 1;111(4):795-803. PubMed.
- Luoma TC. Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge. Simon and Schuster. Amsterdam, 2016.
- Morton RW et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. PubMed.
- Peters JC et al. The effects of water and non–nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss during a 12–week weight loss treatment program. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014 Jun;22(6):1415-21. PubMed.
- Rogers PJ. The role of low-calorie sweeteners in the prevention and management of overweight and obesity: evidence v. conjecture. Proc Nutr Soc. 2018 Aug;77(3):230-238. PubMed.
- Sørensen LB et al. Sucrose compared with artificial sweeteners: a clinical intervention study of effects on energy intake, appetite, and energy expenditure after 10 wk of supplementation in overweight subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100(1):36-45. PubMed.
- Symons TB et al. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep;109(9):1582-6. PubMed.
- van Vliet S et al. The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. J Nutr. 2015 Sep;145(9):1981-91. PubMed.
- Westwater ML et al. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016; 55(Suppl 2):55–69. PubMed.