John M Berardi PhD, CSCS is an adjunct professor of Nutrition at Texas University. He completed his PhD in Exercise and Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario. For a pleasant surprise, check out his web site at www.johnberardi.com Here you’ll see that John travels the world to consult with professional and Olympic athletes.
Through his company, Science Link, Inc., John has consulted with hundreds of elite athletes including the US Bobsled Team, the Canadian Olympic winter sport teams at Calgary’s Olympic Oval, and a host of professional endurance and power sport athletes (Ironman Triathletes, Track and Field, Football, Hockey, etc.).
Currently, in addition to contributing to publications like Men’s Health Muscle and Testosterone Magazine, John is currently working on several training and nutrition books for Rodale Press.
Cliff: Hi John, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today…
JB: Thanks Cliff, I’m glad to be able to share my research and observations with you and your readers. Although I’ve had a pretty long-standing relationship with the weightlifting and strength/power sport magazines, much of my research has been done in endurance athlete populations. So it’s good to be able to share this info with some committed endurance folks.
Cliff: Your nutritional concepts and ideas have certainly caused a bit of a splash down this way, particularly your food combining protocols. Can you outline for our readers the rationale behind avoiding fats in protein/carb meals and avoiding carbohydrates in protein/fat meals?
JB: Sure, but before I do so, it’s important to take a BIG step back and put my suggestions into perspective. My “Massive Eating” program was designed back in 2001 to meet a VERY specific need – constructing a hyperenergetic diet that allows a weight lifter to build muscle mass with a minimum of fat accumulation. It’s pretty much well known that if an athlete isn’t using drugs, overfeeding in an attempt to gain muscle typically produces a concomitant fat gain. In constructing Massive Eating I was hoping to improve the ratio of muscle gained to fat gained.
Therefore, based on the design of the protocol, there are three important variables for consideration prior to starting: a) you’ve got to want to eating more calories then you’re expending, b) you’ve got to be training with weights, and c) you’ve got to be trying to gain muscle mass or “bulk up” as some might call it. If you meet these three criterion, it’s worth giving this program a try.
Cliff: That makes sense, John. So what about your P+C and P+F concepts?
JB: If an individual meets the three criterion above, I have suggested the following: a) eat protein (P) with each meal, b) avoid eating lots of fat (F) when eating a protein and carbohydrate meal (P+C), and c) avoid eating lots of carbohydrate (C) when eating a protein and fat meal (P+F).
While the rationale for this strategy is pretty complex, I’ll summarize it here. (The reasoning behind this approach can be found in its entirety using these links: Massive Eating 1, Massive Eating 2, Massive Eating Reloaded 1, Massive Eating Reloaded 2).
The first reason for suggesting these combinations is fat burning. High protein meals can increase the thermic effect of feeding (the calories you burn as a direct response to eating), increase fat oxidation (fat burning), and reduce carbohydrate oxidation (burning) when compared to high carb meals. And this effect continues beyond the single meal, offering the same benefits while following a higher protein diet for a longer period of time.
The most interesting thing is that even when a considerable amount of carbohydrate energy is included in such a diet (or in a single meal), it appears that protein-induced increases in the hormone glucagon can increase lipolysis (fat mobilization from adipose tissue) and subsequent fat oxidation (fat burning) during rest and exercise. Those of you who know something about the hormone insulin might object to this statement. But cast those objections aside. While the hormone insulin is known to decrease lipolysis and fat oxidation, glucagon may, in some situations, provide a more powerful stimulus, promoting increased lipolysis and fat oxidation even while insulin is kicking around.
Cliff: Therefore, by eating a higher protein diet, even with an appreciable amount of carbohydrate, you’ll end up burning more total fat while sparing muscle glycogen and providing amino acids for recovery and growth. Sound like a good strategy for simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss?
Sounds convincing. What’s the second reason?
JB: Insulin management. Since insulin is a storage hormone (pushing nutrients into tissues like muscle, adipose and liver) and an anti-breakdown hormone (preventing the release of macromolecules from liver, muscle and adipose tissue), a chronic elevation in blood insulin — especially in the presence of carbohydrate and fat — will probably sabotage your attempts to make the cover of Men’s Health or Oxygen magazine.
So by eating protein with every meal and avoiding high concentrations of insulin, glucose, and fat in the blood, it appears that body composition can be managed more easily. This isn't to say you won’t gain any fat. Instead, it’s suggesting that fat gain may be reduced. Combine this body fat management strategy with a high-energy intake and what do you get? Well, simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss might not be an urban legend after all!
Cliff: Since you say this plan is predominantly for strength athletes, what about endurance athletes? Can they use these strategies to improve their recovery, body composition, and performance?
JB: Yes they can! Many people will be shocked when my PhD dissertation data are finally published as these data show that different combinations of nutrients can improve performance, recovery, and muscle glycogen resynthesis. These papers have been submitted to the Journal of Applied Physiology, American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism, and International Journal of Sports Medicine and for those of you who know the research process know it takes a long time to get a paper published (and there is good reason). Rather than having you wait to read the papers, however, here’s a short excerpt from the introductory chapter of my dissertation:
In this doctoral thesis, another strategy (manipulating protein intake) to maintain muscle and liver glycogen concentrations while maximizing fat oxidation is proposed. High protein meals increase the thermic effect of feeding, increase fat oxidation, and reduce carbohydrate oxidation when compared to high carbohydrate meals and this effect persists during chronic high protein diets. Even when a considerable amount of carbohydrate energy is included in such a diet (or in a single meal), it appears that protein-induced increases in plasma glucagon can increase lipolysis and subsequent fat oxidation during both rest and exercise. While insulin is known to decrease lipolysis and fat oxidation, glucagon may, in some situations, promote increased lipolysis and fat oxidation in the presence of insulin. Therefore, one potential strategy for increasing fat oxidation and sparing muscle carbohydrate is to increase dietary protein intake.
Unfortunately, an increase in dietary protein must come at the expense of dietary carbohydrate or fat. Since many endurance athletes eat relatively low fat diets, increases in dietary protein often come at the expense of dietary carbohydrate. As is the case with high fat diets, decreased dietary carbohydrate intake can lead to decreases in muscle and liver glycogen concentrations and chronic glycogen depletion. However, if there were a way to maximize muscle and liver glycogen concentrations while replacing carbohydrate energy with protein energy, athletes may be able maintain high training volumes and intensities while still benefiting from higher rates of fat oxidation.
Since the immediate post exercise period is marked by a dramatic increase in insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and glycogenic activity, muscle glycogen resynthesis rates are elevated during the immediate post exercise period. If nutrition is delayed however, glycogen resynthesis rates are reduced. In addition, although data are equivocal, the immediate post exercise ingestion of supplements that contain carbohydrate and protein may increase the rate of muscle glycogen resynthesis relative to the ingestion of an isoenergetic carbohydrate supplement. Therefore, perhaps athletes who ingest several high carbohydrate, moderate protein meals during the immediate post exercise period (when glycogen synthetic rates are highest) can maximize muscle and liver glycogen concentrations while consuming less total daily carbohydrate energy and more total daily protein energy during the rest of the day. Again, relative to a high carbohydrate diet, a properly designed diet containing fewer carbohydrates and more protein may allow for the maintenance of muscle and liver carbohydrate stores, a result of an improved efficiency of glycogen resynthesis during the post exercise period, while allowing for improved rates of fat oxidation, a result of less daily carbohydrate and the glucagon-induced lipolysis associated with a higher protein intake.
In addition to achieving these goals, several other benefits might be observed with this dietary strategy. First, since greater post exercise protein intake can provide amino acids for increased protein synthesis, muscle repair and muscle recovery, athletes may be better able to preserve lean body mass during periods of high intensity training. Secondly, because protein ingestion increases metabolic rate and fat oxidation, a higher protein diet may lead to losses in fat mass and body mass, both advantageous in mass bearing endurance activities.
So, according to my research, endurance athletes might benefit tremendously from doing the following: a) ingesting 2-3 carbohydrate and protein supplements after exercise (each containing 0.8g/kg high glycemic index carbohydrate, 0.4g/kg rapidly digesting protein) and then eating a lower carbohydrate diet during the remainder of the day. That’s not to say they should eliminate carbohydrates altogether. Rather, their meals should contain protein and a good balance of fats, with a small energy contribution from low glycemic index and high micronutrient carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, legumes (mixed beans), or even ancient grains like quinoa.
Cliff: But don’t endurance athletes require higher amounts of carbohydrates than your average joe…
JB: Yes, and no. They require more carbohydrates at specific times of the day, but not all day long! You see, endurance performance is correlated with muscle glycogen stores and as a result, some nutritionists have suggested that endurance athletes should eat very high carbohydrate (>70%) diets to keep muscle glycogen high. Unfortunately, this means a reduction in fat oxidation. Reduce fat oxidation and carbohydrate storage and oxidation is less efficient during both rest and exercise.
Now if I were to tell you that I can get you the same muscle glycogen concentrations while being able to reduce your total carbohydrate intake, improve your fat use during rest and exercise events, and reduce your body fat, would you be interested?
All it takes is some intelligent meal planning. Simply eat the bulk of your carbohydrates during exercise (sports drinks) and during the 4-6 hours after exercise (recovery drinks and meals). Be sure that the first few feedings are liquid and that you also eat protein with each feeding during this time period. Then, for the rest of the day, eat protein and fat meals (along with veggies and even some fruit).
Cliff: You keep mentioning protein but many nutritionists still recommend low protein diets for endurance athletes in spite of the large amount of muscle breakdown that occurs from the massive volume of training. How much should endurance athletes eat?
JB: In my article, The Protein Prejudice, I detail all of the benefits of eating more protein. These include an increased metabolic rate, more fat burning, increased glycogen storage, reduction in cardiovascular risk, a more anabolic hormonal profile, and a higher protein turnover (enhancing the ability to accelerate training adaptations).
Now, technically speaking, athletes may not need more protein than their sedentary counterparts, need being defined as the prevention of a deficiency. That’s right, the typically RDA protein need is based on preventing you from shrivelling up and dying. Since athletes are concerned more with optimisation rather than simple survival, it’s clear a new standard must be applied.
In an attempt to optimise performance, I typically recommend anywhere from 1 – 1.5g protein/lb body mass. Of course, that’s not a blanket recommendation. Each of my athletes is assessed thoroughly before making any dietary suggestions. Only then can we optimise their diet based on training status, body mass, gender, individual physiology, etc.
One not of caution, however. A higher protein diet can present a high potential renal acid load (PRAL). Therefore some call high protein diets “acidic” in nature. This is completely true and, in some cases, an acidic diet might negatively affect performance. However, don’t be scared off. The simplest way to avoid this one potential negative consequence is to eat enough basic foods. The most basic are fruits and veggies. Eat enough of these and your acid balance will be perfect. For more on this, check out my article entitled Covering Your Nutritional Acids.
Cliff: I remember that you mentioned in an email to me that you had some novel ideas for improving recovery and fuel utilisation in endurance athletes. Anything you can let out of the bag?
JB: Certainly! The dietary strategies outlined above are a big part of this. By improving muscle glycogen resynthesis, muscle protein turnover, and fat oxidation, the plan above can improve performance and body composition markedly. In the lab, the simple replacement of some carbohydrate with protein during recovery enhanced subsequent exercise performance by over 200%. Of course, that’s not to say that if a little protein is good, more is better. Rather, it’s the interaction of the two that makes a big difference. Just be sure those post workout meals are liquid and contain fast digesting carbohydrates and proteins. A good example of this is a product I helped create called Biotest Surge. Certainly Endurox is a good product, as is Countdown.
In addition to the dietary suggestions another big improvement comes from fish oil supplementation. While fish oil seems a virtual panacea for modern disease and illness, it does offer a benefit unique to athletes. Chronic fish oil supplementation can improve overall metabolic rate by increasing fat utilization while improving carbohydrate storage. Even when ingesting a large amount of carbohydrates, regular fish oil supplementation improves fat oxidation. Combine this with the food strategies above and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Cliff: In respect to the insulin index, I am stunned that there are so few nutritionists and dieticians who even realise that there is such a thing, what’s your take on this?
JB: The popular glycemic index is a measure of the speed at which carbohydrates enter the blood after a meal. A high-glycemic index means that blood sugar rises rapidly in response to a meal while a low-glycemic index means that blood sugar rises very slowly. Traditionally, nutritionists thought that the faster the carbs got into the blood, the bigger the insulin response. So in an attempt to manage insulin, they recommended always eating low-glycemic foods.
However, several studies since have shown that some low glycemic index foods have huge insulin responses! So the correlation between glycemic index and insulin response breaks down with some foods. For example, milk products have a very low glycemic index. But they promote insulin responses parallel to the highest glycemic foods. What's the deal? Well, it appears that there are several other factors that determine insulin release besides carb content and the rate of carb absorption.
This is why the insulin index was generated. This index actually measures insulin response to a food. So rather than assuming insulin response is correlated with carb absorption, these researchers decided to go ahead and measure it. And their results were eye opening.
In the end, however, the current insulin indices are very incomplete. Since only 70 or so foods have been measured, it’s not very practical to try to plan your diet around this index. In addition, different people have different sensitivities to insulin so individual responses will vary. Finally, it’s complicated to plan you dietary strategies around every physiochemical property of food. Rather, I propose the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nutritional Programs for ease.
Clff: In respect to the traditional nutritional and dietetic agencies, I have often thought that they end up too often fighting a ‘rear guard’ action against current (and scientifically valid) nutritional trends, what are your thoughts on the standard of dietetic advice available to athletes?
JB: Well, I don’t necessarily want to pass judgement on traditional nutritional and dietetic agencies because I think they do a lot of things well. Of course, when it comes to sports nutrition, their foundation is admittedly weak. You see, classic nutritionists and dieticians are well trained in the clinical aspects of nutrition and are quite good at that aspect of dietetics. But in the absence of a comprehensive exercise science background, the bachelor’s trained nutritionist isn’t necessarily equipped to give sound sports nutrition advice. That’s not to say all nutritionists aren’t qualified. I personally know lots who have done a ton of independent research and coupled with their RD, they’re very, very good. But occasionally one comes up against a nutritionist similar to what you described. What can you say? Some people excel in their field by constant learning and others don’t. It takes all types to make the world go ‘round.
Cliff: One area I have been interested in recently is the re-evaluation of the role of saturated fats in the diet. What’s your take on saturated fats John?
JB: It would take another dissertation to answer this question and since I just finished my other one, forgive me if I’m brief. Basically, the only “bad” fats are trans fats. Trans fats are man-made fats created when polyunsaturated vegetables oils (high in omega 6 fatty acids) are bombarded with hydrogen molecules until they become more hydrogenated or, as discussed earlier, saturated with hydrogen. Of course, this hydrogenation makes them behave like saturated fat, making them hard at room temperature.
According to a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 30,000 premature deaths per year are attributed to trans fats. Here are the 4 main problems with trans fats:
1) The naturally occurring essential fatty acids are destroyed when fats are hydrogenated. So when you eat trans fats, you actually displace “good” essential fats from your diet.
2) After hydrogenation, trans fats become similar to saturated fats but their structure lacks the metabolic activity of saturated fats. In other words, these fats stick around in the blood for much longer and are more likely to clog up the arteries or be stored as body fat.
3) After hydrogenation, trans fats actually inhibit desaturase activity, limiting the amount of EPA, DHA, and arachidonic acid formed from omega 3 (alpha linolenic acid) and omega 6 (linoleic acid) precursors. This means trans fats actually inhibit your body from making the best fats.
4) Trans fats increase LDL (bad cholesterol) while decreasing HDL (good cholesterol).
So people should scour food labels and avoid foods that contain words like “trans fats”, “partially hydrogenated”, “hydrogenated”, etc.
Cliff:Good advice, we’ll be sure to stay away from them. What about the other fats?
JB: When it comes to the other fats, while saturates have been also labelled as bad in the past, researchers are discovering that saturates can actually contribute positively to anabolic hormone production and cell membrane integrity. Sure, if you eat too much saturated fat, you might run a higher risk of cardiovascular complications but the same is true with eating too many carbohydrates. To ensure that you are getting the benefits of saturated fats without the costs, don’t count fat grams. Rather, the relative ratios of the three fats are most important. Make sure you’re getting about 1/3 of your fat intake from saturated fats, 1/3 from monounsaturated fats, and 1/3 from polyunsaturated fats (50% from omega 3 and 50% from omega 6) and you’ll be doing all you can to improve your health and body composition.
For more information about John, check out www.johnberardi.com While there, pick up a copy of his highly acclaimed No Nonsense Nutrition DVD.
Cliff Harvey is available at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to IRULE and ALTDIRT for making this interview possible.
© Cliff Harvey 2004 all rights reserved.