Below is an email response I wrote for a friend who had some questions. Most of you have heard this stuff from me before, but I decided to copy and paste it here because I had to write it again anyhow. It is long, sorry, but worth knowing.
Okay Cory, this is going to be a somewhat long answer, I’m sorry, but I feel you need to know some of the technical details to make an informed decision. There is simply too much marketing hype on the internet.
First, I’ll address supplements. Creatine gets an undeserved bad reputation in some circles. It is the MOST studied supplement on the market. I am talking thousands of peer reviewed studies! No study has ever found evidence that creatine damages your kidneys. People think it does because doctors test the creatine level of your kidney to see if you are in kidney failure; kidney creatine level is a marker, not a harmful substance. Ingesting a creatine supplement does not increase kidney creatine. These are two different things.
Creatine does assist workouts that function primarily in the phosphagen metabolic pathway. This energy pathway is used for very short duration (30 seconds or less), high power output movements. If you are attempting a 1, 2, or 3 rep maximum lift, with lots of rest between sets, you are working in the phosphagen system. Here, creatine acts as a catalyst to replenish ATP from ADP and a free phosphate molecule. Creatine does not significantly benefit any activity lasting more than 30-60 seconds. It is great for strength training and muscle hypertrophy. It is shown to give a 3-5% increase in performance. How does this translate to the real world? If you are an Olympic athlete, it is the difference between gold and bronze. If you are a regular schmuck like me, not much.
BUT, creatine has great neurological protective benefits. It may help prevent Alzheimer’s and helps protect (and maybe restore) nerve (brain) tissue after traumatic injury. Creatine Monohydrate is the most studied and available form. It is cheap and easy to find. Because of the low price and potential benefits, I think it is worth the money to pick some up and throw it in your water bottle once a day.
Typical dosage is 5 grams per day. Some people choose to do a loading phase for the first week. Muscles use creatine that is stored in the muscle. That means the stuff you drink will not be immediately bioavailable for metabolism. That is why creatine is better post workout or anytime throughout the day than it is pre-workout.
Protein, another highly studied nutrient with tons of marketing hype! You need at least 0.7 grams per pound of body weight daily. This number increases to 1.0-1.25 g/lb depending on your goals and activity level. It is generally best to get this from natural sources such as lean meats, but this can be hard to do. I cannot eat enough chicken breasts in one day to get the 225g of protein I need! This is where supplements come in.
The goal of ingesting protein is to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Your body has many other uses for protein, but MPS is our goal in fitness. When you exercise (or do nearly any activity), you are causing minor damage to muscle fibers. Your body repairs and strengthens these fibers through MPS. Milk based proteins are the best at stimulating MPS. Meat proteins do an okay job, and vegetable proteins, while they are beneficial for other protein requirements, actually show a negative effect on MPS. Most of your whey isolates will be good. Empirically, I have observed better results on the whey isolates than on the whey blends.
Some people will say that your body can only use 25-30 grams of protein at a time, so you shouldn’t take more than that. Well, that’s not entirely true. Your body can use up to 30 grams at a time for MPS, but protein has many other uses in the body. Any extra protein you consume will not be wasted. If that were the case, I would be shitting pure protein shakes!
Some people will also talk about some special 30-minute post-workout window when you need to get protein. A 2009 study found no significant difference between athletes who ingested protein 30 minutes post-workout and those who ingested protein 3 hours post-workout. So, if you forget your protein shaker at the house, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.
Finally, there is no evidence that too much protein can be harmful, but there is a law of diminishing returns. Another recent study found no significant difference in body composition between people who consumed 1-1.5g/lb of body weight and those who consumed 3-4g/lb.
Another supplement I recommend is fish oils. It is great for recovery, fighting inflammation, improving cardiac health, and protecting joints. I recommend fish oils over the glucosamine/chondroitin pills. You want to focus on Omega 3 fatty acids, and, more specifically, EPA and DHA. Here is the best way to choose a quality fish oil supplement:
- Look at the nutrition label and find the amounts for total fat, EPA, and DHA (ignore all other numbers).
- Convert total fat from grams to milligrams by multiplying by 1,000.
- Add the EPA and DHA together.
- The sum of EPA and DHA should be more than half of the total fat. If it is not, ignore that supplement.
Pure Pharma, COSTCO, and Jym all make good Omega 3 supplements. I’ve noticed price does not necessary determine the quality of the supplement, only the size of the pill. I’ve been taking the COSTCO ones lately, but the capsules are huge! Pure Pharma has small pills, but they are expensive. Regardless of the directions on the label, you want to take at least 2,000 milligrams of EPA + DHA daily. You can divide the dose between morning and evening or take them all at once.
Some foods are also great sources of Omega 3’s. Walnuts, wild caught fish, and grass fed beef all have high levels. Grass fed beef, ounce for ounce, has more omega 3’s than most salmon and is one of the healthiest meats you can eat. Most of the “bad for heart health” stuff you hear about red meat refers to the feedlot beef.
Remember, if you are tracking your macronutrients on a zone or similar diet, your fish oil supplement needs to be included in your daily fat intake.
One more note about Omega 3’s: if you are expecting any type of surgery, stop taking the fish oils at least two weeks prior. Omega 3’s make your cell walls (including blood cells) more pliable. This has the same effect as a blood thinner. Your individual blood cells will be able to bend and sneak around blockages (think scabs and wounds) easier, so you want to cut back on these pre-surgery. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
And, finally, nutrition. I break nutrition into two very distinct categories. You can eat for elite athletic performance or eat for general health and well-being.
Nutrition is definitely the hardest component of elite athletic performance. What you eat is one of the two factors that separates average and good athletes from great and elite athletes. But, eating for performance requires meticulous tracking and logging of your food intake. You need to weigh and measure everything. This can be difficult on a busy schedule. I do recommend that everyone weigh and measure for at least a month, even if they do not plan on sticking with it long-term. Eat to perform is a great resource for dealing with this kind of nutrition.
Eating for well-being is somewhat simpler. It still helps to track your intake of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, but it is not always necessary. Eat meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Eat real foods; something that has a face (beef, chicken, fish) or that is or used to be green. Shop the outside of your grocery store; stuff packaged in the aisles is almost always processed and bad for you. If your food has a nutrition label, it is not real food. Broccoli and steak does not come with nutrition labels. Prioritize meats and healthy fats (avocado, grass fed butter, coconut oil, nuts, seeds) over carbohydrates. Good fats are extremely healthy for you. I can get you on our meal plan if you like; you will have access to weekly recipes and shopping lists.
Carbohydrates are not an essential macronutrient, even though some will tell you that you “need” carbs. Your body can synthesize carbohydrates from fat and protein, but your body cannot synthesize fat or protein. That being said, carbohydrates are essential for top athletic performance. Try to get 30-40 grams of protein with each meal. It’s hard, I know.
Why the big emphasis on protein? It is the only macronutrient that we can consistently predict results from. Everybody is different, and fat and carb metabolism vary drastically from one person to the next (why tracking is so important to determine your individual body’s needs). Protein is consistent. Protein increases your metabolism. It also helps build more muscle, which in turn burns fat while you rest. Remember that most fat burn occurs while you are resting (your resting metabolic rate accounts for 50-80% of your daily caloric needs).
Did it look like I forgot to talk about calories in this nutrition part? I didn’t. Most people need to eat more, not less. Living in a caloric deficit is neither healthy nor sustainable. You do not want to starve your body. Doing so will decrease your metabolism and increase fat storage. Our bodies are designed to go into survival mode when caloric intake decreases. Historically, this was necessary to survive long winters with no food. We do not have to worry about that in the modern era, so do not starve your body. It will not make you happy. It is too hard to stick to. Eat to Perform and Science Driven Nutrition recommend a wave method whereby you have extended periods of eating sufficient amounts of food combined with short, intermittent periods of decreasing calories. The calorie deficit phase is designed to burn fat stores and then ends before your body completely reverts to starvation mode. Much like a periodized strength program, the wave method is designed to control the yo-yo diet in a way that achieves long-term results. I am an Eat to Perform (ETP) coach, and I have noticed that many people see such benefits during the performance modes (eating more calories), that they do not want to decrease calories.
I hope this helps. If you have any questions, please let me know.