Hierarchy of Nutrition: Prioritize What Matters

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Why Diets Fail

Bodybuilding has traditionally been a sport of extremes. While having a “hardcore” mentality may have merit in certain instances, it tends to backfire when it comes nutrition. Sadly, the majority of gym goers, especially beginners, presume ‘traditional’ bodybuilding diets that they read about in Men’s/Women’s Fitness magazines are best. In truth, those cookie-cutter diet plans are far from ideal, let alone are they healthy in the long run.

More often than not, individuals who stick rigidly to ‘clean’ diets dread their food options; thus, they eventually lose all willpower and end up ‘cheating’ on their diet. Herein lies the major benefit of ‘Flexible Dieting’ (also called ‘if it fits your macros/IIFYM’). Flexible dieting, in a nutshell, enables you be a little more lax in terms of food choices while simultaneously propelling you towards your fitness goals.

How can this be, you ask? Well, in short, it works based on principles of nutritional science. Research demonstrates that gym goers who try and follow a strict, ‘clean’ diet are significantly less likely to stick with it compared to those who follow a ‘flexible’ eating plan.[1]

Not only that, flexible eating plans tend to result in more fat loss in the long-term, which should be the goal for most anyone. There really is no secret or trickery involved in coming up with a proper diet plan and sticking to it. In fact, there’s a lot less to a healthy diet than you may think.

So to elucidate why a flexible eating regimen tends to work, this article will dive into the hierarchy of nutrition, as well as the science that supports it. You will lean to prioritize the facets of your diet that matter, and worry a little less about the small stuff that really doesn’t account for much in the grand scheme of things.

Nutritional Hierarchy

The sections below are listed in descending order of importance (e.g. the first section is most important).

Calories/Energy Balance

As nutritional research has progress over the past few decades, one thing that has become quite clear is that energy balance is the major determining factor in whether or not an individual will gain or lose weight.[2] This is why energy balance is the foundation of a proper nutritional plan, and should be the very first priority when tracking your food intake.

Macronutrients

While calories are indeed the MAJOR determining factor in whether an individual will lose or gain weight, they’re not the only determinant. The main reason is that eating has hormonal effects on the body, and hormones are ultimately what dictate what the body does with the nutrients you eat.

For example, if you were to put two individuals on isocaloric diets, and have one eat a balanced diet composed of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat, they would most definitely see better improvements in body composition than someone who ate all of their calories from carbs and fats. This is just illustrating the point that macronutrient intake balance is still very important when it comes to optimizing fat loss and muscle building.

Dietary proteins, and branched-chain amino acids in particular, are crucial for facilitating muscle protein synthesis – the process by which muscle tissue is created from amino acids.[3] Anyone looking to build an appreciable amount of muscle should have a diet built around BCAA-rich protein sources, such as lean animal meats, dairy, and eggs.

Micronutrients

Arguably the most overlooked aspect of many diet plans is micronutrition (more on these nutrients can be found in the Micronutrition subsection). It’s safe to say that forgetting to ingest proper amounts of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols is certainly not conducive to optimal health, longevity, and physical performance. That being said, micronutrition doesn’t necessarily have to be diligently tracked like many people track their macronutrient and calorie intake (more on this later).

Meal Timing/Frequency

Coming in at fourth place is meal timing. As we will discuss later in this guide, research contends that meal timing and frequency is a much less important variable than many health/fitness gurus claim it to be.[4] It’s not completely irrelevant, but it’s certainly not a big factor in the grand scheme of things.

Supplements

The last component to monitor in your diet is supplements. Supplements are a billion-dollar industry, and the sad thing is most of them do next to nothing but rob you of your hard-earned money. Growing tired of the status quo, MPA Supplements is changing the industry for the better with science-backed, pharmaceutical-grade products.

Nevertheless, if you don’t have a sound diet plan and training regimen in place, there is no amount of supplements that will help you progress. However, supplements can be useful in certain cases to supplement a solid diet and training routine.

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Alcohol

Alcohol is indeed a macronutrient, albeit one that doesn’t serve much nutritive value in humans. Nevertheless, alcoholic beverages are the predominant drinks of choice at social gatherings and many people consume a few (dozen) beers on a daily basis.

Research has shown that even acute alcohol intake can drastically decrease muscle protein synthesis and lower testosterone production. [5] Limiting, or ideally abstaining from, alcohol intake is quite imperative if your intention is to reduce your body fat and build muscle.

In reality, a beer or two every week or so won’t kill your progress, but don’t do it daily (and certainly avoid getting intoxicated). Sadly, many people will read that as a challenge to, “Drink as much beer as you can while still getting shredded!”

Water

Water is the most crucial (and abundant) liquid on Earth. Every cell in the human body requires water to carry out chemical reactions (which is quite mind blowing considering how many cells we have).  Water is involved in most every physiological process. Thankfully, water doesn’t contain energy and is quite refreshing for active individuals; it is advised to drink at least one ounce of water per every kilogram you weigh.

Micronutrition

Micronutrients are the components of an organism’s diet that are required in relatively small amounts (thus the prefix “micro” is used) for healthy development, growth and maintenance. For humans there are 100s of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and other compounds that are essential for proper health. Read on to learn more about how to make sure you’re meeting your micronutrient needs.

Importance of Vitamins, Minerals, Electrolytes, Polyphenols, etc.

Meta-analyses have examined the link between micronutrient-rich food sources and mortality rates; literature continually shows that those who consume around 4-5 servings of fruit and/or vegetables per day are at a lower risk for a plethora of diseases and other health maladies, not to mention they tend to live longer. [6,7]

Many micronutrients act as antioxidants and reduce oxidative stress in the body. Antioxidants are crucial in many organisms since oxidation pathways in the mitochondrial matrix of cells are constantly producing free radicals. However, certain antioxidants, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can actually exhibit pro-oxidant activity when necessary (thus they are conditional pro-oxidants).

In a nutshell, pro-oxidants are the inverse of antioxidants and actually induce oxidative stress by producing reactive oxygen species, and thus free radicals. This is just a case in point that the difference between a medicine and a poison is in the dose (heck, even water can be lethal in exorbitant amounts).

That being said, for active individuals, it’s prudent to aim for a minimum of 4 servings of fruit and/or vegetables per day (ideally, just have a fruit/vegetable with every meal), and if you want more - within reason - then have at it. And no, taking a multivitamin is not the same thing as ingesting micronutrients from whole food sources.

Drawback of Flexible Dieting

It’s important to note that a healthful diet that enhances physical performance must be avoiding the extremes of being nutrient deficient or overconsuming; your diet should also help you consistently meet your calorie needs. Whatever foods you choose to eat to satisfy this is not the be-all-end-all, and this is the basis of flexible dieting.

Unfortunately, a major problem with flexible dieting seems is that many people disregard things like sugar consumption essential fatty acids, and vitamin/mineral intake. Sadly, many flexible dieting advocates view it as some sort of “challenge” to eat as much nutrient-devoid food as possible while meeting their macronutrient needs.

Unless you’re a genetic rarity, excessive amounts of simple sugars and minimal micronutrient intake will not be conducive to your health and fitness goals.

Meal Timing/Frequency

Does Eating More Frequently Increase Metabolic Rate?

There has been a longstanding postulation in the health/fitness world that eating smaller, more frequent meals increases metabolic rate, but no research indicates it to be true. In fact, studies suggest that the thermic effect of food (TEF) is dependent on total calorie/macronutrient intake, not the frequency/timing of feedings. [8,9]

For example, let’s say that hypothetically the thermic effect of consuming an entire pepperoni pizza is 500 calories. Thus, if you were to slice the pizza into five equal portions, then each slice would yield a TEF of 100 calories. If you sliced the pizza in half, then each slice would yield a TEF of 250 calories. No matter how you “mix and match” the proportions (read: space out your meals), you still end up with the same total TEF at the end of the day.

Nevertheless, having at least three meals per day is advised for protein synthesis purposes (more on this in the section below), and if you want to eat six or seven times a day that can be just fine too. Again, avoid the extremes (e.g. one meal a day).

Protein Frequency

Based on extrapolations from research, it appears that 20-30+ grams of leucine-rich protein sources - such as most animal proteins and milk proteins - will maximize the MPS response to feeding for a solid 3-4 hours post-meal (and may be longer with larger, mixed meals). [10] Basically, eating protein any more frequently than every 2-3 hours won’t confer added benefits than eating every 4-5 hours (or even longer).

Again, this is just a starting point (read: baseline) for active individuals but is by no means a strict rule since individual variances will occur due to factors like body mass, age, genetics, disease/immune complications, performance-enhancing drugs, etc.

Take-Home Points

Obviously this guide is a lot to ingest, especially if most of this information is new to you. The main things to take home:

  • A successful diet is one that you can stick to in the long run
  • Energy balance is the top priority
  • Macronutrients should be tracked rather diligently, but calorie intake is key
  • Aim for 4-5 servings of fruits/vegetables per day to meet your micronutrient needs
  • Supplements are meant to supplement a healthy diet
  • Ideally, ingest 20 to 30+ grams of leucine-rich protein with each meal

References:

  1. Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite32(3), 295-305.
  2. Hill, J. O., Wyatt, H. R., & Peters, J. C. (2012). Energy balance and obesity. Circulation126(1), 126-132.
  3. Koopman, R., Verdijk, L., Manders, R. J., Gijsen, A. P., Gorselink, M., Pijpers, E., ... & van Loon, L. J. (2006). Co-ingestion of protein and leucine stimulates muscle protein synthesis rates to the same extent in young and elderly lean men. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 84(3), 623-632.
  4. Stote, K. S., Baer, D. J., Spears, K., Paul, D. R., Harris, G. K., Rumpler, W. V., ... & Longo, D. L. (2007). A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition85(4), 981-988.
  5. Lang, C. H., Wu, D., Frost, R. A., Jefferson, L. S., Kimball, S. R., & Vary, T. C. (1999). Inhibition of muscle protein synthesis by alcohol is associated with modulation of eIF2B and eIF4E. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 277(2), E268-E276.
  6. Bellavia, A., Larsson, S. C., Bottai, M., Wolk, A., & Orsini, N. (2013). Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause mortality: a dose-response analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 98(2), 454-459.
  7. Dauchet, L., Amouyel, P., Hercberg, S., & Dallongeville, J. (2006). Fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. The Journal of nutrition, 136(10), 2588-2593.
  8. Tai, M. M., Castillo, P., & Pi-Sunyer, F. X. (1991). Meal size and frequency: effect on the thermic effect of food. The American journal of clinical nutrition,54(5), 783-787.
  9. Bellisle, F., McDevitt, R., & Prentice, A. M. (1997). Meal frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition, 77(S1), S57-S70.
  10. Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M. P., Maubois, J. L., & Beaufrère, B. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 94(26), 14930-14935.

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