I just wanted to endorse Randy’s very sensible post on food below and throw in an extra thought. (Bear with me; the punchline is: maybe you should be eating more.)

These days, having a somewhat strained relationship with your diet is pretty much the norm. We live in a nutritional environment that is very different from the one in which our species evolved (there are a lot more available calories) and most people over thirty are either in deep denial about this or running round like a headless chicken pursuing one daft solution after another. The under thirty-year-olds may be, as Randy notes, continuing to live off corn-syrup and lard, but at that age it is easy to discount future goods (like health when you are 60) and the present not-so-goods may be easily explained away (I’m just tired from the weekend) or only be making themselves felt on the odd occasion you have to run anywhere.

We all know that if you want to maintain fitness in such an environment, your brain – as opposed to just your hormones – has to exercise a certain amount of control over what you eat. I am NOT talking about will-power here; people who can’t resist the cookie right in front of them don’t have bad brains, they just really like cookies and/or are really hungry. What I mean is more this: if you KNOW that you really like Oreos, you have to learn to plan ahead so that you’re not sitting next to one when you’re really hungry. Sensible eating in the modern world requires boring, non-dramatic virtues like thought, forward planning, and the ability to diagnose problems. You have to engineer your own immediate nutritional environment so that less will-power is required, whether that means staying out of the center of the supermarket/grocery store (where all the cookies and chips and sugar live) or making sure you eat your oatmeal in the morning so that your body doesn’t start cannibalising your muscles and demanding huge sugary lattes by 10am.

But as the above suggests, people’s responses to this problem differ. It’s easy to think that the main worry is people exercising too little restraint – mainlining chips in front of the TV – but many people actually exercise too much restraint – going without breakfast, going on 1000 calorie per day diets, wiping some necessary food group (carbs, fat) entirely out of their diets, falling for the latest “breakthrough” diet etc. And often they take their failure to achieve satisfying results as a sign that they STILL aren’t exercising enough restraint. Many of us flit between the two strategies: 6 weeks of an Atkins diet that is too strict in the morning and too lax at night, followed by a big project at work which causes us to live off coffee, beer and exactly 1 1/2 donuts per day for a week.

The effect of taking either strategy to the extreme is death, either the common or garden way, through high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke in one’s mid-forties, or more dramatically and quickly through anorexia. (Since anorexia is one of the “female athlete triad” along with amenorrhea, and osteoporosis, and since karateka are most assuredly athletes, this is something to watch for.) At a very general level, the same issue arises with exercise: undertrain and you won’t be any good at running, lifting, jumping etc. because your body will have too much fat and too little muscle. Train too much and you won’t be any good at running, lifting, jumping etc. because you never recover, don’t build any muscle, and are awash with chronic injuries. Athletes who feel like they are getting worse may well conclude that that is because they are not training enough, when in fact the reverse is true: in order to get better, they need to exercise less. Which is to say that anorexia is like chronic overtraining for your diet, except that it comes with a nice fat entry in the DSM-IV and a more impressive mortality rate.

Government guidelines on diet – such as the FDA’s food pyramid in the US, or the eatwell plate in the UK – tend to be very general and to have been written by governments whose attention was drawn to a problem because doctors had to deal with people who were actually made sick by their diets. That is, such guides are written for couch-potatoes to stop them from getting diabetes, not for athletes who are looking for optimum performance. (Imagine the consequences of putting the average 23-year-old on Michael Phelps’ 12000 calorie-a-day diet and it becomes obvious why this is so.) But if you want to be more than a couch potato, it is not enough to simply conform to the guidelines that were written for CPs. The same goes for exercise. There can be no doubt that Phelps is not sticking to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ suggestion of 2hrs and 30 minutes moderate (e.g. “gardening”) OR 1 hr 15 minutes of vigourous (they give karate as an example) aerobic exercise per week, plus 2 sessions of strength training. And I kid you not, weightlifters: “Exercises for each muscle group should be repeated 8 to 12 times per session.” So no low-rep strength-training, then.

Where I’m going with this is that many people think that if their diet and exercise program is not giving them the performance results they want, that’s because they’re exercising insufficient will-power: they think they should try to eat less, and exercise more. Well, the average CP certainly should eat less and exercise more (I won’t presume to comment on his or her will-power, who knows what other honourable things that gets used for.) But karateka, being athletes, may not be in that situation and they may find that their performance increases if they ditch one of their weekly long slow distance runs for a 15 minute sprint training workout and up their intake of high quality fat and carbs (Quality? i.e. Eat this: flax seed oil and wholegrains, Not this: french fries and candy corn.)

The devil is, as always, in the details, so here are some hat-tips to people who write about diet for athletes – people who have no commercial interest in your believing them (since the fitness industry is basically packed with frauds, I think this lack of ulterior motive is important) – and whose message is certainly not the simple: eat less, fatty! The first quote is on the long side, but I like it too much to leave it out.

“And muscle magazines are at least partly to blame for an epidemic of SB [Silly Bullshit] concerning teenage boys and young men. A recent trend has developed amongst these little snots that makes it very difficult to put any muscular bodyweight on them: they all seem to think they have to have visible abs, even if it means staying at a bodyweight of 135lbs. They all want a “six-pack” despite the fact they don’t have an ice chest to put it in. They won’t eat breakfast, they eat some type of fast food goo for lunch, and if they eat supper it’s because Mom made them. This is intentional, and is their version of “dieting” to keep that trim, fit look.

Now don’t misunderstand my concern here: I know that we live in a society largely dominated by fat slobs. Maybe not where you live, but where I live this is true, and I suspect that the vast majority of the United States suffers this unintended result of our economic prosperity. So any drift in the opposite direction is fine, right? Look, when high school and college-age kids come to me and ask how to put on muscle and I take the time to tell them and then they won’t do it because they’re afraid they’ll lose their Washboard Abs, it pisses me off to waste my time with people who ask and then won’t listen to what I know will work for what they claim to be trying to do, and, well, it just gets aggravating, you know? And it’s all because they actually think that 1) if they have abs they’ll look like Ronnie Coleman and me, 2) chicks really dig a six-pack, and 3) what does Rip know anyway?

Well, Rip knows that a 135lb 5’9″ 18-year-old kid doesn’t look like either Ronnie Coleman or Rip, even if he has a twelve-pack, and that if he seriously wants to head in that direction the first thing to do is to gain about 60 pounds. Ole Rip also knows that women don’t really care about abs – they care about Other Things [like Thought, Forward Planning and The Ability To Diagnose Problems – ed.]. And after all, you asked Rip, he didn’t ask you, So put down your copy of Muscle and Fiction, do your squats, drink your milk, and pay better attention to the answers when you ask the questions.” (Mark Rippetoe, Strong Enough?, p. 147-8)

Ah yes, Muscle and Fiction. I believe that same publishing house also puts out the very eminent Fighting and Fiction, full of exciting tales of how to develop your ninja death touch by repeatedly performing the same movement in the air, meditation and catching swords with the palms of your hands … fine publication. But moving on to the more mundane …

“In plain language, base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar. That’s about as simple as we can get. Many have observed that keeping your grocery cart to the perimeter of the grocery store while avoiding the aisles is a great way to protect your health. Food is perishable. The stuff with long shelf life is all suspect. If you follow these simple guidelines you will benefit from nearly all that can be achieved through nutrition.” (from the Crossfit website.)

And finally the always excellent Krista Scott-Dixon:

“When I discovered weight training, I discovered that bodybuilders ate strangely. They ate lots of lean protein, avoided simple sugar and starch carbs like white bread, pasta, and white rice, and (gasp!) deliberately ate fat! I thought they were all insane. I began training, but kept eating my fat-free, high-carb diet. I was doing OK in the gym thanks to beginner gains, but I sure wasn’t losing any fat. I started to think I was destined to be heavy. Most of the women in my family are “pleasingly plump”. I figured it was genetics. I figured I was a lost cause. I got pretty depressed about the prospect. Then my training guru told me I wasn’t eating enough protein, and suggested supplementing with flax seed oil. I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Eat fat on purpose?! But, after a few weeks of him nagging me to do it, I gave in and bought my first bottle of flax seed oil. (by the way, you can read more about why you shouldn’t drop your fat intake when dieting, and about flax seed oil here). And I started cutting back on plain pasta in favour of lean protein. With almost no other effort on my part besides regular visits to the gym, the fat began dropping off.

So, what was the reason for this transformation? Why is a diet low in carbs conducive to losing fat? Let’s start with an explanation of why simple carbs (sugars and starches) have more of a role to play in fat deposition than dietary fat…” (The Carb Myth I)

I encourage you to wander over to Dr Scott-Dixon’s site for a large number of very readable articles on food and fitness in the 21st century.

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