Eat Your Damn Veggies (II)

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.


10 responses to “Eat Your Damn Veggies (II)

  1. Another important rule of thumb: if you need a degree in chemistry to decipher the ingredient label, don’t eat it. There’s a good chance that all those lovely glycols or hydrogenated oils are part petroleum.

  2. Excellent follow-up Gill. Thanks for adding quite a bit more depth to this topic. Food is something I think about more and more, particularly in its relationship to health and training. I’ve tried to avoid a food rant for a while, but it seems the floodgates are now open…
    We’ve gotten to a point where there are some very destructive ideas about food established firmly in the US culture. Here’s how the small farmer/home grower in me sees some of the problems that contribute:

    We’re too used to food as a disposable commodity. Whereas a healthy human lifestyle consisted for millennia of munching on handfuls of varied foods throughout the day, with a couple of larger meals in between, lifestyle and advertising have convinced us that food is something to cram in between the board meeting, school, soccer practice and piano lessons- an inconvenient necessity to be dealt 3 times a day with as few steps as possible that must also be aesthetically pleasing- but not necessarily nutritionally valuable. It was pointed out to me by an older farmer friend that Americans are often proud about having the best food supply in the world. Compare our obesity rates etc. to other countries where people are on the average healthier, and a default reply is “yeah, but our food is cheaper and always available.” Those two concerns override the notion that food is supposed to be nourishing, not just edible. It’s no coincidence that commercials for frozen foods show scenes of the product coming out the microwave piping hot and ready to eat by grateful customers; the underlying message this sells is that if you can’t have it in under 2 minutes, you’re wasting time! And think about the McDonald’s-type $1 menu promotions; this isn’t just food, it’s really cheap food! You get more for less money, and it gets handed to you right through a window so you never have to leave your car! Never mind that the “beef” patty contains traces of fecal matter and meat from as many as 1000 different animals from lord knows what growing and slaughter conditions, or that the French Fries contain more preservatives than Joan Rivers’ lips. It’s quicker to eat this way than stopping to make something or to consider what you might need to eat vs. want to eat. Hence, college students come to a vigorous karate class having eaten a few handfuls of Reese’s Cup cereal and a RedBull as their only meal.

    Another problem is that food is seen as an obstacle (I don’t have time to cook/I could never cook anything as good as something packaged from the store) and a problem (it’s these carbs that make me fat). The vapid diet trends out there don’t have a whole lot to do with nutrition; they tend to be marketed as means to an unrealistic end. How many times have we heard this one: “I ate whatever I wanted for 8 weeks and I lost 40 pounds!” What doesn’t get shown is “And after two weeks I put all that weight right back on with some reinforcements, because the diet did not address underlying nutritional problems and only reinforced the eating habits that made me fat/unhealthy.” But diet plans and pills continue to sell like mad. The sensible answers, such as pay attention to what you eat and pay attention to your body are met with skepticism and alarm- “that’s a bunch of new age crap”, “but I don’t have that kind of time,” or “but I already know what I like to eat, why change now? This new diet says…” Shut up and eat your damn veggies.

    The other assumption is that if it’s on the market, it’s safe AND healthy. I grit my teeth when someone responds with “The Government test this stuff. Do you really think it’d be on the market if it wasn’t safe/healthy?” My answer: YES. Just look at the food contamination problems of recent years caused by factory farming, mass production or additives to stretch things like milk further. Look at the ingredients label on anything that purports to be natural or made with fruit juice, etc, and chemistry set components are the first few ingredients listed. For example, there is absolutely no data on what consuming genetically modified foods will do to the human body over a period of decades. But chances are, the corn chips on the shelf contain gov’t subsidized GMO corn. It solves a short term problem; nevermind the potential for long term disasters. Even organic has become another consumer label; many “organic” packaged products contain only a small percentage of organically grown ingredients, the rest being from factory-farmed chemical agriculture. Synthesized versions of naturally occurring nutrients are often legally counted as organic. But again, an advertising buzzword has taken over, and the once healthy alternative is co-opted into more of the same.

    I got a direct look at this last summer, when the farm I work with (Malu Aina Farm) experimented with a CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture). In a CSA model, customers sign on to buy a share of local seasonal crops directly from the farm, and in some cases contribute to the work on the farm. A surprising number of people who are very interested in organic this/natural that/lower my carbon footprint etc. got downright obnoxious about some of the foods they were receiving from us- simply because they were new to them. Leafy greens are one of the earliest crops that can be harvested in early spring-summer. Not iceberg lettuce, we’re talking gourmet here: two varieties of arugula, two or three types of spinach, Siberian kale, Dinosaur kale, Swiss chard, Rainbow chard, beet greens, mustard greens; a half dozen varieties of Cos, Bibb, Simpson, Romaine and Buttercrunch lettuces that you almost never see in supermarkets- and that are all absolutely packed with vital nutrients and minerals. After three weeks of receiving this mixture, one customer commented “I’m just not sure if it’s worth my $12 a week to get another bag of lettuce that will rot in my fridge.” Apparently most of it rotted in the fridge because preparing something unfamiliar presented too much of a challenge (This is where the phrase “Eat your damn veggies” was inspired; regrettably, the head honcho wasn’t so keen on printing it on our T-shirts). This blew my mind. Each week, we were sending out 2-10 pounds of organic local produce, grown in the dirt we walk on, most of it heirloom varietals, and very expensive to buy as an organic product in grocery stores. We included suggested recipes and preparation tips, yet some quickly asked us to omit certain items, which during some parts of the season were the main crop. So they got less and less food and eventually decided that buying veggies at the grocery store made more sense- never mind that it cost more, was not organic/sustainably grown and was being shipped from Argentina or California, giving it a much lower nutrient content (shipping is hell on produce). The “obstacle/commodity” factor won out. I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture here; most of the folks in the CSA were overjoyed and appreciative, and took every opportunity to tell us so. And if people don’t like an unfamiliar food it’s not my business to judge that decision; but it makes me sad to know that an appreciation for where the food comes from and what it can do for your body is being lost because of an extra ten minutes of time in the kitchen. Which generated the other slogan among the farm-rats: A man’s place is in the kitchen.

    Train hard, eat plenty- and eat well.

  3. Re places in the kitchen: It’s woman’s place too, but not in any prescribed gender-bound way 🙂

  4. Nice to see you on the blog, Joe! (For those readers who don’t know already, Joe, when he’s not being a chemical engineer out in California, is TKRI’s honorary chef (in absentia, unfortunately.) I’ll never forget the time he took over the food when we were camping out at Cuivre River. Despite the fact that all cooking had to happen over a campfire, there was oatmeal in the mornings, there were pancakes, there was a three course meal with both vegetarian and meat options…and it involved marinading. See him in action here: So there are young people who turn up to class having only eaten gummi bears all day – and then there is Joe Swisher, and I assume everyone else falls into the continuum between.

    Personally I can’t grow a spider plant, and I really admire Randy for being able to grow all those amazing delicious vegetables. And when I was little I was rather shocked to learn that TOAST can take as long as THREE MINUTES to make. “Three minutes!” I thought, aged about 4: “That’s longer than it takes to eat it! How could that be worth it?” So I was a prime candidate for the gummi bear strategy. But actually, these days I eat really well, and I think it is possible to do it even if you don’t really have a lot of time for food, and one of the simplest and best possible ways to start is this: next time you’re in the supermarket, pick up a box of quick oatmeal (porridge) and some kind of fruit that has vitamin C in it (strawberries are good, but if they’re not in season, frozen blueberries or dried cranberries) will do. Then just resolve to eat oatmeal with the fruit every morning for a week. Traditional oatmeal is slightly better for you, but quick oatmeal is already fantastic for you, and can be made in 2 minutes in the microwave, in the bowl you eat it from, so it doesn’t generate much washing up. If you leave the house anything like the way I do on mornings when I’m lecturing, you can stick the oatmeal in the microwave, hit the start switch, jump in the shower, and it’s ready for you (and cool enough to eat) by the time you’re dressed. But despite all this ease, it’s nutritional gold-dust, packed with protein, complex carbs and all kinds of cool micro-nutrients that lower your risk of heart disease, high colesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes et al. Oh, and kids who eat breakfast do better in school, and on average, people who eat breakfast weigh less, live longer and are 6% more charming. See this page for a rather enthusiastic endorsement of oatmeal’s virtues, and list of suggestions for when you get a bit bored of it and want to change it up:

    And maybe this too:

  5. Ah, gummy bears- an integral part of the Hedwig Diet plan.

  6. Adam is not Mr. Karate :)

    Here are some articles detailing the Gracie Diet- I don’t know a whole lot about nutrition, but maybe you guys can tell me if the Gracie Diet is a bunch of bull or not. (I never had nutrition problems, but I am curious to see if the Gracies are blowing smoke in this regard)

    You guys seem to know more about nutrition than I do

  7. Thanks for these links, Adam.

    It looks like especial highlights of the Gracie Diet include:

    * Don’t combine Flower of Mandioc with chestnuts
    * Eat at intervals of AT LEAST 5 hours (i.e. a long time between meals and no snacking)

    So blog-readers probably don’t need me to tell them that the details look completely insane. However, the basic ingredients on which this diet is built – lots of different wholegrains, a variety of fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, dairy and fish – put the average American diet to shame. There isn’t a packet of coco-pops or diet coke on the list. I’m not surprised the Gracie family thrived on this diet; if you ate foods sourced entirely from this list (so no counting French fries as “potatoes” or walnut muffins as “nuts and wheat,”) and ignored the injunctions about combining and the entreaty to go 5 hours between meals, you’d be doing just fine.

    And for an athlete it isn’t really about having nutritional problems, but how to use food to our best possible advantage. I don’t want to just be problem-free, but actually to thrive.

  8. Adam is not Mr. Karate :)

    I guess it does some good- the Gracies were and somewhat are at the top of their game (until Sakuraba and Eddie Bravo came along lol)

    and Helio Gracie ( and ) and Carlos Gracie who created it lived until he was 92.

    Helio is still training and teaching at 95 ( so I guess his diet works- I don’t understand why the details are the way they are- who knows

  9. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    In the military people reduced weight and became more trim in Basic just by eating a balanced breakfast, no candy, nothing extraneous (we ate in a dining hall most of the time, in the field it was another story).

    People lost 10-20 or more pounds in 8 weeks (some people gained weight- but it was muscle)

    No Atkins diet here.

    Also, correction about Carlos Gracie- he lived until he was 92, Helio Gracie is 95 now and still teaching and training in his art.

    Here is Carlos in his 50s (

    at 8:37 minutes is Helio Gracie demonstrating how to make some delicacies

    (If only the older folks at the gym I go to would be this way- America would have no obesity problem)

  10. Pingback: Eat you damn veggies (3) « TKRIblog

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