Interview Conducted by Bob Kupniewski
Editor’s Video Note
Alan, first and foremost could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you do, and your credentials?
You wrote an article regarding protein per meal, could you give the specifics on the research?
Wow, it seems like forever ago that I wrote that article (here). The general thrust is that people mistakenly think that there’s a strict limit to how much protein you can have per meal without anything beyond it being wasted. That’s wrong because the body is really good at utilizing nearly all the protein you throw at it, regardless of dose. The rate of entry and progression through the digestive tract is a tightly regulated process. A small amount of protein will take a few hours to be processed, while a Thanksgiving-sized portion of protein can take all day. Either way, it gets absorbed & put to use according to the homeostatic demands of the body at the time. It’s not like any amount beyond, say, 30 grams magically leaks out of your sweet arse. Those who are a touch more sophisticated will point to research showing that acute (short-term) muscle protein synthesis (MPS) plateaus at a dose of about 25-30 grams – although a recent study showed that it was closer to 40 grams in older subjects. So, the hypothesis is that more of these acute spikes in MPS through the day will translate to more muscle growth in the long-term. Well, it hasn’t worked that way with the majority of long-term studies. There are still more questions than answers in this area, like many areas of nutrition for sports & fitness.
With the current dogma that low fat is necessary post-workout what did you find in your AARR Research?
The idea that fat needs to be kept low to zip in the postexercise meal stems from a fear of slowing down the process of glycogen resynthesis, which is only a potential concern for a narrow population of endurance athletes with multiple glycogen-depleting events in a single day. This is pretty much a non-issue with people who train a given muscle group and allow at least a day to recover before training it again. People will sometimes worry that fat in the postexercise meal will slow down the anabolic effect of a fast-absorbed protein for recovery. This is yet another unfounded concern that only serves to micormanage people out of their fricking minds. Lore like this is so abundant, yet so lacking in scientific support.
Do you believe in Intermittent Fasting and other non-generic meal patterns? Do you have to eat a certain amount of times per day to eat and why? It seems Meal Frequency is thrown around as Layne Norton has a 4-5 meal approach with BCAA’s in between, and some individuals who follow Intermittent Fasting thrive off 2-3 meals. What do you believe is optimal?
The big question is, optimal for whom? Layne’s protocol’s theoretical basis is sound, at least on paper. It aims to strike a balance between avoiding the refractory nature of MPS under conditions of constantly elevated circulating amino acids, while still maximizing the number of nutrient-mediated anabolic ‘spikes’ through the day. This protocol might be appropriate for someone trying to pull the final strings to edge out the competition on a bodybuilding stage. However, I’m skeptical that this strategy would benefit those already consuming a high protein intake (which is already rich in BCAAs). For most non-competitors, I don’t see the realistic long-term sustainability of this routine.
As for the other end of the spectrum (2-3 meals per day), this is obviously more realistic for regular people. This works out well, since the importance of muscle retention during dieting varies according to the population. The more overfat & deconditioned someone is, the greater the proportional & net loss of fat vs. muscle is when dieting. Further along the progression, the leaner & more conditioned someone is, the more muscle they stand to lose as they continue to diet. So, can low meal frequency work for competitors? Yes, it can. Is it optimal? Well, that’s a question that so far doesn’t have a definitive, science-based answer, and it might never have one. For advanced athletes in a dieting situation, the objective is to retain as much muscle as possible while losing fat, since muscle loss at this point is a more urgent threat than it is for guys coming straight off the couch. Nitpicking for advanced athletes, I‘d speculate that anything below 3 meals (technically, 3 protein feedings) per day is not optimal, regardless of program phase.
What are your generic guidelines of Pre/Post workout nutrition?
This varies with the sport and the goal, but for general fitness goals (which include muscle gain or retention), I default to my classic recommendation of about a quarter of a gram of protein per pound of lean mass, ingested within 1-2 hours of both sides of the training bout. This would maximize net muscle protein balance (synthesis minus breakdown) in the short-term. Of secondary importance would be carbohydrate timing, unless we’re talking specifically about endurance sports. Adding an equal amount of carbs to these protein dosings would further exploit the hypothetical benefits for maximizing training performance and recovery. Admittedly, the scientific basis for this is less solidly grounded than the protein recommendations. The rest of the desired results would be taken care of by the remainder of the diet. This brings me to the most important point, which is that nutrient timing is far less important than hitting the targeted macronutrient totals for the day. I would go as far as to say that attempting to precisely time nutrients is largely an exercise in jerking off hypotheses compared to hitting daily totals.
What is your stance when in a caloric surplus what do you believe in should be the minimums you should meet regarding protein, carbohydrates, and fats and why? Does any macronutrient trump others as far as protein sparing?
This is an interesting question, and I hope I can answer what you’re actually trying to ask. I typically set protein higher than it needs to be in order to have a safety reserve/buffer for anabolism, if indeed that’s the primary goal. So, when imposing a caloric surplus, the bulk of it will come from carbohydrate, with the minority coming from protein. Fat increases are incidental for the most part. Here’s a recent quote of mine circulating the forums (I took the liberty to edit & clean it up):
“Technically, once protein & fat needs are met, the surplus should be predominantly from carbohydrate. This will help support progressive increases in work output (total tonnage moved, etc), in addition to maxing out the anabolic signaling that occurs through fuller glycogen stores. A surplus coming from 100% protein would be very inefficient for the objective at hand, and a surplus from 100% fat would stand a greater chance of it getting stored in the adipose (not to mention only minimally contribute to net muscle protein balance). With all that theoretical stuff out of the way, I don’t think that in practice you have to draw really hard lines on the exact breakdown of the surplus, and I personally haven’t seen any unfavorable effects from an isocaloric combo of the macros comprising the surplus.”
Alan, what is your general philosophy on food sources regardless if the individuals is in a caloric surplus or deficit, the phrase “Clean Eating” is thrown around a lot. Could you shed some light on research or any information regarding utilizing different sources that may be considered bad and the impact it may/may not have on body composition?
You know that the cleanest food in the world is? Hydrogenated vegetable oil. It was originally developed for the purpose of making soap. Pretty damn clean, I’d say. On a more serious note, the “clean” label is very misleading when applied to individual foods. There’s no way a food can be judged in isolation from the rest of the diet. To give an example, most people would call celery a “clean” or healthy food, and ice cream a “dirty” or unhealthy food. In the far-fetched/hypothetical scenario of being forced to choose only one of those foods to survive on, guess which one would sustain your health (and ultimately your life) longer? Hopefully you chose ice cream over celery, unless you’re anxious to knock on Heaven’s door. The point is, labeling foods as clean or dirty ignores context, and ignoring context is just plain dumb. I think that it’s intuitively obvious that the diet should consist mostly of whole & minimally refined foods. But still, it’s not all that simple, since certain foods are significantly altered from their original state (i.e., whey protein powder), but still have positive impacts on health. I wrote an in-depth article on the “clean eating” topic here. It’s a long article but worth the read for anyone interested. I think it’s been very amusing to see the definition of “clean” vary widely according to highly subjective criteria.
Could you update us on your next public appearances?
I’ll be doing a nutrient timing lecture at California State University, Northridge at the end of this month. That’s not necessarily open to the public, although I’m sure people can sneak in if they wear backpacks & skinny jeans (just kidding, college kids). In early December (date not yet set), I’ll be visiting Boston University to talk about bodybuilding/fitness nutrition & general bro-ness. On March 8th & 9th, I’ll be speaking at the NSCA Personal Trainers Conference (details here), where I’ll have fun dissecting the Paleo diet. In that same conference, I’ll be engaging in a formal debate with Dr. Jeff Volek about matters of low-carbing. I’ll also be doing the Fitness Summit, which typically happens in April or May (no date is set yet).
What are your future goals to accomplish?
I want to keep improving as an effective communicator and teacher. The information will always be there, but delivering complex topics in a way that enlightens & empowers – rather than confuses & frustrates people – will always be a challenge. As always, I strive to keep my clients happy & my monthly research review (AARR) going strong. Within the next year or so, you’ll see research publications involving myself, Brad Schoenfeld, Eric Helms, Peter Fitschen, and John Cronin. Aside from that, I plan to keep getting carded for at least a few more years.
Where can we read more of your work?