Nick’s List of Nutritional Fallacies, Part 2

A few weeks back I wrote about some common nutritional fallacies I’ve heard. A few real world examples have reminded me of a few more, so I’ll list those here:

Kale has more nutritional value than a McDonald’s Cheeseburger

Put another way “nobody can argue that a food item whose cooking leaves a vat of grease has any nutritional value.”

First, let us define nutrition:

Nutrition (n)

the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.

It is oft-forgotten that nutrition is about energy (or maybe we’re just stupid). We need energy to function; absent energy we die. Nutrition can be separated into the following categories:

  1. Macronutrients: Those food/nutritional you need or consume in large quantities, which are often used for energy. Typically Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrate.
  2. Electrolytes: You need salts, and generally a lot of them. These are sometimes grouped with the other nutrients.
  3. Micronutrients: Substances you require less than 100mg/day, like vitamins and some minerals.

So, a McDonald’s cheeseburger provides you with all three. I would call this good nutrition. Kale may provide you with micronutrients, but provides you with very little actual energy.

So now we revisit the vitamin question: do we need more vitamins than we can acquire from meat? Are more vitamins more better?

Obviously this hinges on our definition of nutrition, and vegetables may very well be great for you to eat. That does not necessarily mean they are necessary for healthy living.

Gatorade is great for you when you’re running or exercising because the sugar within it provides an immediate form of energy

This is the philosophy of runners which motivates the “goo” gels and the sugary candies that everyone eats during workouts to give them that boost. It seems fairly straightforward — after all, sugar is energy and your body uses energy while you exercise. But there are some important physiological facts that will make you reconsider table sugar/corn syrup or even carbohydrates in general as the “ideal exercise fuel:”

  1. Table sugar is 50% Fructose and 50% Glucose, HFCS is skewed slightly in favor of Fructose with 65%-75% Fructose depending on who you ask and who measures it.
  2. Glucose can be used as fuel by your muscle cells, however
  3. Fructose cannot be directly utilized by the vast majority of cells in your body. It must first be converted to Saturated fat by your liver, and then used in its form as fat. (So it would be more efficient and put less of a burden on our livers if we ate butter or cream instead. The byproduct of the lipogenesis also tends to raise blood triglycerides.)
  4. Your muscles use oxygen more efficiently when running off fat directly as opposed to Glucose. Glucose, however, enables the anaerobic pathway so is beneficial for short bursts of energy. In an ideal scenario, you would use Glucose exclusively for the difference between your maximum aerobic potential and your total necessary energy output.
  5. Your body can maintain Glucose supplies internally (Glycogen stores) with little or no dietary carbohydrate. Glucose is generated as a byproduct of the metabolism of Fat and Protein.
  6. If you consume excess glucose so as to cause your insulin levels to rise, your pancreas secretes insulin. This signals your fat cells to intake Glucose and store it as fat, and in turn restricts the ability of your fat cells to release energy that can be used during your workout.

So yes, 25-35% of the caloric content of your Gatorade can be used by your muscle cells, but if you consume too much before your workout you’ll block your body’s access to energy stored in fat cells that your muscles use for endurance.

Eating mostly fat and adequate protein will provide your body with plenty of glucose for short bursts of energy and stabilize your metabolism to allow uniform access to stored energy throughout your workout.

Personal Anecdote #3

I usually start out my hiking by consuming 1200 calories of high fat meals, like 3x Sausage Egg & Cheese McMuffins with half the English muffin removed. As my friends continually pack down cliff bars on the way up the mountain, I don’t tend to get hungry until later.

And when I do eat, I try to pack down as much fat as I can.

Protein is the most important macronutrient for exercise. Make sure you get tons of protein in every meal.

We all love protein. We eat meat to get our protein, we have all these ridiculous bars that brag about protein, and we drink protein shakes to “reprotein” after we work out.

So what’s wrong with protein? It’s important. But there’s one important fact about protein that’s often ignored: your body generally doesn’t use it for energy, except as a last resort (for instance, if you’re starving to death your body will pull energy out of your cardiac muscle and use it…yay).

Protein is very important: you want 0.6-1g of dietary protein/day per pound of lean muscle mass to maintain your muscles and keep your body functioning optimally and build muscle. But if you are about to go on a nice long bike ride, do you want to eat 72g of pure protein to fuel you along? No, you do not. Because that protein doesn’t actually fuel your muscles.

The place I find this most apparent: when you visit your local grocery store or REI to pick up so-called “energy bars” for your workout, they come in two categories: “mega protein” or “lots of carbs and sugar.” But as we learned earlier, your muscles burn fat directly and use less oxygen when they do so.

As you may be able to see, attempting to “fuel” your body with a concoction of whey protein and high fructose corn syrup seems pretty stupid given a bit of knowledge of the body’s metabolism. But somehow this concept of muscles using fat as energy is basically unknown or ignored by the majority of the nutritional/athletic community.

Hilariously, Dark chocolate bars (90%+ cocoa) have better macronutrient ratios than many energy bars. They have more fat than sugar.

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