No matter how simple a task or subject seems on the surface, there are always more layers to uncover. Details are beautiful and seductive; however, there is a devil in many details. Many complicated pieces of advice are unimportant for the layman while many others are of questionable veracity. The fitness industry might be the worst transgressor where so many “experts” give specific advice that is at best, time-wasting.
This primary purpose of this article is not to inform. These are details that you do not need to know; when in doubt, just keep it simple and general, and don’t believe the person telling you about the “one weird trick” that will change your life. The purpose of this article is to give examples of ways details are dangerous and to promote thought about which details may be hurting you. I am writing about health and fitness as an example because it is a topic where I don’t really need to do much research, and I know for a fact there is a ton of misinformation (and unimportant information) spread throughout the Internet and other media. If you don’t care about these details (which you likely shouldn’t), feel free to skip to the ending paragraphs for my “normal” writing.
Meal Timing Myths
The first devilish set of details are those surrounding meal timing. The idea is that eating certain foods at certain times or at certain intervals can have a drastic impact. Bodybuilders have been a proponent of small, frequent meals for years. Tim Ferris popularized the idea that we should consume 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up. While Tim is certainly a smart and successful person, and I do respect him in some areas, to push this as a revolutionary fat-loss tool is nothing short of charlatanism. When my father was telling me about the recommendations in The Four Hour Body and I later learned about its sales success, I believed that Tim Ferris may be a genius in one area, marketing. Simply, meal timing has almost no impact on your health or fitness. Yes, there are some obvious caveats. If you exercise hard enough that you vomit while on a full stomach, you can probably figure out what you did wrong.
But isn’t eating 10 times a day supposed to supercharge your metabolism? First, understand metabolism. Metabolism is what your body does to keep you alive. More is not always better; an easy way to increase your metabolic rate is to eat as much food as you physically can because you will burn tons of energy while digesting the food, but that is likely counterproductive to your goals.
Next, think about how digestion works. A single meal takes about 6–8 hours to clear your stomach and small intestine. However, this number could easily be larger or smaller, depending on how much you ate and how much you already had in your stomach. The rest of the digestive process could take an additional eight hours to two days. The first part of the process is the most metabolically expensive, and you could hypothetically give a small boost to your metabolism by always having food in your stomach. However, what you eat is 100 times more important than when you eat it. The primary driver of the thermic effect of digestion is the amount of food and the type of food, not when you eat it. In addition, science hasn’t been able to definitively say if meal frequency has any impact on body composition. No matter if you eat 6 small meals or 2 larges ones, you will likely be digesting for most of the day and your body won’t go into “starvation mode.”
In terms of meal timing, the most important thing is actually consistency, that is, eating at similar times and similar amounts of food at each meal every day, but even that is not crucial to health or fitness. There are as many proponents of fasting for most of the day as there are for the bodybuilder style of six meals a day. I personally prefer fasting for most of the day and then eating lunch around twelve, but I do not always stick to it and it doesn’t matter.
The problem with all these meal timing details is if you believe they matter they can be detrimental to your health. If you eat eight meals a day, you will likely stress more about making times for your meals and may avoid social interactions like lunches with coworkers because they would be too large or would not fit in with your eating schedule. You might starve yourself because you believe eating before bed will make all of the food turn into fat. The only people who should care about this at all are bodybuilders and endurance athletes. If you still feel the need to optimize, my simplest advice is just to eat healthy food for 2–5 meals (or snacks) a day at a similar time every day. If you have a workout or hard training session you might want to eat a few hours beforehand, but don’t stress about it too much.
The Supplement World
The muscle-building, performance, and health supplement industries are some of the darkest on earth. There are constant violations of ethics within these industries which have no regulation; consumers can never be sure what they are actually putting into their bodies. Companies are regularly found to be using illegal ingredients or putting none of the main ingredient on the label. If supplements actually produced dramatic results, they would likely be classified as drugs instead and would either be regulated or restricted. In fact, pre-workouts are often spiked with restricted stimulants or steroids when they first hit the shelves, so they are actually effective. Later, the formula is changed once people believe in its efficacy to avoid scrutiny.
There are a few legal supplements that have actually have some scientific evidence supporting additional muscle building or performance properties: caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, and
citrulline. Caffeine is well known for its energy and possibly strength benefits. I take caffeine in the form of coffee, but I don’t really recommend supplementation outside of coffee and tea because too much caffeine can definitely be a bad thing. Creatine’s impact on muscle and strength has been the subject of many scientific tests, but the impact is extremely mild. It can help increase intramuscular water retention which can make you look more full and give you more strength via better leverages. However, I would guess that the effects are not compounding. That is, it doesn’t really help you build strength and muscle over the long term; although, using it for a month may help your strength performance. I just don’t think the cost of using it or the time it takes to ingest the supplement make it worth using for anyone unless you are trying to be a drug-free strength athlete and even then, using it is very questionable. Beta-alanine improves muscular endurance for activities performed over 60–240 seconds. It could potentially give you benefits, but once again, unless you actually want to be a lifter (who could handle more volume) or another athlete, it just isn’t worth the cost; even then, I am doubtful of its positive impact on performance for the long-term. Finally, citrulline improves blood flow which can improve fatigue during exercise and may reduce muscle soreness. This may be worth using a few times, but I just don’t see the long-term worth for a regular person or athlete alike.
Health supplements are generally just as dubious as those promoting muscle building and strength. If the supplements actually contain what they say they do, their efficacy is still dubious. Even if they did do something, they might not be worth the cost. However, there are two supplements that I would recommend to most people. The first is vitamin D3 which is naturally produced by the body when it is exposed to sunlight. The problem is most of us don’t see the sun anywhere near the amount our ancestors did. The recommendations on how much to take vary by large amounts based on your body and how much sun exposure you get. If you ever get your blood drawn, I would recommend trying to figure out how much you need to take to get and maintain your vitamin D levels slightly above 50 ng/ml. It may take more than 8000 IU a day which is far more than recommended daily amount set by any governing body. I would recommend starting conservatively as you can get too much. Adequate vitamin D levels will improve almost every aspect of your health: bone strength, immune system, mental acuity, heart function. Even if the benefits are somewhat mild, vitamin D3 is dirt cheap (running you about $15 for a year’s supply) and effortless to consume.
The second supplement is some sort of omega-3 oil. This one is not as much of a slam dunk as D3, as it is more expensive and more likely to be suspect to shady supplement practices. The list of benefits is as long and varied as vitamin D3. However, it is difficult to get omega-3s from nature without a significant drawbacks. Omega-3 most often comes from marine life which may be contain mercury (or may be overly expensive). While the body can process toxins, if you were to eat as much fish as you need to have optimal balance of omega-3s you might run into a problem. I would generally recommend 1–3 grams of fish oil which should get you around 200–1000 milligrams of omega-3s. The amount you should consume varies by your size and how many omega-3s you get from other sources.
To summarize, ignore all supplements and their magical promises except for vitamin D3, an omega-3 oil, and possibly a probiotic as these are things that can improve health and performance in the long-term and are difficult to get from nature. The reason I didn’t mention probiotics earlier is that I just don’t feel comfortable giving them a strong recommendation although they have the potential to be very useful for those with digestive issues. The problem with probiotics is you really need to get a good one with a wide range of live cultures. However, there is no way to really know if you are being scammed without trying the product. Even then, you might be paying for a moderately expensive placebo. I know one of the larger probiotic brands actually doesn’t have that many types of cultures and has succeeded with marketing over quality.
Every health guru or diet magazines praises the magical blessings of protein. The truth is protein is just a macronutrient, it is not implicitly healthier or better than any other. Protein from meat contains B3 and many trace minerals; however, protein is often lacking in a lot of micronutrients.
The first myth about protein consumption goes back to the Tim Ferris recommendation of 30 grams of protein in the morning. Protein is supposed to supercharge your fat burning for the rest of the day. Protein does have a higher thermic effect than carbohydrates in general and a much higher thermic effect than fat. It is just an estimation and different foods may vary a lot in how digestively expensive they are, but it isn’t really something you should worry about. If you are burning so many calories during digestion, you will likely feel more hungry and eat more. I would recommend a higher protein diet to those looking to lose a lot of weight or if you are trying to get extremely lean (which isn’t healthy anyway) because you will retain your muscle better in a caloric deficit.
If you want to lose weight and are having trouble, I would recommend tracking your eating and counting calories. Calories-in versus calories-out is an incomplete model, but once again, ignore the details, it is likely good enough to lose weight. You likely don’t need to worry about your individual macronutrients either; chances are you are getting enough protein and would be better off adding more leafy greens to your diet. If you are a serious strength athlete and really want to know the most protein that would be beneficial to you endeavors, research points to about 2.0 grams per kilogram (0.91 grams per pound) of bodyweight. However, normal, healthy people can get away with less than half of that amount.
The final details to be discussed are those surrounding frequency and amount of protein consumption. There has been a ridiculous myth spread that you can only absorb 30 grams of protein from a single meal. This has spread despite the fact we likely would have died off as a species if this was the case. However, spreading out your protein likely has some very mild benefits, but if you don’t consume protein right after your workout your muscle isn’t in danger of falling off. Even if you were to consume it right after, it would still take quite a bit of time to reach your bloodstream. You body likely already has protein in stock to tend to damaged muscles after a training session. In summary, eat protein whenever you like just like your meals. The only additional advice I have is you probably should spread your protein out into at least two separate meals, but even that isn’t a requirement.
The fitness industry is a terrible offender of selling useless details and outright lies. These details cause unnecessary stress and mental energy, and they can also be used by charlatans to sell you something. To summarize from above, any food or product that has the word metabolism on it is either a complete sham (unless it involves spices or spicy food in which case it is likely only a partial sham), or it is bad for your health (fat burners). Any supplement promising drastic results is a likely a sham. Any product that mentions how much protein it has on the front of the package is doing it for marketing, not health reasons. The worst part is I could probably name at least three more details that millions of people have heard that either don’t matter or aren’t true. When faced with uncertainty, especially in the health and fitness domain, doubt the claim and simplify.
The motivation for pushing all these details can be well-intention, but almost nothing good can come from pushing hyper specific advice unless you are coaching someone to be a professional in the area. One of the areas I obsess a little too much over is the “best” time to write. While there might be a best time (and it might vary by individual), just getting words on the page or screen way more important than doing it at the right time especially because it isn’t my profession. In fact, even believing there is a right time might hold me back from writing at other times. So now to the real purpose of this article, what details are holding you back?