The Battle of Biology: Completing the Trifecta

When it comes to bodybuilding contest prep, we have three general areas of concern – nutrition, training, and supplementation (in order of importance). In my past two blog posts, I outlined my general nutrition and training strategies. In this segment of The Battle of Biology, I want to first brief you on my most recent progress and circumstances. This will then lead into my usual related tangents and I’ll finish up by “completing the trifecta.” Otherwise put, I’ll be providing a meaty discourse on the third field of interest for contest prep – supplementation. 

Progress & Deloads 

As for my general fat loss strategy lately, not much has changed and my weight loss has been slow and steady. I’m still eating approximately 2,250 kcal per day. I started incorporating one “low day” per week when I don’t train. I also bumped up my LISS cardio from four 30-min sessions to five, with the fifth session being 45-minutes in duration since I don’t lift that day and have more time to do cardio. As for the reason why I increased my cardio – why not? At this point in time, I’m just in the habit of waking up early before work and getting my cardio done for the day.   

Here is my fat loss progress from weeks 6-8:

I purposefully used the word “general” when referring to my current methods because week 6 consisted of a deload and this lag in training led me to adjust my fat loss prescription. For my deload, which was 5 days in total, I ate about 150 calories less than usual without any changes to my cardio regimen. The result was my carbohydrate intake being below 200 grams for this stretch of time. 

Many are unsure about what to do with their nutrition during a deload week. There’s the argument of “a deload is a period of time which is supposed to decrease accumulated fatigue. As such, you should bump up calories (to at least maintenance while dieting) in order to ensure complete recovery.” On the other side of the fence, one might argue “due to decreases in training volume and intensity, and as a result, decreases in energy expenditure, you should keep calories stagnant or even lower them to match energy demands.” Practically, we have no precise way to know how much energy we expend performing resistance exercise. Wearable fitness tracking devices aren’t very accurate, and while there are some equations available to help us estimate expenditure, the calculations can be a bit of a hassle and have their own issues with inaccuracy. For example, the linked formula requires the lean mass of the individual and we don’t have a clean way of extracting this figure (check out James Krieger’s series on issues with body composition testing for more information). With all that being said, I think it’s more than fine to just assume you are burning ~150-200 calories less (depending on the deload protocol and strength of the lifter) during a deload session.  At the very least, you are depleting less muscle glycogen due to fewer muscular contractions, so your carbohydrate needs are decreased.

Both of the aforementioned strategies have their merits. I don’t think it particularly matters which direction you go in, but for my specific situation, the latter makes more sense. In my opinion, the decreases in training volume and intensity combined with some extra rest (during my 5-day deload I had 3 light training sessions and 2 additional rest days) are more than adequate to resolve high levels of fatigue. In conjunction, my appetite is reduced when I’m off from training or don’t train hard. For these reasons, though some may disagree with this notion, I prefer to try and speed up my fat loss a hare during a deload.

Meal Plans

Meal plans have become the boogeyman of the evidence-based fitness community. With the surge of flexible dieting otherwise known as “if it fits your macros,” there are many proponents who exclaim that this is the best and only way to structure nutrition. This crowd ultimately sees meal plans as the antithesis to their agenda. In the case of a super restrictive regimen that features a list of 7 foods that should be eaten every two hours, I would agree that meal plans are a fallacious approach. This sort of format is extremely difficult to adhere to for an extended period of time and inevitably leads to nutrient deficiencies. But, a flexible, well-thought-out meal plan is a very valuable tool, especially during contest prep. 

During a long intensive dieting phase, the biggest hurdle to overcome is hunger and the very severe food focus which emerges from it. With this particular issue, the more you submit to its temptations, the closer you are to impending doom. If deciding what you’re going to eat makes up some of the most difficult decisions of your day; if you’re spending an hour plus in the kitchen at each meal trying to concoct some uniquely delicious high protein, low calorie, sweet treat, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

While food focus will inevitably increase with a diet, there are some ways to mitigate the magnitude of it. Your diet should revolve around minimally processed low palatable foods in order to maximize satiety and reduce cravings. Further, within this broad context, I think it’s good to have some consistent food choices. There is power in routine. In terms of contest prep, that power stems from the fact that you’re not constantly thinking about/figuring out what you’re going to eat. This preserves willpower and precious energy as a result of having to make fewer decisions throughout the day, which leads to an improved ability to resist seductive foods. Besides, mental resources are low enough during a diet, might as well use what limited reserves you have for more important aspects of your day.  

My current diet operates on something quite similar to a meal plan. I like to categorize foods into three different groups – staple foods, accessory foods, and fun foods. Staple foods make up the bulk of my diet. These are foods I consume pretty much daily. Accessory foods are items I rotate into my diet throughout the week. This results in a consumption frequency of about 2-3x per week. Most accessory foods are substances which provide nutrients my staple foods are lacking in. For example, nuts and seeds for magnesium and Vitamin E. Egg yolks and salmon for Vitamin D, etc. Fun foods are components that add some variety to my diet, but solely in the context that they are pleasurable to eat. These foods are enjoyable, but they’re not triggers or substances which provoke me to overeat. 

Some may look at this structure as overkill and that’s fine, but this is how my brain works. I’m very analytical and prefer to take a systematic approach to things. I like to draw out plans and make lists. I also think for some individuals (this includes myself), there is particular value in having “food rules.” Some people thrive on a ketogenic diet or time-restricted feeding because they are, on paper at least, easy to follow. The reason for this is that they implement simple rules which more or less take your brain out of the equation. If you’re on a ketogenic diet and someone offers you banana bread, it’s an easy no, you don’t eat carbohydrates. If your feeding window is restricted to 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. and someone offers you a snack at 7:00 pm, there’s nothing to contemplate, you don’t eat at that time. What I’m doing utilizes a similar principle. I more or less already know what I’m going to eat each day. There are several benefits to this. For one, it makes grocery shopping a breeze. I stick to my rough list of foods and this is very conducive towards blocking out the myriad of distractions within our modern obesogenic environment. It also makes planning and preparing meals much more efficient, a concept which prefaces the most important benefit of a flexible meal plan – it reduces overall food focus. This structure keeps me zeroed in on my specific diet foods rather than thinking about every option I could possibly “fit in my macros” when I step into the kitchen.

Day of Eating

I’ve touched on the general outline of my diet in The Overview. As a reminder, I utilize a high protein, high carbohydrate (at least relatively speaking..) approach. To provide a bit more context, I consume 4 meals per day.

A typical day of eating looks something like this:

Meal 1 (pre-workout)

  • 65 g of oats
  • 2 scoops whey protein
  • 100 g blueberries 

Meal 2 (post-workout)

  • 2 eggs plus ~350 g egg whites or ~7 oz chicken breast
  • 100 g spinach
  • 2 servings of vegetables with 1 serving typically being a cruciferous vegetable such as brussel sprouts or broccoli
  • 3 slices whole-wheat bread
  • ~250 g steamed potato (switch off between white and sweet)

Meal 3

  • ~6-7 oz chicken/salmon

           Or

  • 2 eggs + ~350 g egg whites
  • 2 servings of vegetables

Meal 4

  • Protein pudding (2 scoops of casein + water)

Staple foods (daily): chicken breast, egg whites, whey protein, casein protein, oats, potatoes, whole wheat bread, blueberries, spinach, and some sort of cruciferous vegetable.

Accessory foods (2-3x per week): egg yolks, salmon, 93% ground beef, chuck steak, greek yogurt, nuts/nut butters (natural peanut butter/almond butter, almonds, cashews, pistachios), pumpkin seeds, legumes (typically lentil soup, sometimes black beans and chickpeas), olive oil, and guacamole.

Fun foods (1-2x per week): protein ice cream, protein bars, flavored bread.

At the moment, my favorite fun foods are Archer Farm’s (Target brand) chocolate chip cookie dough protein ice cream, Think! Lemon delight protein bar, and Pepperidge Farms french toast swirl bread. 

Within this general layout, I’m trying to consume a “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables over the course of the week. While I eat spinach, blueberries, and cruciferous vegetables every day, I’m incorporating a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables as well. The reason for this is that different colors or pigments in fruits and vegetables represent different phytochemicals. For example, blueberries are rich in anthocyanins, a phytochemical traditionally found within red, blue, and purple plant foods. Phytochemicals are a group of compounds responsible for the taste, color, and smell of plants. They have been consistently associated with supporting good health

Concerning my fruit and vegetable intake, I want to draw particular attention to blueberries and spinach. While my general approach is to vary my fruit and vegetable choices each day, these two plants are staple foods in my diet and for good reason. Blueberries appear to be particularly powerful for preventing cognitive decline and reducing DNA damage. In regards to spinach, I don’t think there is anything especially magical about this specific green, but green leafy vegetables as a whole are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can consume. Pretty much everyone could benefit from increasing their intake of green leafy vegetables. Some examples besides spinach include kale, collard greens, dandelion greens, swiss chard, mustard greens, and beet greens. 

Supplements

Another frowned upon concept in the evidence-based community. “Supplements are a waste of money!” “All you need is a well-balanced diet!” I’m certainly not a supplement pusher, but I think we’re reaching a bit with this statement. For one, it’s a little optimistic. Take a look at the current state of nutrition in our nation… It was very recently projected that in 1 in 2 Adults will have obesity by 2030. I think this research speaks for itself, but let’s dive a bit deeper. Without the help of a nutrition professional, it appears doubtful that even those who consume a “healthy diet” are adequately covering all of their micronutrient needs. To further beat a dead horse (just in case it’s still kicking..), consider the epitome of health by the general population, vegans. Vegans have consistently shown to be deficient in a few key vitamins and minerals. Bottom line, any diet can be nutritionally adequate or inadequate depending on how it’s structured. Developing a diet that covers 100% of all of your micronutrient needs takes an immense amount of planning which very few people are willing or have the knowledge to do.  

Outside of acting as an insurance policy for inadequate dietary patterns, some supplements have other beneficial impacts on health, and even provide an ergogenic effect when taken in high doses. Doses of this magnitude are practically impossible to consume from whole food sources and as such, must be obtained from a very concentrated source (i.e. a supplement). In the following section, I’ll be touching on a couple of these. 

My Supplement Stack

For Health

Fish oil: 1.4 g EPA & DHA combined

The most notable effect of fish oil is its ability to consistently reduce triglycerides.

Ashwagandha: 450 mg

This traditional Indian herb is most known for its ability to reduce anxiety. It has also been shown to repeatedly reduce cortisol and stress, which may be particularly beneficial outcomes for someone enduring a contest prep. Severe calorie restriction and vigorous resistance exercise are massive stressors that can contribute to perpetually high cortisol levels. In addition, psychological stress and anxiety have a negative impact on immunity. Ashwagandha supplementation could benefit recovery by alleviating some of these symptoms.

Vitamin D: 1,000 IU

20 minutes of sunlight exposure daily with at least 40% of skin exposure is required to prevent Vitamin D deficiency. While a seemingly minuscule task, I know that I don’t meet these criteria during the winter months and it appears that most Americans don’t. It has been reported that about 40% of the United States is Vitamin D deficient. In addition, Vitamin D is only found in a select group of foods. Primary sources include salmon, egg yolks, fortified milk and orange juice, and mushrooms. I currently do not consume any of these foods frequently enough or in large enough quantities to cover 100% of the RDA for Vitamin D on a regular basis.

Garlic: 1,000 mg (equivalent to a single segment of a raw garlic bulb)

Garlic is notable for its consistent ability to significantly reduce LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. It also has a modest effect on blood pressure, especially in those with hypertension. To top it off, garlic has been shown to reduce the severity of the common cold and even reduce the likelihood of contracting the illness altogether.

For Performance

Caffeine: 440 mg 

Typically from Rockstar Pure Zero (240 mg) and a 200 mg caffeine pill. I also drink green tea almost daily. While green tea does contain caffeine in small amounts, I don’t count it towards my intake. I drink it for its purported positive effects on health, not for the stimulation. Moreso, as a proud stim junkie, the amount of caffeine in a cup of green tea has zero impact on my mental alertness, especially considering the other soothing compounds it contains such as l-theanine

An ergogenic dose of caffeine is typically cited as 3-6 mg/kg of body weight. In amounts varying from 3-9 mg/kg of body weight, caffeine has been shown to benefit resistance training performance through increasing maximal strength, endurance, and power, and reducing rating of perceived exertion.

In the energy drink arena, companies are currently trying to stay competitive by pushing their own version of what has more or less become thee premium formula: 300 mg of caffeine, creatine, and BCAAs. The reason I opt for Rockstar Pure Zero is that it does not contain creatine or BCAAs. I don’t need more creatine, I already supplement with it, but I really don’t want BCAAs. 

For starters, although energy drinks are labeled as having “zero calories,” BCAAs do contain calories (about 4.65 kcal/g to be specific). Further, these are calories that possess little to no benefit in the context of a high-protein diet which emphasizes complete protein sources. BCAAs are traditionally recommended for their ability to induce an anabolic state through stimulating muscle protein synthesis. While they have shown to be superior to placebo, their magnitude of effect has been shown to be inferior to whey protein. This finding can be extrapolated for any complete protein source. While leucine indeed (one of the three amino acids in BCAAs) acts as a trigger for muscle protein synthesis, all 9 essential amino acids must be available to produce muscle protein. In consideration of this fact, it may be inappropriate to spike muscle protein synthesis through BCAAs without all the required components to sustain the process… As a matter of fact, research has shown a decrease in muscle protein synthesis after intake of BCAA

If you consume a diet rich in complete protein sources and consume these sources in amounts that possess adequate leucine (at least 20 grams of total protein usually) to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, there is no benefit to consuming BCAAs. There are likely even negatives to supplementing with BCAAs through potentially consuming unaccounted calories and triggering muscle protein synthesis without providing all of the raw resources required for the process.

Creatine monohydrate: 5 g

I use creatine monohydrate primarily to benefit my resistance training performance, but the more research that comes out, the more creatine monohydrate could be considered a general health supplement. Eric Trexler does a fantastic job of outlining creatine’s wide spectrum of effects including its impact on bone density and cognitive function here.

Betaine: 3g

So, this is a weird one… Betaine is used in the feed of livestock for the purpose of reducing fat storage and increasing meat yield. It is commonly found in spinach, beets, seafood, and whole grains. The average person consumes about 100-400 mg of betaine per day. There is a small pool of data supporting the efficacy of betaine, but we do have two quality studies demonstrating a positive effect on body composition when supplementing with 2.5 g of betaine. One was published in 2013 on men and the other was published in 2018 on women. Considering I’m currently in a calorie deficit and don’t measure my body fat, there is a 0.5% chance I’ll be able to detect any effects from supplementing with betaine, but I figured I’d give it a shot *shoulder shrug.*

Trifecta Completed

So there you have it. If you have read all 3 chapters of The Battle of Biology, you now know my general strategies for nutrition, training, and supplementation for contest preparation. Moving forward, I’ll mention any changes I make to these areas and continue to post data about my physique progress (pics coming soon XD). I’ll also jam on whatever other topics come to mind/get me riled up/people ask me to talk about. 

Tune in next time on Dragon Ball Z…. The Battle of Biology.

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