When it comes to fitness and nutrition, the nutrition part can cause a lot of confusion. There’s so much information out there about the best diet to follow and often the advice is contradictory. My guest today is here to clear up some of the confusion. His name is Robert Santana, he’s a registered dietitian, a PhD candidate in exercise and nutrition science, a Starting Strength coach, and the nutrition coach at Starting Strength Online Coaching.
Today on the show we discuss all things diet and nutrition. We begin with a big picture overview of the three main macronutrients our body uses to function, and the science of their effect on the body. Robert walks us through how our body partitions nutrients as we consume them, and explains exactly how we get fat. In the process, Robert debunks a lot of popular ideas people have about nutrition these days, like eating carbs makes you fat and eating fat is an easy way to lose weight. In fact, he argues that you should probably be eating a lot more carbs than you are now. He then walks us through the science of fat loss, and gives practical examples of what a diet needs to look like, whether you’re wanting to lose fat, while maintaining muscle, or gain weight that’s more muscle than fat. We end our conversation discussing my experience in cutting weight, what I eat from day to day, and why trying to get six-pack abs isn’t necessarily a healthy goal.
- Why nutrition is such a battle for so many people
- Protein, carbs, and fat — what these 3 macronutrients do in our bodies
- The Glycemic index, and fast-acting vs. slow-acting carbs
- The revolving door of fad diets (including today’s “carnivore diet”)
- How the body becomes efficient at burning fats and carbs
- The real and only way to start losing body fat
- What controls metabolic rates?
- The scoop on ketones and the ketogenic diet
- Do carbs deserve the bad rap they get?
- Do carbs cause inflammation?
- Caloric deficits and surpluses, and how people actually get fat
- How to utilize meal planning to meet your nutrition goals
- How Robert figures out what people’s macronutrient goals should be
- What percentage of weight loss is diet vs. fitness routine?
- What should an obese person do to start losing body fat?
- How to lose weight and maintain strength at the same time
- My own experience working with Robert
- The risks of dieting
- How to healthily gain weight
- The psychological aspects of dieting and losing/gaining weight
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Real Science of Nutrition and Supplements
- The Truth About Cholesterol
- Diet and Nutrition Advice from the Dr. of Gains
- Glycemic index
- Fat and carb overfeeding in humans
- Micronutrients, Genetics, and Preventing Age-Related Diseases
- How to Gain Weight
- Getting Strong vs. Getting Ripped
- My Workout Routine and the Benefits of a Strength Coach
- Starting Strength
Connect With Robert
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to fitness and nutrition the nutrition part can cause a lot of confusion. There’s so much information out there about which is the best diet to follow and often that advice is contradictory. My guest today is here to clear up some of that confusion. His name is Robert Santana. He’s a registered dietician, a PhD candidate in nutrition and exercise science, a Starting Strength coach, and the nutrition coach at Starting Strength Online Coaching.
Today on the show, we discuss all things diet and nutrition. We begin with a big picture overview of the three main macronutrients our body uses to function, and the science of their effect on the body. Robert walks us through how our body partitions nutrients as we consume them, and explains exactly how we get fat and how we store body fat. In the process, Robert debunks a lot of popular ideas people have about nutrition these days, like eating carbs makes you fat and eating fat is an easy way to lose body fat. In fact, he argues if you’re trying to gain muscle mass and wanting to lose some body fat in the process, you might need to be eating more carbs than you are now. He then walks us through the science of fat loss, and gives practical examples of what a diet needs to look like if you want to lose weight, while also maintaining muscle. We also talk about how to gain weight that’s more muscle than fat, and we end our conversation discussing my experience in cutting weight, what I eat from day to day, and why trying to get six-pack abs isn’t necessarily a healthy goal.
Lot of information here. Check out our show notes at AOM.is/santana, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Robert joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Robert Santana, welcome to the show.
Robert Santana: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you are a Starting Strength coach, but you’re also a registered dietician, and you’re also my personal nutrition coach. Maybe we can talk about some of the stuff you’ve been doing with me, but before we get into that, let’s talk about your background. Obviously, a barbell coach, nutrition. I’m curious. What came first? Was it the barbell training or the diet part or did both kind of start at the same time?
Robert Santana: I’d have to say probably the lifting because that dates back to when I was a kid. Diet stuff came later, but I tended to grasp the diet stuff a little bit easier, I think. It took me longer to really get a handle on the training.
Brett McKay: Now, I mean, you’ve continued, besides being a registered dietician, you’ve continued your education. You’re getting your PhD, correct, in nutrition science?
Robert Santana: That is correct. The degree is actually kind of interesting. It’s interdisciplinary, so it’s in exercise and nutritional sciences. So I’ve been spending time in both areas. I’ve taken some nutrition classes. I’ve taken some exercise classes. I’ve helped with a nutrition study. I’m currently running an exercise study. I’ve got my head in all of it right now.
Brett McKay: Is there something you’ve been focusing on in particular?
Robert Santana: My dissertation project is focusing on the effects of weightlifting, essentially, on arterial stiffness. So, basically, how lifting affects your arteries for the layman’s version of that.
Brett McKay: Okay. Well, let’s get into, like, nutrition because I think, in my experience, I think this is the same for a lot of people, you said nutrition came easy to you, but I think for a lot of people, like, nutrition is like the hardest or most confusing part of health because there’s so much information out there, and it’s constantly changing. We’ll talk about this. One time it’s like, “Hey, carbs are great. You gotta carbo load.” And then like, “No. No. No. Carbs are evil. You need to do Paleo or Atkins or something.” It’s always changing.
Let’s talk big picture first and we’ll let that guide the rest of the discussion. When it comes to nutrition and performance, you’re primarily focusing on the big macronutrients, which is protein, carbs, and fat. Let’s walk through. What does each one of these macronutrients do for us physiologically and in terms of performance?
Robert Santana: Sure. Of course. Protein is the one most lifters are familiar with. That’s because you think about protein, you think about muscle. So muscles are comprised of proteins, but when you’re trying to build muscle, you have to break them down so that they can build up larger. The way that happens is you start adding more muscle proteins and that’s going to require additional protein than somebody who is basically sedentary. So when you want to think of protein, you want to think of recovery. You want to think of basically building body protein.
To take that a step further is we’re not just talking about muscle, we’re talking about hair, skin, nails, all that is driven by your protein intake. You’ll find with like elderly individuals, for instance, if they’re not eating enough protein they tend to, their skin gets brittle. Their hair gets brittle. They also get weaker for reasons that most of my clientele would understand and simply by giving them more protein, you’ll tend to see that their hair will grow a little bit fuller, their nails will grow a little bit thicker, their skin will improve, etc. Proteins build things. That’s how you want to think of protein.
When it comes to carbs, that’s your energy source. This is where things get kind of funny with the information. Typically, we store about a good chunk of carbs as stored glucose, so you want to think of when you eat carbs, I’ve got to store some of that in your muscles and in your liver. That’s called glycogen. Glycogen is your stored form of glucose. Now, to take that a step further, all carbs get converted into glucose. That’s what they do. They get converted into glucose and then a lot of that gets stored, so the average person who’s 70 kilograms is going to have about 425 grams of glucose stored as muscle glycogen, roughly 75 grams is stored as liver glycogen. So that’s pretty much the fate of carbs in terms of energy storage.
Now, also, you’ve got to put that in the context of activity. Right? Carbs have a linear relationship with the intensity of an activity, so the more intense an activity is, basically, the harder you’re moving, the harder you’re pushing, the faster you’re running, the heavier you’re lifting to a certain extent, and I’ll go back to that, you’re going to be using more carbs. So if you’re going for a light job, it’s probably an even mix, and then as that pace gets faster and faster, you’re going to rely more on carbohydrates. So you want to think the harder the activity is that you’re doing, the more carbohydrates you’re typically going to need.
In a lifting context, you have your three energy systems. You have your ATP phosphocreatine, and that’s basically the system that’s responsible for fast, rapid, explosive activity. So maybe your first rep in a set of five, you’re primarily using ATP and phosphocreatine. And then, if you’re doing a set of 8, 10, 12, you’re going to start tapping into that muscle glycogen, and then once you start getting over 20 reps or you start doing aerobic exercise, now you’re in oxidative metabolism, so you’re going to be using a good mix of fat and carbs, but at least in the beginning, it starts with ATP phosphocreatine, then transitions over into glucose in the form of glycogen.
You need carbohydrates, essentially, to perform in any sport. It’s not just lifting. If you’re a runner, you’re going to need carbohydrates. If you’re a cyclist, you’re going to need them. If you’re weightlifter, if you’re a football player, and it’s because the activity is more intense than resting. Now, that doesn’t mean that when you’re resting you’re burning 100% fat. I’ll go to fat next, but basically, when you’re resting and you’re on a mixed diet, you’re going to get an even mix of both. You’re going to be burning fat and carbs. In general, as activity becomes more intense you rely more on carbs.
That leaves me with fat, so what is fat used for? Well, it’s used for a lot of things. We have these things in our body called membranes and those membranes are found in all of our cells, and the integrity of those membranes rely on fat. Fat forms a lot of those membranes.
Number two, we have certain vitamins that require fat for absorption. You have your vitamin A, your vitamin D, your vitamin E, and your vitamin K. Those are your fat soluble vitamins. You have to consume fat in order to absorb those, so that’s number two.
And then, number three, this is fat’s primary storage, and the most popular among most people is you store it as energy. Fat’s your energy depot. It’s the most easily converted into stored body fat, which is basically stored triglyceride, if you want to use the scientific term. Some of your audience probably knows what that means, some don’t, but basically, fat stores as fat, primarily, and then it’s also used for other physiological processes.
Brett McKay: That’s a good, like, sort of overarching view of what these micronutrients do. Let’s get into details of this. Let’s talk about carbs, right? You said that we use carbs to do intense exercise, high-intensity running, weightlifting, etc. Let’s say like when you consume carbs, how does our body figure out when to partition carbs to stored glycogen or when to use those carbs you consumed immediately for energy use? Does that make sense?
Robert Santana: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Good question. Let’s say you’re eating and you’re working out, you’re probably not going to use what you’re eating. You’re probably going to tap into your stored glycogen first because it’s easier to get to. When you eat carbs, you have to digest them, absorb them, etc. So, typically, when you start exercising, you’re going to start tapping into muscle glycogen first.
Brett McKay: But how soon do carbs that we consume become accessible? Do we know that even? Because you hear all this thing about carb timing. “Well, I’m gonna, like, I’m gonna eat a fast digesting carb an hour before working out.” Is there anything to that or not?
Robert Santana: Oh, I see where you’re going with that. There’s this thing called the glycemic index. It basically is a classification system for how your body responds to carbs in terms of changing blood glucose levels, typically going up. When you eat carbs your blood sugar goes up. Depending on where those carbs are coming from that’s going to influence that response. What they’ve done is they’ve, I don’t know how many decades ago, they basically studied the effects of different foods on blood glucose levels and came up with these values for the glycemic index. Now, the limitation of the glycemic index is that we’re rarely just eating carbs. I mean, I guess it depends on the person. Some people might eat a whole bag of Skittles, but assuming that you’re eating a mixed meal, that glycemic index kind of goes out the window because if that meal has things like protein, fat, or fiber, that’s going to affect your blood glucose response, which leads me to your question about, okay, do you want a fast-acting carb or a slow-acting carb.
Yeah, sure, so if you eat something like Skittles, that would be considered a fast-acting carb because that’s basically sucrose, which is table sugar, and that’s half glucose, half fructose. Fructose being fruit sugar. Now, you’re typically going to absorb that fast. Maltodextrins also absorb pretty rapidly and then pure glucose, if you get some kind of dextro supplement, that’s going to be pretty much, there’s no conversion it has to go through. It just goes straight to glucose. It’s already glucose, so you can use that right away.
But typically, the best time to take those in is either after a workout, during a workout if it’s a very long workout, and not necessarily because it’s going to dramatically increase your performance, but you don’t want to bottom out your blood sugars either. That also depends on how you ate throughout the rest of the day. These guys sitting in the gym chewing on fruit snacks, that may not be necessary depending on what the situation is. The idea there is that if you need carbs rapidly for something like, okay, I just had an intense bout of exercise, I broke down a bunch of muscle glycogen, I need to replenish that right away, or I went for a five-hour run because I’m training for a marathon. Yeah, you want to take in something like a dextrose supplement or maybe a Gatorade, which has various fast-acting carbs in them to basically replenish that muscle glycogen. Or if you’re on a diet, for instance, you’re operating probably on partially or fully, depending on what your diet is, depleted glycogen stores, so you’re going to need glucose during your workout because you’re basically running on empty anyways, and you also don’t want to have your blood sugar drop because that’s going to kill your energy for that reason.
Brett McKay: All right, so bottom line is, for the most part, when you exercise the carbs you’re using are the carbs that have been stored as glycogen in your muscles? For the most part.
Robert Santana: Typically, yes.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about fat because you’ve probably seen this as a dietician in the past. Man, it’s been going on for 20 years. First, there’s the Atkins diet, and saying, “Carbs are bad. They make you fat. Eat more fat and you’ll lose weight or lose body fat.” Then it turned into the Paleo diet, which pretty much said the same thing, and now we’re seeing a new version, the Carnivore Diet, where people just eat meat and that’s it, so it’s high protein and high fat. I mean, is there any truth to this idea that the more dietary fat you eat, that you’ll burn, your body will become better at becoming fat so you’ll burn stored body fat more efficiently?
Robert Santana: The short version of that answer is yes and no. I’ll explain why. Yes, you become more efficient at burning fat. Now, why that happens, I’ll explain it. Each macronutrient oxidizes or burns differently than the other macronutrients. So you have fat, carbohydrate, protein, alcohol’s technically a macro, depending on who you ask, but typically fat is easily converted to fat. It doesn’t have to go through any alternate pathways to become stored body fat.
Now, when you start overfeeding these macronutrients, your body responds to that in different ways. They’ve done studies on individuals what are following a mixed diet, so carb, fat, proteins pretty even. Nothing’s extremely high or extremely low, just a mixed diet. They’ve basically overfed them carbs and overfed them fat and looked at the responses. The classic study I like to cite is Tracy Horton’s study. I believe it was, I want to say it was done in the ’90s, maybe early 2000s. I don’t have the exact date. They basically found that when you overfeed carbs to somebody on a mixed diet, they tend to burn more carbs. They see an increase in carbohydrate oxidation, which means you’re burning more carbs because you’re eating more carbs. To put that simply, the more carbs you eat, the more carbs you burn. They stimulate their own oxidation. Just simply eating more of them makes you burn more of them.
But then something else happens. As you eat more carbs, you start burning less fat because you have to burn off those carbs. What they also looked at was the proportion of those calories that stored as fat. So basically what happens is all the fat that you’re eating gets stored as fat because you’re burning off the carbs. We’ll go back to that later in terms of practical considerations there, but when you look at what happens when you overfeed fat to somebody on a mixed diet, it’s a very different response. Absolutely nothing happens. Why does absolutely nothing happen? Well, because you start storing that fat. Do you see what I mean? Fat does not stimulate its own oxidation. It just gets stored because that’s the preferential fate of dietary fat.
So now, your questions in regards to, well, you become a better fat burner if you’re on a low-fat diet or a low-carb diet. So, just think about what we just talked about. If you eat more carbs, you burn more carbs. So what if you were to strip carbs down close to zero. Nobody’s going to actually eat zero, but let’s say you’re eating 20 carbs a day. The opposite happens. You become less efficient at burning carbs because you’re not eating them. Right? And carbs stimulate their own oxidation, so your ability to burn carbs decreases. What ends up happening is you become a better fat burner. Your fat oxidation goes up and now you’re eating a bunch of fat to compensate the calories you need. What happens there is you become more efficient at burning dietary fat.
This is what people forget. Physical activity and exercise and even lifting, you know, the way we lift for a couple hours a day, a few times a week, assuming that you’re not a professional athlete who’s putting in an 8-hour day of physical activity and you’re just a recreational person that lifts one to three hours a day depending on how into the activity they are, you’re typically not really burning that many calories performing physical activity. So like these people that are on the treadmills trying to sweat and run for an hour and get their heart rate racing, I mean, you’re talking about, what, 400 calories extra a day? I mean, that’s another meal, depending on the person and what they like to eat, but we’re not talking about, hey, we’re doubling your caloric expenditure by running for an hour. We’re just roasting away fat by doing the linear progression. That’s not what’s happening.
Physical activity probably accounts for, or exercise, I should say, accounts for roughly 15% of what you expend as energy, so that means you have another 85% there that goes to, basically, you just being alive. I said, what, about 15% for exercise, maybe 20 if you’re an enthusiast and really going at it, and then about 10 to 15% goes to digesting and absorbing food. So just eating burns calories. It’s called dietary induced thermogenesis. As you eat food, you end up burning calories in the digestion and absorption of those nutrients. Right there you’re about 30 or 35%, so that means about 65% of your energy expenditure is just you being there, being alive, breathing, living.
Brett McKay: Okay. There’s a lot to unpack there. So I want to point out there, what you just said there is if you eat lower carb you become less efficient at oxidizing carbs, and if you eat higher fat to make up those calories you’re not consuming from carbs, you become more efficient at burning dietary fats. You don’t become more efficient at stored fat, so the fat that causes love handles and everyone’s trying to get rid of, right? That doesn’t become more efficient.
Robert Santana: No. That is determined primarily by your resting metabolic rate.
Brett McKay: But, I mean, you see these amazing before and after pictures of people, like, “Oh, this is me before Paleo and before I was eating carbs. Here’s me after I went to a low-carb, high-fat diet, and I lost a lot of body fat.” What’s going on there? If it’s not that they become more efficient at burning stored fat, why did they lose the body fat?
Robert Santana: The last thing I said was it depends on your resting metabolic rate. What I mean by that is you need to expend a certain number of calories over what you’re burning, right? So, the classic rule is 3500 calories, you subtract 500 calories a day for seven days. That’s 3500 calories. It’s one pound of fat. You lose a pound of fat a week. Actually, that’s not 100% accurate because there’s variability there in terms of how much of a calorie restriction is necessary to lose a pound of fat. That varies between individuals, but let’s just go with that rule for the sake of explaining this.
Let’s say you burn 1500 calories a day. Let’s not even talk about resting, let’s talk about everything you do, exercise, living, eating, etc. You’re burning 1500 calories a day. Let’s say you need to subtract 500 to lose a pound. You need to subtract 1000 to lose two pounds. So basically, you’re eating zero calories to lose three pounds a week. Nobody’s going to do that, so there’s a math problem there, if you think about it. You have to subtract a certain number of calories and unless you’re burning 6000 calories at rest, most humans aren’t going to lose more than a pound or two a week just because of the math there.
So let’s tie it back to your question about what’s going on here when they’re eating keto or they’re doing low-carb and they’re losing fat. Well, that’s because fat loss, the loss of stored body fat is driven by being in a negative energy balance. That means the calories you take in are less than the calories you put out. That doesn’t matter if it’s low-carb or low-fat or low-protein or high-protein. If you’re expending X amount of calories and you’re eating less than that, you’re going to lose body fat regardless of how you break down those nutrients. Now, there’s on caveat there. If you’re trying to skew your weight loss towards body fat and away from muscle mass, that’s where you have to keep the protein high.
Brett McKay: Gotcha.
Robert Santana: And lift, obviously.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. So what you’re saying there is that your body only dips into those fat stores, right, we’re talking love handles, the thing that makes you doughy, only when there is a caloric deficit. That’s at that point when it’ll start burning that and you start losing body fat.
Robert Santana: That’s 100% correct.
Brett McKay: Okay. I guess that’s why the Paleo diet works. It’s not that there’s something magical about fat, eating fat, it’s just that when you eat Paleo, you probably tend to consume less calories because you’re eating a lot of protein and fat, which are filling and so you’re not hungry all the time, and so you just eat fewer calories.
Robert Santana: Pretty much. Yeah. When you’re on a high-protein, high-fat diet you tend to … Those two macronutrients are more satiating than carbs, so if you eat a low of fat, a lot of protein, you tend to be fuller. It’s hard to overeat calories for a lot of people. Now, there’s some people with very slow metabolic rates that don’t lose on those diets either and nobody ever talks about them.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. What causes that slow metabolic rate? Is it genetic or is it environmental? Do we know?
Robert Santana: For the most part it’s genetic, but also if you’ve, and this doesn’t apply to everyone. Everything’s genetic to some extent. To a large extent, actually. If you gain and lose weight a bunch of times, your metabolic rate tends to adapt to that by lowering. So if you are an obese person and you just starve yourself and lose 50 pounds and regain the 50 pounds, your metabolic rate may be slower than it was before you initially lose the 50 pounds even though you weigh the same.
Weight cycling plays into it, but primarily, let’s assume that that’s not a factor. It’s driven by genetics. Some people are going to burn 5000 calories at rest. Some people are going to burn 1200 calories at rest. That’s just the name of the game. Pick better parents.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. Let’s talk about what happens when you burn fat because, as you said, I think a lot of people, they get on the treadmill and they think, “I’m sweating out the fat.” What happens to the fat cell? Do they disappear? Do they shrink? What happens there?
Robert Santana: Well, that’s a good question. So the fat cell is 87% triglyceride and that’s what you’re using as energy. 87% of that fat cell is triglyceride. The other 13% is your cellular machinery. You can’t burn that off. That’s part of your body. It dies and gets replaced, so there’s been confusion about that on the Starting Strength boards. These guys are citing studies and not really interpreting the data correctly, but every cell in your body turns over. That means it dies and gets replaced with a new one, but fat cells, they’re not an exception to that rule. You’re turning them over, but you’re not going to lose more fat cells than you’re replacing. It’s typically a one to one ratio.
When you’re losing body fat, those fat cells are getting emptied essentially, but they’re not actually losing the fat cells.
Brett McKay: At strength con, you mentioned this kind of interesting thing about body fat and how generally, so there’s a one to one ratio. A fat cell turns over. It dies, whatever, and then it’s replaced by a new fat cell. You started to say that some people actually create more fat cells than they need. So even if they make those fat cells shrink by tapping into the stored fat storage, they’re not going to get much skinnier because they’ve got more fat cells than they had when they were born or when they were a kid.
Robert Santana: The total number of fat cells a human has is determined primarily by genetics and then there’s data suggesting that environmental stuff can influence that as well. Typically, when you’re born, you’re probably adding most of your fat cells in that first year of life. You’re proliferating them at a very rapid rate. That continues all the way to about 20 years of age. You’re adding new fat cells and they’re expanding, to some extent. After about age 20, early adulthood, it’s believed that that stopped happening and any increase in fat mass is due to an increase in fat cell size, not fat cell number. There’s some data out there suggesting that some people might be able to add more fat cells and expand them at the same time.
This is probably like your 600-pound person. How does that happen? There might be some genetic things going on there that may be causing that person to add fat cells as an adult, but we don’t know that for sure. Generally, for most people that are not your 600-pound person, you’re typically getting an increase in fat cell size. To put that in a context, when you’re trying to lose weight …
This was a hot topic in the late 60s, early to mid-70s. They did a lot of studies on fat cells and they were doing adipose tissue biopsies where they took a piece of fat out of the person and determined their fat cell size, fat cell number, and saw how they responded to different things, primarily diet. There was one in particular that comes to mind where they got a group of women. I mean, this wasn’t the best research design. So I’m not saying that, “Oh, this is fact,” but they got a group of women, back in the ’70s. They told them, “All right. Lose as much weight as you can on any diet you want and then come back to us when you can’t lose any more.” So they basically had everybody diet to a plateau. And then they took sample of their fat cell before and after and what they found was that there was a trend towards a measure of about point micrograms in weight and nobody got below that.
The theory is that there’s a certain size at which the fat cell cannot get any smaller. That when it empties out it’s roughly about .4 micrograms. Now, again, this is not a fact based on this study, but it gives us some idea of what tends to happen for at least a group of people. So maybe some person might be able to get lower than that. Well, so what? The point is that there was no indication that fat cell number decreased in these individuals.
Brett McKay: Okay. I guess the big takeaway from this then is when you’re exercising, you’re not burning fat probably. You have to meet a caloric deficit to lose body fat. There might be a certain point … A fat cell can only shrink so small and that’s about as low as it can get. And then some people, like this 600-pound person, they’ve probably had an increase in number of fat cells and an increase in the size of those fat cells and it’s probably going to be really hard for them to lose body fat.
Robert Santana: Most likely, yes.
Brett McKay: Okay. The other thing, we’ve had people on the podcast discussing, endurance athletes particularly, talking about the wonders of low-carb, high-fat diets and they talk about ketones, and how they’re like this clean source of energy that allows you to run forever and you think clearer, or whatever. For those who aren’t familiar, what are ketones and how does that power the body in just day to day living or even, say, strenuous exercise?
Robert Santana: Well, sure. Ketones. When you’re on a mixed diet, you’re primarily operating on carbs. The brain’s preferred fuel are carbs because fat’s a big large molecule. It can’t get up there. Your brain can’t effectively use it. When you restrict carbohydrates and now you’re relying on fat as an energy source because you can’t use fat, your body starts releasing these substances called ketones. That’s what you start using for energy. Basically, the best way to explain these is ketones are a collection of fuels that your liver uses and your liver manufactures it. So your liver makes these ketone bodies and your brain is able to use that for energy when you’re deprived of glucose.
So let’s say you’re on a low-carb diet and you’re at 20 grams a day, your brain’s like, “Hey. I need more glucose.” By the way, your brain typically needs around 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to function effectively. When on a low-carb diet, your liver basically starts making these ketones from stored fatty acids. It’s like an emergency back-up fuel to keep your brain functioning well. That’s what happens. You’re eating all these fats and then you’re not getting carbs to your brain to function, so then your liver’s like, “Hey. Let’s take some of these fatty acids and make these little things called ketones so that our brain can continue to work.”
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s basically there for brain function. It doesn’t do anything for aerobic function. I’ve heard that, like, ketones are great for aerobic activities. I guess that’s not the case?
Robert Santana: No. There’s an old paper on keto-adaptation and endurance exercise performance. Everybody loves to cite it. What they found was that some of these cyclists or runners, I can’t remember off hand. It’s been a while since I read the paper, but they were looking at endurance athletes that were on ketogenic diets and they were making this case that, hey, maybe they just need to be in ketosis longer, so they can keto adapt, and once they’re keto-adapted then they can operate on a low-carb diet and use fat as an energy source and it should be fine. But when you look closely at the data, what they typically don’t say is that, hey, the guys who were the most keto-adapted also had the poorest performance. So, no. You typically can’t use that for immediate energy.
Brett McKay: We talked about fat. Let’s talk about carbs. Carbs have begun to get bad rep. They’re evil. They make you fat. They cause inflammation, etc., etc. Are carbs that evil? Do they deserve the bad rap they’ve gotten?
Robert Santana: No. In short, no. First of all, what foods are high in carbs? Your grains are high in carbs. Typically, keto people eat vegetables, so I’m not going to include that in the list, but vegetables are very nutrient dense. They have a lot of micronutrients in there. Your fruits have a lot of good micronutrients and also high in fiber. So do the whole grains. So are things like beans. Right? Fiber is good for lowering cholesterol levels. There’s a lot of benefits to fiber. It increases gastric motility. So it’s good for your intestinal health and improves your good gut bacteria.
You get all that from carbs. You don’t get that from eating meat and protein primarily. You get a lot of that from carbs. Depending on your carb sources, some of them enhance absorption of certain nutrients better than others.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That makes sense. All right. So we got carbs help with … Just like fat. Fat helps with vitamin absorption. We need that for vitamin D, vitamin A. Carbs can help with vitamin absorption for these other vitamins.
Robert Santana: Yep, yep, yep.
Brett McKay: Do carbs cause inflammation? Because that’s the one thing people say. “As soon as I eliminated carbs, like, my skin cleared up. I’ve gotten rid of whatever digestive issues I’ve had.” What’s going on there when people say that or is there anything to that?
Robert Santana: I think we’ve really got to think about what type of carbs are these people talking about? What does the average American who’s on a quote/unquote high-carb diet or a poor diet eat? Let’s give some examples. Doughnuts, hamburgers, french fries, fast food. Right? I feel like a lot of people have this one-dimensional view that, “Oh, I just cut the carbs out and I feel better,” but hold on a second. Let’s look at these foods I just listed. French fries are a carb, right? But they’re also fat because they’re deep-fried. Potato chips, I think people would classify that as a carb, but those are also high in fat. Doughnuts, you think about how sweet they are because of the sugar. Well, doughnuts are high in fat too. They’re deep-fried.
They’re usually cutting out both carbs and saturated and trans fat from their diet, is what’s happening, and they’re eating overall fewer calories. I don’t know. This is one of the problems that nutrition researches. I don’t know exactly what people are eating. Nobody does. A lot of our science is based off what people say they eat.
I was recently at a conference, I think it was a year ago, a little over a year ago, and this biostatistician gave a presentation on this. He was talking about how we’ve been following data for the last 30 years on what people say they eat and making recommendations off of it. He finished off his talk by saying, “This is an example of when something is not better than nothing, and until we have a better way of measuring it, we probably shouldn’t even report on this.” His name was David Allison, by the way. Great researcher.
It was great because it put it into context. You’re saying all these things people say, but are they really eating bananas and oranges and apples and whole grains and beans all day? Probably not. Right?
Brett McKay: Right. Okay. We talked about some carbs. They’re not evil. We need them for performance, but what happens to an individual who’s doing strength training, or even endurance training, and they go low-carb? How will that affect performance?
Robert Santana: Well, here’s what happens. Let’s say you’re an endurance athlete and you’re in what’s called in steady state exercise for most of your activity until the very end when you have to do an all-out sprint. You’re a marathon runner, so your workouts could be several hours long depending on where you’re at in your training, and you might do this every day. Well, the thing people fail to realize is when you’re in steady state exercise, you’re not burning 100% of your calories from fat. Steady state is not laying down on a couch. You’re running at a decent pace that you can sustain for several hours and you’re burning both fat and carbohydrates. If you keep doing that long enough, eventually you deplete your glycogen stores and you can’t effectively run. Your blood glucose levels drop. Your energy levels drop. If you’re actually racing, you’re not going to do very well the last leg of the race when you need to sprint.
Brett McKay: For weightlifters, I guess, you get weak basically.
Robert Santana: That’s the end result, but it’s kind of a similar concept. Lifting’s a little bit tricky. What you want to think about is none of these energy systems are 100% working by themselves at any point in time. All three of them are working together. Just to review back to earlier, you have your ATO phosphocreatine for explosive activities, then you go into what’s called glycolysis, where you’re using primarily glucose, and then you go into oxidative metabolism, where you’re using a little more fat, but at no point are you just using one. There all always operating, just depending on what yr activity is, you might use one more than the other.
In the weight room, for instance, yeah. Let’s say you’re doing a set of five. Let’s say you’re doing five sets of five to put this into better context. You have to unrack the bar. You gotta walk out. You do your first rep. Second rep gets slower. Third rep gets slower. By the time it’s all said and done, it might take 10 to 15 seconds, maybe 20 depending on how heavy it was. So by the end of it, you start tapping into glycolysis and now you’re breaking down muscle glycogen in that single set of five, and then you’re going to follow it up in a few minutes. So you still have to replenish ATP phosphocreatines, so you can use that again in the next set, and if you’re not resting long enough, you’re not going to be able to do that, which is why it’s going to be harder. By the end of it, you’ve done 25 reps at this high intensity. The sets tend to take longer and longer.
Instead of continuously breaking down glycogen like you would in an endurance activity, it’s more incremental because you’re breaking up these sets. Essentially, they’re like intervals. You know? So by the end of a heavy squat workout, you do five fives, and you do five fives on the bench, and then you pull your deadlifts at a five, maybe do some back offs. You’ve broken down a good chunk of glycogen. I mean, you’re not going to be glycogen depleted unless you’re on a low-carb diet so that puts it all into context to answer your question. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you now don’t have enough fuel to sustain all those sets. So what I’ve typically seen when people aren’t eating enough, the first set goes fine and then things start to go to hell after like set two or three.
Yeah. Just the same thing. It just happens a little bit differently and since you’re not using as much during a lifting session as you would during an aerobic session it just kind of builds up over time. After a couple of workouts, let’s say you just started low-carb on Monday. You might get away with Monday’s workout because you still have some glucose stores in there. Maybe Tuesday you’re going to break down some more. By workout three, you’re just, like you said, you’re going to feel like crap because you can’t power through it. You know? And then you’re in a negative energy balance, too, so you’re not producing as much ATP either because of overall calories.
Brett McKay: Okay, you mentioned ATP. So how does our body create more ATP? Is that where creatine comes in to play?
Robert Santana: Creatine and ATP are two separate things. ATP’s your body’s energy source. Everything you eat like carbs, fat, protein, all that’s converted into ATP and it happens at different rates and you get different amounts depending on the macro. So you’ll get a lot of ATP from a gram of fat. Obviously, it’s nine calories per gram, but you can’t readily access it because it takes longer to break down, digest, and absorb a fat versus a carb that’s more readily available.
Brett McKay: In the beginning when you laid out sort of how our body partitions macronutrients as we consume them, you made the point that as you consume more carbs, you burn more carbs. Your body becomes more efficient. Is that why when you eat a lot of carbs, you start feeling hungrier, like, more? I’ve noticed that when I eat higher carb, like, “Man. I’m hungry again and I just ate like an hour ago.” Is that what’s going on? My body has gotten really good at burning those carbs, so it’s like, “Hey. Give me some more carbs?”
Robert Santana: Yeah, that’s part of the reason. So, each macronutrient has a thermic effect, which means that the digestion and absorption of fat, carb, and protein is different. Protein is the highest thermic effective food, which is another benefit to a high-protein diet that’s not muscle related. If you eat a diet higher in protein, hypothetically, you’re going to burn more calories than if you eat a diet lower in protein. How much? Not really a huge amount, but it just takes more energy to break down and absorb and digest protein.
Carb would be second and then fat would be last because fat just gets stored very easily. Your body likes efficiency. Let’s just put it that way. You know?
Let’s say that you’re on a low-fat diet and you’re eating a bunch of carbs. You’re feeling hungry all the time. Well, let’s also not forget that carbs have half the calories of fat, so you have to eat twice the amount of food in terms of volume, food weight, to get that number of calories.
To give you an example, there’s a 2001 study by a scientist named David Jenkins and they were looking at the effects of very high fiber diets on cholesterol levels. So it wasn’t a weight loss study or anything. What was cool about this study was, I mean, they fed the people. They had them stay there overnight and, actually, I’m not sure if they stayed overnight or if they just prepared the food and they picked it up, but they provided these people with the food.
The interesting thing about it was they reported the weight in grams of each item that they gave the person on the menu, and they had two groups. One group ate 100% of their carbs from starch and one group ate 100% of their carbs from fruits and vegetables. The group that ate 100% of their carbs from fruits and vegetables, they were on a 2700 calorie diet. I believe 60% of it was carbohydrate. Roughly 20% of it was fat, and then about 15 to 20% protein. Just ballpark figures. It was a 2700 calorie diet. So, now, let’s think about this. 65% of that 2700 calories is going to come from carbohydrates and those carbohydrates have to be 100% from fruits and vegetables because that was the treatment condition. So if you do the math on that, that’s 405 carbs only fruits and vegetables. So try to picture what that looks like.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It looks like a big giant salad bowl.
Robert Santana: Yeah. Actually, when you total up the weight of all the food items on that menu, it was 11 pounds of food and needless to say, their bowel movements did change.
Brett McKay: If we eat more carbs, we become more efficient at burning them, at what point is too many carbs too much and then your body starts storing that as fat?
Robert Santana: The term for that is de novo lipogenesis. That basically means when you’re converting a macronutrient that’s not fat into stored body fat. It’s a metabolically inefficient process, which means that your body doesn’t like to do it, and you have to overfeed carbs while keeping fat low, to theoretically pull this off. Let’s say that you’re on a 20 gram of fat diet and you’re trying to get fat from eating carbs because this would be the best way to do it. Right? If you’re not getting enough fat in, you can’t store it.
Let’s try to think about what that looks like, 20 grams of fat and 500 carbs. So that’s 2000 calories from carbs. You’re probably getting protein in there too. I mean, I don’t think … It’s going to be tough to accomplish, but to better answer that question, they’ve published papers on this and the estimated number, I believe, is 125 to 175% of the calories you need, your total daily calories to achieve that. You’ve got to factor in fat, too, because you’re going to store the fat first.
Let’s say you burn 2000 calories. That means you have to eat 2000 calories in carb. That’s about 500 carbohydrates that you have to eat. Then you’re also going to store the fat first. So let’s say you drop your fat to 20, so you store those first 20 grams and then you have to eat, basically, pounds upon pounds of food to accomplish what you’re talking about. I think in the study where they were able to induce it, I think it took that many carbs. So let’s five to six hundred carbs, and I don’t know what the fat intake was, and it was like a fraction of a fraction of a pound of fat came from the carbohydrates based on what they were using to measure it.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, one thing I want to point out with what you just said about fat gain, when you consume you only gain fat when … Make sure I’m getting this right. You only gain fat when you eat a caloric surplus and it’s that fat that you’ve eaten or consumed will be converted into stored body fat first. Is that how it works?
Robert Santana: Yeah. Pretty much. First and foremost, you have to be eating over maintenance for this to happen. You have to be in a caloric surplus to induce fat gain. Assuming that you’re eating more energy than you’re expending, the first thing that’s going to happen is whatever fat calories you’re taking in, that’s going to go to your stored fat first before you do any type of de novo lipogenesis. Again, you have to eat a lot of carbs or a lot of protein, theoretically, to induce that, but let’s just assume you’re a typical American on a high-fat, high-carb diet. You’re eating three, 400 carbs a day and 200 grams of fat. You’re going to store the fat first and that’s going to accumulate over time.
Brett McKay: All right, so the takeaway there then is people get fat not because of carbs probably. It’s probably they’re eating fatty carbs. They’re eating hamburgers, pizza, Ding Dongs, whatever. It’s carbs that are, I think you’ve said this phrase, they’re fortified with fat.
Robert Santana: Yeah. Essentially, yeah. I sat that our American diet is very much fortified with fat. The easiest way to essentially get fat, if your goal was to gain body fat, would be on a high-carb, high-fat diet because what do we know now? You’re going to burn off the carbs. You’re going to store the fat. So if you’re eating a high-carb, high-fat diet, you’re on the fast track to gaining a bunch of body fat. That’s why Oreos are so lovely for that.
Brett McKay: What about protein? Does protein ever get converted to fat or is that the same thing with carbs? It’s inefficient, so your body doesn’t like to do it?
Robert Santana: Your body likes efficiency, but protein. Good luck trying to eat that much. I mean, you’ll be full before you’re even a quarter of the way there.
Brett McKay: Right. Another thing I think is so fascinating about the body is, again, it like efficiency and it requires glucose or glycogen to think and do these other functions. One of the things I’ve read in sort of the high-fat, low-carb blogosphere, books is that one problem some folks run into is they’re eating high-fat, high-protein diet, low-carb that, I guess, the body can convert protein into glycogen in some weird way and so you end up getting out of ketosis because you ate too much protein.
Robert Santana: Sure. What you’re talking about there, that’s another fancy scientific term, called gluconeogenesis. That’s basically where you’re converting non-carbohydrate macronutrients into glucose. It could happen with fat too, although it’s very hard to do. Let’s say you’re on a low-carb diet that’s high in fat, high in protein, and you’re eating a ton of protein and you’re not utilizing it, protein can be converted into glucose a lot easier than fat via this process. Again, your body likes efficiency. You know what I mean?
Yes. That could happen. You can definitely start converting protein into glucose if your body needs it. That’s why I know that some of these keto people, they’ll restrict protein too and just try to get as much fat as possible.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s not good for gains. You need protein to build muscle, man.
Robert Santana: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: We’ve talked a lot. I mean, this goes to show why there’s so much confusion about nutrition because it’s like a relatively, it’s a complex process going on. Not just a process, processes going on all at the same time. So let’s recap some of this theoretical stuff and then we can get into sort of the practical stuff. I guess, big takeaways that I got. We need proteins carbs and fat for functioning. Carbs are good. We need carbs for high-intensity exercise, thinking. Like our brain requires it. The more carbs we eat, we get more efficient at carbs. Fat, when we consume fat, if we consume a lot of fat, we get better at burning that dietary fat, that fat we consume, not stored fat.
Robert Santana: As long as carbs are low. As long as carbs are low.
Brett McKay: As long as carbs are low. The other takeaway is, I mean, if you want to lose weight, you have to be in a caloric deficit. That means you have to eat fewer calories than you are burning.
Robert Santana: Absolutely. Yep. That’s correct.
Brett McKay: Okay. This is good. This is useful. So let’s talk about, okay, how do we, knowing this and taking this and applying to different health goals that people might have. Sort of broadly speaking, when you program nutrition for a client, what’s your approach? Is it counting calories, macros? Is it some sort of zone body diet? What’s your big picture approach?
Robert Santana: Generally, this is going to depend on the person. I like macros. I like meal plan. It depends on who I’m working with. If you have a guy, and this comes back to just being practical, and individualizing your care. If you have an individual who is on a pretty regimented schedule every single day and doesn’t have very much variation there, a meal plan tends to work good. If you have somebody who is traveling all the time or works all day one day and then has time spread out the next day, I like macros better. Total macros.
Above all, basically, the overarching theme is I like to figure out their macros first, and the way I do that is I have everybody track whether I’m going to put them on a meal plan or not. After that week is over, I’ll look at what they’re normally eating because I want to get some idea of their usual intake. Obviously, what people write down isn’t necessarily what’s going on, but it’s something. We’re not doing a research paper here. We’re working with humans. In this case, it is better than nothing because I need something to work with them on. Based on what they give me, then I’ll reconfigure things.
Typically, with an average person, you’re going to see high fat, high carb, low protein, and then you’ve got to reconfigure those macros. Now, if I’m putting them on a meal plan, I’m going to give them a schedule. Be like, “Okay. Eat this much carb, fat, and protein for this meal.” And then eat every three to five hours depending on what their schedule is. “If you can’t eat at this time, move it to this time.” That’ll be what I do for that person.
For the other person who doesn’t want all that structure and likes to fly by the seat of their pants, I’ll say, “Okay. You need to get this total amount of carb. This total amount of fat. This total amount of protein. This total amount of fiber throughout the whole day. Don’t really care how you break it up, just try not to do it all in one meal. One or two meals. Try to get at least three meals.” That’s pretty much how I start somebody.
I guess the real thing I’m trying to communicate here is there’s no 100% accurate way to figure out where somebody is at baseline. You just have to get some rough estimate based on either what they’re giving you or some validated equation and then work from there. So that’s where having a coach is really helpful because it’s really how it becomes individualized. I can give you something that, you know, a cookie cutter template that I just hand over to you and you run off with and if you’re experienced with dieting, you’re going to probably do great with it because you’ve been through it enough times to know your body, but if you’re taking a raw novice dieter, for lack of a good word, and you give them something that’s cookie cutter, they’re probably going to mess it up and not do what’s written on there and have a bunch of problems, and that’s where the coaching becomes very helpful because you get to know how the person’s body responds and kind of build around that.
Brett McKay: It sounds like one approach you mentioned like with the macro, if it fits your macros. I think that’s what you’ve been having me do. You just said, “Here’s these macros.” You haven’t really given me a meal plan and just said, “Hit these macros. Track them with,” I use MyFitnessPal, and then I report to you sort of like how I did that week.
Robert Santana: Yeah, sure. I do that for a lot of people. That’s typically my default because it’s more laid back for some people, but what I’m finding is there’s other people out there that like structure too. I’d say it’s probably half and half, but I usually start with macros because it’s all based on macros. I’ll always start with total macros because it’s simple. It’s easier to wrap your mind around and then as the person goes on if they’re cool with that, you stick with it. If they’re not, you say, “Okay. Here’s a little more structure.” But ultimately, both approaches depend on macros and total calories.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about fitness goals or nutrition goals. I’ve heard this kind of thrown around. 80% of weight loss is diet and 20% is exercise. So diet’s a big key. Losing body fat is a big goal for a lot of people. Let’s start with someone who’s really overweight. We’re talking above 20%. What would we consider obese in terms of body fat?
Robert Santana: I’d say once you start getting over 30% body fat, you’re probably in pretty bad shape because yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s say you’re over 30% body fat, what’s your sort of broad, again, it’s going to be personalized individual for each person, but broadly speaking, what’s your recommendation on calories and macronutrients?
Robert Santana: So, if you have a 250-pound guy who’s always been 250 pounds and tends to be what we would call a non-responder to weight loss, typically most of those guys, let’s say he’s lifting weights. He’s strong. He’s done the program for a couple of years. Got his squat up. Got his deadlift up. Wants to lose weight. Typically, I’d start somebody like that, let’s get the fat at 100 for the high end to start because most people come in here eating over 100 grams of fat a day. So putting them on 60 or 70 in the beginning is going to freak them out.
When I get these guys that are used to eating a lot of fat, I’ll say, “Okay. Let’s go to 100 on fat.” And then I’ll typically put their carbs somewhere around 250 and protein around 200, 225, and for various reasons. Not because they need that much protein to build muscle. That’s not why I’m doing that. Just to be clear. You don’t need that much protein to build muscle mass, but protein has other functions, so it helps keep you full and during a diet that’s important. So I tend to go higher on the protein for that. Too, it also helps with glycemic response. It helps you get stable blood glucose and insulin levels.
Brett McKay: Okay. How much weight should they be shooting for a week losing? Is it like one to two pounds?
Robert Santana: Yeah. Typically, one to two pounds. I mean, if they lose more and they’re still able to train, I don’t say, “Oh, my god. Let’s eat more food.” But if they lose more and they’re getting gasped in their first week, then I say, “Okay. Hold on. We need a little bit more.”
Brett McKay: Right. Okay. So, yeah. This is assuming that the person you’re working with is also training with weights. And so, not only are you taking into account, okay, we want to lose weight, lose body fat, we also want to make sure your performance stays good as well.
Robert Santana: Yeah. That’s where the term, I love this term, well-balanced diet. That’s where that becomes more important. When you’re dealing with an athlete or somebody who is doing some sort of intense activity that they care about, that they want to preserve their function in. The extreme diets don’t tend to work on that front, so you have to keep the carbs high, reasonably high so that you can still train, and you have to keep the protein at a certain level, and then that’s where the only one you have left is fat, and that’s why we tend to gravitate towards low-fat diets for lifters because it’s not really contributing much to performance, if anything. So that’s where we start to cut first.
You’ve done both, I’m assuming. Low-carb and low-fat, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Robert Santana: With low-carb you’re going to feel symptoms of weakness a lot faster than low-fat.
Brett McKay: Right. No. Yeah. I experienced that. I think before I started working with you, when I first started training, I did high-fat, low-carb because I thought I was going to lose some weight. What ended up happening was I got really weak and I got fatter and I didn’t feel good. I told Matt, I was like, “I need to not do this.” I went to a higher carb, lower fat, and started feeling great, lifts started going up, and I started losing weight, which was, I thought, really counterintuitive based on all the information I had been consuming for the past five years about how nutrition works and whatever.
I imagine as someone’s losing weight, like I’m talking about our 250-pound guy, that as he loses weight, you also need to keep reducing calories to keep the weight drive weight loss going?
Robert Santana: Sure. Yeah. Of course. I think you experienced that this past week. Eventually, you get to a point where you can’t lose more. Depending on how much weight you have to lose and who you are, you might start getting weak or feeling like crap, etc., but the only way to continue driving additional weight loss is to cut back.
The approach I like to take is let’s say you got a guy who’s 300 pounds and he loses the first 30 or 40 pounds, no problem, and then he’s like, “Oh, crap. I’m missing my bench press, feeling hungry all the time. I’m having dreams about food.” And you’re getting all these psychological symptoms that kind of start arising, that’s when I say, “Whoa. Hold on, buddy. Let’s put the brakes on. We’re going to up your calories. Get you into a maintenance phase and just have you train for a while and not worry about fat loss.” From there, we’ll do that and then after, depends on the person, I like three months. I find that some clients, they want to just go right back to it, so we’ll do a month, but in a perfect world, I like three to six months because it gives you enough time away from dieting, allows you to eat, live a reasonably normal life for a while before you go right back to it.
So let’s say our 300-pound guy is 260 now, and then six months later, he’s been training, got his strength back up a little bit. Now I want to take him from 260 down to 220, and then at 230 he starts saying, “Oh, I’m hungry again and this is happening.” So I stop at 230 instead. I say, “Okay. We’re not going to go to 220. We’ll go to 230.” And I will stop again and then maybe a few months down the line, try it a third time. This approach seems to work in terms of keeping the performance together during a period of fat loss.
Brett McKay: No. That’s really interesting because I think when most people think fat loss, they think they’re going to do it in one fell swoop. You know, like the headlines you see on the magazines when you checkout at the grocery store? “Lose 30 pounds of body fat in two months.” It sounds like you don’t do that because that could probably just destroy you psychologically. Also, it can hurt your training as well.
Robert Santana: Yeah. If you start losing it rapidly, first of all, it’s going to mess with your head. You’re going to have psychological problems arise from that. Two, it’s going to mess up your training and, three, you’re more likely to gain the weight back because you went on a severe crazy restriction that you couldn’t sustain. You know?
Brett McKay: I imagine as you get lower in body fat, all right, let’s say, you’re a guy. You’re like in the 18% body fat range, so you’re looking pretty jacked, but you’re not shredded yet. Say like that’s your goal. You want six-pack abs. Does it get really hard to lose, or we’re not losing, we’re shrinking those fat cells. Does it become harder as you get lower in body fat?
Robert Santana: Yeah. Yeah. The leaner you get, the harder your body fights back. It’s a survival mechanism there. I’m always telling people this. I’m like, after a certain point, your body’s going to fight back and why does that happen? Because historically, we had mechanisms in place to protect us during times of famine, and one of those mechanisms is you store a bunch of body fat so that if there’s no food available, you have some energy to use. Once you get to a certain point of fat loss, and you’re trying to get jacked and tan, your body’s like, “Whoa. Hold on a second. That’s my savings account and you’re trying to empty it out completely. I don’t want to do that.” And then you start getting up-regulation of hunger hormones. So now you’re hungry all the time. You’re getting cravings. Your brain stops functioning correctly, lose your sex drive. It’s basically your body’s way of saying, “I’m not getting rid of this. You’re not cleaning my bank account out.”
Brett McKay: We can talk about my experience working with you. I started working with you two months ago.
Robert Santana: Yeah, about.
Brett McKay: Yeah, two months ago. So before that time, Matt kind of gave me, Matt my barbell coach, Starting Strength Coach, kind of gave me general recommendations. I started working with you after I did the last meet in March in Wichita Falls. Before that time, I was eating like 350 grams of carbs, 220 grams of protein, and 70 grams of fat or 90 grams of fat. So it was about 3500 to 3600 calories and I was doing that right before the meet because I was just like focusing on getting big and strong. I wanted to perform well. I weighed out at the meet at 219, so I just got under the cut-off on the weight.
I told Matt, “It’s like, you know what,” and I got fat. I think my waist was up. I can’t remember my initial measurement. I think it was like 37 inches when I reported to you the first time.
Robert Santana: That sounds right.
Brett McKay: 36. Yeah. I said, “Hey. I want to take a break from this and maybe trim down a bit.” So you gave me the recommendation. We went down to 2500 calories, about. So we were at 250 carbs, 250 protein. You increased the protein to help with that satiation, and we went 60 grams fat. I was telling you, man, this is awesome. I was doing great. Feeling great for the first, I would say six weeks. Performance really didn’t suffer too much during training, but this week, I think I hit a wall.
Robert Santana: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I remember I sent you an email. I was like, “Dude, I’m hungry all the time.” It got to the point where it was distracting during my work. I couldn’t get work done because I was just like, “I’m hungry. I gotta eat something.” I would go to bed hungry. I hated it and I was like …
But, but I mean, I made progress. I went from 37-inch waist, I think yesterday, measured at 33 and three-fourths inch waist, and I went from 219, weighing out at 219. Well, I mean, here’s the thing. When you weigh out, for people who don’t know, when you do a strength or a weightlifting competition, like, all day you’re just consuming carbs and water because, again, you want … Because it’s a really taxing day. You’re lifting all day doing these really heavy single lifts, so you need that glucose to keep you powered, so you don’t bottom out. So, yeah, you store a lot of water and glycogen. The next day I weighed 225 pounds and then just going back to my normal diet, I went back to 219 because I shed all that water. Right?
Robert Santana: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So I went from 219 to 208, which is pretty, again, two months, eight pounds and lost about four inches on my waist. I was like, “Man. Maybe I can go for, like, six-pack.” And then like this week, I was like, “No. It’s not worth it.” I asked you, “Is this gonna be like, is this gonna get harder and if so, like, I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Robert Santana: Right. Yeah, so. That’s the thing. You know. I was talking to somebody this morning, a client of mine that was visiting in town. I went to breakfast with her and we were talking about that. I’m like, at a certain point, fat loss becomes like a sport and there are risks associated with it. You have the risk of injury when you’re under the bar. You know. Musculoskeletal injury. When you’re dieting really hard, you have the risk of anxiety, depression, low energy, decreased libido. These are all risks of continuing down that path. I like to relate it to sport because it comes to a certain point where, okay, your dieting is no longer about health. Now you have some sort of a competitive goal there whether you’re actually competing in bodybuilding or not is irrelevant. There are people that chase a 600-pound deadlift that never go on a platform. That’s still a competitive endeavor.
I tell people, I’m like, if you’re trying to get jacked and tan, that is a bucket list/competitive endeavor and it’s no longer about health at that point. What you have to understand is, yes, you’re going to feel hungry. You’re going to be dreaming about food. Your sex drive might go down. You might lose energy. You might not be able to train. You might lose weight off the bar. All these negative things could start happening and for some people there’s long-term consequences to that if they do that too much. For others, it’s fine. Again, genetics, but yeah.
So then the question becomes is it really worth it. If you really want to see your abs and that’s an important goal to you, then yeah, push through it, but these things are going to happen. So, like, I went through that a few years ago. It’s been two years now. Wow. I wanted to get down pretty low because I had been so heavy for a while and it wasn’t serving me. I wasn’t lifting more. The amount of weight gain that I had put on didn’t, the weight on the bar didn’t justify it, so I wanted to take myself down and I wanted to take myself way down. So I got myself down to like 11.8% body fat. This still, this is not bodybuilder levels. Bodybuilders are 5%-ish if you’re on DEXA. Even at that point, I was hungry all the time, dizzy. I’d got to the gym, I’d do my squats, and I’d see spots afterwards.
Again, that was at that point it wasn’t about health. It stopped being about health once I got under 15% body fat. I would even argue 20. At that point, it was about I want to get really lean because I’ve always wanted to do it and I want to see if it’s possible. For me, it fortunately was. For some people, that may not be something that’s possible without possibly surgery. But, yeah, at that point, I knew it wasn’t about health and even the lifting I was doing was not about health. I’m not a very impressive lifter, but the amount that I lift is not necessary for me to be functional and healthy. I do that competitively, in terms of I compete with myself on it. I want these PRs. I want these numbers.
The same thing goes for leanness. At a certain point, your leanness no longer becomes about health. You are putting your safety on the line to some extent.
Brett McKay: Right. I decide it’s not worth it. I was like, nah. I want to get that 600-pound deadlift. I’m okay. I’m healthy. I look good right now and I’m happy. I’m just not shredded, but I’m okay with that.
Robert Santana: Right. Yeah.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking losing weight. I guess the thing is there, I like the big takeaway from there is that if your goal is to lose weight and maintain performance whether you’re an endurance athlete or a strength athlete, to do it in stages. Don’t try to do it all in one fell swoop. Do it for two months, take a break for three months then go at it again.
Let’s talk about gaining weight because there are some guys who are listening to this, they are like the stereotypical Charles Atlas ad, the 90-pound weakling or whatever. They get sand kicked. They want to put on some mass and be bigger. I’ve got friends who are like, no matter how much they eat, like, “I don’t gain weight.” What’s going on with those guys and what do they need to do to gain weight?
Robert Santana: I guess I’ll talk about what I did and how I apply this to other people. Like I said, a couple of years ago, and I got myself down to like 11% body fat. I worked with Nick Shaw of Renaissance Periodization. He helped me with that and then afterwards, I just kept training when on my own and kind of just doing my own thing with diet. I kind of took that knowledge to kind of explain what I just did, then later on, I was like, “Okay. I need to get stronger. My programming’s all over the place.” And I hired Reynolds. He started doing my strength coaching and I just did my own thing with diet.
That’s also when I sat in an obesity class here at ASU, which I recommend to anybody in the state of Arizona that has access to ASU and can take a graduate level elective. There’s this obesity and health class taught by Glenn Gaesser. He’s an obesity expert. That’s where I learned a lot of this stuff about nutrient oxidation. As I’m sitting in that class taking all this information in, I was like, “Okay. Wait a minute.” I’m like, “I need to gain muscle mass and I want to skew that weight gain towards muscular body weight and away from fat weight.” So if eating more carbs cause you to burn more carbs and store less fat, then what if I just pull the fat back, ramp the carbs up, and just keep training, what would happen?
I tried that. I tried a very low-fat diet initially. Reynolds thought I was insane because I had got all the way down to 15 just to experiment. Didn’t last very long, but I think the lowest I saw in my tracker was 15, and then I ramped my carbs up to 400 and seriously, it was like I took speed. The next time I lifted, my squat just got dramatically easier. It was awesome. So I kept doing that and over time, this has been, what? I’ve been with Matt for 16 months. Over time, I’ve gained about 13, 12, 13 pounds and my deadlift went from 440 to 500. My squat went from 370 to 420. I don’t care what Rip says. That’s what I base my percentages off of. Yeah. 370 to 420 and my bench went from, I think, 269 to 291 and my press is back at 205, although, I had 211, I start to faint when I’m pressing. I can’t figure out how to control that, but I faint halfway up and I can’t seem to lock anything out over 205 without passing out, so right now it’s 205.
Now, to be clear on that, I pressed 210 at 205 before. I benched 290 at 205 before, but these squat and deadlifts, these are big PRs. I never hit that when I was fat. These happened when I was lean.
Anyways, my whole thing about it was, I’m like, okay. Muscle takes a long time to gain. You don’t gain it in a week or two weeks or even a month. I mean, yeah, in a month, probably, you start building some muscle. I’ve been trained because I’ve been lifting weights for almost 19 years, I think. I started in 1999 and I’ve been squatting and deadlifting. I’ve been squatting for about 16 years and I’ve been deadlifting for about five.
The lifts I’ve trained consistently are the squat and the bench and the pull-up. I’ve been doing that consistently since I started lifting weights. I added the deadlift and the press about five years, no, eight years ago now. Wow. I bring all that up because I’m a trained lifter. I’m not a novice. The more trained you become, the less muscle you’re going to gain over time. Eventually, you stop gaining muscle mass. The way I looked at it was I’m just going to train, focus on pushing my weight up on the bar. I’m not going to worry about my body weight. I’m going to let my body weight do what it does. I’m going to eat enough so that I’m getting through these workouts, and setting new PRs. The reason I say that is because what drives muscle gain?
I always get these questions from guys saying, “Oh. I want a mass. Can you give me a diet to mass?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but what’s your training looking like?” I don’t like giving people mass diets that I’m not coaching because if you’re not stimulating the muscle correctly, you’re not going to gain muscle. It’s like saying, “Okay. I’m going to give you a diet, you’re going to follow it and gain muscle mass without lifting weights.” I mean, the diet supplements the training. The training is the stimulus. So when I’m talking to guys about gaining weight, the first thing I say is, “Either work with me or work with a strength coach that’s competent because the stimulus for building muscle is the strength training. You have to get stronger at it over time.” So that gets into a whole nother ball of wax when you’re talking about programming.
But my whole approach with it is if you’re performing more over time, let’s say you’re lifting more weight six months from now for a set of 10, a set of five. It really doesn’t matter. I mean, the research says it. Us as coaches have seen it. If you train eights and get stronger at eights, you’re going to get bigger muscles. If you train fives and get stronger at fives, you’re going to get bigger muscles. If you do even 12s you’ll get bigger muscles as long as you’re improving within that rep range. The bottom line is the training stimulates the growth then you have to eat to facilitate that.
You gotta figure, okay, if you’re gaining 15 pounds in a month and you’re a trained lifter like myself, I’d say probably 95% of that’s going to be fat. It’s going to be slower. The more advanced you become, the slower the weight gain’s going to be and the less body weight you’re going to gain as a trained lifter versus a novice. That guy gains 10 pounds in a month, maybe half of that’s muscle. Maybe he gains five pounds of muscle in his first month or I should say lean mass is more like it because a novice, they’re going to increase blood volume. They’re going to increase glycogen stores. That’s going to increase their lean weight. They’ll probably start building muscle around week six and then that will continue over time, so in like a three to six month period, a novice might gain five to 10 pounds of muscle depending on how well that person responds to strength training.
To just tie it all together, the bottom line is your training must facilitate growth in order for the diet to be meaningfully effective.
Brett McKay: I think a lot of times these guys who say they have a hard time gaining weight and they say they eat a lot, they probably don’t actually eat a lot because they’re not tracking. They just think they do, but they really don’t.
Robert Santana: With the guys that say they eat a lot, again, you’re dealing with self-reported dietary intake. When something is not better than nothing. In this case, what I found, my cousin was one of these guys. “I eat so much and I can’t gain weight.” He was like six foot, 150 pounds, and I got him up to 217. An interesting thing happened there. Like we said, eventually you can’t lose weight. There is a point where your body will stop gaining weight. For him it was 217. No matter how much he ate, he couldn’t gain any more weight.
This guy was committed, man, but in the beginning, when I gave him recommendations on food, he gained like 20 pounds I think. 25 pounds. He was 180, maybe, 185. And then he just started bitching that, “Oh, it’s too much food. I can’t eat like this. Ah.” Then we stopped talking for a couple of months. He came back around and he’s like, “All right. I want to try to do this right.” So I was like, “Okay.” So, it took this guy 555 or 575 carbs, 175 grams of fat, and I think, 250 grams of protein for him to get his weight up to 218. I mean, the guy did great-
Brett McKay: How many calories is that? It’s like 4000?
Robert Santana: I think he was between four and five. It was creeping towards 5000 calories a day.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Robert Santana: Yeah. What that looked like was, for instance, he was like, “Yeah, when I lift,” he’s like, “I put a cup of sugar in my protein shake.” Because he needs all these carbs. A cup of sugar in his protein shake and then he was eating a loaf of bread, a pound of beef, a quart of milk, and a bunch of whatchamacallit, those breakfast potatoes, and that was a meal for him. He was just miserable eating all that food. But he got all the lifts he wanted. He pulled 405 for 5. Squatted 315 for 5. Benched 220, pressed 150. He lost some of that when he ended up losing the weight, but he kept most of it. He’s one of those guys now, he looks like he plays basketball or looks like a swimmer, but then when he starts loading the bar up people stare at him because he doesn’t look like somebody that can squat close to 400 pounds. You know?
Brett McKay: So, yeah. There’s some nice takeaways there. Some other brass tack things that I’ve learned from you that I think people might find useful. When we talk about carbs, you don’t just want to eat fast-burning carbs like bread. You want to eat carbs that have fiber. For me, you have me set at 40 grams of fiber a day, which when I first saw that I was like, that’s hard because most food doesn’t have a lot of fiber in it. You look at the breakdown of the bag it’s like three grams of fiber or two grams of fiber, but you pointed me in the direction of these Mission tortillas, the carb-balanced tortillas, and I think the one I’m having right now, it has 14 or 13 grams of fiber in it. So it’s like right there I almost got like a quarter of my fiber done just with my breakfast burrito in the morning. So thank you for letting me know about that.
So other good high fiber sources. Raspberries have become my jam. I eat raspberries, like a cup of raspberries a day. It’s fantastic. Pinto beans another one. Just with those three things, I get my 40 grams of fiber in, and I’m good.
And then, for mostly breakfast it’s like eggs, egg whites in an egg, so I get my fat and my protein. I got the Mission tortilla going on in there then I usually train. After I train, I’ll have whey protein shake. And then I, this is, I don’t know. Let me get your take on this. This is kind of how I get my carbs in my whey protein. I buy oat flour and rice flour and I just put a scoop in there with my whey protein. I’m lazy. I just want to drink my food and when I’m supplementing for my after meal, so I just do a quarter cup of brown rice flour, which is 30 grams of carbs, after I train, and then lunch, it’s usually something like chicken and sweet potatoes, and then I have another snack between lunch and dinner. That’s like whey protein and oat flour shake. And then dinner is whatever the missus makes. Then I just adjust based on whatever the macro recommendations you’ve given me.
The other thing about if it fits your macros is the flexibility because if I know I’m going to go out to, like last week, I went out to Texas Roadhouse for dinner with some friends. I was like, man, that’s going to be a big giant calorie bomb. I kind of just didn’t really eat during the day and just saved everything for that big meal. I was fine. I didn’t gain a ton of weight. I did gain a lot of weight because there’s a lot of sodium, so I guess you retain a lot of water, but it didn’t do a lot of damage to my diet.
Robert Santana: Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty much how it goes. It’s just water weight and if your calories are where they need to be then you’re not going to gain a bunch of fat from that.
Brett McKay: Did you have something else you want to say? Were you going to hit on something else about if it fits your macros or any other brass tacks advice?
Robert Santana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If it fits your macros, what I like about that is, and the way I do it, as you just said, 40 grams of fiber. If you’re eating 40 grams of fiber it is not the if it fits your macros you see on Instagram where people are eating a bunch of pizza and crap and saying, “Oh, it fits my macros.” It’s not what we’re doing here.
Brett McKay: I hate that.
Robert Santana: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I think that does such a big disservice to people because you see all these super-fit people eating doughnuts. They’re jacked and regular people see that like, “Oh. I can eat doughnuts and look like that too.” It’s like, “Well, probably not.”
Robert Santana: Yeah. Exactly. That’s the problem with it. It’s kind of misleading and then you also don’t know what these people are really doing. They’re putting one picture up saying that they’re doing this and it’s like, are they really doing this? It kind of creates a false image of what that is.
The purpose to if it fits your macros is to allow flexibility and not demonize food. Okay, you’re eating a healthy diet most of the time, but you want to go eat crap, it’s okay. It’s not going to kill your day. Just play it smart, balance it out kind of like you would your money. I always use the analogy that your food is like a checking account. You have so much you can spend and once you go over, you’re going to be in a bad place. That’s kind of how I look at it with that.
The other pet peeve that I’ve been having lately that I meant to bring up earlier is just this idea that the way that weight loss has been prescribed to people is similar to that that you would prescribe to a bodybuilder. The expectation is that, hey, you’re supposed to lose for three months, every single week and that’s a successful diet. Well, no. That’s what a competitor does. The average person who has kids, a job, all these other responsibility, travels, has a lot of friends that come over, has a social life, that person may not lose every week. It may take six, nine months, maybe a year because of interruptions in the routine.
One of the things I find myself talking about a lot lately and it’s really important is I tell people, yeah, it’s kind of like the Starting Strength linear progression. In an ideal situation you have an 18-year old kid who plays video games all day, lives with mom, and has unlimited access to food, yeah, he might LP for three months straight, add weight to the bar every time, not get hurt, and have a successful linear progression. But for most of us, and Rip writes it in the book, you’ll have a few good months then life will get in the way, stress, injuries, death in the family. You’ll have to reset, start over, and by the end of it, it’s been nine, 10 months because of all these things.
Well, the same applies to diet. You’re going to have people that come over and want to eat out and you’re not going to lose weight that week because you have low-calorie needs and the food that you’re eating out has almost your entire day’s worth in a plate, but you want to eat that and that’s okay. You’re just not going to lose that week. Next week will be better. Maybe that’ll happen for three weeks in a row before you get into a rhythm for another three weeks. As long as the overall trend is down, just like when you’re lifting the overall trend is up for the weight on the bar, you’re in good shape, but I think that we shouldn’t be telling people that a successful weight loss looks like that of a competitor’s.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I guess that’s an important part of your job as a dietician. You’re not only a scientist where you’re prescribing macronutrients based on science, the theory that we talked about at the beginning, but you’re also a psychologist in a lot of ways. You get to help them manage expectations and then help them realize it’s okay if you didn’t lose your pound this week. We’ll get it again next week.
Robert Santana: Yeah. Yeah.
Brett McKay: That’s good. I think that’s good advice for everybody. I know when I started working with you that was the first thing you told me. It’s like, “Hey, bud. I know you want to like look jacked, but I’m going to let you know that it’s not gonna be linear. It’s gonna go fluctuate up and down and you have to be okay with that.” That was actually really helpful because it prevented me from getting frustrated early on and just being like, okay. It’s okay as long as the trend is down, I’m good.
Robert Santana: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Well, hey, Robert, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work? I imagine you’ve got some stuff up on StartingStrength.com.
Robert Santana: I am all over the place, so I am at StartingStrength.com. I moderate the nutrition forum, so you can find information about me there. I run Nutrition at Starting Strength Online Coaching, so you can find me there. I have my own website, Weightsandplates.com. You can find me there. Hopefully, get some scientific journals out soon.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. Well, hey, Robert, this has been a great conversation. Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Robert Santana: Yep. Thank you, sir.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Santana. He’s the nutrition coach at Starting Strength Online Coaching. You can also find more information about his work at StartingStrength.com and his own website platesandweights.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/santana where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure check out the Art of Manliness website at Artofmanliness.com and if you enjoy the podcast, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please continue sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it.
As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.