The importance of self-experimentation and the act of self-discovery in fitness and nutrition is huge. It is easy to get caught up in the promoted benefits of a certain diet or way of eating, lifting or living when there is a lot of press surrounding it, it makes headlines on the news or because someone who looks to be in good shape promotes it. How and why something will work for you in terms of exercise and nutrition is wildly dependent on age, sex, activity level, genetics and attitude. Yes, even attitude. I believe someone who truly believes in something sub-par and works hard for it will get better results than someone who puts in half-effort with a better diet or exercise plan. All these factors must be taken into account when selecting how you decide to train, eat and live. One such example is protein intake. The RDA recommended intake daily falls around 60g (or 0.8 g/kg) for the average population and up to 120g for athletes (1.2-1.8 g/kg). I don't know about you, but 60g of protein could almost all be eaten in one meal if you had a large chicken breast. What then? No protein the rest of the day?
Here's one study that says more protein is not better for you:
However, anecdotally, almost any successful lifter or athlete will tell you how important protein is for strength and maintaining a good body composition. It could be the thermic effect of protein: protein is metabolically difficult to process and actually uses 20% of it's own calories just in the digestion process. It could be the replacement of poorer food choices with better protein options. Or it could just be that more protein=more muscle, regardless of what one study says.
But how would you know if you didn't try?
As I've mentioned before, I got caught up in the Paleo thing for a while because it almost seemed to good to be true. And I tried it completely. At first I ate low-carb, but then added more carbs just from sweet potatoes; that was o.k but 3 sweet potatoes after a workout just don't go down that well. I completely eliminated dairy, even cream; in search for a cream substitute for my coffee, I tried EVERYTHING.
Note:(At one point I was blending my hot coffee with coconut oil in a blender to emulsify it, which is what a crazy person does.)
Protein powder? Out! That sent my grocery bill for meat sky high. Peanut butter? Out! Peanut butter is a vice, I'll admit. Eliminating all nightshade vegetables? That crossed the line for me.
At this point I took a step back and looked at how I felt. Eliminating junky protein powder made my stomach feel better.....but now I buy a really good brand (Dymatize All Natural with Stevia) and I feel great. I was never eating wheat anyways so the only grains to eliminate were rice and quinoa, so this was easy. Aside from cream, I never use dairy because of a mild lactose intolerance, so nothing improved there. Cutting out all the peanut butter (2+ jars a week), was actually a good improvement but I think that was my own self-produced intolerance from over-consumption.
So, for someone who already ate mostly whole foods, basically no dairy, and no wheat, this diet was not a God-send like promoted. But why does it work? Where are all the benefits coming from? I would guess that many people who find huge success on diets like these come from a place where they are eating low-protein, high simple-carb, refined and packaged foods. So OF COURSE this is better, but that doesn't mean it is the end all be all. But for these people, getting a handle on the basics of good eating got them great results, no fancy supplements or dietary schemes necessary. Even without 100% compliance on eliminating all dairy or protein powders, people who switch from a mostly bad diet to a mostly good one will (Surprise!) get good results.
When Is It Worth Experimenting?
I have noticed from questions people ask, things I have even asked myself in the past, is how Is someone getting good results despite not following A, B or C diet program? I mean, look at this dude with a 6-pack, doesn't he know all those tomatoes are causing him inflammation!? (Joke) But that is the mentality people fall into when buying into a system or program.
The same thing goes with exercise. Find people who are fast, strong, lean or just in great all around shape. They aren't doing the same thing today that they have always done. It is a process, with learning curves and plenty of room for error. What is a common thread, though, is hard work, persistence and consistency. But all other factors need to be implemented in a controlled and intelligent manner.
Let's say you are already hitting the gym 5 days a week, working really hard and have been doing so for 6 months. 6 months is a good starting point but no one has ever gone from Christian Bale in The Machinist to Christian Bale in Batman Begins in 6 months except Christian Bale (follow that logic?). So think long-term here, you need to be consistent for a long time to get great results. But if you are committed and doing things right in the exercise department then it is time to take a look at your diet. If you are consuming wheat or dairy at every single meal, it would make sense to start with just replacing bread or pasta with some veggies, once a day. From there, you can get more advanced if you want. If you are already eating all whole foods, protein and good fats at each meal, quality carbohydrates around your workout etc, then you can get a whole lot more nit-picky.
Let me make something clear; If your diet looks really good to you, do you think that those 2 tablespoons of cream every morning in your coffee are going to be the magic bullet to get you the body of your dreams? That is late-night, pizza-fueled infomercial logic right there. This is where people like Dr. Oz drive me crazy because he tells all these women who trust him and want honest advice that taking coffee bean extract or some other such pill will be The Answer. As if making this one tiny change will make up for all the other missteps in your diet or exercise plan.
Self-experimentation comes into play when you keep everything you are doing constant and add or take away one thing at a time. Maybe an extra 25 grams of carbs after your workouts, or a scoop of creatine. Maybe eliminating that extra glass of wine each night before bed? Then those changes need to be consistent over weeks to see if they work. I wouldn't do this, though, if you are still crushing pizza on the weekends, drinking 3 beers every night of the week or drinking 4 cups of coffee a day loaded with cream and sugar. Obviously fixing those larger issues will get you better results than tweaking one little part of your diet.
Oh God, the Money I Have Spent On Supplements....
Guys do this. We are GNC's dream come true. We spend loads of cash on TriplePumpGluteStack 3000, in hopes it will do something and inevitably it never does. You know what works?
-Quality Protein Powder
-Zinc and Magnesium
-Antioxidants (C, E)
You MIGHT need iron if you are a menstruating female, you might need calcium if you've never eaten a vegetable or any dairy products, but you don't need all vitamins all the time. I have tried many, many supplements. In fact, on top of my fridge is a bottle of “East Asian Chinese Superman Pills” that my brother bought me from the Asian market. Weirdly enough, along with ingredients such as clam are actually quality ingredients like fenugreek and kelp (for insulin health and iodine, respectively). Buuuuuuuut, it has clam in it, which just makes me laugh.
If you have a specific issue, such a problems with sleep, thyroid, morning energy etc then there are definitely supplements to help but these are for a specific issue, and usually short term, We aren't talking a get-jacked-in-4-weeks pill.
Food Should be So Simple
It's not, though. Mostly because of a ton of straight-up bad information. I remember telling a family member of mine how simply the most athletic and in-shape people I know eat. Especially with my time at Cressey Performance, where there were plenty of lean, muscular physiques.
-Whole protein at every meal
-Veggies at almost every meal
-Quality fats at every meal, enough to coat or cook the food in
-Carbohydrate intake based on activity level
-Protein powder as needed
-Not a whole lot of wheat, dairy or processed foods
-In some cases, no wheat, dairy or processed foods
I almost wish I could make it more complex because this sounds amazingly simple and intuitive yet you couldn't sell a book with those 7 lines written on one page on the inside. The eight line might read...
-Intense weight training with supplemental running/sprinting to achieve certain goals
Bam. Book Over. Buy the Kindle version too.
Master The Basics
If you can the master the basics of eating, exercise and sleep/lifestyle, then take some free reign to experiment with a supplement or two as well as varying your nutrient intake or timing. My lifting mentor, Donna wouldn't even hear this or that diet I talked about until I was eating more protein. It didn't matter that I was eating 200 grams a day, I needed to eat more. Why would I worry about Intermittent Fasting or carb-cycling if I wasn't even eating enough protein first? She had the insight to see this but I didn't.
Take a look at your own diet or exercise plan. Are you eating enough protein, fat and veggies? Getting plenty of sleep? Exercising intensely and consistently? If no, don't worry to much about experimentation yet and get a hold on the basics first.
I don't know about you, but I can't imagine a time when success on my diet rode on how much eel extract I was getting in my East Superman Pills.