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Which sources do you trust the most on nutrition advice for exercise?

by jacobjacob1 min read16th Dec 202021 comments

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I'm trying to become stronger and get a better physique. My current goal is what the internet calls "body recomposition", which involves trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. This breaks down to answering questions about: 

  1. How much should I eat? What should my daily breakdown of nutrients be across different sources? Which, if any, supplements should I be taking? 
  2. What should my exercise routine be? 

I feel pretty set on 2, so this post is about 1. 

I've never looked into nutrition very much myself. Yet I've heard many horror stories about it as an academic field. And various fitness YouTubers/bloggers aren't exactly beacons of Bayesian reasoning either. 

So I'd be curious if someone around here has spent time looking into this; and found any resources they actually trust and think have a solid epistemic backing. 

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7 Answers

I'm pretty passionate about physical fitness and body composition and would recommend the following sources/figures to follow:

Menno Henselmans (known for "bayesian bodybuilding", website)

Mike Israetel (co-founded RP (disclosure: I intern here), wrote these books of some potential interest). I'm a friend of Mike's and can also vouch that his thinking style is very rationalist-adjacent.

Eric Helms (founded 3DMJ and wrote these books which are great)

Lyle McDonald (good FB group here, website here). Lyle is extremely abrasive, but he knows his shit. He's also not afraid to call out other figures in the industry for what he believes to be inaccurate info- I'm personally not a fan of his discourse style but again, he knows this stuff back to front.

Greg Nuckols (website, great intro books here). Greg is fucking awesome, super rationalist-adjacent in thinking style and discourse.

If you want my number one recommendation for books/resources, it would be to get the Art and Science of Lifting books that Greg co-wrote (linked above). The Muscle and Strength Pyramids (linked under Eric's name) would be a little bit more thorough treatment of similar topics. I'm personally a fan of Mike/RP's training and dieting methodology, but all of these guys agree on the most important elements of training and dieting and nuances beyond that are pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

+1 to this list! I also like the Revive Stronger team. They have a good evidence-based podcast that I like to listen to. They often interview the people Anshuman mentioned. 

2Anshuman R1yYup, their podcast is my primary means of staying up to date with fitness content.

Subscribed for Henselmans email course. I like it thus far! Will see how things continue.

Might also check out the RP app. 

Thanks!

Stephan Guyenet - uses evidence and careful reasoning, well versed in Bayesian updating as can be seen with how his views have changed overtime. I have a lot of intellectual trust for Stephan. Body comp / sports are not his area of focus, but the foundations are the same regardless of the specific goal.

If you're willing to put a good deal of effort into this, I suggest Staffan Lindeberg's book. There's a good deal that can be inferred from his evidence from very different cultures with different disease rates.

Beyond that, I like Chris Masterjohn, Dale Bredesen, Stephan Guyenet, and Chris Kresser.

This answer is for a skinny guy who wants to gain muscle. It may not apply to jacobjacob, who mentions losing fat too.

I prefer Lyle McDonald's exhaustively pedantic blog for a comprehensive theoretical foundation on general athletic training. A comprehensive theoretical foundation and a practical instruction set are different things. After going on and on about details, Lyle McDonald recommends Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength course for practical strength/muscle building. I, a (formerly) skinny male in my 20s, found Mark Rippetoe's simple Starting Strength course to be extremely effective when I combined it with GOMAD. GOMAD stands for Gallon Of (Whole) Milk A Day. You eat normally (or more than normal) plus you drink a gallon of whole milk each day. GOMAD is cheap, simple and satisfies the most ridiculous protein and calorie macro requirements.

  1. All that really matters is you get enough protein and calories. Are you a lactose-tolerant skinny male in your 20s living in the USA who has trouble putting on weight? If so, then GOMAD will get the job done. It is cheap, simple and effective. (A little creatine supplement wouldn't hurt but isn't critical.) If you are not a lactose-tolerant skinny male in your 20s living in the USA then IDK.
  2. If you are skinny guy who wants to gain muscle then barbell lifting is usually the best way to do this. There are several slightly different routines you could achieve similar results with. Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength is one course you could use. But you don't have to use his. Anything is fine as long as it features high intensity low reps of deadlift, back squats (or similar leg exercises) and pressing motions (overhead press, bench press, etc.). A pulling motion like chin-ups is good too but not quite as important as the others.

There is a Dr. Greger whose speech I can't stand but from whose books and online videos I have learned a lot (search for nutritionfacts and How Not To Die. Also, there are many, free online courses on health topics like the microbiome, epigenetics, diseases, nutrition, etc. that you can take through the years as they keep getting updated with the latest learnings (currently in vogue is the role of the microbiota in the gut, for example, so every few months new information is made available). What I've learned is that the human body is incredibly resilient and you can live several decades without major problems on the worst of diets, it's the accumulation of stuff over time that leads to what are now called Lifestyle Diseases and the ones it sounds you are concerned about: cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, etc.

Since we now know the body is an ecosystem consisting of smaller ecosystems and embedded in larger ecosystems, the interactions are too varied for anyone to predict what the best thing for you to do is. Statistics and studies only apply to large groups and always have outliers anyway. Some basic trends are useful, however, so you can look at which general lifestyles tend to produce fewer problems: moderate exercise, low intake of animal protein, lots of fresh vegetables, legumes, and nuts lead to healthier lives. Your best bet is to support what evolution has already solved for you and understand human activities and lifestyles through history (not the last several thousand years, mind you) and see how you can reproduce the conditions to which human bodies adapted to within the confines of modernity. Really, exercise seems to be the single most potent and underutilized method of becoming and remaining healthy, so kudos on asking for advise.

I one last ramble: supplements are only necessary when you have identified a specific deficiency and you can't address it through your daily nutrition. Vitamin D3 comes to mind if you live away from the equator and don't eat fish skin.

There is a Dr. Greger whose speech I can't stand but from whose books and online videos I have learned a lot 

Somehow that phrasing triggers my alarm bells. There are plenty of people from which you can learn enough. The important criteria rather seems to be whether the source is trustworthy.

This may be a result of my personal bias, but my view is that the whole world of diet studies and advice often does not produce the results its consumers desire because of complex individual genetic differences that influence metabolism. And there may be additional influences from gut bacteria and epigenetics that also influence this process.

I think the long term answer to this question of "what do I eat to achieve the body composition I want" will be to get a 23 and me test and run it through some software that gives you a customized diet based on your genetic profile.

That being said, if I had to recommend any expert, I guess it would be Dr Aaron Carroll, who runs a YouTube channel named Healthcare Triage that essentially reviews research on various health-related topics.

In theory customization of diet based on genes is a good idea. In practice it actually requires us to know what genes make what diet benefitial which is likely a complex task. What's the case for some software being able in 2020 to give you a good customized diet based on a genetic profile?

1GeneSmith1yFrankly I don't think it's possible yet. Or at least if it is I'm not aware of it. But I think that will change in the coming years, mostly due to dramatic drops in the cost of genetic sequencing. If you can sequence the DNA of enough people and track how what they eat and their disease prevalence or whatever outcomes you care about, you'll likely be able to suss out the contributions from various genes to a particular health outcome. This has already been done for single complex traits like height or heart disease risk. But I think the next step is tying that to inputs like diet and exercise.
2ChristianKl1yOkay, then I mostly agree. There are products such as https://www.dnafit.com [https://www.dnafit.com] and https://nutrigenomix.com/ [https://nutrigenomix.com/] on the market and I'm a bit skeptical about the extend towards which those should be trusted for more then just "consume more of Vitamin X".
1GeneSmith1yFrankly I don't think it's possible yet. Or at least if it is I'm not aware of it. But I think that will change in the coming years, mostly due to dramatic drops in the cost of genetic sequencing.
2ChristianKl1yCost of genetic engineering is essentially low enough that it's not the bottleneck anymore.

There is a Dr. Greger whose speech I can't stand but from whose books and online videos I have learned a lot (search for nutritionfacts and How Not To Die. Also, there are many, free online courses on health topics like the microbiome, epigenetics, diseases, nutrition, etc. that you can take through the years as they keep getting updated with the latest learnings (currently in vogue is the role of the microbiota in the gut, for example, so every few months new information is made available). What I've learned is that the human body is incredibly resilient and you can live several decades without major problems on the worst of diets, it's the accumulation of stuff over time that leads to what are now called Lifestyle Diseases and the ones it sounds you are concerned about: cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, etc.

Since we now know the body is an ecosystem consisting of smaller ecosystems and embedded in larger ecosystems, the interactions are too varied for anyone to predict what the best thing for you to do is. Statistics and studies only apply to large groups and always have outliers anyway. Some basic trends are useful, however, so you can look at which general lifestyles tend to produce fewer problems: moderate exercise, low intake of animal protein, lots of fresh vegetables, legumes, and nuts lead to healthier lives. Your best bet is to support what evolution has already solved for you and understand human activities and lifestyles through history (not the last several thousand years, mind you) and see how you can reproduce the conditions to which human bodies adapted to within the confines of modernity. Really, exercise seems to be the single most potent and underutilized method of becoming and remaining healthy, so kudos on asking for advise.

I one last ramble: supplements are only necessary when you have identified a specific deficiency and you can't address it through your daily nutrition. Vitamin D3 comes to mind if you live away from the equator and don't eat fish skin.

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meta: I find most analytic types focus way too much on quantitative details aka bike shedding vs getting the basic covered consistently. Any power lifting routine will do. Any of these foods will do with adequate protein intake (~100g)

In other words, the delta between these sorts of things and what would hypothetically be optimal is much smaller than the many low hanging fruit along other dimensions that are currently illegible to you but will become legible as you do the beginner things for a while.

This. Researching the optimal diet and the optimal exercise is the intelligent person's way to procrastinate about actually eating better and actually exercising.

If you are curious, don't ask whether what you are doing is optimal, only whether there are some obvious dangers. Is your current diet missing something important? Is there a risk you can hurt yourself when exercising the way you do now? If everything is ok (not optimal, just okay), continue doing what works for you... until you keep your healthy habits for at least a few months. Then you have my blessing to do some research, because now I can trust you it is not just another excuse to do nothing. Switching from less optimal diet/exercise to more optimal is way easier than actually starting the good habits, so you can do that later.

(FWIW; I've been working out 4-5x per week for the last months (from home), and cut out all fast food/candy/folk-nutrition-bad-seeming-foods for the same period. I have a very solid routine down and am at no risk of procrastinating. The major failure mode for me right now is plateauing or injury. In fact, the majority people I know who have had a gym habit seem to have plateaued.) 

Congratulations! That means, from my perspective, that you asked at exactly the right time.

For nutrition, others have already mentioned Dr. Greger; I would add a link to his "daily dozen" as a quick check which categories of food you may be missing.

If you get your blood analyzed, you may find which specific nutrients you miss -- as opposed to just getting general nutrition advice for the average reader.

I like the idea of a "what sources do you trust on X" post. Seems useful.