Eating healthy is a major factor when it comes to health, energy, and body composition. Unfortunately, there is so much conflicting and contradictory dietary advice in the health sphere that most of us tend to end up confused, trying one fad diet after the other without getting the results we want. Fat is bad, then it’s good. Carbs are good, then bad. Whole grains and lentils are good, then bad. Lectins, gluten, eggs, dairy, meat, veganism, keto, Paleo … etc. etc. The truth is that there are a lot of diet gurus who intentionally misrepsent and cherry pick the research in order to come up with new trendy diets to sell people on, but the reality is that the actual scientific evidence — once you cut through all the pop nutrition pseudoscience — is much more straightforward than diet gurus would have you believe. So is it really so difficult to eat healthy? Most importantly, what does science say about how to eat right for optimal health?
In this podcast, I speak with Dr. Mike Israetel. Mike is the Chief Sports Ccientist at Renaissance Periodization, has taught at Temple University, has a Ph.D. in sports physiology, is a former consultant on sports nutrition to the US Olympic training team, and he’s the author of the book “Understanding Healthy Eating”. In this podcast, Dr. Israetel discusses how to eat right for optimal health and longevity.
In this podcast, we’ll cover
- The best diet for health and disease prevention. (Is there one?)
- The roles carbs and insulin play in health
- Why calorie balance is essential to health and longevity
- The number one factor that determines your health (accounting for 60% of the nutritional factors that affect health)
- The main (and often overlooked) factor as to why people today accumulate more body fat than they did e few decades ago
- How highly processed (junk) foods affect your body
- Is it possible to be obese and healthy?
- How nutrient timing matters
- Mike’s take on how macronutrients affect health (fats, carbs, and protein)
- The reason why some people can live a relatively unhealthy lifestyle without being affected by it
- How important are supplements for improving health outcomes?
- The science on how gluten, grains, red meat, egg yolks, and “magic” foods affect your health
- What science says about the ketogenic diet
- And much more!
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The Science of How to Eat Healthy │ How to Eat Right For Health and Longevity with Dr. Mike Israetel – Transcript
Ari Whitten: Everybody, welcome back to the Energy Blueprint Podcast. I’m your host, Ari Whitten. And today I have with me Dr. Mike Israetel, and hopefully I’m pronouncing your last name correctly, it’s kind of like Israel, but Israetel.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: With a “t” in there, yeah, close enough. There’s actually no really right way to pronounce it in English since it’s like a Russian last name, so…
Ari Whitten: Okay, that’s good. So I’m glad I can butcher it however I want, good to know. So Mike is the chief sport scientist at Renaissance Periodization. He’s a former professor of public health at Temple University. He’s the author of the book “Understanding Healthy Eating” and he’s a PhD.
He has a PhD in and he’s been a consultant on sports nutrition to the US Olympic training team in Johnson City, Tennessee. He’s also a jujutsu practitioner and he has won, I know, a couple of big tournaments. The Arnold Classic Jujutsu Tournament. Is that what, I think it was the Arnold Classic.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: That’s correct, yes.
Ari Whitten: Yes. Nice. So awesome. Mike, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve been following your work for several years and I’m really a big fan of what you’re doing and kind of how you take such an evidence based approach to nutrition and training and really a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super pumped.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So I would love to get started by just having you talk a bit about how you got into this field and your background and what led you to have such an obsessive passion about training and nutrition.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah. So I originally began wrestling when I was in high school, and they brought in a nutritionist to talk to us, but I was 15 years old so it never really registered. But I knew that like, if you wanted to win, you had to sort of pay attention to making sure that stuff went into your body and it mattered. And of course, nobody who’s 15 really pays attention to health at all.
So that was all for nothing. And then as I went to undergraduate studies I became very passionate about getting stronger because I became a competitive power lifter. And once I did that, you know, it started to be… because I was in charge of my own training I had to really start learning stuff to ensure the fact that I was getting stronger at the best rates possible and staying injury free. And then as I continued to get bigger, I started to get a passion for more bodybuilding and muscle size training.
And at that point, you know, you’re getting bigger and that does take a toll on your health. So I began to really look into how that size gain, etc., was affecting my health and maybe what I could do with my diet and physical activity to reduce the health impact of the sport of bodybuilding on me. And, at the time I was doing a lot of personal training at various points. So I had a lot of clients that were interested in diet and health and physical activity. And eventually I became so passionate about all these things that I went through a master’s program and a PhD program and became a professor of all of this stuff. So it was all started with my own pursuits and eventually went to help other folks as best as possible.
Mike’s take on nutrition and health
Ari Whitten: Excellent. So a lot of the work of yours that I followed is really centered around training and nutrition for body composition and I want to get into that stuff with you. But I know that you’ve also written a book called “Understanding Healthy Eating” and you’ve really delved deep into the literature around nutrition as it relates to health and disease prevention.
So let’s start with that. And I think we have this landscape of all this, all these sorts of competing and contradictory claims out there about the right way to eat and the best diet, and some people are saying keto and some people are saying veganism and some people are saying, you know, it’s all about carbs and fats and macros and calories and sort of… And there’s all these contradictory claims, right?
People are saying “gluten is the, you know, the scourge that’s causing all disease.” And other people are saying, “no, gluten is really not that big of a deal and the evidence doesn’t really support that.” So with all this landscape of competing and contradictory claims, what is your sort of overarching take about what’s important when it comes to nutrition and health?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Originally, one of the reasons we started looking into this at our team at Renaissance, several of my coauthors and I who wrote this book, is that a lot of folks get into nutrition for body composition and basically that’s answering the question of what makes me leanest and most muscular and they start to become leaner, more muscular. And then of course a lot of folks have concerns about their health as well. One of the reasons people try to get lean is to look better, to perform better, but some folks it’s really health is number one. And then they get into these nutrition, ways of understanding nutrition that optimizes how you look and how you feel, how you perform, but maybe not how good your health is doing. So we’d get a lot of questions at seminars and, you know, “what about for health?”
’ And we’d say, “well, you know, it didn’t really matter much,” you know, and then they say, “well what about this for performance?” It works for performance but maybe not the greatest thing for your health. And when you tell people that they’re like “wait, hold on a second. So there’s things I’m doing to make me look better and perform better that might not be the best thing for health?” Well, yeah, absolutely.
So yeah, very curious, we got very curious and then we looked out into the landscape of literature that was available and saw mostly a very bleak picture just as you just described, of various competing absurdities and extreme views that are mutually contradictory. So we looked into a ton of research and the thing is, this is relatively well-researched subjects with thousands of research papers on them.
A lot of people just don’t like to look at them. The results are either just disheartening or don’t favor your pet hypothesis. But when you look into them, you start to develop a very, very clear picture of what’s going on. Here’s a very brief summary of that picture. Without putting too fine a point on it, how much body fat you’re carrying, and to some extent how much weight you’re carrying, is a huge determination of your risk for a variety of real major diseases and lack there of.
So, you know, if you weigh 150 pounds and you are average height, you know, your risk for real nasty health detriment isn’t something that’s greatly apparent to your doctor until he or she runs blood work. Show up to your doctor’s office, you are normal weight, and they’re like, “all right, well, you know, you’re concerned about your health?.” “Yes, dearly.” “Oh, let’s run some blood work and see how the internals are looking. “
Right? And if you show up to your doctor, weighing 450 pounds, they’re really not going to do blood work first. They’re going to be like, “okay, this is clearly a problem,” right? And there’s not really a way, when you’re like, “Oh, but I eat super healthy,” right? “But I’ve been staying away from gluten.” They’re going to say, “okay, well, you know, your weight is in excess.” Why would they say that? Because the research on the link between excess body weight and health morbidities and mortalities, massive, overwhelming, not even controversial. And what does that mean for nutrition? It means that if you are grossly overweight, or grossly underweight your calories, the amount of food you’re eating might not be a conscious priority. You might be able to change some other things about your diet that change the calorie balance. You might be able to become more active, still eat the same amount of calories, but the calorie balance, the ratio of how much you’re eating to how much you’re burning off has to change in the long term in order to bring you into a healthy body weight range.
But the good news is healthy body weight ranges, not those stupid insurance tables you see people share on social media where it’s like, “oh, if I’m five three I have to weigh exactly 117 pounds. If it’s 116 pounds come and get me from the hospital and force feeding me, if it’s 118 pounds I’m morbidly obese, I’m just going to die tomorrow.” It’s a pretty wide range. It’s in excess of 50 pounds around every inch of height.
You can be 50 pounds lighter or heavier and in very, very good health, especially granted if you are very active and eat well fundamentally. But outside of those ranges, the number one priority is calorie balance to get you back into those ranges. So if there’s the biggest feature of health, if someone weighs 450 pounds, they come to you and say, “listen, I got to change my eating to be healthier, what do I do?” Your answer doesn’t have to verbally say reduced calories.
Whatever it is has to either reduce their intake, increase their expenditure or both. That probably accounts for something like 60 percent of all of the variants in health we see between individuals in Western countries. But that’s it, calorie balancing. You point to someone who’s really unhealthy, chances are their calorie balance could use improvement. It would bring a really, really, really big effect. So that’s number. Number two…
Why the science of how to eat healthy talks about calories
Ari Whitten: I wanted to interrupt you for a minute and digress on a little bit of a tangent, but there’s going to be some people listening to this who have read Gary Taubes or Jason Fung who go, “Oh, this guy is talking about calories? He’s clearly, you know, in the 1980s of research and he’s not up to date on the latest science.” So for those people who are thinking that right now, like, “why is this guy talking about calories? Doesn’t he know it’s all about carbs and insulin?” What is your response to that?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: I liked the 1980s. I still have a Game Boy, the fashion was great. That was the extent of my response. Like, oh wow, the 80s were pretty good. So is my connection coming in okay?
Ari Whitten: Yeah, you are great.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: So, my response to that would be that in the absence of a caloric environment, excessive calories, there’s no way to gain body fat in any measurable amount and ruin your health no matter what you do. So put this in perspective, competitive body builders will eat literally 600-800 grams of carbohydrate per day, per day.
Roughly three times the average American intake there, two to three times. And they will actually inject artificially designed insulin, even more than they’re secreting. So you would think, “oh my God, recipe for fat!” They’ll do this while losing fat into a bodybuilding show, into the low single digits. And you think, well, “how in God’s name is it possible that they’re shooting insulin, taking in hundreds of grams of carbs and getting leaner?”
And the answer is they are not eating a whole lot of fats and just enough proteins to keep the calories under what their bodies need. And the thing is doing that, it’s actually pretty dangerous because if you shoot a little too much insulin and take in not enough carbohydrates, you can go very hypoglycemic. Your blood glucose can fall so much that you risk coma or death or really, really bad stuff. So when you have an environment in which you have a high level of insulin, carbohydrate in the blood, that doesn’t really mean much of anything as far as weight gain, unless it comes with a whole lot of calories. Another line of disproving this logic, so to speak, is to actually examine the diets of individuals that are obese in the United States. The percent of them that eat a lot of carbohydrates is very high. The percent of them that eat too much carbohydrate is very high.
The percent of them that can competently, at the same time, eat a very low fat diet is pretty close to zero.
We know what makes people obese. It is a very delicious hyper palatable, they’re called junk food, basically, if we’re going to step around the issue. Super delicious foods that are high in simple processed carbohydrates and fats, lots of fats. You can’t get enormous without putting in lots of fats unless you’re a competitive bodybuilder. I am currently trying to gain weight on a low fat, high carb diet. It’s the hardest thing in the world. You get tired of eating that much food. But if I could have a high fat diet with high carbs, boy, oh boy, I’d be 300 pounds right now. So it’s one of those things when people say, “it’s the carbs.” Well, it is the carbs, but only if you add a whole crap load of fat. And then it really looks like the calories.
The truth about excess fat consumption and weight gain
Ari Whitten: Okay. So let me, one more tangent on this topic, which is people are listening to this and saying, “well, you know, this guy is saying low fat, or reduced fat, and that makes it easier to lose fat or harder to gain fat. But didn’t we all go low fat? You know, wasn’t there a whole low fat era where everybody went on low fat diets and lost, and didn’t lose weight. And we just got fatter. “
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Man, yes. In an alternate universe, there was, so it’s a very, very, very good question. And it’s a pretty common myth or misconception. It’s a kind of a sensical myth and misconception. It makes sense on the face of it. The USDA back in the 1980s and 90s basically said that, you know, fats are what cause obesity, which is not entirely wrong, not entirely right.
And then it tried to get people to eat a low fat diet and advocated one for half a generation or so. The thing is, what they advocate and what actually happens are two really different things. And the reality is, if you look at the actual data what people were consuming, not difficult to find.
Restaurants will tabulate all their orders, and you can do surveys of consumers on what they buy in grocery stores. It turns out people never really lowered their fat intakes. They just ate more carbs and then later they ate even more fats. And then recently they actually reduced their carbs a little bit and ate even more fats and they’re still getting enormous. It was one of those things like, yeah, that was the recommendation. But, boy oh boy, you know, for better or for worse, most people just aren’t very good at listening to government guidelines. So…
Ari Whitten: You know, and just to add to that, we have that data and it’s very clear. I mean, you can look at, I’ve seen the actual charts where they showed that fat intake, average fat intake did not actually decline at all and in fact, in absolute terms went up slightly during that time. But people added so many calories from especially refined carbohydrates and maybe even low fat sort of refined carbohydrate rich foods, that the calorie percentage in relative terms of fat lowered slightly during that time, while absolute actual grams of fat intake increased slightly. And so there are people out there who are misrepresenting that and saying, “oh, everybody went low fat and just got fatter.” So…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yep. And you can skip that whole process altogether and just look at straight up calories. If you look at calories per capita, they’ve just been going up for a real long time. I mean, that’s culprit number one. There’s just really not a situation in which folks are controlling their… you know, so there’s a camp and some of those folks are in that camp. There’s more nuanced and a less nuanced one.
The less nuanced one says that calories don’t matter, it’s all hormones. Mildly absurd because there’s never been a person who manipulated the hormones properly and with not enough calories managed to gain weight and ruin their health. There’s literally no such human being can exist. If that person could do that then please tell me. I don’t know why I’m starving for bodybuilding shows over here. I would love to be able to eat a ton of calories and lose weight or the other way around. I’m sick of stuffing myself. I’d love to gain weight without eating a ton of calories.
The more nuanced version is that when you eat a lot of carbohydrates, a very insulin secreting environment, it makes you take in more calories because it makes you hungrier. I mean there’s some semblance of truth to that. There is some value there. But the first opinion is just wildly wrong. The second one has something to it, but, and I can expand on that if you like. It’s more nuanced than they say.
The connection between eating healthy and energy
Ari Whitten: I want to get into that more, but maybe we’ll come back to that because I don’t want to digress too much from, you know, the first key point as far as nutrition for health is calorie balance basically, and maintaining relative leanness and not letting yourself get extremely overweight. So we went on some digressions, me guiding those digressions, into those tangents. So let’s get back to number two. What’s the second big factor beyond energy balance?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah. So the second big factor is going to be food composition. It accounts for roughly 20 percent in our estimate of the variance in health among individuals. And food composition means, okay, you know, you’re basically eating proteins, carbs and fats. Those are your macronutrients. And where are you getting them from? Where, what kind of food are you eating? Granted that you’re getting, let’s say 2000 calories a day.
Are they 2000 calories a day of, you know, like fry grease from McDonald’s, you know, bologna and sugar cubes, or is it 2000 calories a day of lean chicken or tofu and broccoli and almond oil or something like that.
Now the real critical factor here is 20 percent is a lot less than 60 percent, so what you never want to do is start “eating healthy” and tell yourself “it doesn’t matter how much I eat or what my body weight is, I’m eating the right stuff.” But you also don’t want, less so, but you’re still don’t want to, know that you’re at a healthy body weight and just eat god knows what because if you want your best health, and you know best health doesn’t strike people in their twenties and thirties much.
When your kids start getting a little older and in your forties, you want to be around for all the stuff, then it starts, the details might start to matter a little bit more. Or the doctor says, “you know how you’ve always been pretty healthy,” and you’re like “uh-huh” and he’s like “that’s just not true anymore. Your blood work came back and you suck.” You know, you’re “oh crap.” That 20 percent can start to matter and that 20 percent… I mean the recommendation there is consume most of your foods, most not all, you don’t have to be religious about it.
Most of your foods from a combination of lean protein sources, basically, you know, like poultry and meats, what have you, or, they can be vegan protein sources as well. In the following order of veggies, fruits, whole grains for carbohydrates with minimum processed stuff.
And then primarily healthy fats. You want to get sort of healthy fish and omega three fatty acids, but you also want the majority of your fats outside of that to probably come from a lot of mono-unsaturated heavy sources: olive oil, canola oil, nut butters, nuts, avocado, stuff like that. The good stuff, right?
Can you have some ice cream? Can you have some cookies? Totally. But if maybe like three quarters of your food comes from stuff you know is healthy, that’s probably a really good idea for your health. The thing is with consistency on average over the long term. If you have a weekend here or there where you eat like total crap, your body doesn’t go down a ton or it comes back down, it’s okay as long as day in day out your weekly routine has mostly healthy foods.
Back when I taught this kind of subject matter at a university and we actually had an entire course about teaching my students how to help other people make their healthy, make their eating more healthy. One of the best ways to attack this problem is getting folks to figure, you know, like… going out to birthday parties, whatever, we eat whatever we want.
You know, if you’re going to watch what you’re eating at a birthday party and you’re not like on a mission to lose a ton of fat because your health is real bad, if you’re just trying to be healthy and you’re okay, if we live in a totalitarian society, then nothing’s worth it at all. Right? But you know, where you can really work on it is, what are you eating for breakfast?
What are you eating for lunch and is your dinner at least decently healthy? Like can you have some ice cream after dinner every now and again? Totally. But like if you’re… you know, you choose what you eat for lunch, you definitely choose what you eat for breakfast, you mostly choose what you eat for dinner. Make it good stuff. And the thing about people ask “what’s good stuff?”
That “Understanding Healthy Eating” book has all the definitions. And like I said, you know, lean proteins, veggies, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats. But the thing is, I’ll tell you this, Ari, I think nine out of 10 people, no matter the socioeconomic status, demographic, you give them two foods side by side, you say “which one’s healthy, which one’s not.” They’re going to be able to tell you. It’s not rocket science.
There is nowhere in America where you whip out a cheeseburger or a shake and you whip out a fruit or like a platter of nuts and greens and you’re like, “which one’s healthy?” And they’re like, “cheeseburger.” That just doesn’t happen. Everybody knows to the extent that they care. Different people care about different things.
To the extent where they would still eat the cheeseburger? Totally, right? But people know. So when people like “what’s healthy,” like “what do you think is healthy?” And they’re like, “oh, I know, but I don’t always like to eat that stuff.” Listen, nobody does. You’ve got to develop a healthy eating habit.
Before that it all tastes like health food and it’s just not going to taste… What is it, Dr. Spencer Nadolsky says “nothing tastes as good as candies.” Forget about finding anything that good. Be an adult. Choose your food wisely for the most part and go from there.
How to eat right. The mechanisms that control body composition and health
Ari Whitten: Great. So I want to come back to your percentages and ask a couple of questions around that. So you’ve kind of given this 60 percent is about energy balance and body composition, 20 percent is about food choices. So when we look at like the links between junk food consumption, highly processed foods, refined grains, refined sugars, fatty foods, mixes of highly palatable, highly rewarding foods that are usually a mix of sugar and fat and starch or salt or some combination of those…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Good stuff.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, ice cream, pizza, potato chips, donuts, you know, things like that. What is it specifically in your opinion that makes those things unhealthy? Is it primarily just about the fact that they make you, they don’t work with your hunger and satiety hormones very well and cause you to passively over consume food and then, therefore, get out of calorie balance and gain fat over time? Or do they also mediate damaging effects through effects on the gut microbiome or immune dysregulation or, you know, kind of inflammation in the body. How big of a factor are other mechanisms beyond just the effects on calorie balance?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Well, I think a big part of the answer is in that 60 percent to 20 percent ratio. So like what is that, three to one, right? My math is not that far off. If you take out the effects of those foods at boosting calories, you lose 75 percent of their negative health effects. For example, if somebody eats a diet mostly of junk food almost entirely, but they keep calorie balance, they’ll be free from roughly 75 percent of the adverse health effects of those junk foods.
This has actually been proven several times. The most notable incident was a case study by one of the professors of our colleagues actually that works with me at Renaissance Periodization, Dr. Jen Case. She had a PhD in nutrition under a gentleman who coined the sort of “Twinkie diet.”
He was at a meeting with other professors and he got on a little bit of a tangent with them in a discussion about like “calorie balance is super important,” and they’re like, “no, that’s ridiculous.” I think they were harassing him for having like a Twinkie at lunch or something with other food. He’s like, “I bet you guys I can eat basically only snack cakes with a little bit of essential nutrients and some protein thrown in.
I can do this for months and I’ll lose weight and improve every health parameter.” And they’re like, “no way.” And he did it, and sure enough it worked. And then there’s the documentaries of guys eat at McDonald’s and losing a bunch of weight, losing fat, improving their health. It can be done. It’s a ridiculous way to go about things. The hunger dysregulation makes it almost impossible because if you eat 2000 calories of Twinkies, you’re just going to want to eat 4,000 more calories of junk food after that.
There’s no way you can, most people can have any satiety like that. But most of the ill effects of fat are in fact calorie related, not all of them, especially in proportion to how much of your intake is composed of those foods. For example, if you have like a coca cola, full sugar coke and a cheeseburger once a week, twice a week or three times a week, I mean it’s within the context of a calorie controlled diet and the rest of your food is healthy. If someone comes up to you and they’re like “do you know what fructose does to your body? Like it’s killing your cells right now and you’ve got dysbiosis” or some word, they sort of curse really, you know, but not really. You’re just loading… it’s just a bunch of crap shooting that nonsense, right? There’s not going to be any kind of effects that are medically detectable from that sort of thing.
Now, if a really big part of your diet, even though you’re a skinny person. You know, some people are just naturally thin, they just control calories through a lot of just excess energy expenditure, they’re just kind of jittery, they always move around. But they have a total crap diet.
Yeah, they’re actually going to have elevated markers of inflammation, of kind of nasty, low level systemic inflammation that causes heart disease later down the line. They might have some blood pressure control issues, their lipids are going to be off, definitely off of what you would expect based on their composition, right? Like, you know, if you think every lean person is healthy, go ahead and find some drug addicts on the street that are very lean. Do their blood work, you’ll quickly find out that this is absolutely not the case.
Ask them what their diets are like and holy crap, you just sort of eat whatever you happen to buy at a convenience store. That stuff will add up.
So hopefully that starts to kind of give a picture of what’s going on. Yes, these fructose mediated effects, highly processed sugars, the possible potential effects on gut microbiota, they’re definitely real. They’re not enormous until you start eating a diet very, very high in those foods and low in nutritious foods. That being said, it’s almost esoteric. It’s curious to you and I as we are nerds.
That debate, so to speak, is very not super relevant because almost everyone who eats a lot of those foods is hyper caloric overweight. So when you reduce those foods, it’s a one two punch to both sides of the problem. Both the sort of chemically mediated effects and the caloric effect.
Obesity and metabolic health, and how your genes can play a role in health
Ari Whitten: So let me follow up on this with the example of the concept of metabolically healthy obese people. What do you think of that concept? Is it possible to be in a calorie surplus, accumulate body fat, you know, significant amounts of body fat over the course of years and years and years, be actually very overweight and yet be perfectly healthy still?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Multipart answer to that one. First of all, a lot of those folks are abusing unicorn dust and I’m still trying to get some. It’s really difficult to find actual unicorn dust and unicorns are tough to find to begin with, but the dust. I don’t even know if it’s ethical. Is it crushed up unicorns? I don’t know what it is, but it works. If you consume it, you’re just healthy no matter what. So now that we’ve got the unicorn dust out of the way, two part answer. The first part is the least relevant part, explains less of the variance. But it’s, nonetheless, I think, important to point out some folks just have gnarly genetics for health and they can do whatever. So…
Ari Whitten: Is “gnarly” the proper scientific term for that.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Literally in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “gnarly” is defined as, you know, highly robust, intractable health. And I know some people just have really good health genetically and boy oh boy, is learning from them a real bad idea for the rest of us. One of my coaches, his grandfather worked in the coal mines basically his entire life and he ate essentially almost exclusively saturated fat and drank heavily. Lived in West Virginia or something like that.
He was angry his entire life and at one point he got sick and, because he was working in the coal mines and breathing God knows what. And the doctor, this was back in the sixties, prescribed him daily dianabol, that’s an anabolic steroid. It’s oral so it’s supposed to be taken for only weeks at a time if you’re an HIV patient or something like that to spark you back to life.
Highly degrading, kills people. This guy took hundreds of milligrams of dianabol for pretty much every week of his life thereon after, and lived into his, I think, mid seventies. And by my coach’s account, he was healthy the entire time, muscular for no good reason, working in a coal mine…
Ari Whitten: I can think of at least one good reason why he was muscular if he was taking…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: I’m sorry, you’re right, for sure. Taking lots of dianabol, how he could be muscular. And then, the way that my coach describes the way he died was he just got fed up with life and just checked out. He didn’t… no degradation, he wasn’t like super weak and then floated away, he was just like, “ah, whatever.” That’s it. He was angry all the time. The anger also possibly explainable by the dianabol. So what can we learn from a gentleman like that? One thing for sure, some people just have unbelievable genetics for health and most of us don’t have unbelievable genetics for health. The rest of us are on a bell curve. It’s a spectrum, right? Some decent people, some people require a lot more management. Some folks will be pretty unhealthy no matter what they do, even if they stay on everything, it’s tough if you have that.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So we got to just make sure that if there’s case reports of people that are very overweight and have perfect health, you got to know some of them are for sure just gifted, right? But that explains maybe five percent or something like that of all those folks. Ninety-five percent is a little bit more of a nefarious sort of explanation.
Here it is. If you are metabolically relatively healthy, if you’re one of those pretty healthy people, and especially if you’re related to Leon, if you gain a considerable amount of weight in your childhood, teen or early twenties and thirties, once you have gained the weight, you may still be fairly metabolically healthy and resilient. But the thing is that that excess weight, due to the physical stress, the hormonal dysregulation, so on and so forth is a, I don’t want to say time bomb, that’s kind of an inaccurate. It’s slowly leaches away and degrades your health. And how long does that take?
Sometimes it can take years if you’ve pretty good, robust health to begin with. Sometimes it can take a decade or more. So if someone, you know, used to be very physically active, just has great genetics for health, is a healthy body weight. After college, they put on a lot of weight. Now they weigh 300 pounds, five foot six, you know, college graduations is at age 22. It might be until their mid thirties until they actually see any kind of blood work ramifications because, you know, there’s some people walking around that have stellar blood-work. My wife, I think her average resting blood pressure is like a hundred over 60.
Like I have no idea how she is physically upright and not passed out all the time. Like if she took a turn for the worst with her health or behaviors, she’s actually a medical doctor so there’s no way that’s happening. But, you know, it would take years, years, years for her blood pressure to register as abnormally high. It would just be like the biggest uphill battle of all time. So a lot of those folks end up, you know, going years and years and years without paying the price. Every single one of them, except for those people that work in coal mines and eat dianabol tabs, every single one of them will pay the price eventually.
Once the debt collector comes as far as degraded health, that is an accumulated degradation of health. There’s not an easy way to reverse that, versus losing the weight, getting super healthy and keeping it like that for a long time. And sometimes there’s no reversing it at all. It’s just damaged done. So when investigators collect data about who’s fit, who’s fat and how healthy, they are, if they profile those folks that are in their twenties and thirties, have pretty good health, genetics, but have put on a lot of weight, they’re going to notice this fit yet fat group and they’re going to say, “oh, looks like that’s okay.” But it’s not okay.
It’s like a car that hasn’t got an oil change in a long time, but it’s still in the safe range. It would be like, “well, this car hasn’t had an oil change here forever, but it’s still running.” Is the conclusion there that we never need to change our oil. God, no, the conclusion is quite the opposite. But we wouldn’t be able to tell that given the way we’re looking at the problem.
Ari Whitten: Gotcha. Beautifully explained. So, is there a number three factor and, you know, if not, I have some specific questions to dig into.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Please.
How to eat right – carbs, fats, and proteins and how they pertain to health
Ari Whitten: Carbs and fats and protein. So we have several claims around these. For example, obviously low carb and keto have become very popular. And still the idea that, you know, kind of carbs and insulin are not only making us fat, but are key drivers of aging and disease is still very prevalent. We need to go keto, you know, that’s a very popular thing right now.
We also have a lot of vegans out there who are saying, “hey, we need to avoid animal proteins and eat low protein diets to keep IGF 1 low and because that’s a key driver, and mTOR low because those are key mechanisms of aging and disease.” So what do you say in response to those claims? What’s your take on carbs, fats, and proteins as they pertain to health?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah. Well, gee, you beat me to that number three factor which is macronutrient balance, right? Or macronutrient ratios. And that’s how much protein, carbs and fats compose your calories and healthy, hopeful, foods. And what effect does that have? So the first part of the answer is really the biggest, the net total in our estimate of the effects of the different kinds of macronutrient ratios is about 10 percent. That’s the total effect on health, and notice we already have the 60 percent from calories and the 20 percent from the composition, that’s 80 percent of the way there as far as a healthy diet. If you can do 80 percent with good consistency, honestly, that’s almost everything any medical professional can ask of you. I mean like if your nutritionist, if you have a nutritionist, or doctor, and he knows that you’re doing calories and, you know, or mostly healthy foods properly, they really can’t… they’d be crazy to ask you to do much more than that.
I’ll put to you this way. If all of the Western world, America included, went to 80 percent only, didn’t worry about anything else, but did it consistently, our public health disasters would pretty much dry up almost completely. We’d cut healthcare spending by like a 10th or by nine tenths, right? It would just be like this huge revolution. So 10 percent is, it’s a very small number and here’s why. So long as you get the minimum amounts of proteins, carbs, and fats to operate your body and keep it healthy, which is a very different thing than keeping it performing at a high level muscle, etc. And this is where those things kind of split apart a lot. If you get enough protein, carbs, and fats for the minimum basics, you can fill up the rest of your calories with any real combination of carbs, proteins and fats, so long as they’re mostly from healthy sources and the calories are good to go. Boy, it matters just very, very little. It matters so little that it becomes really difficult for the researcher to start to really delineate what it is exactly that we can conclude is like the optimal healthy diet, right?
Ari Whitten: I want to interrupt you for a second and just emphasize a point that you’re making, which is if we look at the last 15, 20, maybe 30 years of talk around the diet that is optimal for health or the diet that is optimal for body composition almost, at least in the… outside of scientific circles, but more in, you know, the general public sphere, almost all of the conversation is centered around carbs and fats. It’s like “it’s carbs,” “no it’s fats,” “go low fat,” “go low carb,” “go keto,” you know, or proteins to some extent with kind of the vegan people. But it’s very, very carb and fat centric and we’ve, you know, like everybody’s thinking is really centered around carbs and fats as the key mover and shaker that determines our health and our body composition. And I just want to point out, emphasize that you’re saying that that carb to fat ratio is probably about 10 percent of the overall picture when it comes to health.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah. If not less. Once you exclude protein consumption, we’re talking maybe seven percent. I don’t know, something. And maybe less, actually. Most of the way we generate that 10 percent figure is, you know, kind of accounting for people deviating a little too far away from optima. For example, if you use a strict keto diet, you got to be real careful about getting in your vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, because most of those come from plant foods and reduce your carbs a lot, plant foods lower than you’re looking for some trouble. If you’re a strict vegan it is a little bit difficult to get certain kinds of fats that are considered essential fats. So if people err on the side of one or another, they start to get into some health concerns. But within the minima it’s even less than a 10 percent difference.
And then it comes down to, I think a real, I don’t know if it is a controversy, but it’s just not clear from the evidence. For example, like, let’s refute some of the common sort of thinking on this. To the individuals that think that carbohydrates are the cause of a lot of health maladies, we present to you the statistical category in nutrition called vegans and vegetarians. In many surveys they consume in excess of 70 percent, sometimes up to 80 percent of their daily calories in carbohydrates, which boy, oh boy, if the carb-insulin hypothesis is as real as some folks think, maybe they should just be dead bodies in these places.
They should be the most unhealthy people in the world. The thing is, in many, especially older analyses, I’ll get to newer analyses in a bit, vegans and vegetarians are some of the healthiest people ever studied.
I mean, maybe they don’t have a dominant philosophy on health. Maybe there’s other ways of eating and there are that are just as healthy, or close. But if carbs and insulin really were as bad as people say they couldn’t be one of the healthiest. They could just be average, maybe, and some other weird way to explain it. But one of the healthiest, that’s tough to describe.
On the other hand, folks say the high protein diet is really bad for your health. Well, if you look at a fitness enthusiast that consume high protein diets, they’re really healthy, super healthy. But if you take away the ones that abuse anabolic steroids and you look at everybody else as a big correction factor, man the high protein diet fitness enthusiasts are some of the healthiest people period, right? And then, you know, if you look at, you know, some sort of more… sometimes it comes from vegans in saying, you know, a high fat diets real bad for your health.
Well, there’s folks following a mostly keto approach, eating tons of fats, you know, mostly healthy fats and still getting enough greens and proteins and stuff, they are also super duper healthy and a lot of people lose a lot of weight and get real healthy eating like that. So any extreme approach that seeks to say, okay, but certainly carbs or fats or proteins are bad. There’s a group of people eating a lot of that, but it’s a large group of people, it is very well studied for a very long time and they’re just not dying off or having all these bad health problems. And that’s really the simple fact of the matter and everything in between.
So, you know, people say, “well, carbs are okay, fats are okay, just don’t eat both of them together.” Like a lot of people. Eat both of them together. You’re basically saying that the following… like a meal of salmon, raw almonds, brown rice and mixed greens is unhealthy because it has a high combination of fats. What, are you crazy? Every time we study people that eat like that, they outlive everybody, you know, so that’s one of those situations where, you know.
Can we say that eating a higher protein diet probably degrades health in some ways, probably. The vegans probably are onto something with that, it probably has an effect on mortality, see, the higher protein diet. On the other hand, it has an opposite effect on morbidity. People who eat high protein diets die of strokes strong as hell, just taking a walk and just boom stroking out and falling over and they’re in the middle of gardening or taking a walk or riding a bike or something like that. You feed on a real low protein diet, you die twenty years of bed rest later in a nursing home as you began to be too weak to take care of yourself twenty years ago when you were already under muscled. Hey, you lived a long time, good for you, so when you take into account morbidity and mortality.
And I think it’s also important to take into account quality of life indices. We get, you can design the optimal diet. It’s going to drain all of the fun out of everything, and live some number of, some short number of years longer, a little less morbidity. I don’t know, man, what’s the point of that like? Remember those, you know, you’re 90 years old and remember those memories you have of pasta night with your family and everyone’s laughing and the world just couldn’t be any better.
Nope. Because you didn’t have pasta night because you didn’t eat pasta because it was really bad for you. All of a sudden a lot of the best things in life are just mixed right out. So when you integrate quality of life, it just becomes, you know, eating the calories, a proper amount of calories, eating mostly healthy foods, eating enough proteins, carbs and fats, really excellent. It’s actually about 10 percent of your calories for each one roughly, and then whatever else you fill that in with, it really it just washes out in the net balance.
And let me make another really quick point. A lot of people will say, it’s actually something I was thinking about earlier. They’ll say, you know, man, we’ve got these studies on protein, mTOR and this and that, really bad. I’m like, if that’s going to matter in the big picture for you, your consistency and adherence better be like 99 percent of all the other stuff. Your calories better be flawless and you better consume almost exclusively healthy food. Like, I can’t believe how many folks I’ve seen and being like “mTOR” or “protein” and you know, it’s gonna, “you’re gonna die” and then take like a shovel size spoon of natural peanut butter and jam it down and you’re like, “so your calories” and they’re like, “I’m eating alpha” and I’m like “right on,” you know, or eating like vegan chocolate chip cookies or something like food compositions.
Terrible. And you’re like, “okay, you know, the amount of the mTOR protein thing is hardly used like this and the amount you’re doing with calories, a little bigger than my screen and the amount of food compositions is here.” So if folks want to get super in depth on their diet, yeah that stuff may be worth a consideration. Trading off the morbidity stuff of course.
But most folks, it’s just one of those things that I think people have almost this kind of hypochondria about health claims where they read an article that says “protein causes mTOR, which causes cancer, “and they’ll go, “oh crap, I gotta eat less protein.” No, you’ve got to eat a calorically balanced diet with mostly healthy foods. Then you have to shut up for a while, let your health improve, and then if you are just unbelievable like the million dollar man of nutrition and you never make mistakes, you can start thinking about protein and all that stuff. That’s kind of my take on it.
How to eat healthy – why it is important to eat right while you live your life
Ari Whitten: Gotcha. Okay. So just to play devil’s advocate on one thing you said, I want to present the polar opposite of, you know, this picture that you created of somebody who’s kind of very, very on it as far as adhering to very healthy habits and then kind of like giving them permission, “say, hey, indulge, have some pasta once in a while, have some ice cream, have some cake once in a while.” What about the other side of this where a person is constantly using this as justification for poor eating habits. And it’s like, “well, I’d rather, you know, live my life and just, you know, eat what I want to eat and have cake and ice cream and pizza because eating healthy food and being judicious about my food choices is just too painful and restrictive and, you know, I’ll be suffering all the time. I’d rather live a shorter life with more disease. But I get to actually enjoy my food.” What do you say to someone like that?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: That’s a really good point. I think the “suffering less” is an interesting use of verbiage, which we will begin to examine immediately. When your fifth toe in as many months is being amputated because you’re diabetic, it won’t seem like you’re suffering very little anymore. And just when you’re finally making enough money that you’ve paid off all of your debts, your children are finally growing into the beautiful people you always knew they could become. You are starting to break apart, you have no idea why and the doctors can’t help you. If that sounds like a great way to live, hell yeah. Eat whatever the hell you want. You’re going to be great. It’s going to be exactly the life you want. So, and to be honest, some people, they’re okay making really interesting trade offs. I’m here talking to you right now, weighing 260 pounds knowingly degrading my health for the sport of bodybuilding.
But knowingly, very knowingly, profoundly knowingly, wrote a whole textbook on it knowingly. I know what I’m trading off. I know almost exactly how many years I’m trading off and exactly the kind of morbidities I’m going to be getting myself into. A lot of people just don’t know that. So if somebody is really well informed on exactly what’s waiting for them, with the free range lifestyle so to speak, and they still say “yes,” they’re either way too young or immature to process what’s going on or enlightened and are making an interesting trade off that I think everyone in a free society should be allowed to make.
Ari Whitten: That’s a very generous option that you gave.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: There’s people like that, 90 percent here, 10 percent here in that last group. But the thing is, once people find out that health and eating is so important for long term health, they start to change their tune most of the time. That’s a real thing. Another thing I used to teach in that class where I taught folks how to change other people’s health behaviors or help them do that, which you never want to do is help someone eat a healthy diet and really trump up the short term benefits. Especially the perceptive benefits. Like “don’t you just feel great eating broccoli and chicken?”
Nine out of 10 people who have been eating Taco Bell and all this other stuff their whole life would be like “no, I feel terrible. I hate it.” Right? So I guess some people say like, “I’ve been following a healthy diet and I feel so good.” Like at Renaissance, we run a ton of healthy diets and it’s always nice to us, but kind of in the back of our heads when people are like, “I’ve been following the templates for a week and I feel great.” Like really? That’s nice. It was a total coincidence. Usually if it’s a fat loss diet you’re supposed to feel worse.
The real health benefits of healthy eating kick in months later, years later, decades later, and it’s stuff that doesn’t happen to you versus stuff that does. If you eat healthy in your thirties and forties, your fifties will be largely uneventful. If you don’t, your fifties will be very eventful in exactly the way that you don’t want them to be. Once people hear it like that, they’re a little less apt to choose the laissez faire approach with their own diet.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I’m glad I asked you that because your way of speaking about that issue of kind of like whole foods versus, you know, kind of indulging here and there is I think directed. You’re used to speaking to audiences of people who are fitness fanatics and who are maybe on the, to a large extent on the extreme of like eating extremely healthy food and oftentimes orthorexic, “I can’t ever have any cake or ice cream because it’s terrible for me or it’s going to make me fat.”
So you’re kind of giving people permission to do that. But there’s also, and I’ve encountered a pretty sizable portion of the population of like the general population who is not, they’re not fitness fanatics, they are not health fanatics, who do genuinely feel that way where they’re like, “I’d rather get to enjoy what I eat, and you know, and have that pleasure than suffer all the time by having to eat whole foods.”
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: You will suffer, you will suffer if you choose that path, you’ll suffer a lot more. Yeah. It’s a very good point. I think that’s one of the, when we talk about how to change people’s behaviors, I think that’s a really good time to sort of bring back something I said earlier, which is, you know there’s times and places to enjoy your life eating tasty foods. I’m sorry for swearing, but that shit is not all the time. If you’re eating fast food for breakfast, lunch and donuts for dinner, you’re not living your best life. You’re just making really terrible choices.
If you go out with your family on a Saturday night and you have some nachos and fried chicken at the movies, you’re just living great. And during the week, if you’re having just healthy basic meals that you bring with you to work and a good healthy breakfast and lunch and dinner, you’re doing a great thing. So it’s one of those times when people, like, “I want to enjoy myself.”
Well, you sure as hell seem to enjoy yourself every conceivable meal, your life is just all enjoyment all the time. It would be like, “I don’t want a job because I want to enjoy myself all the time.” Well, not having a job leads to very short periods of enjoyment until you don’t have any money left over.
Ari Whitten: I think also the concept of hedonic adaptation is interesting. Just what we know is that people actually normalize to whatever their typical, you know, in this case diet is. So, if you actually were able to measure the amount of pleasure that someone’s getting from eating donuts and cookies and ice cream and pizza all the time, versus someone like you who’s having brown rice and salmon and broccoli, let’s say. The actual enjoyment is not actually that different. You probably enjoy those meals and they enjoy their meals. You’ve normalized to it and you don’t get this extreme pleasure all the time by eating donuts and cookies and ice cream, you know what I mean?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Hundred percent. That’s actually how with bodybuilders that have, that’s how we know that your body’s starting to resist you gaining any more weight when you’re pushing it forward. Right after you’re very lean and you lose a lot of weight, when you start gaining weight, like cookies and ice cream and all that stuff tastes like only drugs can make you feel.
And it’s, you know, sublime. When you gained all the weight back from after your contest and you’re rushing into a new high body weight, man, someone’s like, “hey, you want to, you want a cheat meal tonight?” And you’re like, “okay, like, what do you want to eat?” ” I don’t know.” I’ve literally had to, you know I’m friends with… a lot of my friends are bodybuilders and one guy was gaining weight. One of my colleagues actually at Renaissance and I was like, “James, what do you want to eat tonight?”
I was on a diet. He was massive, right. So, I was vicariously eating through him and I was like, he was like,” I don’t know,” and I was like, “Taco Bell” and he’s like, “all right.” We were at the Taco Bell and I basically had to help him order because he just didn’t care what he ate it was, nothing was bringing enjoyment anymore and I had to talk him into eating all the stuff. And you would think Taco Bell is delicious.
But for him, he had been intentionally putting on weight for so long, soaking up both the calories and the hedonic power of those foods that he just tapped out on it. So I think some people fear like, “oh, but I’m never going to have tasty foods ever again.” Well, once you get used to eating healthier foods, they’re going to be pretty good actually.
Like I love my healthy foods. And there’s also, there’s ways to make healthy foods taste amazing. So it’s not an excuse anymore nowadays. And also, you know, when you do have your little bits on the weekends and in the evenings, every now and again, junk food will taste better than it ever has if you are used to eating healthy food. Some people, junk food just tastes like regular food. You’ll actually have more fun eating if you eat well, most of the time.
Really quick analogy to that. If you’re always on vacation, there actually are some pretty good studies showing that lottery winners are no happier than the average person. Like if you’re always on vacation, it’s not a vacation anymore, it’s just regular life, you get used to it. But if you work really hard, vacations are super fun and there’s that balance in life that can be achieved through food and that’s a really good one.
The last 10% of strategies for healthy eating
Ari Whitten: Yeah, absolutely. Well said. So I think there’s a fourth factor here, just by virtue of simple math. We have 60 percent energy balance, calorie balance; 20 percent food quality, food choices, whole foods versus processed foods; 10 percent macronutrients, protein, carbs and fats. And there’s another 10 percent there,
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah, split into two factors, actually three, if you want to get technical. First one accounting for five percent is nutrient timing. The second one and third one, accounting for two point five respectively is hydration and supplementation, because supplementation is a big factor in eating, you know. People say, “should I be taking fish oil? Should I be taking this and that, is it going to make me healthier?”
And of course, the supplement industry would love for everyone to believe that supplementation accounts for 60 percent of differences in health rather than…
Ari Whitten: Ninety percent
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Right, ninety… one hundred. “You know, not one hundred, ninety five, you shouldn’t eat junk food too often, but here, take this pill and you can eat most of it.” You know, it’s not the two point five they want you to believe. And then of course hydration plays a role. We don’t have to talk about hydration much at all, just avoid extremes.
If you’re drinking water every hour like it’s a healthful… stop. Hyper-hydration does not make you healthier. If you just go hours without drinking water and you’re peeing tea color, that’s not a good thing. Get more fluids. That’s all we have to say about hydration. You can ask me more questions about it if you want it’s a relatively uninteresting subject.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, I mean, most people have the idea with that one. It’s pretty straight…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Most people are fine, actually most people are… That’s another really interesting myth is people think like, “oh man, like I’m going to eat healthy.” I’m sure you get this a lot. You’re like, “okay.” And they’re like, “I’ve got to really start worrying about hydration.” I’m like “who the hell told you that?” It’s one of those things it just keeps floating around. Like “I got to get in lots of water.” And you’re like, “why?” Like “flush out my toxins.” Like “that’s not how it works.”
Ari Whitten: Or use electrolyte supplements.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Oh boy. Yeah. Just flush it all out or something like that. So hydration aside, supplements we can get to later. But the thing is, it’s nothing really, two point five percent. We can only talk about it so much. Nutrient timing is five percent and there’s some stuff to say there.
Ari Whitten: So yeah, let’s get into that. What is optimal nutrient timing?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Yeah. So first of all, it’s five percent. So by definition, it really doesn’t matter that much. The most important thing with nutrient timing for health is that you eat in a way that supports a high level of physical activity because physical activity, there’s a whole pyramid of physical activity in health and it has a huge, huge effect on health. How much physical activity you do, the more the better generally speaking. So you want to eat in a way that promotes high levels of physical activity and because it’s not all about health, the rest of your life, in a way that promotes good cognitive function, moods and energy levels that are conducive to seeing your kids and not trying to kill your boss, not sleeping at work or something like that, or staring at a spreadsheet like this, you haven’t had food in a day and a half, you have no idea what you’re typing.
Your boss is like, “what did you type day, what did you produce today?” You’re like, “I think I hit the ‘o’ button of about 10,000 times.” That’s great. You’re a great worker, right? And so if you could avoid all of those things, your nutrient timing for health… now for athletics, it’s 10 percent and it’s some more detail to talk about, largely uninteresting, I’m sure for your audience. But for nutrient timing for health, you know, they’ve studied folks that consume six, eight, ten meals per day. If they have all the other big parts of the picture, stunningly healthy.
They studied folks who do a daily intermittent fasting, so maybe 16 hours of fasting during the day and you know, eight hours of feeding. And they’ve studied a four hour feeding window and a two hour feeding window.
Believe it or not, as much as the body building side of my soul is pained by this, it’s not very great for bodybuilding. That’s actually just fine for your health and there’s some unique health benefits there, mostly canceled out by the unique health detriments, but it’s just fine. And then they’ve actually studied pretty extensively the daily alternating fasting. So you literally, one day you eat, the next day you don’t, one day you eat, the next day you don’t. And they found that that is actually quite conducive to health.
The only reservation I have about recommending those things, as soon as I say that people say like, “so I can do that. Right?” And I say like, “yeah, you know you probably go to work.” I don’t know if anyone’s ever been to work where they haven’t eaten the whole day but, boy oh boy, does that get to be really unproductive and a very irritating environment after a while. And you might go through work just fine and then you got to see your kids later. Right? And they’re yelling at you, “mommy, mommy, what are we having for dinner?” Well, mommy’s not having anything for dinner today because it’s an alternate fasting day.
Laugh in front of your children as they are eating chicken nuggets, a real bad thing. So, so If you’re into that lifestyle, if you’re on some kind of spiritual journey and want to do an alternate faster, it’s totally great. But for most folks, three… two to five meals per day, roughly evenly spread, some good protein and veggies in most of those meals and some carbs and fats when necessary or when desired. That’s probably really like the middle ground that just through adherence and lifestyle applies to most people. But if you really want to get quirky with the timing, there’s probably no reason you can’t do it.
How to eat right – is gluten bad for you?
Ari Whitten: Okay. So a couple things. One, I wanted to get into training. I think we’re going to have to save that for part two with you. I’d love to have you on the show again because I know you have a lot to share on the topic of training and we haven’t even really gotten into that deep to body composition. I know we can get into both nutrition and training for that. Obviously there’s lots of overlap here as you’ve talked about with health.
But I want to, I’m hoping to have about seven more minutes with you if you’re cool with that. I would love to talk about some specific foods because we have a lot of claims around, like for example, grains and gluten are terrible for you. Eggs or egg yolks or red meat are terrible. And also I want to hear your opinion on keto. So I’ll let you take those topics and you can decide which one you want to address first.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Sure. So there are some foods that offer just more numerically of things that are healthier than other foods. The balance is they have a higher nutrient density. Mostly when we talk about nutrient density, we’re referring to vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, which are a special kind of plant compounds that have a small effect on health, but there’s like 100 million of them, so they add up to again, a very small number, but something that’s meaningful.
And of course fiber, which is very healthy in about 10,000 different ways and some significant ones. So if you have a food that has a whole lot of those things in it, it’s pretty objectively healthier on average than food that has less or has none of those things. The problem there is before you say, “oh my god, I’m going to eat a whole lot of that food.”
A good example is kiwi fruit. Kiwis are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber, unbelievable, food of the gods, I tell you. The thing is fruits, vegetables and every single food also come with a certain amount of irritants, proinflammatory agents and allergens, and comes with an inherent monotony of consumption. Kiwis are amazing until you eat 10,000 of them and then you swear you’ll never eat a fucking kiwi again. Pardon my language. So when people look for magic foods, they have to consider that there’s… any food that you eat in excess is going to start to get, benefits you a ton, but also give you these problems of excess.
And then, in addition to that, it’s going to be an issue of adherence where you’re going to be on this magic food diet where you eat only kiwis and lean ground beef, you know, whatever, healthy almonds or something, and then you’re just going to be super healthy. And you will be really healthy, right?
But, you’re just not going to be able to sustain that because you’re are just going to die of boredom at some point. Before you die of boredom you’re just going to start eating who knows what and then you’re going to stop eating the magic foods. And usually when people are on a magic foods diet and they step off of it, they don’t step down to a balance diet of diverse intakes.
They step right off the thing and fall into the pit of Oreos mixed with peanut butter and, you know, fried into pizza. Aw shit, I should be a chef. That sounds delicious. So the magic food stuff is, it’s definitely true that there are some foods that are healthier than others, but there’s nothing healthier than a wide variety of those foods eaten to taste and preference on occasion and just mixing it in.
So, are there some lean, healthy proteins, is salmon, the healthiest fish? It doesn’t really matter because there’s five other fish that are almost as healthy as salmon, even if it’s the healthiest or something. And they’re great to rotate into your diet. Fish is actually a particularly interesting example, because certain kinds of fish that are very healthy also have higher levels of mercury and PCBs or some other compounds, which over time can add up to really negative effects.
But if you alter your fish intake, wild caught versus farm, then you can obviate most of those effects. So in the end, the magic foods thing or the special kinds of foods, man it really just kind of washes away. And the answer is, you know, there’s a whole lot of foods in every single category, which is why those categories are important. You know, lean protein sources, fruits, vegetables.
If you’re getting different kinds of fruits, different kinds of vegetables, different kinds of whole grains, different kinds of lean proteins and different kinds of healthy fats, it doesn’t mean you have to have every single part of your plate has to be a little different. You can eat the same stuff for a week. And then different stuff for a week and then different stuff for another week and every day that week the same stuff. You’ll be super duper healthy. Just change it up a little bit, get some variation in there, and you’re super good to go. So is that a sufficient answer for the…?
Ari Whitten: Let me ask you real directly. So in your analysis of the evidence, did you see strong evidence that indicates that grains or gluten or egg yolks or red meat are significant drivers of aging and disease?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Grains, absolutely not. The opposite. Whole grain consumption is linked to everything magical. It’s pretty much unicorn dust. It’s amazing. Whole grains are amazing. Gluten is really bad if you have celiac disease, it’ll kill you sooner or later. It’s going to make you have chronic diarrhea until then. If you don’t have celiac disease, it is almost certainly true that you can’t even tell if there’s gluten in your food.
There’s a possibility that there’s a short spectrum of gluten, I want to call it even intolerance. Yeah, just not jiving with it. But that’s very unclear actually. It’s probably 90/10 that it just doesn’t happen, right? So the thing is when you feed people gluten and they say they’re gluten intolerant, none of them have celiac disease. They don’t actually know almost at all that you’re feeding them gluten, they literally can’t tell.
And a lot of times, this is actually really very pertinent to your audience. I’m sure it’ll be very curious finding for them. I’m sure you’re probably pretty aware of this. Those same folks that claim to be affected negatively by gluten. They actually fed them a diet designed to eliminate every known irritant to the gastrointestinal tract. And then they have another diet, another piece of food that has every known irritant in it. There was no difference between how much they complained about irritation of various sorts, but they complained excessively both times.
And it’s kind of like, that’s definitely psychology at that point. It’s a very, very high probability where people think their food is poisoning them and if you don’t tell them that this one’s not irritating, this one is, they just think they’re definitely having a bad response to this, a really bad response to this. Like one of them had nothing in it that should be irritating you and this one had everything in it that was irritating you, and you said they irritated you the same, right? So throw…
Ari Whitten: No, I actually haven’t seen that study. I would love to actually get a link to that.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: I’ll see if I can dig it up for you Fascinating in a real depressing kind of way. Like, holy crap. So, yeah. So in any case, that kind of stuff… because, you know, the FODMAPs and other irritating foods have a lot of attention and a lot of people really do have foods that they should be avoiding, but that’s on a real individual basis, you know, so I’m never going to tell someone that gluten is just absolutely golden and totally fine if they don’t have celiac, eat it up. If you think gluten doesn’t do you right, stop eating it or eat less of it. But if you honestly can’t tell, think it maybe… keep going, it’s totally fine. So grains are great actually, is the opposite. Gluten is probably fine for 99 percent of all people.
Ari Whitten: And just to clarify that point, that there is a link in literature with refined grains and poorer health outcomes, but whole grains are generally linked with better health outcomes.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Correct. Because they have higher nutrient densities, because over eating them is very difficult. The link between refined grains and poor health when you take away other control factors like smoking, risk taking behaviors, health prioritization and high calorie diets, refined grains go down to about this much negative effect. So they by themselves practically don’t do anything bad, maybe a little bit, but it’s really hard to tell once you take away everything else. The kind of people that tend to eat a lot of refined grains also just, pardon my language, don’t give a shit about their health to begin with. So they do 50 other things that are really bad. And the people, the kind of people who eat a lot of whole grains, you see them at Whole Foods and stuff. Those are that kind of people. They worry when they come to the doctor and the doctor’s like, “I don’t know why you’re here, you’ve never been unhealthy, get out of my office.” Those kinds of people. “I know something is wrong, damn it.”
Ari Whitten: Okay. So I have a big challenge for you if like, and this is impossible, but I would love to get just like quick one line answers to red meat and egg yolks, if you think those are significant drivers of disease. Because I know there’s obviously lots of vegan diet gurus that are convinced like they are the most terrible thing in the world.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Red meat drives some kind of disease, prevents and is better for other kinds. On the net balance, maybe a tiny, tiny negative in the context of a whole big diet. Nothing to worry about unless you’ve got every other horse lighted up.
Ari Whitten: Unless you’re on the carnivore diet and you are only eating red meat.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: For sure. Then you’ve got a lot of other problems. Mostly psychological ones I assume. And then egg yolks. Man, you know, I haven’t even heard that one. I’ve done the analysis, the evidence is egg yolks are one of the healthiest foods that you can eat, but…
Ari Whitten: Well, you have certainly heard the whole like dietary cholesterol…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Oh, sure, sure, sure. Yeah. Sorry, I should have rephrased it. I haven’t heard that one in like five years. It’s hilarious that, it’s still around. Again, if you are high, really high levels of cholesterol, if it’s been shown to you by your doctor that your own dietary cholesterol effects it a lot, which is really pretty rare, then you may have an argument in the context of a diet if you eat like tons of egg yolks, maybe you… The biggest thing about egg yolks is like when I go out to eat and I order an omelet, I usually order it without egg yolks because I want more egg, but, I don’t want as many calories from fat. I mean it is just calories, forget the fat. So it’s a great way to lower calories, but there’s nothing too magical about it is bad for you.
How keto affects health and fat loss
Ari Whitten: Okay. Last thing. Your thoughts on keto and we can speak specifically in the context of health or you can introduce fat loss, but, and I know it’s a challenge to maybe cover this in just the span of a few minutes, but just your quick thoughts.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Sure. In the context of fat loss, keto is in part effective, can be effective because it reduces appetite. For some folks, it does not, and then it is ineffective. So that’s a benefit of keto. In some individuals it stops that sort of recursive consumption of carbohydrates and thus calories. And another benefit of keto is that it delimits highly palatable foods considerably. If someone’s like, “you got all night, baby, let’s go out there and eat the world,” you’re like, “let’s do it.” They’re like, “”no carbs.” You’re like, ‘hmm.”
As I’m saying, there’s only so much ranch dressing you can pour on bacon and chicken until you’re like, “we’re done here.” Right? So really tough to eat a lot of calories on keto. So potentially beneficial. On a counter point to that, it’s just very unsustainable because sooner or later you’ll, somebody will give you a cookie at a work party, you’ll remember what carbohydrate tastes like, you’ll zap out because it’s just heroin like at that point as far as how good it makes you feel, you’ll wake up in a dumpster with severed clown heads and cookies and you’ll have no idea how you got there. The police will be asking all sorts of uncomfortable questions.
Basically like, you know, a lot of people do strings of keto, they’ll loose a good amount of weight and then they’ll get carbs back in there. They’ll go to a resort or they’ll go on a work trip, they’ll take carbs again, and then they have… I think a lot of your philosophy. They have no hedonic control mechanisms around carbs anymore because it’s just like free for all and all of a sudden they’re just eating an excess and they gain all the weight back and they’re like, “I need to do keto again because carbs are the problem.” No, it’s the fact that you were eating trillions of them because you sensitized yourself to their delicious effects. Outside of that… so that’s the keto and I think that kind of balances out to like… the summary is it’s an effective dietary strategy for some individuals that can do it in the long term and for whom it works really well for appetite regulation.
That being said, the physical process of ketosis, the molecular chemical events in the bloodstream and so on have heretofore demonstrated zero actual health improving metabolically altering magical effects. I mean I said magical, just effects, right? People like measure their pee and be like, “I’m in ketosis.” Like, “hey, Is there a handshake I can give you? You’re the man.” We are still looking for it. There’s nothing magical about ketosis anyone has found that makes you in any way healthier. If you’re in ketosis and you’re hyper-caloric, you’re eating too many calories, you’ll be in every way very, very unhealthy. Just exactly as unhealthy as you were getting too many calories any other way. There is this idea of like, it’s the ketosis. No, it’s the reduction in calories and a lot of people focus on that. The biggest problem as a public health professional that I have, or when I used to be a professor and now I’m in private industry, but still very much passionate about public health, is that you don’t want to recommend things that don’t work for most people in the long term.
So, when I see people excited about keto, I think it’s great to get a sort of a habit of eating a lot of lean meats and maybe even fatty meats throughout the day. What I try to get them to do is add more green veggies into that and they’ll be like, “okay, I feel great and I’ll keep losing weight and being healthy.” And then I might ask them to eat a couple of fruits, that are just raw pieces of fruit every now and again with their meals and they’ll feel just fine and even better because it’s some carbs.
You know you’re not going to go crazy eating fruit. And then we’ll weave in some whole grains maybe and all of a sudden they’re eating a great balanced diet and everything’s awesome. Same with paleo. The paleo diet cuts out a crap load of foods that you can really eat, but it’s fundamentally a really healthy diet. You just weave in the healthy versions of carbs back into paleo. A couple of months later you’ve got somebody that’s just eating a really well balanced diet. So that’s kind of my views on keto. Like if you’re sort of mythologizing it, if you are just deifying it, putting it on a religious pedestal, you’re doing a disservice to your understanding of nutrition and probably your health as well.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Mike, this has been an absolute pleasure and content packed, which I would expect no less from you. So thank you so much. We have to wrap up now, which is unfortunate because I would love to talk to you for two more hours and I know you have much more wisdom to share. I need to…
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: I actually have to go to jujitsu soon to get beat up. So…
Ari Whitten: Okay, perfect. We definitely need to have you on again to talk about body composition and training. But in the meantime, to close, where can people find more about your work and what you offer?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: So I help run a company called Renaissance Periodization. It’s a really fancy name for something that’s really straightforward. We help folks lose weight, get healthy, get in shape and look cooler like they maybe want to look, more muscular, less fat. And @rpstrength is our instagram. That’s a real good place for a lot of folks to get started, looking at the pictures, transformations, diet stuff. We’ve got healthy eating guides. We’ve got programs to just tell you kind of what to eat, food categories you pick and it gets you lean. We’ve got private coaching. You can do one-on-one with a professor or a doctor or a PhD that can help you navigate these lifestyle things, loose weight so on and so forth, get healthy. And we have a ton of books and all this stuff. So…
Ari Whitten: You also have workout templates, correct?
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: We do. Yeah, totally. I was going to save that for the next time you and I talked, but workout templates to get you in shape and build some muscle and get you healthy. And all that is at renaissanceperiodization.com. Don’t bother with that. Just go to instagram @rpstrength, letter “r” letter “p” strength. It’ll get you started and there’s clickable links in there to take you to the website and everywhere else you want to go. And if you are really curious about the details of the discussion we had today, a book of ours, it’s an ebook, easy to download, super cheap, “Understanding Healthy Eating,” available at renaissanceperiodization.com. So, If you go to @rpstrength, you can find it no problem.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Mike. Really such a pleasure to have you on, and I’m going to connect with you in the next couple of days to schedule a part two.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Perfect. Thank you so much for having me.
Ari Whitten: Awesome, man. Enjoy the rest of your day.
Mike Israetel, Ph.D.: Thank you.
The Science of How to Eat Healthy │ How to Eat Right For Health and Longevity with Dr. Mike Israetel – Show Notes
Mike’s take on nutrition and health (3:18)
Why the science of how to eat healthy talks about calories (9:00)
The truth about excess fat consumption and weight gain (12:26)
The connection between eating healthy and energy (16:06)
How to eat right. The mechanisms that control body composition and health (21:30)
Obesity and metabolic health and how your genes can play a role in health (27:11)
How to eat right – carbs, fats, and proteins and how they pertain to health (33:44)
How to eat healthy – why it is important to eat right while you live your life (44:44)
The last 10% of strategies for healthy eating (53:48)
How to eat right – is gluten bad for you? (58:56)
How keto affects health and fat loss (1:09:00)
If you want to learn more about the work of Dr. Mike Israetel, go check out his website.
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