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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass


High Protein Diets Are the Worst, USDA Review Concludes

Many people ask my opinion on high protein/fat, low carbohydrate diets, which have made a big comeback in recent years. I always refer them to my first book Ripped, where I explained why I gave up that diet in 1978, and returned to a balanced diet of natural foods. Iíve never had the slightest inclination to return to that diet, which the majority of competitive bodybuilders followed then, and which many still follow. To make a long story short, I felt terrible on a low-carb diet. I couldnít think or train properly; that diet didnít give my brain the glucose it requires, or restore the glycogen in my muscles. As I wrote in Ripped: "If your body and your brain canít function properly on a low carbohydrate diet, then the low carbohydrate diet canít be the best diet for achievement of maximum muscle with minimum fat ." Robbing the body of its preferred fuel is plainly unhealthy. In my opinion, itís a terrible diet. And now, a review of diet research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a summary of which was released on Jan. 10, shares my view that high protein, high fat, low carb diets are the worst and not recommended.

Faced with a skyrocketing level of obesity Ė one in four Americans is obese and more than 60 percent of the population is overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ė the U.S. Department of Agriculture assembled a panel of experts to review the evidence on diet and weight. The report summary Ė the full text will be published in the MarchĖApril issue of the journal Obesity Research Ė is straightforward. "Diets that reduce caloric intake result in weight loss," it says. On that basis, all of the popular diets were found to work, at least temporarily. A review of the best-selling diet books found that all of them, including those that promote high-protein, high-fat, low carbohydrate eating, effectively result in consumption of about 1450 calories per day, as compared to 2200 calories in the typical American diet. Again, thatís why they all result in weight loss. "In the absence of physical activity, a diet that contains about 1400Ė1500 kcal/day, regardless of macronutrient composition, results in weight loss," says the review summary. "Individuals consuming high-fat, low carbohydrate diets may lose weight because the intake of protein and fat is self-limiting and overall caloric intake is decreased." In other words, if you eat the recommended foods you will voluntarily consume fewer calories Ė and lose weight.

Thatís where the similarities between diets ends, however. "It is important to note that weight loss is not the same as weight maintenance," the report summary continues. Itís one thing to lose weight, and quite another to keep it off. "In the short-term, [low carbohydrate] ketogenic diets cause a greater loss of body water than body fat. When these diets end, water weight is regained." Almost half of the weight loss during the early stages of a high protein, low-fat diet is muscle, which is largely made up of water. That results in dehydration and fatigue, which is part of the reason why you feel so badly. The initial loss which so delights those on high protein/fat, low carb diets soon disappears after the almost inevitable resumption of normal eating.

Few people can sustain a high protein/fat, low carb diet. As I reported in Ripped, you just donít feel good. Even if you could stay on such a diet, it would be a bad idea. "High-fat, low carbohydrate diets are nutritionally inadequate," the report summary concludes. "They are low in vitamin E, A, thiamin, B6, folate, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium and dietary fiber, and require supplementation. These diets are high in saturated fat and cholesterol." Low-carb diets are often high in artery-clogging saturated fat and low in nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. Finally, the report says that high protein diets may also cause a significant increase in blood uric acid.

What diet does the review recommend? As one might expect, the panel of experts concluded that more study is required. Agreement was found on a few points, however. They recommend consuming no more than 30 percent of calories as fat, limiting protein to about 20 percent and consuming more fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates to help satisfy hunger with fewer calories. Fruit, vegetables and whole grains are high in fiber and water and, therefore, low in calorie density; they fill you up without giving you too many calories. Exercise is also recommended, because it promotes development and maintenance of muscle. Thatís important because, as weíll see below, muscle mass drives the metabolism.

The report also recognizes the psychological component in weight loss and maintenance. "Using personally developed strategies may enhance long-term success," says the report. That, of course, is the ownership principle explained in the final chapter of Lean for Life, which is excerpted elsewhere on this site.

More Proof, Muscle Ė Not Age Ė Drives Metabolism

The USDA also weighed in on a related topic in January: the connection between the aging metabolism, muscle mass and weight gain. Dr. David Chauvin, who wrote the article on anti-aging medicine posted here a few months back (No. 53), sent us the report on a comprehensive study funded by the Agricultural Research Service, the chief research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and conducted by researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. The study provides strong support for the point made in article No. 2, "The Metabolism Myth," posted in the early months of this Website: The decline in metabolism which usually occurs as we grow older is caused by inactivity, not aging. Your metabolism wonít slow down if you donít. Older people typically burn fewer calories at rest, which leads to creeping obesity, but the reason is loss of high-energy-consuming muscle cells, not an aging metabolism.

Thatís good news, because it means we can maintain Ė or regain -- a youthful metabolic rate with regular muscle-building exercises.

The Tufts University researchers found a direct association between metabolic rate and muscle mass. They did this by measuring the body composition and resting metabolic rate for 131 healthy men and women, ranging and age from 18 to 87, over the last five years.

Using a high-tech method for measuring the bodyís total potassium, a mineral found almost entirely in muscle cells, they found a decline in fat-free mass, which closely tracked the decline in resting metabolic rate.

This result supports earlier studies at the center which found a decline in the muscle mass of middle-aged and senior men and women over 10- and 12-year periods when they measured the subjects leg muscles by CAT scan. The shrinkage of muscle tissue corresponded to loss of strength in those muscles.

Putting it all together, the researchers suggest strength training to increase and maintaining muscle mass -- and prevent or slow the gradual weight gain which typically occurs between the ages of 30 and 60. For many more details on the common misconception that metabolism inexorably falls Ė and body fat increases -- as we grow older, read "The Metabolism Myth" (article No. 2).

Lifting Belts, Are They Necessarily?

I always wore a weightlifting belt during my early years as an Olympic lifter. A belt was standard equipment when the military press was included in the Olympic lifts; it provided welcome support for the lay-back pressing style in vogue at the time. The loose pressing style used by most lifters was partly responsible for the elimination of the lift. The press became more of a contorted jerk and almost impossible to judge. With a few exceptions, the best pressers were basically rubber-backed acrobats. It was very hard on the lower back. When the standing press was eliminated from competition Ė the Olympic lifts now consist of the snatch and the clean & jerk Ė belts began to disappear. As you may have noticed from watching them on television, most of the currently active Olympic lifters do not use belts. Powerlifters still use them, however.

When I turned to bodybuilding in my mid 30s, I continued to use a belt for squats, pulls and deadlifts; for the most part, I stopped doing the standing barbell press. A little more than a decade ago, however, I stopped using a belt. As I recall, I took my belt off one day because it was pinching me Ė and never put it back on. I now do my power snatches, power cleans, pulls, deadlifts and squats without a belt. And I can truthfully say that I donít miss it one bit. In fact, I believe Iím stronger now that I donít use a lifting belt. The muscles of my lower back and abdominal area Ė not my belt -- now provide the stability I need to do squats and other movements were the lower back plays a major role.

I made the right choice, according to a study reported by Sohail Ahmad, MD, division of orthopaedic surgery, Albany Medical Center, Albany, New York, at the 1998 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The study found no difference in the strength gains made by those who used a weightlifting belt while exercising and those who did not, with two notable exceptions. "Individuals not wearing a belt showed better performance when tested for abdominal and lower back strength," Dr. Ahmad said.

Dr. Ahmad and his colleagues divided 50 male lifters into belt users and non-users and followed them for two years. Both groups trained three times a week using standard weight training exercises, including the bench press and squat.

Every six months, they were all tested on the bench press and squat. Frankly, I donít know why they were concerned with the bench press; a belt is clearly no help there. Anyway, there was no difference found in either groupís muscular strength. "But, we did notice that individuals not wearing the weightlifting belts could do more repetitions of exercises that involved the abdomen and back," said Dr. Ahmad. The specific exercises used to measure lower back and abdominal strength were not reported.

Nevertheless, Dr. Ahmad did not discourage the use of weightlifting belts for all activities. "People who have jobs that involve heavy lifting on a daily basis may find that the belt gives some support and may alleviate discomfort," he said.

Maybe so, but the people I see in the supermarket and elsewhere wearing supportive belts donít use them to best advantage; they typically have them on loosely, like they were purely ornamental. If they want real support, they should take a cue from powerlifters and tighten up their belts. As powerlifting aficionados know, powerlifters wear their belts so tight that they often need help putting them on and taking them off. Itís not necessary to go to that extreme, but people who want back support and protection should cinch up their belt. If they simply wear a belt for show -- because their supervisor or union tells them to -- they are clearly not getting much benefit. The fellow who drives the garbage truck in our neighborhood has the right idea, however. He wears a lifting belt, and pulls it tight.

Finally, lifters who choose not to use a belt should take special care to keep their lower back straight and tight when doing squats, deadlifts and other exercises involving the lower back. Thatís what I do. I consciously tense my lower back before going down in the squat or beginning a pull. Maintaining a tight back not only protects my back, it also makes me stronger. I can lift more with a tight back.

If youíve been lifting with a belt and decide to try it without, it would be a good idea to reduce your poundages until you get used to the added stress on your abdominal and back muscles.

Ripped Enterprises, 528 Chama, N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108, Phone: (505) 266-5858, FAX:  (505) 266-9123, e-mail:  cncbass@aol.com.  Office hours:  Monday-Friday, 8-5, Mountain time.

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