Many of the fighters and athletes that I work with really don’t have a good grasp on how much fat they are eating, let alone how much fat they should be eating. They are frequently focusing so much on eating protein or not eating carbs, that the fat content kind of gets ignored. I mentioned in an earlier article that MOST of men who are training full time (2 times a day most days, plus additional cardio) need at least 3000 Kcals. This is based on an average male body size of 5’10” and 200lbs, with an average age of 28. This is not designed to promote weight loss, but to provide adequate fuel for training and maintaining muscle mass.
For a 3000 kcal diet, a reasonable fat goal would be 20-25%, or 600 – 750 kcals. That’s the equivalent of 66 – 83 fat g/day. This would mean that the carb intake would be around 50-55% and the protein intake around 20-25%.
On diets that are a little higher in protein, they tend to be a little higher in fat. That’s because animal based protein carries with it more fat. For example, a 6oz portion of fairly lean beef is going to have upwards of 42g of fat. The same portion of chicken breast will only have 18-30g fat. The type of meat you select will greatly affect the amount of “fun” fat you can build into the diet. Dairy products are often used as protein sources and they can carry additional fat (especially saturated fat) as well.
It’s also important to point out the if you prefer to use whole grain foods and higher fiber foods, they will typically be a little higher in fat than lower fiber choices. The bran portion of the grain is where the fat content is contained. Cereals (think granola) that are higher in fiber can also be higher in fat because of the nuts they use to boost the fiber. They also cook or roll the granola in oil, be sure to read the label.
It is certainly easy to get too much fat, but you don’t want to be so careful that you don’t get enough. Many of the guys I work with admit that they are afraid to eat fat at all. Here are a few of the problems that can happen if you don’t eat enough fat:
You will end up feeling not satisfied. This eventually leads to a “binge” where you seek out pizza or something that has the fat you are craving in it.
Fat in the diet provides a mouth feel that communicates to the brain “this is yummy and I like it it.” It signals the serotonin response that tells your brain you are satisfied and done. If this “trigger” doesn’t happen, your body puts itself on a mission to make it happen.
Over time, when there isn’t enough fat in the diet, you put yourself at risk for essential fatty acid deficiency. There are lots of special fats and fat soluble vitamins that are present in fat. When you over restrict fat, you miss out on these. This can cause drying of hair and skin, brittle nails, hair that breaks, and an overall dullness to the skin.
If you are eating a balanced diet (which means adequate carbs, protein and fat) that provides the right amount of calories, and you aren’t going crazy with high fat food choices, your fat intake will be right on target without you having to measure it. However, if you want a little help or affirmation that what you are doing is right for your training goals, just talk to a dietitian to see what and how you are actually eating. Knowledge is what gives you the power to change.
If you are looking for an easy way to boost the vitamin content of your diet, give nuts a try. They have long since been recognized for their nutritional value as a source of polyunsaturated fats, good protein, and antioxidants. There are so many fantastic nuts to eat, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one type. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and macadamias are just a few! For this article, we will focus on walnuts.
A serving of walnuts is going to be 1 oz, or roughly a handful. (I’m talking about walnuts without the shells) This would be about 1/4 cup shelled halves or pieces OR 12-14 halves. A serving has about 18g of fat and 190 calories. Don’t panic. I admit, they are high in fat and calories. This is exactly why you have to be careful when eating nuts, any kind of nuts. However, for people who train HARD and need concentrated calories (especially the kind that can travel in the car and gym bag), nuts are a very strategic, health RICH food.
Walnuts are the only nut to be a significant source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Typically these fatty acids are derived from fish. Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids (that means they have to come from the diet) and known to reduce inflammation. Research has suggested that omega-3’s may also help reduce the risk of some chronic diseases. You definitely want a diet rich in omega 3’s. Because walnuts are a plant food, and not animal based, there is NO CHOLESTEROL. There isn’t cholesterol in any nut. They are also naturally low in sodium.
I mentioned earlier that nuts are also a good source of antioxidants. Research has suggested that antioxidants may help protect against some cancers, especially those related to the aging process. As reported in the Spring 2011 volume of SCAN’s Pulse
A 2010 study2 investigating the antioxidant activity of different dry fruits found walnuts to exhibit the best antioxidant properties Additional research3 testing 1113 different foods for antioxidant levels reported walnuts rank second only to blackberries in terms of antioxidant content Ellagic acid and gamma tocopherol, a form of vitamin E, are two antioxidants that are thought to have anticarcinogenic properties; both are found in walnuts Melatonin, an antioxidant known for its sleep regulating properties is also naturally found in walnuts Research, led by melatonin expert Russel Reiter, PhD4, published in the September 2005 issue of Nutrition: The International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutritional Sciences, reported the calculated concentrations of melatonin in walnuts was 3 5 +/- 1 0ng/g.
I have always been a proponent of using melatonin to help with sleep, but I was not aware that it was an antioxidant! It’s like a bonus!
For those who may prefer to focus on a more vegetarian type of diet, nuts can be a great way to incorporate protein, while adding additional fiber. Fiber helps you feel full and is also beneficial to controlling blood sugar levels. (and they are gluten-free!)
If you happen to like reading research and getting more of the clinical details, you can read more here. Be sure to look for new recipes on the site that use walnuts. 🙂
Are you thinking about changing things up this year? Maybe you are ready for a new way of eating . Maybe you have thought about trying to eat clean all the time. (Do we really know what “eating clean” means? It seems to be a highly variable definition.) Maybe you have even wondered if becoming vegetarian is a good idea or not. There are definitely more and more fighters evaluating their diet options, and even departing from their “high protein” ways. Fighters are starting to explore eating styles that have previously been considered non-traditional for MMA, like vegetarianism and veganism. There are several fighters who are known for their vegetarian and vegan eating styles; Jake Shields, Frank Mir, and Mac Danzig, to name a few. If you are considering adopting a vegetarian way of eating, you will first have to decide exactly HOW vegetarian you are going to eat.
There are so many variations. Some are super strict (like vegan) and some allow milk and eggs, but not beef and chicken. The type of vegetarianism you decide on will determine what foods you will have to focus on to make sure that you get enough protein and certain vitamins, like calcium, B12, and Iron.
If you are just going to be a straight forward vegetarian, at a minimum, you will not be eating ANY meat, fish, or poultry, dairy, or eggs. The good thing is this generally means that the overall diet will be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, while higher in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants. On the other hand, if not well planned, the vegetarian diet can be low or inadequate in B12, Iron, calcium, and omega 3 fatty acids. It becomes important to eat a variety of foods so that over a period of time there aren’t any risks of nutrient deficiencies. Aside from having to make sure that the diet is providing all of the vitamins a fighter needs, it is important to make sure that the diet also provides enough total calories for the amount and type of training a fighter will be doing. The typical MMA fighter needs anywhere from 2000-4000 calories a day. This will depend greatly on height, weight, age, and training level. Unfortunately, many fighters have no idea how many calories they need to be eating, so they end up eating too few calories. Plus, since they are constantly cutting weight, they are always trying to eat even less. The vegetarian MMA fighter needs to know exactly what his or her caloric intake should be so that the diet can be designed to meet the need.
Let’s pretend we know a 28 yr old fighter named Jim who wants to become a vegetarian. He is 5ft 8inches and fights at 155 lbs. He used to walk around at 175, but since he has been working with Rudog he doesn’t do that anymore. He has adapted his training and diet to maintain his weight at 160. (He is soooo smart!) Now that he wants to be vegetarian, his diet will definitely change. His calorie needs are estimated to be around 2500 calories per day. Here is what a typical day might look like for him:
1 Whole Wheat English Muffin
1 tbsp Jelly
1 cup Orange Juice
1 cup Mixed fresh fruit topped with coconut flakes
¼ cup Homemade trail mix
12 oz Green tea
1 Veggie burger w/lettuce, tomato on whole wheat bun
1 oz Baked Lays
2 cups Mixed green salad w/ 1 tbs olive oil and balsamic vinegar
2 cups Spicy tofu with brown rice
2 cups Steamed veggies
1 cup Fresh fruit
2 cups Popcorn
12 oz Fruit smoothie made with soy milk
This meal plan ends up providing around 2500 calories, with 63% from carbs, 12% protein, and 25% fat. If you analyze if for vitamin and mineral content, it will not provide the recommended daily amounts of calcium, vitamin C, iron, B12, and others. This is because when dairy and eggs are eliminated, it becomes difficult to get those nutrients without some serious menu planning and rotation. Variety in food selection becomes extremely important. This particular meal plan did not include any dry beans or legumes, but doing so would certainly bump the nutrient value in several categories. The problem is most guys don’t want to eat beans every day, let alone for every meal. Not to mention the “GI distress” that comes with the territory. Oh, you WILL be gassier as a vegetarian, beans or no beans! That just comes with the territory. It is generally not a bad idea to take a multivitamin if you are eating vegetarian or vegan. You can also see where getting enough protein every day certainly takes some planning. This meal plan provides 12% and a good range is anywhere from 15-25% for fighters. A protein supplement would be an option to look at, or just make darn sure that there are high-protein foods consumed every day, like nuts, beans, hummus, egg substitutes, soy, and tofu. Where you have to be careful is the fat content of the diet. The vegetarian protein sources can be high in fat. It’s definitely a balancing act. If you choose to go the vegetarian route that does include dairy and eggs, it becomes MUCH simpler. The protein and calcium intake is less of a concern.
For the vegan, the challenges are a little more difficult because the food choices are much narrower. It can also become tempting to slide into a routine of eating the same thing all the time. This is certainly convenient, but over time can compromise the nutritional quality of the diet. When variety is limited, vitamin and mineral content is, too. The biggest challenges are getting enough absorbable iron and B12. These are best absorbed by the body when they are eaten from animal products, so getting them strictly from plant based foods is more difficult. The absorption rate of iron is greatly decreased when it is coming from plant based foods. Without the use of a high quality iron supplement the risk of anemia is high. It’s not a bad idea to have regular blood tests to make sure everything is ok.
Vegetarian diets are definitely possible for MMA athletes and fighters, but they do require a little more pre-planning and food preparation. Here are some things to think about if you are considering going vegetarian:
Lower in saturated fat
Higher in fiber
Lower in sodium
Lower in cholesterol
Greater intake of fruits and veggies
The diet can become higher in fat if cheese and dairy are used as main sources of protein and for flavor
Higher dairy intake can increase the intake of saturated fat
Foods can be more expensive
Fresh foods don’t last long and can be spoil before they are eaten.
You will need more time for frequent trips to grocery store and for food preparation.
Any time you are considering a significant diet change, it is a good idea to talk with a registered dietitian just to make sure that the diet is appropriate for you and what your fitness goals are.
If you watched the BJ Penn vs. Kenny Florian bout from a couple years back, you heard the phrase “testing the gas tank” mentioned more than once by the commentator. The question being raised was about Penn’s conditioning. He had undertaken a new cardiovascular conditioning program prior to that fight and he didn’t look as energetic in the second round as he usually does. The commentator’s point was that Penn’s gas tank was being tested…..he looked a little sluggish…..did the new training leave him with enough gas in his tank? Had he overtrained? Penn went on to win that fight, but I thought the commentator raised a great question. It’s a question that all fighters should ask themselves constantly: Is my conditioning program putting gas in my tank or am I overtraining and actually running on empty when it’s fight time?
Doing your cardio (whatever that may be) harder and faster for longer does not necessarily produce BETTER conditioning. The conditioning training is not just about training muscles to do work at a certain intensity or duration, but also training muscles to store FUEL at an optimum rate. This involves:
Eating enough carbs, protein, and fat DAILY to fuel all components of your training
Proper timing of your eating: Before, During, and After exercise
Total daily intake MUST be adequate if you are going to preserve muscle and stay lean. If you aren’t eating enough carbs, then you are potentially making up the shortage by breaking down some muscle to use as fuel. You will also be limiting the body’s ability to burn fat, making it more difficult to get and stay lean.
Let me say it again. You HAVE to eat carbs, protein, and fat for everything to work correctly. If you are short changing yourself on the carbs so you can eat more protein, then you are short changing your muscles’ ability to store fuel. There are no short cuts here. Eating lots of protein DOES NOT get stored in the muscle as fuel. It also doesn’t magically create big, beautiful biceps. Carbs are stored as fuel in muscle. Carbs fuel exercise that builds big, beautiful muscles. Protein repairs and synthesizes new muscle. Careful here. Listen to what I said. Muscle is made of protein and needs protein to repair, not enlarge, it. If you are eating more protein than you need, it is important you understand that the extra protein is a source of extra calories. Extra calories only have a couple of fates. They can be broken down and excreted to some degree or they can be stored as fat. Some of the extra protein is broken down into amino acids and then excreted through the urine. (bummer!) The rest of it is actually stored as fat—–a bigger bummer. A lot of times this is the very reason why a guy can be working out like a dog, taking the protein supplements, and can’t seem to get really lean.
Some of you are thinking, “Yeah, but don’t you know that carbs cause water gain? You actually look leaner when you don’t eat them.”
My reply? Yep, carbs attract water. We all know that’s why you don’t eat them before weigh in. That’s a short term strategy for a short term goal. So what? Training is LONG TERM. It’s a terrible long term strategy. Guys that hold to that theory are the ones that don’t go 3 rounds. They definitely don’t go 5 rounds. Their only prayer is to submit in round 1. Longer than that is a crap shoot. So, the take home message? You gotta have carbs.
Let all of that digest, and next week I will talk about timing of food.