Ori Hofmekler is an expert on how to use food to build muscle and improve your health. This topic is also the focus of his latest book, Unlock Your Muscle Gene, and I've learned a lot from him personally on how to optimize nutrition to enhance exercise performance.
Like Ori, I too believe that, as a species, humans are not designed to be fat and unfit; we're actually genetically programmed to be lean and muscular. But just how do you reach this goal? And how does your particular diet affect your innate capacity to build muscle?
In previous interviews, we've covered the benefits of specific dietary components for optimizing muscle building, such as whey protein and leucine. Here, Ori discusses the surprising benefits of under-eating, or calorie restriction, combined with exercise.
How Eating Less Can Help Reconstruct Your Muscle
Most people who are actively trying to improve their physique focus on eating the "right" foods, but what if part of the answer was simply "not eating"?Interestingly enough, your body has a preservation mechanism that protects your active muscle from wasting itself. So if you don't have sufficient fuel in your system when you exercise, you're going to break down other tissues but not the active muscle, i.e. the muscle being exercised.
"We can literally re-design our physique but we need the combination of under-eating, hunger, and exercise together," Ori says. "As you get older, your tissues also get older – your muscle fiber, skin, your whole body. But your body has a mechanism to prevent aging; to actually preserve itself, and one of them is the recycling of your proteins, cells and tissues.
This mechanism targets broken protein, tumors, sick cells – it tags them, digests them, and recycles the amino acid to build new cells and improve the muscle tissue. It's a phenomenon! As we get older, this mechanism becomes increasingly intense. That's the reason why as we get older, tissue wasting tends to set in. Though, it's unfortunate that most of us fail to turn tissue wasting into tissue recycling."
So, what happens is, if you exercise when this rejuvenating mechanism is on, the removal and recycling of unwanted protein in your body is happening. And you end up sparing your active muscle tissues—which means you can actually build muscle tissue and keep it young when you exercise while under-eating!
That said, neither Ori nor I advocate starvation combined with rigorous exercise. There is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting the value of calorie restriction, but if you exercise regularly, or are a protein type, you could get yourself into trouble if you're not careful.
It's the Source of Your Calories that Matter Most
Ori addresses these concerns in his new book Unlock Your Muscle Gene. There is actually more science behind calorie restriction than any diet in the world today, and it's been shown to extend life in various animals. However, there are side effects to chronic calorie restriction, such as decreased thyroid function and decreased testosterone.
"I doubt you can build lean muscle mass and be strong on calorie restrictive diet," Ori says. "I personally don't think this is the ideal way. There's a lot of science behind it, and we can take advantage of the science, but it's not the right way."
From a biological standpoint, the important part is not how many calories you eat per day, although to build muscle you definitely need calories. You cannot get by on protein alone. But there's compelling evidence showing that calories from fat are far better than calories from carbohydrates.
Which brings us to the next important factor—the type of fat you should eat for optimal health, as clearly, not all fat calories are created equal either.
Healthy versus Harmful Fats
I've written about the benefits and dangers of various types of fat on many occasions. Contrary to popular belief, saturated fat does NOT cause heart disease. Damaged omega-6 trans fats do. Part of the scientific confusion about saturated fats relates to the fact that your body is capable of synthesizing the saturated fats it needs from carbohydrates, and these saturated fats are principally the same ones present in dietary fats of animal origin.
However, and this is the key, not all saturated fatty acids are created equal. There are in fact more than a dozen different types of saturated fat, but you predominantly consume only three: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid.
It's already been well established that stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) has no effect on your cholesterol levels at all, and actually gets converted in your liver into the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. The other two, palmitic and lauric acid, do raise total cholesterol. However, since they raise "good" cholesterol as much or more than "bad" cholesterol, you're still actually lowering your risk of heart disease. And there are additional benefits. Lauric acid (as from coconut oil) has shown to boost thyroid hormone activity along with the body's metabolic rate. This is obviously a huge advantage to those interested in weight loss or those who suffer from underactive thyroid. Saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy (calories) in your diet, and they provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances. In addition, they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Pay Attention to Your Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratios
Next, it's extremely important to get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fats, and to maintain a healthy ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, which typically means increasing omega-3 while simultaneously decreasing your intake of omega-6. High omega-6 intake has been shown to cause serious health effects in both animals and humans.
"It's better to cook with butter than cooking with canola oil. People need to know the truth," Ori says. "Coconut oil is one of the best oils in the world. It has a magnificent ratio of fat proven to be utilized very efficiently by your body."
My favorite source of healthy omega-3 fats is krill oil, rather than fish oil. There are many reasons for this—one of which is because it contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant that naturally protects it from going rancid. Fish oil does not have this built-in protection. For more information about this, please see my interview with Dr. Rudi Moerck on this topic.
"Omega-3 oil is very important because it activates good prostaglandins, which are hormone like compounds with anti-inflammatory, tissue restoring activities. So for treating an injury, omega 3 is a must," Ori says. "If you have a good source of omega-3 oil from food, it is a good idea to increase the consumption if you have an injury or if you exercise intensely. Remember, intense exercise causes micro-injuries in your muscle.
You really need to be careful with the amount antioxidants and the omega-3 that we consume. You can't allow yourself to be deficient. Studies have revealed that the first thing your muscle loses is omega-3. So that should be part of your diet."
Milk Protein—It Does Your Body Good
The most important factor for optimal muscle building, however, is a good protein source, along with proper timing of your meals.
"Milk and milk proteins (including raw milk, cheese, and especially whey) are the best protein for human fitness," Ori says.
Why? Because it helps your body build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. Now, many will object and disagree with Ori on this point. One common argument against milk protein is that no species of animal, other than humans, drink milk past the point of being weaned off the mother's milk.
"I totally disagree," Ori says. "I've heard about this opinion. But science has shown the opposite. There is more scientific record on the benefit of dairy protein on human fitness than any other protein food. And scientists today are puzzled with the idea of human breast milk. It's a super food designed to nourish and support the new born (who has no immunity). Breast milk enables the newborn to develop and grow into a healthy adult.
Does it fit adults?
Regardless to the moral connotation of drinking human breast milk, scientists worldwide believe that it's very possible that once we find a way to mimic human breast milk, it will fit any age, including the elderly. Again, it's a super food that promotes build up and rejuventaion. And our bodies constantly need to rejuvenate.
We don't need to grow bigger, but we need to recycle tissue; we need to rejuvenate our bodies. That's one of the most important elements of anti-aging—to give your body the chance to remove broken protein, destroy sick cells and recycle tissues. High quality whey protein and milk protein have shown to support your body in this regard. They have unique Immuno compounds that do not appear in any other protein food, which potentially help your body to do those actions."
Supplements versus Food
Many, particularly weight trainers, are fond of using branched chain amino acid supplements. But there are drawbacks and risks to this.
"That's a very interesting phenomenon, but I think the science is still in its infancy of understanding it fully," Ori warns. "When you infuse or administer amino acids into your body, particularly branched chain amino acid, they do signal the muscle to grow… but they may turn you diabetic. I.V. administration--infusion of amino acids—cause a level of insulin resistance that not even fructose can cause."
According to Ori, all amino acids, including the most beneficial ones, administrated intravenously have been shown to cause about six times more glycemic impact than the same amount of glucose, administered in the same way.
"Actually scientists are still puzzled but these are the facts," he says.
It may simply be that our bodies are not designed to adapt to a massive flux of amino acids, because when you get your amino acids from whole food, the release of protein is rather slow. The excessively high rate of release you get through intravenous administration ends up shutting down your insulin system.
"When you take free form amino acid as a supplement, you may put yourself at a similar risk due to the un-natural flux of amino acids to which your body hasn't adapted. Why would you take such a risk?" he warns. "The one thing that nobody argues about is the opposite effect on blood glucose that happens when you eat the same amino acid as part of a whole food. Then this amino acid has amazing glucose-sparing effect. It has a blood sugar stabilizing effect.
In fact, old research already showed that good quality protein from meat and whey food has a positive effect on blood sugar, muscle building, changing body composition, and sparing muscle while losing fat. It's just an amazing simple phenomenon. You cannot make money on that."
Eat Right, at the Right Time
One more very important element is the timing of your meals. The best time to eat an anabolic meal is actually after exercise, as this is when your muscles become extremely receptive to assimilating nutrients, especially protein. Ironically, exercise inhibits the mTOR, the mechanism that builds muscle. So you cannot build muscle while you exercise. Muscle building occurs after your exercise is completed. Ori explains:
"As you exercise, there is total inhibition of the mechanism that builds protein. In fact, proteins are breaking down. But what's interesting is that there is a compensation mechanism which kicks in right after exercise. If you take advantage of this anabolic mechanism and eat your protein meal—low glycemic, no sugar added—right after exercise, the compensation is swift.
Protein breakdown stops and shifts instantly toward build-up that can last for four hours after every exercise. Some scientists say 24 to 28 hours after exercise.
If you are smart with the timing of your protein recovery meals, you can have not just one, but even two or three recovery meals after the exercise, and get 30 to 90 grams of net protein utilization over a period of four to five hours (at 30 grams per meal). It's phenomenal. You'll probably need to eat 2-3 lbs of meat to utilize the same amount of protein albeit with lower efficiency and higher digestive stress."
Although there will be some differences depending on your weight and gender, the difference in protein per meal is not very great. According to Ori, even a 135 pound woman can benefit from two recovery meals rather than one, and a 200 pound muscle-man may need a third meal or even fourth meal.
'The point is this, it's not so much the amount of protein that you need to deposit in the muscle," Ori says, "it's how much muscle protein was broken down, and what kind of protein and how much your muscle needs to recover."
For example, the branched chain amino acids leucine, valine, and isoleucine are top priorities for your muscle. So, when you eat protein, the majority—as much as 50-80 percent—of the nine essential amino acids (and some non-essential amino acids) are degraded and never get past your stomach. But branched chain amino acids are not digested like other amino acids. They're spared for other purposes. Over 80 percent of them reach your circulation. Technically, that's because your stomach lacks the specific enzymes that break them down, Ori explains.
"Your body has it's own priorities," he says. "It sees it as a top priority that branched chain amino acids will be available to your muscle. And your muscle can utilize them for more than just building blocks. These amino acids are used for fueling as well as stimulation of muscle build-up.
Leucine for instance triggers muscle protein synthesis. But note that as a general rule, your body wants to use all amino acid as a building block… So in order to grant a viable anabolic effect. you need to supply enough leucine to exceed maintenance, which is at least three grams a day."
Even if you're not interested in strength training, you need to maintain that level in order to prevent tissue wasting. Beyond that, the extra leucine is used for other functions, such as glucose homeostasis. (Leucine supports the production of alanine, to support the alanine-glucose cycle.) But most importantly, it's used to activate the mTOR mechanism, which builds protein in your muscle. That's why it's so important to have a high protein breakfast.
"If you are interested in muscle build up,, have a high protein, low glycemic meal made with quality whey to cover at least the leucine requirement early in the morning," Ori recommends. "It will also boost your energy and support your health. And if you want to lose body fat this is a most effective way to do that as well. Once you cover your basic Leucine requirement, every other meal becomes anabolic. It's a fantastic opportunity."
For more information about what makes whey protein the perfect breakfast, see this previous article. Ori has also covered the topic of leucine to prevent muscle wasting in depth here. If you missed it, take a moment to review it now, as it offers even more information on this important issue.