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The Problem With IIFYM for Athletes – Not All Calories Are Created Equal

Why this isn't the answer...

To lose weight, burn fat all we need to do is measure the number of calories consumed versus calories expended. If you eat 800kcals extra all you need to do is burn that same 800 and voila, you’re balanced. Is it true? To a mathematician, it is. To a champion, it is not. Many young fitness junkies and physique competitors fall into this trap and don’t end up with the results they want and wonder why. Here’s the answer. Not all calories are created equal, when we consume different food types the body responds differently, digestively, metabolically and hormonally. All of these aspects are important to the elite athlete, yet many fitness focused individuals jeopardize their results just so they can eat whatever they want - food that isn’t on their plan, and eat foods that will not lead to the best possible version of themselves. This post will give you the run-down on why you may want to think twice about using an IIFYM style diet.

Digestion and Metabolism – What’s the Difference?

First and foremost, you need to think of your health, how your body reacts to certain food types, quantities and combinations at a given time. In determining how the body processes such foods you need to differentiate between two commonly confused processes foods go through; digestion and metabolism both of which are affected by the type of food consumed. Digestion occurs outside of the body while metabolism occurs inside. Puzzled? Your digestive tract starts in your mouth and ends in your bowels, so potentially if your arm was long enough, you could reach through your mouth and right through the body and out the other end. There is one entrance and one exit for digestion, never going inside the body, until, we metabolise the by-products of digestion. Metabolism then, occurs within the cells of the body only after it leaves the digestive tract. So, digestion is outside and metabolism is inside, and when our body is confused the result can be disastrous.

The Immune Response and IIFYM

Research has shown that 70% of our immune system is in our gut, and the mucosal membrane in our gut is only one cell deep, after this one cell barrier we have GALT (Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue) which determines whether something is absorbed or marked as a pathogen, to which antigens are then formed to fight against this same pathogen in the future, should it be seen again. This is how our immune system works – on a memory system; much like you can’t catch the same strain of cold or flu twice. When we eat “unhealthy” foods, combine foods improperly or have processed foods containing chemicals we can initiate this immune response, leading to a breakdown of our immune system and the accumulation of pathogens in our body, which can further lead to chronic issues such as auto-immune deficiencies.

Let’s look at a real life example. IIFYM allows for the combination of certain foods – even different protein sources within a given meal. Our stomachs are now faced with a task that they are not designed to do, digest two different sources of protein at the same time, each requiring a different amount of time in the stomach before they are ready to be passed to the small intestine for absorption. When a food source is fully broken down into its absorbable parts, a small valve, the pyloric valve, opens at the bottom of the stomach, releasing its contents into the small intestine where they can then be absorbed through the cell walls and into the body for metabolism. When we eat for example fish and steak (surf and turf) our stomachs break down the fish sooner than they do the steak; therefore we can assert that the pyloric valve will open and release the entire contents of the stomach before the steak is fully broken down. Now we have a problem with IIFYM - we aren’t fully digesting and taking advantage of all of the nutrients within the steak, and furthermore we risk having di and tri-peptides pass through the cell walls. This may result in foods being marked as pathogens as they are not absorbed in the correct form to be used within the body. Therefore, it is best to only consume one protein type in any given meal or sitting.

Metabolic Issues and IIFYM

Metabolically, there are several things to consider as well. Metabolism of food leads to either the production or lack thereof hormones (and like substances), including the prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are short lived hormone-like cells that help to control the inflammatory response within the body. There are three types of prostaglandins (series I, II and III). They are derived from Omega’s 3, 6 and 9. Therefore, if we are not consuming the right kinds of fats, and just consuming any fat because IIFYM is followed, the body will not produce the appropriate balance of prostaglandins and this may result in an inefficient response to inflammation in the body, which has a direct effect on muscle repair and growth. In stead of just eating any fat, consume a diet with a large percentage of fats from poly-unsaturated sources, which will support increases in protein synthesis, improve oxygen delivery and cell permeability – all of which are important when trying to operate at a high level of performance and aesthetics to support a lean muscular body.

Fat in the diet with regard to hormones is specifically important because we can either cause a positive or negative effect on all other nutrients through this mechanism. Our cells have a lipid bi-layer comprised of the fats we consume. If we consume saturated fats they will make up the cell layer and if we consume unsaturated, than in turn they will be the constituents of our cell walls.

Saturated fats can pack so tightly that they are solid at room temperature, and by the same token allow very little room for nutrients and oxygen to pass inside the cell and toxins to diffuse out of the cells.

Unsaturated fats have kinks in them (where the double bonds occur) this means they cannot be packed tightly and are thus liquid at room temperature. This also means nutrients have more ease to pass in and out of the cell wall to be metabolised and used within the cell and easier transit of toxins out of the cell.

Choosing your fats based on function and not IIFYM will do us a huge favour when it comes to not only the larger bodily processes but down to the smaller workings within the cells, that in effect, are what athletes care most about. How the muscle cells absorb, assimilate and use nutrients.

Carbohydrates and IIFYM

Of all of the macronutrients, the most talked about, the most loved – and hated; carbohydrates can either help or hinder ones results if not chosen correctly. When we ingest carbohydrates they follow the digestive tract and are broken down into their smallest unit, which is glucose. Glucose can then be used by the cells for energy, but how they get there is the issue. When opting for carbohydrates that have a higher sugar content (require less breaking down) or higher on the Glycemic Index we risk not only the inevitable sugar crash afterward when blood glucose levels drop significantly, but many other issues. One of the immediate issues being a decrease in white blood cells, just one teaspoon of sugar can decrease immune function up to 20% for 5 hours. Along with this decrease in immunity, the body initiates the inflammatory cascade. Anti-inflammatory response is slowed during this time and as a result of the increase inflammation, we will hold more water as well, taking away from the aesthetics of the physique you work so hard to achieve. The most damaging and important speaking point here (and there are many more) is the risk of developing hypoglycemia, which is an early indicator of diabetes. The issue isn’t that diabetes is unknown, or that it is labeled as a good thing, but the problem lies in the fact of how real and quickly one can develop it. I feel it is appropriate to use a real example that seems perfectly fitting for this very topic. Let’s say you order a pizza, you feel hungry so you pick up the phone and make the call – we get the carbs. The doorbell rings, this is your body signalling insulin to be released to pick up the carbohydrates. You eat until you are full, this represents your body using the carbs it requires immediately. The leftover pizza you didn’t finish, you put in the fridge short term storage, just as your body puts carbs into the muscle as glycogen for short term storage. What happens if your doorbell rings again? You take the pizza, eat a slice and put the rest in the fridge, again for short term storage. Soon enough the doorbell rings again and again, over and over. You keep putting the pizza in the fridge until there is no room left for the pizza – glycogen storage is full. Now you start taking the pizza and putting it into the freezer, as the doorbell continues to ring we continue to fill up our freezer, representative of our fat cells, which are used for long term storage. Sure enough the doorbell continues to ring and insulin is continually signalled to be realised, to pick up the food and store it. As the process repeats itself we sooner or later run out of freezer space. Once the freezer is full and the doorbell rings yet again, what do you do? You start to ignore the doorbell, or possibly the doorbell just stops working – your body stops signalling insulin to be released. The “take home” message, opt for slower digesting carbohydrates, keep inflammation low, blood sugar steady and immunity high, lastly avoid a future of diabetes.

These are just a couple of real world examples of how the type of foods we consume are important and not solely the numbers they contain on a macro-spreadsheet.

Not convinced? You can simply look at your body as a car, and ask yourself what kind of car do you want to be? Are you the Honda Civic or the Ferrari? Each car has a different appeal and purpose and by that nature each requires a different type of fuel. If you picked the Ferrari you MUST put premium fuel into that car each and every day for it to function to its fullest potential, the potential that had appealed to you in the first place. If you decide to pour maple syrup into your cars gas tank would you be surprised if it broke down, or didn’t perform optimally? You take that car to the mechanic and say you’re not sure why it isn’t performing at its BEST, you admit that you used maple syrup rather than the intended fuel, but exclaim “it was just once!”

This is especially important to athletes, fitness enthusiasts and coaches, says Ishveen of Open Sponsorship Open Sponsorship is home to over 7500 athletes and helps businesses align themselves with the proper athletic representation of their message.

Does this make sense to your mechanic? No, and IIFYM shouldn’t make sense to your coach, because as a coach, I want to see you perform optimally, and that means using high grade fuel all of the time.

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