Chris Masterjohn (Part 4)

by on June 17, 2014

MATT: Chris, this may come off as a general question, but what are some of the worst things you think either bodybuilders or other athletes do in terms of their diets? Even in the case of bodybuilders, who generally don’t eat junk food?

CHRIS: Apart from eating too much junk and not eating enough high-quality food, I think one of the worst things people do with their diets is restrict their caloric intake in an effort to stay lean. We have a major problem with obesity, but we overreact by demonizing body fat and never emphasizing its positive roles. Having adequate body fat is what sends the primary signal to our brains that our bodies are in a state of abundance, which then allows our brains to orchestrate the metabolic program favoring robust mental and physical energy, heat production, virility, and fertility.

For women this is especially problematic because they face extraordinary social pressures to not be fat, but through either yo-yo dieting or chronically not eating enough, they lose too much body fat and yet wreck their hormones in a way that causes what body fat they do have to leave their breasts and hips and fill in their bellies and waists. They then might lament not being blessed with larger breasts, but they still feel the need to restrict how much they eat because they are unhappy with their abdominal fat. They are likely to be more irritable, less energetic, mentally more foggy, and have greater trouble getting pregnant and bearing healthy children, all while being endlessly unhappy with their bodies.

For men there is less pressure of this nature, but both men and women who are bodybuilders may engage in similar behavior in an effort to lean out, though their periodic efforts to bulk up are likely to mitigate the harms of this to some degree. I suspect being too lean is just as much of a problem for men as it is for women, but I think we have a much less clear idea of how low is too low. Certainly men seem to require less body fat than women, but I’ve never seen a strongly reasoned analysis of just how much we do need. Regardless, I think we can say that when men don’t eat enough, they get hungry, irritable, and compromise their hormonal health. They lose body fat, but they also lose lean body mass. The lean body mass lost isn’t just skeletal muscle, but the mass of bones and internal organs. I find it impossible to believe that there’s no such thing as being too lean for men, and I think we need more research on this and more awareness of the issue in the bodybuilding community.

One thing I think we should be able to agree on: when you want to lose fat, do so in a way that doesn’t make you hungry and irritable, and doesn’t compromise your energy level. Avoid any dogma about perfect macronutrient ratios and instead self-experiment to find the diet that allows you to feel full and energetic while spontaneously eating less food, not because you are forcing yourself, but because you don’t feel the need to eat more calories. If you force yourself to cut calories, recognize that there could be negative consequences.

Finally, take into account that undereating is a stress, just like exercise, or just like mental and emotional challenges. What determines whether the stress is good or bad is how we cope with it and whether we adequately recover from it. We are less likely to properly cope with stress and adequately recover from it when the cumulative load is high. So if you are really driven to lean out, do it when your mental and emotional challenges are at a low and manageable level and when you’re getting plenty of sleep, fun, and relaxation. If your cumulative stress burden is high, forget how your body looks and make sure you eat enough food.

MATT: I love controversial topics, but most literature is still out there that leads us to believe that animal fats are bad. It might have leaked into the minds of athletes that we can get away with eating foods high in cholesterol, but to the average person, saturated fat is bad and carbs are bad, because they’ll make “us” fat. Obviously, we know this to be untrue, but do you ever think we’ll see a campaign lead by politicians to see this become known on a wide-spread and universal level?

CHRIS: God help us if it is politicians who lead this movement.

I think what we need is to attack this from all angles. We need brilliant critical thinkers interested in ancestral nutrition to become clinicians, journalists, and academic researchers. We need them to become policymakers too, but mostly because if they don’t other people will. We definitely don’t want policymakers taking the lead. At most policymakers can inform researchers of what types of knowledge gaps need to be filled to improve policy and can make it a policy to help fund the research that addresses those knowledge gaps, but we certainly don’t want policymakers to influence the findings of research. The fact is no one wants to set a policy that turns out to be destructive, so the more policy there is, the greater the pressure to harmonize scientific conclusions with existing policy. There’s a lot of pressure to develop research that says, “we have a new reason to justify the last fifty years of policy!” or “we found out the foundation of the last fifty years of policy was dead wrong, but we found three totally new true things that can serve to replace that foundation and that show the policy was justified all along!” So the less policy we have and the more research, the better.

But there’s just as much work in other areas. We need more farmers producing high-quality food. We need more consumers seeking this type of food. We need organizations to connect the producers with the consumers, and legal support to defend these arrangements. And we need to continue supporting the decentralization of information, so that the knowledge of the multitude of reasons to consume good food reaches the multitude of communities that should be pursuing good food, each for their own selection of reasons.

MATT: There is a former National Level NPC Bodybuilder who is famous for his, “6 Foods That Work.” In his words, to create the leanest physique possible he recommends: egg whites, chicken breast, tuna, oatmeal, banana, and brown rice, but brown rice and sweet potato are interchangeable. The glaring thing missing from his perfect 6 foods are those containing a decent amount of fat. In your expert opinion, how could a diet like this help or hurt.

CHRIS: Certainly a high-protein, low-fat diet is going to be effective for many people to maximize their ratio of skeletal muscle to body fat, because virtually every dietary restriction anyone has ever conceived leads to a spontaneous decrease in calorie intake (at least in part because the food is less enjoyable to eat), and because protein is the macronutrient that most effectively spares the loss of lean body mass that inevitably occurs (to some degree on ANY diet) during calorie restriction.

That doesn’t make it a good diet.

Egg whites contain a glycoprotein called avidin, which binds biotin – an important B vitamin – and makes it unavailable. Cooking partly neutralizes the avidin, but not completely. It so happens that liver and egg yolks by far and away contain much more massive quantities of biotin than any other commonly eaten foods. If you eat the whole egg, you should be able to break even when it comes to biotin, but if you throw away the yolks and eat the whites, this is a great way to develop flaky skin, frizzy hair that falls out too often, mental problems like depression, and, for pregnant women, offspring with birth defects.

Boneless skinless chicken breast is not only nutritionally imbalanced but is arguably a profoundly unethical food. Bones and skin provide glycine, which is needed for all kinds of things ranging from liver detoxification to mental health to suppressing cancer and lengthening lifespan. Since glycine is found so abundantly in skin and bones, it should be no surprise that it also supports healthy skin and bones. The same protein that provides the structure for our skin and bones – collagen – also protects the plaques that can develop in our arteries from spilling their inflammatory contents into the blood and causing a heart attack or stroke. The most obvious sign of not getting enough glycine is probably getting wrinkled skin, but inside our bodies all kinds of other problems are developing that we can’t see. Muscle meats provide an abundance of methionine, which actually increases the need for glycine. So consuming muscle meats without the bones and skin is a great way to develop an amino acid imbalance that leads to a range of chronic diseases.

And what happens to the chickens? Well, because of our utterly deranged and pathological obsession with skinless, boneless chicken breasts, the industrial chicken producers breed the chickens to have breasts so large they can barely stand up or walk. This is abusive to the chickens.

Egg whites, chicken breast, and tuna (presumably canned, or at best a fillet) also provide plenty of animal protein without much in the way of vitamins. The yolks of eggs, as well as the livers and other organs of chickens and fish, are much more abundant in most vitamins and many minerals than the whites and muscle meats are. Particularly lacking here are the fat-soluble vitamins, as well as the fat needed to absorb them.

To improve this diet, I would recommend eating the yolks of the eggs and utilizing the bones, skin, and organs of the chickens and fish. The idea of eating bones may seem odd to some, but there are many traditional dishes that accomplish this, like sauces made from fish carcasses, and soup stocks and gravies made from bones. I would also suggest adding fruits and more colorful vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, preferably consumed with some added fat.

MATT: To piggyback on that previous question, if you only had one protein source, one carb source, and one fat source to choose from for the rest of your life what would they be and why?

CHRIS: To cheat a little bit, my protein source and my fat source would be a cow, while my carb source would be a garden. I think if you pick any one part of the cow as a protein source, you will wind up with an amino acid imbalance. You don’t necessarily need to eat the whole animal, but the closer you get, the more balanced the nutrition and the less wasteful the dietary approach. Cows are familiar to our culture, good for the environment if raised in the right types of pastures and in an ecologically conscious manner, less vulnerable to developing fatty acid imbalances when fed suboptimal diets compared to chickens and pigs, and can produce large amounts of milk. For carbs, apart from the milk the cow could offer, you really want to diversify between fruits, vegetables, and starches in my opinion. If I were forced to pick one carb-rich food it would probably be the potato, but I won’t pretend a potato-based diet is as good as one that includes a rich variety of plant foods.

MATT: For the older bodybuilders and lifters who might be reading this. Should these people be worried about a high consumption of cholesterol in their diets? I know many of their doctors might be concerned with too much protein in their meal plans as it can affect kidney function, but what about how it pertains to their cardiovascular health, particularly in men over 65?

CHRIS: There’s really no good reason to believe that consuming cholesterol in the diet is harmful, except perhaps to someone with genetic hyperlipidemias such as familial hypercholesterolemia, and maybe to someone with a thyroid dysfunction, though in that case the solution is to fix the thyroid problem and not to limit the cholesterol.

Our daily need for cholesterol is about two grams, the amount in six to ten egg yolks. If we don’t eat cholesterol, we make it ourselves. For most people, eating cholesterol will just cause them to make less of their own, so it all evens out. In about two thirds of people, eating cholesterol has virtually no effect at all on their blood cholesterol. For about a third of people, eating cholesterol does raise total cholesterol, but it raises HDL-cholesterol, the so-called “good cholesterol,” just as much as LDL-cholesterol, the so-called “bad cholesterol,” leaving the ratio unchanged. Even according to the conventional paradigm, this suggests the rise in total cholesterol is not bad. I see the ratio of total-to-HDL-cholesterol as an indirect marker of how well someone metabolizes cholesterol. So I take the ratio staying the same to mean that the person has a little more cholesterol circulating through their bodies, but they are metabolizing it in a health way, so it’s probably either having no effect on their health or improving it.

The real issue is that the natural dietary sources of cholesterol are also rich in many other important nutrients. For example, liver and egg yolks are both very rich in cholesterol, but they are also extremely rich in biotin and choline, and for most other nutrients egg yolks are a decent source and liver is a phenomenal source. So even if the cholesterol in these foods has no effect on your health at all, the other nutrients within them are very beneficial.

MATT: It would seem logical that as an expert on cholesterol you would be an advocate of testosterone replacement therapy for men with low levels of T. Would this be accurate? And if so, what you give any advice to men both on a moderate to high cholesterol diet and also on prescribed TRT?

CHRIS: I would say that in most cases you want to find why the testosterone is low and fix the problem, not patch it up with pharmaceuticals. In boys who fail to go through puberty, it’s been shown that supplementing them with iron and vitamin A is just as effective at inducing puberty as testosterone replacement therapy. In aging men, I suspect the principal reason that testosterone is declining is because of metabolic dysfunction due to energy imbalance.

In someone with very low body fat, the low body fat is probably the problem. If you don’t have enough body fat, your fat tissue doesn’t make enough leptin, and leptin doesn’t trigger the release and activation of thyroid hormone, and thyroid hormone doesn’t carry the signal to convert cholesterol to testosterone.

In someone who is overweight, there is a very similar problem. Once the body fat accumulation exceeds the ability of the fat tissue to store it – usually because the blood vessels aren’t able to carry oxygen into the deep nooks and crannies of the fat tissue – a perfect storm of adaptations aimed at cleaning up the mess produce a host of metabolic problems. The energy can’t be stored, so it accumulates in the blood in the form of elevated glucose and triglycerides. A variety of tissues, but especially the liver, become infiltrated with fat, which compromises their function in a multitude of ways. The pancreas makes more and more insulin to try to bring the glucose and triglycerides into tissues, but all the tissues are already overloaded with energy, so they resist the signal. Eventually the pancreas just gives up, but in the mean time the tissues stop listening to the insulin in order to protect themselves. The immune system becomes activated to try to clean up the extra energy, infiltrating the fat tissue to gobble up what can’t be stored and infiltrating the liver to try to gobble up all the fat that has accumulated there. But activating the immune system for this purpose sends the signal to the rest of the body that there is an emergency and all of its attention needs to be devoted to cleaning up the mess.

So in the overweight person the fat tissue is making plenty of leptin – tons of it in fact – just like the pancreas is making tons of insulin, but the tissues are not listening to these signals. Partly this is to protect themselves, because these signals are telling the cells to take up energy and do great things with it, but the cells are already overloaded with energy taking up more would hurt them. Part of it is because the immune system is screaming at the cells not to listen to these signals but instead to direct the whole body’s attention towards cleaning up the mess. I’m not sure if the immune system knows the difference between cleaning up extra energy, cleaning up damaged tissue, and attacking pathogens. The modern idea that is gaining a lot of influence is that the immune system responds similarly to any sort of “danger.” The immune system might be carrying the basic message as follows: “Folks, we got a problem. Time to clean up and save baby-making for later.” As a result, less thyroid hormone is produced, less of what is produced is activated, and the thyroid never carries the signal to convert cholesterol to testosterone. The body is in a state of abundance, but that message never gets across.

Then there are people who are not necessarily overweight, but are still suffering from a sort of “energy overload” because there is some limitation in their ability to metabolize the energy. This could be a nutrient deficiency, especially a deficiency in the pathway of energy metabolism. It could also be inadequate antioxidant defenses, or perhaps too many polyunsaturated fatty acids in cellular membranes because of too much vegetable oil in the diet. Energy metabolism can damage these delicate fatty acids, so if the membrane is more delicate, or the protection is inadequate, the cell can decide to protect itself by metabolizing energy at a lower rate. Anything that makes the cell less able to metabolize energy is going to make it stop listening to the leptin-insulin-thyroid axis. It’s going to ignore the fact that the body has plenty of energy because it can’t handle metabolizing that energy to direct it towards robust physical and mental performance, heat production, virility, and fertility. The thyroid’s message that it’s time to turn cholesterol into testosterone never gets across.

I’ve simplified this a bit into what I think are the big-picture take-away points, but I think most problems with inadequate testosterone can largely be explained by these phenomena, and I think trying to fix the root of the problem should be the first approach and testosterone replacement therapy should be the last resort.

And hey, if cholesterol is high and testosterone is low, fix whatever is blocking the conversion and you’ve killed two birds with one stone.

Just make sure you respect the birds by being thankful for them and eating more than their skinless boneless breasts.