Arthur interviews Danny Lennon from SigmaNutrition.com
1. Arthur: Danny you are a big proponent of nutrition's effects on gut health. Can you tell me any typical dietary habits of the general population and/or the "health conscious" community you deem to be sub-optimal or even detrimental to one's gut health?
Danny: Yeah, well I think the first thing to point out is that the term “gut health” can include many different aspects, which individually affect health. Usually however, what most people think of is of our gut microbiome, essentially the make up of bacteria in the gut.
At the moment there is a HUGE amount of research being produced in this field. Everyday we are learning about how the bacterial species that reside with in us influence (and potentially control) our health. The make-up of our microbiome has been linked with pretty much all the major health issues you can name. Obesity, neurodegenerative disease, autoimmune issues, blood sugar regulation. It’s pretty amazing.
So with this in mind, this brings up two questions that I’m sure people (myself included) have:
1. What is the optimal composition of gut bacteria?
2. How do I get mine to look like that?
In relation to number 1, we just don’t know. Sure, there are some bacteria we know are pathogenic (the bad bacteria) and other species which seem to have positive benefits for health (the good bacteria). But the exact numbers, ratio and combination of these that means “optimal” we don’t know. In fact, I’d imagine there is no “optimal”. Our microbiome is constantly changing in response to our food supply, environment, etc.
However, there are some things that we can go on that should allow us to improve gut health from the perspective of gut bacteria. First, it seems diversity is a good predictor of health, i.e. the more variety in bacterial species the better as opposed to a small number of species being dominant. Second, as I mentioned previously, some species have been shown to be either good or bad, based on what we know.
So, what do we do about it?
Look at what first might cause the make up of our gut microbioime to get “messed up”…
- · Antibiotics
- · Cesarean sections
- · Overly cleanliness – no exposure to natural earth or excessively using disinfectants
- · Diets high in refined carbohydrates/sugar and low in fibre
How regularly and intensely these have affected an individual will likely determine how much work needs to be done.
Because this answer could easily turn into an essay (trust me I can never give short answers!) I will just list a few things worth considering or looking into. Just note, I will have to leave out all the context behind these for the sake of space:
- Include plenty of fibre in the diet. Plenty of things like chickpeas, lentils, beans, fibrous vegetables, oats, etc.
- Get some prebiotic fibre (fibre that resists our digestion but can get into the colon where gut bacteria “feed” on it). Easy source is cooked-then-cooled potatoes or perhaps a supplement (e.g. inulin)
- Probiotic supplement – I like a product called Prescript Assist as it has a high number of different bacterial strains, is room temperature stable and seems very well tolerated.
- ·Have most of your diet based on real food. You can still eat your favourite processed treats but as an overall percentage, the majority of intake should be from whole foods, with plenty of vegetables.
- ·Get outside, get some fresh air and don’t be the crazy person who carries disinfectant around in their bag.
2. Arthur: How can people with limited time or understanding of research make more informed decisions with regards their nutrition?
Danny: This is tough because there are so many people claiming to be “experts” or have “the answer”. So I’d suggest looking out for some tell-tale signs:
If the approach sounds very extreme, it’s probably BS. Unfortunately things at the extremes sell, whilst sensible and balanced info is overlooked. Don’t go looking for the shortcut.
If the approach calls for you to use their specific, expensive supplements then that’s another red flag. I’m not saying everyone who has a product is a con man but if the whole approach is built around needing a supplement or whatever, then it’s probably bollox. You don’t need 2 meal replacement shakes from a multi-level marketing company and you don’t need to spend €25 on a bag of coffee beans.
If an approach calls for you to eat at specific times or only eat a small list of specific foods, it’s probably not necessary.
Really it comes down to a few core fundamentals. I talk to people about what I call the 5 Sigma Principles. Quite simply, most of your focus should be on:
1. Calories – If your goal is fat loss and you are not dropping fat, despite eating decently, sleeping well and being active, you’re eating too many calories. A guru who tells you they started eating more calories, did no exercise and grew a 6 pack is a liar.
2. Food quality – While calories (and macronutrients) will dictate body composition, food quality in general is still important. Even leaving aside the obvious health aspects to it, dieting on a reduced calorie intake is easier when a decent amount of your intake is from whole foods, especially vegetables and legumes of high fibre and low caloric density.
3. Flexibility – Going all-or-nothing is unnecessary. I’ve written a lot over on my site about the problems that can arise with restrictive dieting. Usually (for many people at least) being “perfect” or 100% strict with “clean” eating for any length of time leads to an increased likelihood in a binge eating episode. The easiest way to counter-act this is to include some of your favourite foods regularly in your diet. Just pick portion sizes that allow you to stay within you approximate calorie target.
4. Relationship with food – What you eat is only half the equation. Your relationship and attitude to food is massive. This is tied in with point 3 above. Enjoy your food, be mindful when eating, slow down and take your time, and don’t class foods as either “good” or “bad”.
5. Consistency – The principle that rules them all. Being consistently good enough will ALWAYS trump being intermittently perfect.
If we always keep these 5 principles in mind, then we don’t have to get overly concerned with specific or extreme protocols. If a certain diet doesn’t fit into this framework, it’s usually a fad.
3. Arthur: Time and again I notice how the fitness or nutrition "pendulum" swings from one extreme to another and never seems to settle in the middle where the truth more than likely is. For example for years it was all about how fat was making us fat, now sugar is the demon. Or how saturated fat was the cause of heart disease, now people are putting lumps of butter in their coffee and calling it a health drink. Or a few years back, long, slow, steady state cardio was pushed as the best way to get lean, nowadays we're told if we don't collapse at the end of our "HIT" session then it was a waste of time. Can you think of any other examples to add to this list?
Danny: I totally agree and some of those are my favourite examples. I think the most interesting one to me is carbohydrate content of the diet. We’ve seen the push throughout the 70s and 80s to get people eating less fat and replacing those calories with carbohydrates. Advising the whole population to get 50-60% of their calories from carbohydrates may not have been the most prudent thing to do, especially if you have to scare people into avoiding dietary fat to do so.
But then came the resurgence of the low-carb thing. And I wrote a post called Carb Dogma is For Hipsters (http://sigmanutrition.com/carb-dogma-is-for-hipsters/) because I saw this parallel between how people jumped on a certain diet because it was cool and novel. So for example, because we had all been told to eat high-carb, low-fat when the low-carb diets started to emerge, people wanted to be against what everyone else was doing. So people loved being different to the mainstream.
But the real interesting thing was how this has taken another turn that I’ve started to notice lately. Because it seems now that everyone knows about (or has used at some point) a low-carb diet, it just ain’t hipster any more. So instead, we have people going around saying anyone who eats low-carb is an idiot.
Someone will post on their Facebook or Instagram about all the carbs they eat and still stay lean. #HighCarbForLife
But classifying yourself as low-carb OR high-carb or whatever might be the problem.
If you are on a low-carb diet and it is genuinely working for you, then cool. But just don’t spout rubbish about carbs being the sole reason people aren’t lean. That’s silly.
Similarly, if low-carb didn’t work for you, you went back to a higher-carb intake and now you feel great, then awesome! But don’t think you need to say low-carb is for idiots. Some people will legitimately do best on a low-carb intake
4. Arthur: Do you feel the old bodybuilding rule of thumb of 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass is a good starting point for most people or are there certain populations that this may be unhealthy or counterproductive for?
Danny: Yeah, I mean there are a number of variables that need to be considered for protein intake: lean body mass, goals, training volume, overall calorie intake, etc.
But as a rule of thumb there is some decent research that we can look to for protein intakes for people who are doing some form of training. Studies end up with different recommendations with most suggesting anywhere from 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (g/kg BW) all the way up to 2.7 g/kg BW. Ideally, we would want to base it on fat free mass (FFM) but the only good paper that puts recommendations in terms of FFM was Eric Helms’ paper, which suggested about 2.7-3.1 g/kg FFM (I think, I need to double check this).
So if we’re looking for a super simple guideline I just say to people shoot for 2 g/kg BW. It’s easy to remember and calculate. Just take your weight in kg and multiply it by 2. Easy. For many this will be a high intake to try to achieve. For less active folks, 1.5 g/kg is likely fine.
Other exceptions might be a relatively lean person in a dieting phase. For them, I’ll push it closer to 2.5 g/kg perhaps. This might help a bit more with mitigating muscle mass loss (although not proven) but mainly I do it because the higher protein intake will mean more satiety and so less hunger whilst being in a prolonged calorie deficit.
In terms of your question on unhealthy or counterproductive, there’s nothing unhealthy about a high protein intake. It doesn’t damage your kidneys or cause women to become bulky or any of that nonsense. But super high intakes can certainly be counterproductive.
As just one example, take a guy who is trying to maximize his muscle gain. He may think that going to 3+ g/kg BW is going to be a good idea. Or the higher the protein the better. But what we’ve seen in research is that the upper level seems to be a maximum of 2.7 g/kg BW. I’m not aware of any studies showing increased benefit by going above that. However, there is a downside. The higher you push protein, you obviously need to drop carbs or fat or a combo of the two. Both play important roles so dropping it in favour of more protein, especially when there is no added benefit makes no sense. Say this guy has a super high protein intake, well above those ranges I mentioned. Would he be better dropping his intake and putting those saved calories towards more carbohydrates to fuel training (and because they taste damn good)? Absolutely! So that’s just one example.
5. Arthur: I often encounter people who for whatever reason won't eat foods containing high quality "good" fats. Some people just won't eat things like fish or nuts or avocados. In these cases are there any supplements (besides fish oil) you advise people to take to prevent any adverse health effects from not getting enough EFA's?
Danny: The threshold for someone becoming deficient in EFA’s is actually a pretty low intake. It would be hard not to get enough from normal eating. Perhaps if it’s someone in the final stages of prepping for a bodybuilding show then possibly they may have an issue. But for others I’m not sure if they would be deficient.
HOWEVER, that is not to say just because you are not deficient in EFA’s that your fat intake is fine, never mind optimal. It’s well known that dropping fat intake (even to levels about that threshold for EFA deficiency) can lead to drops in both testosterone and androgen receptor density. Not good news.
Now for our bodybuilding scenario, perhaps this is justified. It’s short term, until the show and the comp is judged on physique not how you feel or your sex drive.
But for everyone else, going so low in take as to completely avoid sources of fat is completely unnecessary. My first question would be “why don’t you eat fish?”.Or peanut butter. Who the f**k doesn't like peanut butter?
So in direct response to your question, if we’re ignoring fish oils, then your probably left with evening primrose oil or borage oil or something like that I guess? Makes no sense to me but there you go!
6. Arthur: Danny as a strength coach specialising in powerlifting, bodybuilding and just general strength training, I know when I'm about to overstep my knowledge boundaries. If someone comes to me looking for Olympic weightlifting coaching or a "mobility" program or has some sort of neuromusculoskeletal injury or condition that requires a specialist in those areas, I'll refer them straight away. At what stage might you do the same with a nutrition client?
Danny: I think in scope of practice is a HUGE deal, especially when I look around the fitness industry right now. There are people giving plans/programmes that they shouldn’t be, either because they don’t know the scope of practice for their qualification or they simply don’t care.
Anytime someone oversteps their scope of practice they are doing their client a disservice.
For me, one of my priorities has been looking around for people in different areas who I believe are competent and trustworthy and then let people know that they should go to them. For example, if someone comes to me looking for help and they have a serious clinical issue they are told they must be working with a medical doctor or registered dietician. For other people who based on the symptoms they describe to me, I suspect my have a health issue to be checked out (whether that’s gut dysfunction, potential blood sugar issues, etc.) I will tell them the names of some doctors who do the necessary test and tell them to make contact.
On a more practical side, I’ve had a number of guys come to me looking for me to oversee their nutrition for contest prep. Whilst I certainly have some clear ideas what I’d do with people in this situation, and believe I’d be way more competent that many of the idiots I see online calling themselves contest prep coaches, I flat out tell people “you’re better off going to this guy” and I’ll put them in contact with someone who I know is both actively involved in bodybuilding as a coach and has experience of going through contest prep. That’s something I don’t have so it’s not right for me to oversee someone’s nutrition just to make more money when I know that there is coach who is 100% in that field who understand the process more deeply.
Plus, I think in the long-run people support someone who builds a team of people who they can refer out to. It’s one of the things Eric Helms chatted with me about when he came on the podcast. And I can’t tell you how much respect I have for that dude. He’s such a top man.
7. Arthur: Finally Danny a bit like what you say to guests on your podcast at the end of each interview, can you give one tip to our readers to improve their nutrition or lifestyle habits that will in turn boost their health/performance?
Danny: Keep the very basics in mind and don’t over complicate it. Nutrition and fitness should be used to enhance your life, not become something that consumes your every waking thought and makes to stress out.
Eat an amount that matches your goal, eat plenty of vegetables, get enough protein, prioritize sleep, be active and do something you’re passionate about every day. And most of all, don’t be a dick to people.
We would like to send a big thank you from everyone here at CityGym to Danny for taking the time to talk to Arthur and answer all of his questions. Personally, I love all of Danny's content, especially his podcast. I've left all the links below so you can check out all of his work