Saturday, February 6, 2010

Precision Nutrition: Initial Impressions

I ordered Precision Nutrition in December of last year and received my materials just in time for New Year's. I am so not a New Year's resolution kind of gal, but on the other hand January is as good a time as any to implement some healthy new habits and give up some old not-so-great ones.

In all honesty, though, my way of eating really hasn't changed much since starting Precision Nutrition. I didn't think it would, which is why the program appealed to me. I already have a lean body composition and am quite fit, especially for my age. So I didn't think I needed a drastic diet intervention, just a few tweaks and upgrades which I am still in the process of implementing.

The basis of the Precision Nutrition system is the 10 Habits. The Precision Nutrition materials even include a handy little 10 Habits cheat sheet you're meant to carry in your wallet until the habits become ingrained. The 10 Habits are:

(1) eat every 2-4 hours

(2) have an appropriate amount (20-30 grams for women, 40-60 grams for men) of complete protein at every meal

(3) have 2-3 servings of veggies (1-1.5 cups) with every meal

(4) avoid starchy carbs unless you've just worked out

(5) include heart healthy fats in your diet throughout the day, and supplement with fish oil.

(6) avoid calorie-containing beverages such as soda

(7) avoid processed foods

(8) plan and prepare your meals in advance to make sure they are PN-compliant

(9) eat a variety of foods, with an emphasis on what's local and seasonal

(10) allow yourself to break the rules at 10 percent of your meals

When you begin Precision Nutrition the emphasis is on mastery of the 10 Habits. Once you've got those down you can begin to fine-tune if necessary. But adherence to the 10 Habits comes first. Which makes perfect sense when you think about it, because if you're not following the 10 Habits how can you be sure whether you even need a more individualized plan to reach your goals? Why worry about macronutrient ratios and such if you don't have to?

None of this is much of a stretch for me. I admit I wonder how necessary some of these habits really are--I mean, why is oatmeal okay after a workout but not before?--but at the same time compliance is pretty easy for me because basically this is how I've been eating for years. I figured out when I was in my early 40s that I really don't tolerate wheat very well, and when I cut that out of my diet my starch consumption dropped dramatically. I did continue to eat oatmeal and rice, but while I enjoy these foods I've never eaten them in quantity. That being the case, it's not particularly hard for me to limit my starch intake to post-workout meals as per the 10 Habits. In fact, I often skip the starch even when it's permitted unless it happens to be what I feel like eating.

One thing I don't do is plan my meals too much in advance. Instead I tend to ask myself, "Okay, what do I feel like eating?" and then once I've figured out what I want I look for a way to make it PN-compliant. It's not hard because I've been building my meals around protein, veggies and heart-healthy fats for years.

I'm still trying to work out how much I really need in the way of supplementation. I've begun taking fish oil capsules along with magnesium and zinc at night to help me sleep. I also keep protein powder on hand, but this is not a new thing for me although it has never been a regular part of my diet. It still isn't, although that might change. Protein shakes are highly recommended in PN, with consumption ideally occuring during and/or soon after a workout when easily-digestible protein is particularly desirable to facilitate recovery. Personally I sort of hate to waste any portion of my daily calorie allotment on food I don't like, but on the other hand if I want to get stronger I think I probably need to get a little more, well, precise about my post-workout nutrition.

That's the thing about Precision Nutrition: you're not supposed to make things any more complicated than they need to be. You only need to go beyond the basics if you're not getting the results you want just by following the 10 Habits.
If the 10 Habits alone aren't doing it for you, PN makes some suggestions for individualization. The first and most obvious is to adjust calorie intake. PN recommends starting out with a daily calorie intake of 3000-3500 calories for men and 1500-1750 calories for women, with no allowances made for age, size or activity level. Apparently this one-size-fits-all approach produces positive results in about 85% of PN clients. But if you're one of the 15%, a formula is provided for calculating daily calorie needs based on body weight, goals and activity levels.
There's also an alternative formula that allows you to calculate your macronutrient needs, again based on body weight and activity level. If you use this formula you'll end up with a diet that's relatively high in carbs, low in protein and moderate in fat, which works well for carbohydrate-tolerant people who are highly active. But others will need to do some fine tuning based on their somatype and goals. Ectomorphs looking to gain muscle do well with a macronutrient split of 25% protein/55% carbohydrate/20% fat. They can have sugary simple carbs during and immediately after their workout, and complex carbs throughout the day at every other meal because they tolerate carbs well. Mesomorphs looking to build muscle while keeping lean get better results with a Zone-ish split of 30% protein/40% carbs/30% fat, again with simple carbs allowed during and after workouts. Complex starchy carbs are okay at breakfast and post exercise, but at other times should be eaten in moderation if at all. Endomorphs looking to lose fat do best with a 35% protein/25% carbs/40% fat split, with starchy and/or sugary carbs allowed during and post-exercise but not at other times.
But what if you don't know your somatype? It's not always obvious. Most people are a mix. And if you've been working out and eating well for a while things get even more confusing, because you might resemble one type but actually have the hormonal profile and carb tolerance of another. That's definitely true of me: at this point I look like a mesomorph with ectomorph tendencies, but my carb tolerance is closer to that of an endomorph. What PN suggests in cases like this is that you choose your macronutrient prescription based on your goals. If you want to prioritize fat loss, eat like an endomorph. If you want to build muscle eat like an ectomorph. But whatever you do, stay within your allotted calories for the day.
So, that's kind of a quick overview of the basic PN system. If you're the type of person who reads fitness blogs you've probably done something similar at some point, or at least thought about it. Maybe you've even decided all those meals are too much trouble, and you've opted to lose fat by fasting twice a week instead. Nothing wrong with that! There are many effective programs out there. The key is finding the one you can stick with. If PN seems like it might be the one for you I encourage you to look into it.