Fit But Rotting Inside: Changing Our Thinking About Fitness
Over the last two years, I have been obsessed with finding and understanding why human beings have such a hard time understanding and controlling their bodies. We live in a world full of knowledge. We have access to scientific articles, books, and millions of other resources at the tips of our fingers through the internet. Whereas gyms were obscure twenty or thirty years ago, today almost every city has one, and they are extremely affordable. Yet, for some reason, rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are skyrocketing. When I speak to young and aspiring bodybuilders, rather than being more knowledgeable about the human body when I was their age (back when the only resources I had were Weider publications), they actually seem more confused as to what they need to be doing to get the body they want despite having so many resources to look to. What is going on?
The major problem is that we have outsourced our own health and wellness to groups of experts whom we expect will tell us what to do. We have accepted too many things as fact a priori, or before testing things on ourselves. This extends all the way from the scientific literature on fitness to our own self experimentation. The biggest pitfall of the scientific literature related to muscle building and fat loss as that it almost exclusively uses inductive reasoning. Empirical data are generated and then hypotheses are extrapolated from those data. The two biggest problems here are these: 1) we know that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and 2) by creating hypotheses in this way we could be exacerbating our own confirmation biases by using the data to create illogical hypotheses that fit our preconceived views of a subject.
I would advocate a scientific revolution as written by Thomas Kuhn, but old research paradigms die hard, and many of us who would advocate one in fitness are practitioners in this field and not academics writing the articles for the scientific journals. Until we bring a more logical foundation to fitness and health research, I suggest that all of us take three steps to begin improving our individual health, wellness, aesthetics, and performance. We need to begin by knowing ourselves and stop outsourcing our responsibility for our own health. As we will discuss later, this starts with a simple blood test that will give you the knowledge as to what your body’s tendencies are. Please note that I do not gain anything financially by suggesting these tests. The next step is that we need to individually adopt the scientific method. This means that we stop blindly following programs for extended periods simply because our favorite fitness personality wrote it, and we adopt set periods of at least three months for testing a particular program while adopting objective standards for its success. Finally, we continually monitor the signals our bodies give us to know and understand whether or not what we are doing is healthy.
Fit But Rotting Inside
So you can understand more about why I am writing about this subject, and why I am obsessed with finding answers to these questions, I have to tell you a bit about myself. I am a 35 year old personal trainer and former bodybuilder who has been living with ulcerative colitis for 10 years. Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the lower intestinal tract. Basically, high levels of total body chronic inflammation from sub optimal eating habits and high stress coupled with an overactive immune system cause my body’s defenses to attack the inner lining of my intestinal tract. Having this disease changed my life both literally and figuratively.
Prior to obtaining this disease, I was going through several life changes. I was fairly fresh out of my service in the Iraq War and I was pursuing a PhD in International Politics and Quantitative Methodology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was a recovering alcoholic, and I’d picked up bodybuilding to overcome the depression that came with giving up my bottle of bourbon a night habit. When I was not solving game theoretic models or running regressions on data, I was researching everything I could on obtaining the most muscular and lean body possible. In fact, much of this research went into my first ebook, Getting to Shredded. I was also training very hard, and following a strict diet regimen. My routine was “perfect.”
I would wake up early in the morning, as early as 4AM, to make my morning coffee and pick up on reading the research articles I wanted to cover for the day. Then I would put on my running gear and I would do sprint intervals along the beautiful California coast that lied only several blocks away on UCSB’s gorgeous campus. I would come back, pour myself another cup of coffee, and make breakfast, which would consist of a cup of egg whites cooked in cooking spray, a cup and a half of spinach, and depending on whether or not I was training for a competition or not, either four slices of sprouted wheat bread or a cup of oatmeal. I would then go to my room, write for two hours (stare at a blank screen for 15 minutes at a time between glances at facebook, cnn.com, and my plentyoffish account). After this session was finished, I would pack up my laptop and several pre prepared meals, and head to my office to meet with students. During office hours I would eat my next meal, which was normally chicken or tilapia, brown rice, and broccoli. From there, I would head to either the lecture of the day or to one of the discussion sections I taught. After that, I would eat my next meal of chicken or fish and vegetables, and then head to a graduate seminar or to the library to do research. Toward the middle of the seminar my heart would start racing because I knew my favorite part of the day was coming next. My workout was sacred. I would race home, if I had not prepacked my gym gear, hop in the car and head to the local athletic club for a two hour resistance workout. On my way out of the gym, I would chug a pre prepared whey protein shake, drive home, hop in the shower, and begin my evening.
My evening began with preparing dinner, which was the one meal I needed to have fresh each night. I would opt for lean steak, chicken, or tilapia with a cup and a half of vegetables and rice depending on how hard I worked out that day. After dinner, I would write or research for several more hours, then watch a little bit of television while eating my last meal of the day, which was cottage cheese with a tablespoon of almond butter.
Everything should have been perfect. I was lean, I was fanatically watching my diet, and I was exercising each day, but something was very wrong. It started with pain. At night I would wake up with severe stabbing pains in my lower abdomen. I became extremely gassy and felt bloated all the time. There would be several days when I would not be able to have a bowel movement, and then there would be weeks when I would have uncontrollable explosive diarrhea nearly twenty times a day. This nearly ruined my life, but I did not believe that this was something I could not fix. I began consuming more whole grains to get more fiber. I added psyllium husk and wheat germ to my protein shakes, and I began consuming sprouted wheat whenever I could. Things got worse. I began noticing that when I got up from using the toilet, the entire bowl would be bright red with blood. I became weaker and weaker and my skin was dry and pale. My bones ached and I felt fragile in the gym, like I could break at any moment. I began to resign myself to the thought that I had a terminal disease. With this in mind, I flew home to Connecticut to be with my family and to obtain the advice of a doctor.
My thoughts in going into my first colonoscopy were morbid. I began thinking about what I had done in my life, and regretting all the things I had not done. When I woke up in the recovery room, I was told that I did not have a terminal disease. Rather, I had ulcerative colitis. Though relieved that I did not have cancer, I had no real idea what the doctor had really told me. My first thought was, “awesome! I can go back to my ‘healthy’ bodybuilding diet and work on gaining back my muscle mass.” I was given medication, consisting of mesalamine pills and mesalamine enemas, which I was to take every night.
With that, I flew back to California and threw myself back into my lifestyle. I took my medication religiously, and restarted my strict diet and training regimen. I took a break from grad school and I partnered up with a friend of mine to open my first fitness business, Metroflex Gym, Long Beach. Despite the huge effort this business was, I still found time to keep my regimen up and I even signed up for my next bodybuilding competition. As I prepped for this show, I was more strict on my diet than ever. I eliminated all beef from my diet, and ate nothing but fish, chicken and vegetables. The show came, and I looked amazing: lean, muscular, and veiny, and I even earned first place in my class. Several days later as I was working in the gym, training clients, it happened. I completely lost control of my bowels. I had to run to the bathroom and I was there for several hours writhing in pain. I thought it would stop in a few days, but it didn’t. I began bleeding profusely every time I went to the bathroom and soon I was spending more time on the toilet than working because I refused to swallow my pride and wear a diaper. Still, I would continue my bodybuilding diet because, in my mind, it was healthy and helping me to fight this disease.
As things progressed, my life took several more turns for the worse. I’d gotten married after I opened the gym, and it was not working out. I look back on it now, and I believe that I rushed into the marriage because I could not believe that anyone in their right mind would want to be with someone who had explosive, bloody diarrhea 20 to 30 times per day. I have nothing against my ex wife. She was beautiful, tough minded, and caring in her own way, but we were not meant to be together. As our relationship devolved into constant fighting and days where we would show no affection for each other, largely because I had absolutely no sex drive due to my illness, my life also devolved. I became bitter and resigned to my fate. I snapped at anyone and anybody who crossed my path the wrong way. Being a personal trainer and nutrition coach, this was not a good business move. As clients left, my bills piled up. All of my money was tied up in Metroflex Gym. Long Beach and I could not even take a side job to make ends meet because I was already working 16 to 18 hours a day trying to keep the business afloat. With this, I gave up my shares of Metroflex, filed for divorce from my wife, and began a period of living out of my car.
Luckily, some friends of mine took me in. Liz and Thad put me up in a room in their condominium and gave me a couple of months to get back on my feet. My friend Mike Rashid gave me the computer that I am writing this book on right now, and I began my new business as an online trainer. I also met a beautiful young lady named Shawna, with whom I share my life with today. I pushed myself back into bodybuilding in order to improve my self esteem and began training for yet another show. My body again responded very well visually. At the show, my conditioning was spot on, and my muscularity was better than it ever had been before. Yet, I was still bleeding profusely from my intestinal tract and having up to 30 bloody bowel movements a day despite the heavy medication regimen the veterans administration hospital had me on. Blood tests started to show that I was slowly becoming anemic, and my doctor began suggesting that we should try prednisone, a drug that would destroy my muscle mass and bloat me. Given my already tattered self-esteem, I refused the medication, and I began my search to understand what I was doing wrong.
I began reading feverishly to understand my issues. I read books like Grain Brain by Doctor David Perlmutter, which taught me about different causes of inflammation from food. I read The Blood Sugar Solution by Doctor Mark Hyman, which confirmed many of these causes. I learned that despite the fact that my bodybuilding diet had helped me to look good, it was the very thing that was causing me to rot from the inside out. Eating 6 to 8 high carb, high protein, low fat meals per day was causing my body to overproduce insulin, which was leading to high levels of total body chronic inflammation. This was causing brain fog, energy deficits, and severe irritation in my intestinal tract, which was causing diarrhea. I was taking a multivitamin, but not getting enough of the vitamins I needed, like vitamin D and C or magnesium. Above all, my body was not able or equipped to handle the amount of wheat I was eating whether it was sprouted or not.
I began by removing most carbs from my diet except for white rice an hour before and an hour after my workouts, when I was most insulin sensitive and would be able to use the carbs more efficiently for building muscle mass. I switched my animal protein to grass fed beef, free range chicken, bison, elk, venison, and wild caught salmon. These protein sources have more complex amino acid profiles and a higher amount of omega 3 fats that battle inflammation versus omega 6 fats that cause inflammation. I began adding fats to my diet like MCT oil, coconut oil, olive oil, fish oil, and grassfed butter. I removed all sources of gluten and sugar from my diet except for a piece of fruit and a piece of 86% cacao dark chocolate each night. My body responded remarkably. Despite the fact that much of this was counter to everything I had been told about bodybuilding logic, my body was getting leaner and more muscular than I had ever been. The best part: my ulcerative colitis went into remission. I stopped bleeding. My sex drive soared, and my energy was through the roof. To this day, I have not had another severe colitis flare up, and with each exploratory colonoscopy I have my condition seems to improve. My blood work and blood pressure are better than they’ve ever been, and I have a new lease on life.
My experience with battling ulcerative colitis is not uncommon. Autoimmune diseases are becoming more and more commonplace, and many people are left frustrated when their symptoms do not alleviate despite making attempts to improve their nutrition. I was convinced that my bodybuilding diet was healthy because every bit of information I ever received from authorities in the field told me it was. The reality was that I was forcing my body into becoming lean and muscular without paying attention to its preferences for survival, and my body fought back. Despite the fact that I invested massive amounts of time and energy into educating myself about nutrition and fitness, I still made poor decisions that led to negative health outcomes. If I was led down the wrong path by what I thought were valid sources of information, the average person who gives little more thought to what they eat than buying foods labeled “healthy” or “natural” when trying to improve their diet faces serious obstacles to their health, wellness, and prospects for longevity and morbidity.
What You Should Take From This Story
The biggest piece of advice you should take from this story is that, no matter what the literature says, know yourself above anyone else. Statistical analysis normally works on regression to the mean. You are but one data point lying somewhere on a normal curve. The literature will tell you where the average person lies, and it is your job to figure out where you lie. I suggest several different blood tests you can take to see how your body is responding to your current nutrition and training regimen.
- Blood Sugar – high blood sugar is toxic to your body’s cells and can lead to high levels of total body chronic inflammation that can lead both to sickness and a lack of progress in your fitness routine. Ben Greenfield actually offers a full blood sugar panel on his site that measures your fasted glucose, Hemoglobin A1C (which is a 3 month snapshot of your blood sugar), and insulin levels. You can find it here. If your levels are high, it means that the high carbohydrate diet you’re likely eating is actually destroying your gains and your health.
- Autoimmune Testing – if you have an autoimmune disease like I do, your life can be miserable if you do not get your nutrition on track to reduce your total body chronic inflammation. I suggest getting the antinucelar antibodies test (ANA). Additionally, I would get the electrolyte sedimentation rate test to determine if you have inflammation that is unrelated to an autoimmune disease. You can find information about both of these tests here.
- DNA Testing – DNA testing from MuscleGenes or 23andMe can tell you a great deal about yourself. My DNA actually found that I am lactose intolerant, despite the fact that I exhibit no outward signs of an intolerance. This is valuable inflammation because this means that dairy would still cause low level inflammation that could be detrimental to my health.
Your next step is to begin to follow the scientific process in relation to your training and nutrition. Form questions, develop hypotheses that answer those questions, take action in accordance with those hypotheses, observe your outcomes, and determine whether or not your hypotheses are confirmed. I suggest that these experiments last no less than 3 months because the human body takes time to respond positively. If however, you notice yourself getting sick, immediately assess yourself and take steps to determine what is making you sick or causing you discomfort. For instance, don’t be like I was in my story where I was ignoring my symptoms because I believed my bodybuilding diet was healthy. Pay attention to yourself!
Finally, continue to monitor the signals your body is giving you. Every experiment you run should teach you more about your body. You should work to know and understand when something is wrong. If your sleep patterns are disrupted, or you haven’t gone to the bathroom in three days, there’s a likely reason for that. Don’t ignore it because ignorance could be a costly and potentially deadly mistake!