Recently I sat down for an eye opening and enlightening 90 minute interview with Alan McCubbin of Next Level Nutrition to debunk some nutrition myths.
It’s fair to say a lot of preconceptions I had about eating healthily every day, as well as eating to support a training program, were smashed to bits.
We covered a lot of ground:
- Sugar, Protein, Fat, Carbs – fact and fiction
- Recovering from rides in a way that effectively builds muscle, maximises fat burn and maintains your energy so you don’t burn out
- Supplements, the good, the bad, the ugly (or: “How to save yourself from wasting loads of money”)
- Eating for performance, eating for health
- General eating – skipping breakfast, calorie traps
- Why you shouldn’t copy the pros
- Eating before, during and after Etape
- What’s wrong with the Paleo diet
- Why carbs aren’t as bad as you think
- …And a whole lot more!
How to Fuel for Etape is aimed at those doing Etape du Tour, gruelling sportifs, or races, who want an eating plan leading up to their event, as well as a plan on what to eat during the event.
The Nutrition Plan for Cyclistsis for people wanting to eat well every day of every week and gives you a framework for healthy eating for weight loss, or for performance (for example if you’re training hard).
Nutritition Myths interview
Unfortunately, my Mac dropped the audio 41mins in. A shortened transcript is below.
Tim Marsh [TM], VeloNomad.com
Today I’m talking to Alan McCubbin of Next Level Nutrition.
After reading one of Alans posts on Cycling Tips, I contacted him regarding refuelling with protein, what carbohydrates to take post ride, how to consume them and the conversation morphed into a more serious discussion.
I then realised I had a lot of questions others might have too, so thought it might be a good chance to have a chat with Alan to share these topics. The main focus of our chat is about the following topics.
- Recovering from rides in a way that effectively builds muscle, maximises fat burn and maintains your energy so you don’t burn out
- Protein, Fat, Carbs
- Supplements, the good, the bad, the ugly
- General eating
- Why you shouldn’t copy the pros
- Eating before, during and after Etape
I want to talk about these things today, because I think with the rise of the information age, there’s also a rise in the amount of misinformation particularly around eating properly.
Another problem is there seems to be new guidance on what is good and what is bad every few months (potato is a super food now), so I’d like to cover some time honoured, proven things that pretty much we can rely on, day in, day out.
As cyclists we want to do the right thing by our bodies and make sure we’re in tip top mental and physical condition for whatever it is we’re training for.
…Thanks so much for your time Alan, tell us a bit about your background and business.
Alan McCubbin [AM], Next Level Nutrition
I’ve worked with everyone from Olympians, U9 soccer players, but work mainly with enduro athletes these days.
I’m currently the VP of Sports Dietitians Australia. NLN [TM: Next Level Nutrition] started in 2011, and provides the only completely online sports nutrition service Australia-wide.
TM:So, let’s start with protein and supplements, as it’s a huge industry replete with claim and counterclaim and a lot of marketing noise. What’s your take on the industry?
Very few supplements have good evidence to support them but brands still need to market products. This results in pseudoscience – good, bad & ugly.
TM:Tell us what you see as the major urban myths of protein, and what we as cyclists and consumers should be looking for.
- If some is good, more is better. You just need a threshold dose (to get a certain dose of leucine for example)
- That you need three different products for three different situations
- The terms microfiltered, ion exchange, etc. These are used to suggest the product is superior but simply describes how they are processed – this is done by dairy companies anyway!
TM:WPI and WPC, whats the difference, and which is better?
WPI/WPC supplements are made from the waste product of cheese making (curds and whey).
WPC is Whey Protein Concentrate – ~80% protein by weight, and is produced by passing the whey through an ultrafine filter. Most of the lactose and minerals pass through, leaving mainly protein in the filter. WPC does contain some lactose.
WPI is Whey Protein Isolate – ~>90% protein by weight, produced by further filtration. WPI contains almost no carbohydrate (lactose).
There’s no evidence to suggest one is better than the other. [TM: I prefer WPI simply as it’s lower in lactose and I get 10% more protein]
TM:Many of us have protein as a meal replacement, and probably mix it with milk (I know I do).
I think that’s a calorie trap, what’s your take on protein as a meal replacement, and whats the most effective way to do this. For instance, protein and water, protein and soy milk, light milk?
Always ask yourself: “why do I need a supplement or meal replacement?” Is it serving a specific purpose? If you’re just going for protein and trying to minimize energy, go for water.
If you’re trying to gain weight, or increase carbohydrate [e.g. recovering from a ride], use milk.
Protein in milk is probably better than that in soy at enhancing the body’s response to training.
TM:For those not training hard or at all, can we just skip protein supplements? Most proteins have a lot of essential amino acids (AAs), so, is there any benefit on a daily basis?
TM: I know for me, I like to think protein is doing me good, and there’s something ingrained that tells me it’s working, though that’s very hard to prove without proper testing frameworks/protocols.
Many proteins have a lot of fillers (emulsifiers etc), but products like 180 Nutrition’s Natural Protein Superfood (180 Natural Protein Superfood review) is basically a pea or WPI protein and ground seeds. What should we look out for and what should we avoid?
Look at protein per 100g based on what you want.
Some batches of American products have been found to contain higher than allowable limits (in Australia) of lead, cadmium and arsenic.
Some of these are commercially available in Australia – they come in via New Zealand provided they meet the NZ regulations (which are less strict that Australia’s).
If you want to be sure, choose a product manufactured in Australia. [TM: there are plenty of great ones!]
TM:Ok, let’s cover carbs.
As cyclists, many of us are super keen to lean up, especially if we target climbing.
There is a fascination with doing whatever we can to minimise fat gain and maximise fat burn. Carbohydrates seem to be the villain of the day, with many of us seeking to minimise carbs.
But they do play an important part in fuelling.
For myself, I basically eat no bread, no pasta, rice or processed food and my only carb intake is from veggies and supplements post training ride. [TM: that’s a slight exaggeration. I do a LOT of physical farm work and working out and am partial to baking muffins, scones and lemon meringue pies. Strictly so I don’t starve, you understand.]
What’s your take on carbohydrates and is there any danger to us in this minimal carbs approach, especially if we’re training hard. I guess we’d like to know, what’s in, what’s out.
We know that racing with sub-optimal stores reduces performance especially in races of >2hrs.
There are studies that look at whether you actually need high carb stores in every training session to get the most out of them – you don’t – but if you need to maximise the intensity, quality or performance in a training session than CHO will help achieve this (eg. to hit particular high intensity training zone targets).
Some people really struggle with fatigue in training – increasing the CHO can help in some cases.
There’s also a theory that training at least once per week with race quantities of CHO will help the gut adapt and minimize problems in a race situation.
TM:When should we take carbs if we’re training, and how?
- For particularly long/hard sessions where intensity/quality is important
- The night before if an early morning session where session quality is important
- Before you go
- During the ride
- If you have two sessions within a 12 hour period and the quality of the 2nd session is important
- Immediately after the first session and in the lead up to the second one and during the 2nd one
TM:You’ve mentioned taking 50-60g of simple maltodextrin, which is basically brewers sugar for $4 from Big W or similar, as a post ride replacement in the first hour after a big effort.
What is the benefit of doing this, who should do this, and what benefit/detriment is there in not doing this?
The benefit of maltodextrin is that it’s almost flavourless and not sweet.
You can add MD to drinks during exercise to boost CHO content.
You can add it to foods/drinks at any time to boost CHO. It’s useful post-ride if restoring CHO stores quickly is important (eg. after a stage of a multi-stage cycling tour).
TM:Fat is pinpointed as a bogeyman, but obviously healthy fats are essential for bodily function.
I always find I eat less if I have some healthy fat in our meals like olive or macadamia oil, avocados and so on. What is it important for cyclists to eat fat for optimum training and function and what should we be avoiding?
It produces hormones such as testosterone, fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin D and other substances like cholesterol (both good and bad types).
It’s also an energy source. Stores of body fat provide an energy reserve and help insulate the body.
There are 4 types of fat – saturated, polyunsaturated (inc. n-3), monounsaturated and trans-fats.
Poly/mono are better for health.
Energy content is the same for all, so all have same effect on weight. [TM: Note to self: stop eating so many avos off the avo tree!]
TM:I’ve also read that you actually need to eat fat to help burn it – is this true? Any other misconceptions?
It’s more so manipulating CHO that will increase and reduce oxidation of CHO & therefore increase or reduce fat oxidisation [TM: oxidation = the production of energy by “burning” a fuel source e.g. fat oxidation = fat burning, CHO oxidation = CHO burning].
We need to be careful with the term “burning fat” – it does not necessarily mean you’ll lose more weight/body fat [TM: unless your total calorie expenditure is greater than calories in, on a continual basis.]
TM:Let’s have a chat about supplements – another big industry with a lot of misinformation. In my cupboard and in the past I have had loads of supplements and gotten sucked into spending money that turned out to be a waste. Some of the usual names for fat/performance thrown around include:
- Acetyl L-Carnitine as a fat burner
- Beta Alanine
- Other major misfits
What are the things we really need? In our emails you mentioned leucine, which is in most protein powders.
You also mentioned in one of the emails Glutamine- the AIS says it has little proof of any benefit.
Sports foods that provide energy (carbs, protein, fat) in a convenient form (eg. gels, bars, sports drinks, protein powders). May be needed during (or after) training depending on the goals of the session and whether it’s practical to meet those with normal food.
Vitamin and mineral supplements if something’s particularly lacking (eg. iron in non-red meat eaters, B12 in vegans, etc.). It’s thought athletes need more than non-athletes but there are no recommended intakes for athletes as opposed to the general RDIs. Megadoses are unhelpful and may reduce performance (eg. Vit C).
Substances marketed to improve metabolism (ie. increase fat burning) – there is little evidence that any of these have any significant impact on overall goals (ie. body fat loss).
Ergogenic aids – substances taken in concentrated forms to achieve a specific performance benefit. The only ones that have been shown in well designed studies to improve performance are caffeine, bicarbonate (for track cyclists, rowers, swimmers), creatine (for muscle size/strength/repeated sprint performance).
Evidence is starting to accumulate to support beta-alanine (for high intensity efforts such as track cycling, but possibly sprinting in road racing) and nitrates/beetroot juice (for endurance performance).
TM:What authoritative sources can we look to for qualified proof of something’s effectiveness?
The No. 1 rule is: improved metabolism does not necessarily mean improved performance.
Even performance studies can be misleading or misinterpreted – reading research abstracts alone is not enough. You must read entire studies and be able to understand and interpret them.
There aren’t many unbiased sources of good info – the AIS sports supplement protocol is a good start, or you could consult an Accredited Sports Dietitian.
If you’re unsure about conflicts of interest, unsure ask them if they consult or receive funding from any supplement brands/companies.
TM:What about sugar as a toxin? Sugar misconceptions? Want to touch on that? What about alternatives like stevia?
Who are we talking about here? Fit, healthy (mostly youngish) cyclists vs overweight, sedentary, older people at risk of heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Nutrition scientists are doing a lot of work to try and undo the damage caused by such myths/misconceptions that are generalised to everyone.
Remember that, when critiquing research the devil is in the detail.
It’s unlikely that someone outside of that specialty area would have the skills to correctly interpret the data.
The main proponent of anti-sugar craze is a lawyer, not a scientist. [TM: Alan is talking about David Gillespie of Sweet Poison.]
He attacks the credibility of scientists and questions financial benefits from publishing research, then sells over 70,000 books himself.
The argument has been hijacked from a debate of science into questioning people’s integrity and motives – similar to climate change scientists Vs skeptics.
A group of mainly university-educated nutrition scientists have published an open letter pointing out the scientific flaws in the argument [TM: read that letter here – it’s not long.]
Losing weight and diet
TM:As you said in one of your emails to me, there’s lots of ways to skin a cat with respect to losing weight and general diet.
So different diets suit different people, their lifestyles and goals.
Obviously, too, it all comes down to how strict you want to be. But, what are some fundamental basics and truisms we need to stick to?
Your body still needs adequate vitamins, minerals, fibre, etc. regardless of the energy and your training.
Eating for weight loss and eating for health aren’t always the same thing. [TM: I explore this further in this article, The 7 Habits of Successful Fitness Programs.]
The greater the volume of training, the more carbs you’ll need to maintain performance. Eat a diet that you enjoy, that you feel is realistic and which suits your lifestyle.
And start as you wish to continue – make sure it’s sustainable long-term. [TM: This is actually absolutely crucial and one of the main take home points of this interview.]
TM:You mentioned that we shouldn’t try and copy the pros in terms of eating; what did you mean by that?
- Loss of bone density
- Eating disorders
- Increased susceptibility to illness
- Pros also complete much greater training and racing volumes – their energy and carbohydrate needs are much higher than recreational and club cyclists so the need for low fibre, high energy foods and sports foods is greater at the elite level to maintain health and performance.
TM:The paleo (no grains, sugar, dairy) diet is getting a good run right now and on the face of it, seems pretty sensible.
Minimise sugar, processed food. Maximise lean protein, lots of veggies.
What’s your take on the paleo diet, is it relevant or marketing guff.
Is it suitable for cyclists (or anyone) and how might we alter it if you think it’s rubbish.
What constitutes a paleo diet (as eaten >10,000 years ago) was different in different parts of the world – there’d have likely been more than 200 variants.
Some commonalities would have been: hunting, gathering & fishing.
The best estimates of diet include wild meat (VERY different to farmed animal flesh, plus all parts were eaten back then e.g. offal), fish, wild plant foods and seeds, possibly some wild grain (debated) and some honey.
Some evidence suggests that humans evolved and expanded the population (and progress) BECAUSE we moved away from a paleo diet.
These general concepts are used in the modern day version known as “The Paleo Diet”, but is clearly different to a true paleo diet.
The pros of this type of diet are: minimal processed foods, reduced energy, reduced chronic disease risk.
The cons are: not enough food to feed the current world population this way (ethical/environmental issue), can’t get the same wild foods available 10,000yrs ago, most of us don’t want to eat offal.
Competitive endurance sports didn’t exist 10,000yrs ago. A strict paleo diet will be somewhat restricted in carbs and therefore compromise optimal performance. A paleo diet for athletes was created to address this and includes some extra CHO sources not in the main diet.
TM:Bread, grains and starches seem to get a bad rep too. How should we view breads, grains, pasta and so on as training cyclists.
When I avoid wheat/gluten, I feel heaps better regardless of what training I do.
It’s pretty hard to avoid a muffin or something during or after a long ride, but what might we have instead, or is stuff like this pretty harmless?
Science is unsure why this is increasing.
Many people anecdotally do report feeling better when avoiding wheat and/or gluten, but there is no current scientific rationale or explanation for this apart from the very small number of people with Coeliac Disease. Many people claim to have Coeliac but don’t have the genuine condition (they just have a problem tolerating wheat). [TM: apart from, presumably, individual allergies e.g. coeliac.]
Do what feels comfortable.
It’s possible to achieve a high carb diet (even carb load) without wheat/gluten, but it’s harder if you’re avoiding all bread/grains/starches as CHO by definition is starch and sugar.
TM: What would be your ideal breakfast to maximise fat burning and energy during the day.
Personally I have caffeine in the morning to release fat stores and then go for a run, or go for a ride, but generally I have my own seed based cerealfirst that I have concocted.
Caffeine originally was thought to increase fat metabolism, but is now shown to have minimal if any effect on this.
It does have other benefits on performance.
My ideal breakfast would contain ~20g of high quality protein (meat/fish/chicken/dairy) and carbohydrate. The amount of each will depend on training load for the day.
TM:What about skipping breakfast?
You’ll also likely have increased hunger mid-morning. You’ll probably overcompensate with convenience/snack foods. [TM: this means an insulin spike and potentially triggering fat storage.]
TM:Brad Pilon of Eat Stop Eat promotes a 1 day a week, half day fast – he calls it intermittent fasting – to increase testosterone and burn fat. What’s your take on ideas like this, especially for cyclists.
TM:What would be your top 3 eating tips to maximise fat burn/minimise fat gain?
- Don’t overeat energy
- Don’t overeat energy
- Don’t overeat energy
TM:Ha! Good one. What about the top 3 supplements to maximise fat burn?
TM:What calorie traps should cyclists be on the lookout for every day?
TM: Are there any superfoods we should be aware of? Rich Roll of Finding Ultra fame recently had a list of 10 superfoods on Tim Ferriss’ blog, to help endurance and so on.
Lists like this always worry me. For instance, he had Apricot Kernels on there as a source of vitamin B17. Food Stds Aus NZ has a warning on apricot kernels as a toxic substance to be avoided.
TM:Rich Roll also had cordyceps on there, which is a caterpillar fungus and appears in Optygen which is a supplement that Contador was allegedly taking for endurance.
It’s marketed as the same stuff Himalayan sherpas take for endurance. Is stuff like this valuable? If not, how might we aid stamina and endurance, ginseng?
TM: Many listeners would be heading overseas on long haul flights for a cycling holiday, the TdF or for Etape.
Plane food is notoriously bad in my opinion.
I remember in 2010 I probably had a few too many Bacardis on the way over and ate all the acidic curries/meals, little croissants and carbohydrate bombs served to me.
I landed feeling like rubbish and stayed that way for a week. Now, I usually take my own food like tuna, avocado, my home made seed cereal…I did that in 2011 and got off the plane and had no jetlag and was fine. How should we eat on a plane to make sure they arrive on the ground ready to go and not dusty and lethargic.
- Make sure you have plenty of access to fluids – the air conditioning and pressurized cabin on a plane can be an issue.
- If you’re flying several days before L’Etape just stick to a normal meal routine (for the timezone you’re going to, helps with jetlag).
- You may need extra fibre rich foods to keep the bowels regular on long haul flights.
- Avoid eating more or less than normal daily quantities.
- Avoid boredom eating by keeping occupied.
TM:Many of the VeloNomad readers are everyday folks wanting to do the Etape, not survive it, but have a good go.
The way I see it, there are two variables you can control to get fit for something like this – diet and training/exercise.
These folks train moderately but probably work all day maybe at a desk, so need to maximise the effect of their diet and exercise, so let’s focus on diet.
What steps should folks take:
- In their everyday lives to maximise the effect of their training (breakfast)
- Pre ride
- Post short/light intensity ride (what is a short ride, say, under 3 hours)
- Post long/high intensity ride (recovery) to maximise training
- Pre-ride – include some carbohydrate if the ride is going to be long or planning on achieving specific high intensity performance in the session
- Post-easy ride – Nothing specific
- Post-hard ride – Protein for recovery, also focus on carbs if next session within 12hrs and focus on fluid if next session within 6hrs
It can be difficult to balance the need to reduce energy to lose weight but a need to increase CHO to meet training load. Periodised nutrition is needed to try and match intake to training over the week. Assessment and planning from a sports dietitian is the way to go if you’re serious about it.
TM Well that’s it. What a lot of great information. Thanks Alan!
I strongly recommend contacting Alan if you need a personalised eating program according to your specific goals. It will instil discipline on your eating and help leverage the effect of your training.
Take home points
Here are what I think the main take home points of this interview are:
- Eat a diet that you enjoy, that you feel is realistic and which suits your lifestyle.
- Always start a new eating/diet/nutrition program the same as you wish to continue – make sure it’s sustainable long-term. Eg make it a lifestyle, not a diet.
- Don’t beat yourself up over little slip ups, maintain focus on long term gains.
- Calories in must ALWAYS BE < calories out.
Wrap up, caveats and more reading
As with anything, you should conduct your own research and get personalised programs that suit you, and where you’re at (e.g. blood work, vitamins etc).
Importantly – and Tim Ferris and others are great advocates of this – you should try everything yourself and see what works. Then stick with what works for you.
For me, I can get away with 300km a week of just a few rides, some farm work, some long runs, some weights, lots of protein and veggies and a not-inconsequential amount of home made delicious sweet baked treats. Seriously. I scoff a stupid amount of home made muffins, lemon meringue pies and more.
Approaches like intermittent fasting (e.g. fasting on only water, juice – I also include coffee) can work. I tested intermittent fasting for a few months when I was in my last desk job commuting 300km a week with racing and extra training (bike, run, weights). It really made a difference to my leanness.
You might check out Fitness Black Book’s article on hybrid dieting strategies and FBBs article on Insulin and fat loss (it’s a GREAT read for understanding how the food you eat impacts your body fat).
The Slow Carb Diet advocated by Tim Ferris also seems to encourage rapid fat loss, or, maintain low body fat with not a lot of exercise. Tim goes to a LOT of trouble to background anything he publishes with verifiable research. Like me, his mantra is: be skeptical about EVERYTHING, research it yourself and test comprehensively.
Again, your mileage with these things may vary, and it’s up to you to get individualised advice if you need it.
My advice is simple. Remember, I’m not a nutritionist. However, I know what I am talking about. I DID lose over 25kg and turn from a miserable little 5’7″ 88kg (that’s nearly 200lbs to you imperial readers) pudding man into a fairly lean 63kg (138lbs) lover of massive mountains. Here’s what I attribute my success to:
- Burn more calories than you eat. Week in, week out.
- Minimise processed food (there’s crap loads of chemicals in it).
- Lean protein, veggies, nuts, seeds, fruit, eggs/cheese etc should be 95%-100% of your diet every day.
- The other 5% can be treats (you’ll burn them off).
- Alcohol: dry red, home brew, white spirits with lemon/lime, soda if possible (e.g. vodka, white rum, Ouzo, Saki etc) are ok but minimise.
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