When 2017 rolled around, it brought with it the PVCF Fitness Forever Challenge. The previous year, I used the challenge to get to a base line diet, on the theory that I couldn’t really dial in my diet until I actually had one. Just eating whenever you’re hungry isn’t a diet, it’s food chaos. Or it’s being under 30. Last year was an elimination round: I had eliminated potato chips (that one hurt), ice cream (hey, shut up about cheat day, I have the floor right now), cookies (see prior parenthetical), pizza, late night junk food, candy, and plenty of other habitual indulgences. This year I wanted to build my newfound discipline into a diet based on nutrition, science, data – you know, something this side of total ignorance. I had eliminated the bad; it was time to see if I could eat in a way that was good.
I grew up in the 80’s, when ordinary Americans ate grains to be healthy and the know-it-alls were preaching about the virtues of fruits and vegetables because of their vitamins and minerals. Not so today. Today it’s all about macronutrients, or macros. Of these there are three, as far as I know: carbohydrates, protein and fat. These three macros are our sources of energy. They are measured in calories. Apparently some scientist kicked up a shit storm in the late 80s by theorizing that excessive carbohydrates wreak havoc on the human body. Almost 30 years later, grains are out, meat is in. Nutritionists and serious athletes, meanwhile, have been mixing and matching macros in search of the perfectly formulated gasoline mix to fuel the human engine.
I have now studied a ton about the amounts and ratios of macros I should eat in a day. And by a ton, I mean that I have watched I think four YouTube videos and had casual conversations with a few friends at CrossFit who seem to be a bit ahead of me on this topic. Bottom line: To optimize my athletic performance I needed to weigh and measure my food. Specifically, I needed to eat meals whose calories came 40% from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 30% from fat.
Total calories per day should be driven by the amount of protein my body needs, which is in turn determined by multiplying (a) my lean body mass and (b) my activity level. Lean body mass is a person’s weight minus his percentage of body fat. I guesstimated my lean body mass at 132 lbs. (150 lbs. and 12% body fat). I have no idea how to convert my activity level to a number, but the people on the YouTube videos did. For a typical crossfitter who does one WOD a day like I do, the number to plug in is .7. Doing the math, that worked out to 92.4 grams of protein per day.
Now here is where it gets fun. If you start with, say, 7 grams of protein and want to create a combination of foods that works out to 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat, you will find that you need 9 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fat (The Zone Diet, which is the bible for the 40-30-30 crowd, calls this a ‘block’: more about that presently). You will notice, of course, that 9, 7 and 3 do not sit in a ratio of 40%-30%-30% to one another. Presumably that would be too easy. Or it may have to do with the fact that these macronutrients do not contain the same calories per unit of weight. One gram of protein may contain 10 calories whereas 1 gram of fat may contain 25 calories, or whatever. I don’t care what it works out to: whatever it is, I have to do math by converting percentages to grams. I’d almost rather stay unhealthy.
It would be great if that were the only math built into the Zone prescription. It’s not. Food, as it turns out, does not come neatly packaged as “carbohydrate” food, “protein” food and “fat” food. My protein powder has 21 grams of protein in a serving, which is two rounded scoops, or 46 grams. But it also has 15 grams of carbs and 3.5 grams of fat. Wyman’s frozen mixed berries have 0 fat, but they have 18 grams of carbs and 1 gram of protein. Frozen kale? Again, 0 fat, but 6 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein per cup. Olive oil, god bless it, has 14 grams of fat per tablespoon and no protein or carbs. Coconut milk? Good question: No protein, but 4.5 grams of fat and 1 gram of carbs per cup.
You see the problem: when you try to create, say, a smoothie, every time you add something to increase the percentage of one macro, the lesser amounts of the other macros in that food go in with it, adding to the amount of that macro and throwing off the ratio in another direction. The Zone people addressed this issue by creating the ‘block’ system. I’ll spare you the details: They created a whole bunch of pre-measured groupings of foods that add up to the proper ratio. So one kiwi, one egg and three almonds is a block of food whose macros are 40-30-30. If you like to treat food like the old garanimals – mix and match separates – then this is perfect. But if you want to take the meals that you actually eat and adjust the portions to 40-30-30, these blocks are about as helpful as a lawnmower.
In case you are wondering, that wasn’t the only other math problem built into the Zone Prescription. Almost all foods are made up of multiple macros and other things. My protein powder has 21 grams of protein, 15 of carbs and 3.5 of fat for a total of 39.5 grams per serving. The total grams per serving is 46, so there are 6.5 grams of who knows what also in each serving. So if you want to add, say, 30 grams of protein to your smoothie using my protein powder, you have to figure out how many grams of the powder contains the right number of grams of protein. The math equation shapes up as follows: if there are 21 grams of protein in a 46 gram serving, how many grams of powder do I need if I want a total of 30 grams of protein? And boom, just like that I’m back in junior high school, solving for x.
I don’t know why I started with 21/60. Probably because, you know, math. In any event, I had a beachhead in my mathematical battle for nutritional supremacy.
I would love to walk you through converting the other two macros from 15 and 3.5 grams per 46 grams to their respective amounts per a 65.71 gram serving. And then how I calculated the Wyman’s and the kale to get the number of additional carbs that I needed. Then how I had to jigger the numbers back and forth because the protein in the Wyman’s and kale meant that I had to reduce the total protein from the powder. And how I then had to go through the same process in figuring out the amount of coconut milk I needed, because I had the same problem except that I was getting extra carbs with my fat instead of extra protein with my carbs. And then how the whole thing is subject to the laws of physics, because the volume of coconut milk needed to deliver the right amount of fat would fill the smoothie container about 31 times. And how I finally came up with the brilliant solution of adding olive oil to the recipe because it has nothing but fat in it and it’s super concentrated, so just 18 grams got me to the number of grams of fat I needed to make the 40-30-30 ratio work out.
But I cannot take you on that journey, because I do not have the emotional fortitude to relive it and remain mentally stable.
The process took me about three weeks. No joke. For what it’s worth, here is the recipe for the Tony Smoothie, also known as “Seth’s Favorite”:
18 grams olive oil 60 grams Orgain Vanilla vegetarian protein powder
480 grams coconut milk
84 grams kale
93 grams Wyman’s mixed berries.
I then had to repeat the process to create a second ‘meal,’ made up of hard-boiled eggs, sweet potatoes and olive oil. I am not fully recovered from the experience, but I now have two ‘meals’ that I can throw together quickly that give me the magical 40-30-30 Zone ratio of macros. I eat just those two meals, two of one and three of the other, or two of each on an off day, every day, six days a week.
I’ll cover cheat day in another post, as well as the fact that this meal plan works out to eating 50 – 60 eggs a week. I’d also rather not get into the fact that this ends up being a very calorically restricted diet, so I’m hungry all the time. But right now I need to finish drinking my black coffee (my kingdom – plus 15 lbs. off my back squat max – for some cream), which is all I ‘eat’ daily before noon. Seeing this on electronic paper, I also need to go home and reevaluate my life choices.