Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 03/14/2013

What You Can Learn by Eating with Fitness Pros

I spoke at the NSCA Personal Trainers conference last weekend in Las Vegas. (It still kind of blows my mind that I can write a sentence like that in a nonfiction format.) For two days, I not only got to talk with and learn from people who know far more than I do about strength and conditioning, I also got to share almost every meal with one or more of them.

You’d think that brand-name fitness and nutrition experts would be the pickiest eaters in the world, or at least the most discriminating.

And you’d be wrong.

Taken as a group, they order the biggest steaks on the menu, rarely stop at a single beer, eat chips and fries if they happen to appear on the table, and every now and then throw a dessert into the mix.

So why do people who regularly and authoritatively advise the general public on how to eat tend to break all their own rules when they’re out with their peers?

It’s simple, and yet it’s complicated. But before I get into that, I’ll start with some disclaimers.

When the rule-makers follow the rules 

In my experience, if someone says he’s following a particular plan, he actually follows it. For example, I attended a conference last October with a fitness pro who said he was experimenting with a multiday fast. I never saw him eat a bite of food the entire time, even at group meals when everyone else was eating.

Last weekend, at the NSCA conference, I had lunch with Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove. Alwyn was taking the paleo diet out for a 30-day test drive. He wasn’t sure what to think of it, but figured he couldn’t offer a reasoned opinion unless he followed the rules to the letter. That included ordering a bowl of chili with no beans, because, for reasons that continue to mystify me, the paleo diet proscribes legumes along with grains and dairy.

Alwyn, like me, “doesn’t really buy into the no-rice, no-beans thing.” Yes, that’s a real quote from an email exchange, as is this: “But I’m also open-minded enough to follow the plan exactly as written and make my own judgments.” He added that a month without beer — another paleo no-no — should be a net plus.

My own diet is probably 75% paleo-approved these days. A year ago, when I was writing this article for Men’s Health, it was more like 80-90%. I even went without beer for a couple of months, and followed most of the rules for every meal following breakfast.

I lost an estimated 10 pounds in about 5 months. I didn’t eat my first sandwich or slice of pizza of 2012 until mid-May. Even now, I rarely eat any bread, which is the part of the paleo diet that I think accounts for the biggest calorie reduction.

It’s also the part of the diet that I suspect most fitness and nutrition pros follow, no matter what they think of it in general. Which leads me to kind of a funny story: One of the highlights of the conference was Alan Aragon’s entertainingly skeptical presentation on the paleo diet, pointing out many of the same issues I noted in my Men’s Health article. But when a group of us hit the hotel’s buffet for lunch on Saturday, someone in our group observed that Alan was eating a 100% paleo meal. No grains, no dairy, no legumes.

As a group, in my experience, nutritionists seem to eat more cautiously (in public, at least) than trainers and strength coaches, who seem more likely to cut loose and eat whatever looks good.

That brings us back to the original question: Why do they do that, and how do they get away with it?

Rules? In a food fight? No rules!

I could tell lots of stories about selectively uninhibited eating. Just last fall, I went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with some well-known strength coaches. The bowls of tortilla chips were emptied as fast as they appeared on the table. I would run out of fingers counting the times I’ve been out with people who ordered desserts, or devoured oversized burgers and fries.

And yet, none of the people who ordered them are fat. Most of them maintain consistently impressive physiques. They could eat you under the table on Friday night and crush you in the gym on Saturday morning.

How are both things possible?

The simple answer: They eat so much because they can. Most are big guys who burn shit-tons of calories in their own workouts and need to eat a lot just to keep from losing lean tissue. Conferences throw all of us off our normal feeding routines, so by the time dinner comes around, they may be eating the equivalent of two meals at once.

But here’s the more complicated answer:

1. They get away with uninhibited eating every now and then because the rest of the time, I expect, their diets are relatively clean and strict.

2. I doubt if anyone in this group is a calorie counter. Most, I would guess, are pretty good at self-regulating their diets. Muscles looking flat? Train harder and eat more. Stomach looking round? Train harder and eat less.

3. The “train harder” part seems to have a cumulative effect. In the past fitness writers like me have oversold the metabolic boost you get from strength training. It takes a long time to develop the strength, size, and skill to train hard enough to get a substantial post-workout boost. I suspect it takes years of steady, intense workouts for the boost to become more or less constant. But once you’re there, the effect is real, and it allows you to a eat a lot more food than a person your size who doesn’t train.

4. Weight is much easier to control if you never get fat in the first place. Hard-training guys who’ve never had to lose more than a few pounds here or there are going to have faster metabolic rates than those who lose a substantial amount and then work to maintain the lower weight. If you’re in the latter group, your metabolism will probably be slower, thanks to adaptive thermogenesis.

5. Age matters. The average guy in the picture at the top of this post is probably 35. Twenty years ago, I could (sometimes) eat like that and get away with it.

6. Larger-framed guys have more margin for error than those of us who’re naturally smaller. At one point the two biggest guys at the table — Chad Waterbury and Bret Contreras — challenged each other to a Krispy Kreme doughnut-eating contest. (I didn’t stick around, so I can’t tell you if they went through with it, or who won if they did.)

I mentioned to Brad Schoenfeld that I was pretty sure I hadn’t eaten a doughnut in 5 years. Brad said it had been at least 10 years for him. It’s probably closer to 20 for both of us.

Why? Some indulgences are worth it, some aren’t. If I eat a really, really good steak (which I did on Saturday night, thanks to Chad and a guy he trains who happens to own a steakhouse in Las Vegas), I might not be hungry again for 12 hours (which I wasn’t; I timed it). Doughnuts, as I recall, don’t have that effect.

A diet that works for you will always come down to choices. Make 10 good ones for every indulgence, and you’ll probably be very happy with the results.