Martial Arts Scepticism: We Art What We Eat?

“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

Henry Kissinger


I remember, back in the 1980s, when caffeine was bad for you. A commercial for a brand of decaffeinated coffee, called “Care Haag”, linked the consummation of caffeine to an unhealthy lifestyle. How times have changed. Today caffeine seems to be added to everything. A whole new industry in “energy drinks” has taken off with individual beverages containing several times more caffeine than your average can of cola or cup of coffee. Even some headache tablets now contain caffeine. When I was growing up cereals were synonymous with a healthy lifestyle. Who would have ever thought that a diet promoting saturated fat and decrying carbohydrates would gain popularity! But that is exactly what happened with the hugely successful “Atkins Diet” and a whole wave of low carbohydrate diets that still sell books to this day. I recall my mother giving me little sweet-tasting vitamin tablets every day. Today whole stores can be found in most towns dedicated exclusively to nutritional supplements. This is the ever-changing tide of nutritional information and opinion. It is a sea full of misinformation and disinformation, where we find many a confused martial artist floundering and many a martial arts master trying to tame it on their preferred boat.

Fewer aspects of physical training are more varied or contentious than nutrition. Today, the martial arts world seems to be a much more jaded and sceptical place than the days when many bought into the awe of exotic fighting arts, but diet remains one of the last few bastions of mysticism. It is a cognitive blind spot for many who do not see the irony in ridiculing a no-touch knockout “master” and yet will buy into a diet that has no more science behind its claims than a witch doctor’s spell. What we choose to consume has been dictated by many factors throughout history. Accessibility, religion, culture and ethics have all had strong roles to play in deciding what people will eat and drink. However, they are all non-sequiturs when it comes to discussing the efficiency of dieting. What I am concerned about are the nutritional philosophies that tout improved health and enhanced fitness in the practice of martial arts.

Despite living in a highly scientific age, myths about foods and dieting continue to gain support. The marketing for such ideas is so strong that many mainstream institutions and consumers accept them as facts. Whole industries have been built up around unscientific claims about the benefits of certain diets and certain foods. Words like “organic”, “detox” and “superfood” are now part of the modern vernacular. Few of us question their validity. Many of us might be surprised that “new” and “revolutionary” diets are actually reoccurring repackaged fads that have been going since the 19th century. Furthermore, that a lot of these diets have their roots not necessarily in science, but in religion and culture. Martial artists, being people actively involved in physical training, are obvious investors in information on nutrition. However, are they always getting the right information? Can it be that those used to having their ideas enshrined in ritual and traditions are also loyal to outmoded concepts about diet? And on the other hand can it be that the modern martial artists have a cognitive blind spot when it comes to new faddy diets? Let’s take a look.

The Cleanse!

English: John Harvey Kellogg

English: John Harvey Kellogg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cleansing is a powerful idea. When items are cleaned we feel better about them. This concept is carried over into our ideas about spirituality – cleansing our souls – and our mental health – clearing our minds. Our bodies carry a lot of impurities and, of course, as we digest food we produce waste. Surely anything that helps remove these elements efficiently is going to be a good thing. Enter the Detox Diet. Championed by brainy celebrity, Carol Vorderman, who famously slimmed herself down using a “28 day Detox Diet”, soon everyone was talking about flushing their bodies of harmful toxins. Vorderman ate a vegetarian diet and abstained from sugar, salt, coffee, wheat, meat and dairy produce. Vorderman was certainly no fool and the person who put her on the diet was a qualified dietician, Ko Chohan. Followers of her diet have reported that they feel invigorated, have clearer skin and lost weight, but the six-part BBC TV series “The Truth about Food” found no evidence of the diet working.  A dietician who worked on the show, Nigel Denby of Queen Charlotte’s hospital, declared that “the detox diet idea is nonsense”. He was part of a group that put the diet to the test by taking 10 women, who had just come back from after several days partying at a rock festival, and splitting them into two eating groups. Five were restricted to a detoxing diet and the rest ate normally. The experiment was controlled at a Devon retreat and monitored for seven days. When both groups were tested for toxins the scientists found that the results were virtually identical.[i]

The Victorian medical doctor, John Harvey Kellogg was perhaps one of the most ardent promoters of the notion of cleansing. Being a Seventh Day Adventist, Kellogg was naturally drawn to the idea of living a “virtuous” life and, of course, was a vegetarian. The inventor of the corn flake ran sanatoriums that promoted holistic therapies and were comparable to medieval monasteries. His endorsement of cereals for breakfast and its association with a healthier life has become entrenched in western society. He had issues with a variety of non-dietary matters, such as sex and masturbation, which he considered detrimental to one’s health. Kellogg also seemed equally concerned about both ends of the digestive tract. He was a big fan of enemas and colonic irrigation, another fad interest that periodically becomes popular despite there being no scientific evidence to support its supposed benefits to health.[ii]


Fasting is also an age old reoccurring fad, which is beginning to become popular again and being taken up by mixed martial artists as well as traditional martial artists. Writing in 1952, Martin Gardner states:


“Some body ills are accompanied by nausea and loss of appetite, which naturally enforce a temporary fast. From this fact it is an easy but completely false step to the belief that there is some sort of magic therapeutic value in the fast itself, even for a person in good health. Actually, a prolonged fast by a healthy person can cause nothing but harm. There is such a weakening of the entire body, and lowering of resistance to disease, that only an extremely vigorous and healthy person can stand a lengthy fast. Yet in spite of all medical evidence, the cult persists”. 


Despite an aggressive resurgence in interest in variations of intermittent fasting, today’s mainstream medical experts pretty much voice the same concerns. Madelyn Fernstrom, PHD, CNS told WebMD:  "The appeal is that [fasting] is quick, but it is quick fluid loss, not substantial weight loss. If it's easy off, it will come back quickly  – as soon as you start eating normally again". This was further endorsed by Joel Fuhrman MD:  “Fasting is not a weight loss tool. Fasting slows your metabolic rate down so your diet from before the fast is even more fattening after you fast".[iii]

However, proponents of intermittent fasting argue that it is a myth the body goes into a state of starvation. They say that studies show that, for short periods of time, our metabolisms actually speed up.[iv]Many martial artists and soldiers have said that fasting helps sharpen their minds. This was a view memorably endorsed by the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.[v]Intermittent fasting is actually leading the current trend and recommends a type of fast cycling with different nutritional gurus pushing different periods of time to go without food. Fasting does have some obvious practical merits within certain contexts. For example, if you are competing and trying to make a certain weight, cutting food and even liquid intake for a designated period can help move those pre-fight scales in your favour (so can the aforementioned colonic irrigation for that matter[vi]).

However, what I think appeals to the martial artist about fasting is the discipline required. Abstinence, which is closely observed by most religions in some form, is a cornerstone for developing self-discipline. Karate champion and martial arts movie star Chuck Norris mentioned this in his “The Secret to Inner Strength” when he discussed how a certain boxer he knew relished the ability to refuse a favourite dessert. From my own experience, I stuck to an obsessive abstinence from milk and dark chocolate from the age of 14 for over a decade. It almost gave me a kick not to eat something if it had the slightest hint of chocolate. The practice of martial arts has a ritualistic history entrenched in teaching its students self-control and personal development – at least in the last century. Food, of course, is a necessity. We cannot live without it. Many spiritual martial artists refer to Gandhi’s “Fourth Vow”:


“The observance of Brahmacharya has been found, from experience, to be extremely difficult so long as one has not acquired mastery over taste. Control of the palate has therefore been placed as a principle by itself. Eating is necessary only for sustaining the body and keeping it a fit instrument for service, and must never be practised for self-indulgence. Food must therefore be taken, like medicine, under proper restraint. In pursuance of this principle one must eschew exciting foods, such as spices and condiments. Meat, liquor, tobacco, bhang etc. are excluded from the Ashram. This principle requires abstinence from feasts or dinners which has pleasure as their object”.[vii]


So, to control the intake of food – and fasting must be considered the ultimate in palate control, being no more than a mild form of enforced starvation – seems like a means for fundamental self-control. Once again, the whole issue has a very obvious religious bent. There are clear parallels with the Protestant Puritans and other religious orders that viewed deriving pleasure from anything as a mortal sin. Likewise, the whole notion of eliminating contaminates – the evil toxins – from our body smacks of the Catholic idea of purgatory, where mortal sins were purged from spirits before they were permitted access to the Kingdom of Heaven. 


Former family physician and US Air Flight surgeon and regular writer for “Skeptic” and “Skeptical Inquirer”, Harriet Hall nicely summarizes the whole detoxification myth, noting these religious parallels:


“People who want to ‘detoxify’ often don’t have any idea what ‘toxins’ they’re talking about. They may vaguely believe that modern life contaminates us with lots of bad things that we ought to get rid of. It’s reminiscent of religious fasting and purification rites. Orthodox Jewish women go to a ritual bath (Mikveh) that restores them to purity after childbirth or menstruation. Shamans used smoke for purification. Numerous religions observe periods of fasting. American Indians used sweat lodges for purification and sacred ceremonies. It’s mysticism, not science. Our bodies come equipped with livers, kidneys, stomachs, intestines, enzymes, and metabolic processes that deal with toxins efficiently with no outside help. There is no medical evidence to support any other methods or benefits of ‘detoxification’”.[viii]

The Perfect Combination?

I remember first being alerted to the idea that mixing certain nutrients might be unhealthy when comedy actress Linda Robson started pushing a new diet. This diet held the idea that foods high in protein should not be mixed with foods high in starch. There was a pseudoscientific allusion to it being a bad PH balance. To quote the “Nutrition Diva”[ix]– who does a solid debunking of this myth – this is how the “scientific theory” part of the diet goes:


“Starches require an alkaline environment for digestion; proteins, on the other hand, require an acidic environment for proper digestion. When you eat these foods at the same time, the digestive system, pulled into two opposite directions, sort of stalls. Food then gets ‘stuck’ in your system, where the carbohydrates ferment and the proteins putrefy, or rot.”

More on pH balance ideas later. The concept of not combining foods goes back to religion. Judaism, in particular, has strict rules regarding keeping certain foods separate. However, our ideas about mixing foods causing digestive problems and therefore resulting in other problems, such as gaining weight, goes back to Victorian times. The era spawned such food faddists as Dr William Howard Hay who’s “Hayites” had big issues with mixing proteins with carbohydrates. He believed that most health issues could be traced back to “acidosis”. However, as Martin Gardner wryly points out in “Fads and Fallacies”, Hay advocated fasting (yes, back to that one again!), which can actually cause acidosis.

The Gracie Diet is one of the most famous diets followed by martial artists. Formulated by the founder of Gracie/Brazilian jiu jitsu, Carlos Gracie snr.,[x]the diet not only promotes the “correct” combining of foods, but their timings too. It is a diet that seems to have been adopted by the majority of extensive jiu jitsu practicing Gracie family, and is also endorsed fervently by many Brazilian jiujitsukas. The longevity of Carlos, who died at age of 92, and his younger brother, Helio, who died at the age of 95, and the health of its multiple championship winning family are given as part of the proof of the diet’s effectiveness.  These arguments being used are what are known as the fallacy of the single cause.  Genetics, growing up in a middle class environment and the fact that the Gracies were a highly active family of fighters probably contributed a lot towards their overall health.  There are plenty of fighters, including highly successful Brazilian jiu jitsuka who did not stick rigidly the Gracie Diet or even follow it at all. The diet adheres to the principle that different food groups require different digestive enzymes to break them down. Therefore, only foods from compatible groups can be combined. Given that digestion requires a lot of the body’s resources, the Diet argues that correct combining eases these demands. Being martial artists (and outstanding ones at that), the Gracies believe that their Diet frees up their bodies to better heal and have more energy for training. It sounds ideal, except that, as with all combination diets, it isn’t supported by science.

In April 2000 a paper was published by “The International Journal on Obesity” that pitted a combination food diet against a balanced diet. The experiment was conducted as follows:


“54 obese patients were randomly assigned to receive diets containing 4.5 MJ/day (1100 kcal/day) composed of either 25% protein, 47% carbohydrates and 25% lipids (dissociated diet) or 25% protein, 42% carbohydrates and 31% lipids (balanced diet). Consequently, the two diets were equally low in energy and substrate content (protein, fat and carbohydrate) but widely differed in substrate distribution throughout the day”.


The results revealed that there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two diets, demonstrating that “the dissociated (or 'food combining') diet did not bring any additional loss in weight and body fat”.[xi]

As for the old “Thou shall not eat starch and protein together” brigade that have come and gone over the last hundred or so years, the truth is that most foods contain a mixture of starch and protein. The body is perfectly capable of digesting both at the same time without causing any disruption.

Striking a Balance?

With Taoism being a very popular religion connected with many Chinese martial arts, it is little surprising that ideas relating to balance are popular with martial artists. Perhaps the world’s most recognizable symbol for balance, the yin yang, has become synonymous with martial arts. It is a common philosophy of the martial artist to champion being strong internally as well as externally. Hsing-I, pakua and tai chi chuan along with a series of exercises known as qi gong are regularly referred to as the internal or soft systems as opposed to the external or hard styles.

The pH balance seems a perfect scientific model to demonstrate such philosophical ideas about opposites and their connection. Royce Gracie’s website states,

“[Carlos Gracie] also noticed, just like a farmer who controls the soil’s pH before planting the seeds, that the blood’s pH is a key element during the digestive process and that it must be kept neutral, which helps the transformation of the food. He observed, then, that a certain combination of foods kept the blood neutral, as opposed to some mixtures that made it acid or alkaline”.


The pH diets of today promote the idea that we generally eat too many acidic foods, such as meat, eggs and dairy produce, which can lead to all sorts of problems including acidosis. This then leads to a variety of ills such as cancer. The diet dictates that we should alkalize our bodies by consuming more alkaline foods, which mainly consist of green vegetables and grasses. The pH diet also touches on the supplement industry (more on that area of nutrition later), with alkaline tablets being produced to aid dieters, and also a specialized industry of alkalizing water.

The concept of getting the right pH balance has been used to fuel the multi-level marketing gimmick known as “healing water machines”. These highly expensive contraptions produced by hundreds of different companies are sold on the claim that they ionize or alkalize your tap water, making it safer for you to drink and will enhance your health by restoring your body’s natural pH balance. By alkalizing your water, the sellers of these machine claim, will reduce the acidity in your body. Such acidity, Kangen Water argues, has been connected to the root cause of a whole of different diseases such as obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes and high blood-pressure. In his response to these claims, Brian Dunning of the popular science website and podcast, Skeptoid, sums up the whole pH dieting nonsense:


“This is absolutely false. Your body's acidity is not, in any way, affected by the pH of what you eat or drink. Eating alkaline food stimulates production of acidic digestive enzymes, and eating acidic foods causes the stomach to produce fewer acids. Your body's primary mechanism for the control of pH is the exhalation of carbon dioxide, which governs the amount of carbonic acid in the blood. Nor has there ever been any plausible research that shows any connection between these diseases and body acidity, this also appears to be completely made up. This is a classic case of using simplistic terminology to sell a product to the scientifically illiterate”.[xii]

Drink to your Health?

Whilst we are on the subject of ionizing and alkalizing water, we might as well address the whole issue of mineral water. Mineral water is perhaps the single biggest nutritional con out there and we have all fallen for it. Today, bottled water has become accepted by mainstream culture. I think nothing about paying for a bottle of water that has no added nutritional benefits over the tap water I can readily acquire. The water is often priced at least as much as any of the other soft drinks on sale, sometimes more, and I could easily have saved myself some money by just filling up a clean sports bottle. Tests have proven that still water, bottled by independent companies, does not taste any different from regular tap water. Bottled water has no more nutritional value than normal tap water. All water will contain some impurities and, in fact, it is likely that tap water will have gone through a far more rigorous and scrutinized filtering process than water that has been bottled at source by a private company.

It’s a Fruit! It’s a Vegetable! No, it’s…

Not all foods are created equal. We know that certain foods have higher nutritional value than others. However, during the 1990s we saw the arrival of a new marketing term that was used by a broad range of nutritional advisors: the superfood. Because the term has no scientific definition whatsoever, . Some listings include a huge list of different foods, from peanut butter to salmon to dark chocolate.[xiii]However, what seems to have gripped the attention of middle class Europe and America most is the presence of exotic and expensive fruits, vegetables and other plant material. Wheatgrass and its expensive juice nicely fit in with the detoxers, and high-priced goji berries are sold on the basis of a long list of unsubstantiated claims about their health benefits. 

A 2008 general article written for the online woman’s lifestyle magazine, “She Knows” had this to say regarding the superfoods:

“The problem with many of the claims for superfoods is that many of them have not been proven. In June 2007, the European Union banned the use of the word "superfood," unless it is used with specific health claims explaining the benefits of the product”.

The article went on to list the following examples of unproven information regularly touted by those who champion superfoods:


  • “Berries are claimed to help brain development and increase IQ, but there is no published evidence to support this.
  • Seaweed is supposed to stimulate the immune system, increase brainpower and protect against a range of disorders, but it contains exactly the same nutrients as in everyday green vegetables. Seaweeds may even contain natural toxins that can be harmful.
  • Wheatgrass is claimed to clean and detoxify the blood, but green vegetables contain just as much vitamin C and folic acid. Further, the human body can't absorb the plant's chlorophyll – another component of wheatgrass (as well as other plants) claimed to deliver a bounty of health properties.”


“Just because a particular food is full of a certain nutrient doesn't necessarily mean that eating more of it would be better for you”, explains Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George's Hospital in London, UK in an article by Amelia Hill in UK newspaper The Observer in May 2007.”[xiv]

Although certain foods are undoubtedly more nutritious, they aren’t all pricey imported ones. You can get all the nutrition you need from foods that are readily available in the developed world. Whether you are an amateur or a high performance athlete, the key is to eat a diverse range of foods from all the main food groups.

The Evil of Wheat and Dairy?

What could seem healthier than a bowl of Shredded Wheat drenched in fresh milk? Well, according to the anti-gluten or anti-dairy brigade, just about anything. Following the odd premise that a percentage of people have wheat or lactose intolerance, an entire area of pseudoscience has built up around the idea that all humans would be healthier if they cut these foods from their diet.

Much like the organic racket, gluten-free products have become a craze that has snared the middle classes and convinced them to pay more for an alternative product that has no proven extra benefits. One claim made by advocates is that the eastern traditionally do not consume wheat and live much healthier lives. This is a logical fallacy of the “correlation does not prove causation” variety. There are many other variable factors that could contribute towards a great longevity of one race over another. Non-consumption of wheat is not one of those factors. There are plenty of claims made by those who push gluten-free products that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Essentially if you do not have a medical condition that requires you to take wheat out of your diet there is no scientifically proven argument that a gluten-free diet will have any additional health benefits.

Dairy products are a little bit more of a tricky area. Full fat milk contains animal fat and too much of that can be damaging to your health. Saturated fat can cause hardening of the arteries and it has been linked to heart disease.[xv]Many Asian countries do not traditionally have dairy products in their diet and, not having correct enzymes beyond weaning many inhabitants often find milk difficult to digest. Likewise, a small number of people are lactose intolerant and it is certainly beneficial for them not to consume products containing lactose.

There is an argument that humans are the only known animals to drink milk in adulthood and we did not evolve to drink the milk of other animals. The simple fact is that countries that have a history of dairy consumption contain the majority of populations that have developed the lactose enzyme. Milk is known to be an excellent source of calcium. It is also a source for high quality protein, 20 per cent of which is whey and eighty per cent is casein. Both are commonly contained in protein powders.

The Evil of Carbs?

If Kellogg’s ideas about nutrition ever needed a dietary antithesis then we could do a lot worse than find it in the Atkins’ Diet. Dr Atkins felt we had got it wrong about saturated fat and calorie counting. This wasn’t the cause of our society’s health problems like diabetes and obesity. The real enemy was what had dominated the health food industry for a century: carbohydrates. Turning mainstream ideas about nutrition on its head, Atkins favoured eating red meats and animal fats over cereals, grains and anything else that was high in carbohydrates. Atkins used what seemed like a highly scientific method for cutting weight. By reducing your intake of carbohydrates to 20 grams a day for two weeks, and monitoring your progress towards ketosis by using ketones strips, the dieter forces his body to use fat as a fuel rather than carbohydrate sugars. After two weeks the dieter ups his carbohydrate intake progressively for a month until he reaches 50 grams. This then becomes the maintenance diet for the rest of your life. Atkins also allowed for a cheat meal, so long as the dieter went straight back onto the main diet.

Aside from the controversial decision to promote the large consummation of saturated fats, the main weakness with the Atkins Diet is the really at the crux of all arguments against regimented dieting: maintenance. Not even the great Dr. Atkins stuck to the Atkins Diet. Shortly before he died he was overweight and admitted to slipping with his diet. He clearly had far more than the odd cheat meal. The problem here is that although Atkins could make a plausibly-sounding science-based argument for the virtues of sticking strictly to a low carbohydrate diet, “yoyo dieting” is another matter altogether. The part-time Atkins dieter faces the risks associated with eating large quantities of animal fats alongside all the “harmful” carbohydrates and sugars the diet normally cuts out. 

Being a diet that championed a large consummation of protein-based foods, this was always going to be popular with martial artists. Weight training had long allied itself with martial artists and along with it dietary concepts about building muscle. Eating huge quantities of meat and other animal products seems like a diet tailor-made for an activity that promoted physical strength. Ultimate Fighting world heavyweight champion, Brock Lesner was a poster boy for red meat heavy diets until they almost killed him. 

Several diets have followed on from the Atkins Diet. Ignoring the ketosis basic Atkins based his formula on, some of these have increased the carbohydrate count and others work from a different premise altogether. The most popular amongst martial artists seems to be the Palaeolithic Diet. This “Caveman Diet” seems to be the perfect accompaniment to “Caveman Training”, a type of functional fitness that is proving to be very efficient for the combat sports and self-defence. The Paleo Diet works off the concept that we evolved to be hunter gatherers and therefore our bodies are best suited to eating in this pre-agricultural way. The Eskimo Diet is another protein rich diet that works off a similar idea. However, both smack of appeals to nature, which brings us onto the next subject.

The Holiness of Nature?

Whether it is being touted as organic, raw or just plain natural, the message is clear: if it isn’t processed then it is good for you. There is a kernel of truth in this statement, but we will come to it later. First of all, there is no scientific evidence to prove that food grown in line with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) guidelines for the production of organic food is healthier than those not run along these guidelines. The crop grown using USDA-approved organic methods has the exact same genetic make-up and biochemical content as those grown using methods that would not conform to USDA standards.

Then there are the “Rawists”, those who believe in living off a diet mainly or completely consisting of raw food. Cooking some foods can reduce their nutritional content. However, this is not the case with all foods and many foods are just not easy for us to digest when raw. There are no nutritional benefits in consuming raw milk over its pasteurized equivalent. Certain foods, like rhubarb and kidney beans are, in fact, poisonous when consumed raw.

As we have seen with the Paleo Diet, a lot of diets are sold off the idea that we need to go back to a much simpler time to eat healthily. Eating simply is not a bad idea. Many processed foods contain additives that can be harmful in large amounts and can easily be reduced if we take better charge of the individual foods we eat. However, before we  start looking at the past through the lens of nostalgia, we might want to consider how healthy these historic people were. Today our athletes are stronger, faster and fitter than they ever were before. Our life expectancy continues to increase. Issues like dying because we lose our teeth are no longer a concern in the world today. This is not just down to the provision of false teeth and much better dental care, but the fluoridisation of water – something many naturalists oppose. Malnutrition is virtually unheard of in the developed world. This is not only down to the availability and accessibility of a greater variety of foods than ever before, but also to the fact that more foods – and by definition processed foods – are fortified with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

The appeal to nature is a logical fallacy; just because something is natural does not make it any better than something that is artificial. Poison ivy and snake venom are both natural, but don’t do us much good. We might have evolved to be hunter gatherers, but we progressed on from that into agriculture and beyond. The majority of the fruits and vegetables we consume are often the cloned and cultivated versions of foods that are Palaeolithic ancestors ate. When we look at foods it is not a bad idea to keep things simple and to pick whole foods as opposed to processed ones, but opting for raw over cooked and buying into the whole organic idea is more about following fads and an inaccurate romantic ideals than science.

Supplement your Diet with Popeye and Asterix?

Milk is often thought of as a food rather than a drink. It was often drunk as a supplement by athletes who wanted to gain extra weight. The infamous raw eggs and milk drink was perhaps the world’s first protein shake. Today nutritional supplements are a multi-million pound industry. They cover a wide range of consumers from those weakened by illness to top level athletes. It is interesting to see that those who spend a lot of their time condemning processed foods have little issue promoting and drinking products that are anything but a “whole” food. From isotonic drinks to caffeine heavy so-called energy drinks to protein powder, diet or sport supplements are synthesized nutritional beverages. You will be hard-pressed today to find a sports magazine that isn’t full of adverts for nutritional supplements.

Everyone wants that extra edge. Understanding our diet has helped us overcome a variety of problems, including countering diseases from rickets to scurvy. However, it is very rare for anyone in the developed world to suffer from malnutrition. Unless you train to high intensity, a balanced diet in a normal healthy body should eliminate the need to use multivitamin supplements. The same could be said about all other nutritional supplements. If you train to a high level you might have a case. For instance, there is no scientific evidence that an abnormally high intake of Vitamin C will prevent or alleviate the symptoms of a common cold.  However, there is some evidence that it might be helpful to those training under very stressful conditions.[xvi]

This is the whole point of the idea of “supplementation”. We are supplementing our regular diet. It makes sense that if you train hard and have been breaking down a lot of muscle fibres you want to get good quality protein into your system. Drinking a protein shake containing these nutrients with an hour after training is going to give your body a better chance to recover well. However, the problem here is whether or not the shake is as good as consuming a glass of milk or eating some meat, eggs or fish.

I have a fairly lengthy history of using nutritional supplements and I have tried all sorts with varying degrees of success.  At one stage I even sold them. This gave me the opportunity to meet an interesting variety of people, as well as teaching me about the many dubious practices undertaken by certain brands. When I was first introduced to the world of sports supplements it was Experimental and Applied Science’s magazine, Muscle Media, which opened my eyes on the severe lack of policing this world received. According to EAS founder and Muscle Media’s editor-in-chief, Bill Phillips, many supplements just simply didn’t contain what was written on the label. My late friend Paul Borressen who, like Phillips, had a reputation for being very candid about the underground practices of bodybuilding and particularly the use of anabolic steroids, revealed to me that many manufacturers simply made their supplement powders in garages under virtually no controls whatsoever. He is not here to defend himself, but one manufacturer even admitted to putting a steroid in one particular batch of supplements. It became their most popular flavour.

The area we are moving into now goes beyond actually supplementing food. The message put out by the various magazines and their sponsors is that these powders, tablets and drinks are going to give you a huge edge over someone who just eats a good diet and trains hard. Caffeine, for example, is sold as an energy drink. It is not. Caffeine is a stimulant that will make you more aware and help stave off fatigue. Once its effects have worn off you will be even more tired than when you first put it into your system. Aside from placebo there is no evidence to suggest it will increase the amount of energy you can put into a workout or help you beat your best time. One type of supplement is marketed as a meal replacement. This is not just in the sports performance world. “Complan” is a drink taken by those who are having trouble eating. “Slimfast” is a drink taken instead of a meal, so that you will not feel hungry and therefore consume fewer calories. These are okay as temporary solutions and I feel the former is more realistic than the latter for reasons discussed in the final part of this article. It is sensible, so long as the supplement does indeed contain the nutrients it says it does, to make sure you get the calories in you if you cannot eat. However, diets like those that promote drinking nutritional drinks instead of meals for the long term are not a good idea. Our digestive tracts evolved to eat solid foods.  

What Time is Grub?

I have held various beliefs about diets over the years. I tried the Atkins Diet for a month, I was once lured by the idea of eating starch and protein foods separately, I have fasted, I have followed extreme body builder diets and I have followed strict eating regimes to prepare me for competition on several occasions. My longest held belief about dieting could be summed up in the old maxim about eating breakfast as a king, lunch as a prince and dinner a pauper. I remember reading British kickboxing legend Kash “The Flash” Gill’s interview in Combat magazine, where he said he didn’t eat food after a certain time. Prior to that I had been told that I should not eat before going to bed, and yet going to sleep after a meal is a practice common in many warm countries and actually aligns itself well with our natural sleeping patterns.

I bought into the whole eating a little and often is better than three large meals a day in order to speed up my metabolism. In truth it has no effect on your metabolism at all. However, what this habit does do is make you think more about what you are eating; more about that later.

When the Atkins craze began, I started thinking about tapering my carbs along with my portion size down during the day. It seemed to make sense. I need more energy at the start of the day, so that is when I should eat my complex carbohydrates for that slow burn. At the end of the day I want my muscles to repair so I should eat mainly protein. The same principle held with workouts, especially if I trained in the evening. The idea made sense to me, but it turns out that the science is not that simple.

Firstly, as counterintuitive as it may seem, the idea that eating late at night or even eating a large meal in the evening leads to fat gain is proving to be a myth. Previously, according to intermittent fasting guru Martin Berkhan , studies had not taken into account that those who consumed large portions of food at night generally consumed large portions of calories throughout the day and it was this that made them put on more weight than earlier eaters.

Speaking to “The Morning Sydney Herald” in 2009 Trent Watson, conjoint senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle and spokesperson for the Dieticians’ Association of Australia, succinctly debunked a couple of myths associated what time and how we should consume food throughout the day.  Watson explained: 

"Take the example of a man who needs about 10,000 kilojoules to stay at a healthy weight. If he regularly eats 9000 kilojoules during the day and then in the evening eats 2000 kilojoules of carbs, then he'll gain weight. But it's because of the extra kilojoules not the carbs – the same thing would happen if the kilojoules came from protein, fat – or alcohol".

Watson also explained that studies had not shown any difference in metabolic increase between those who ate a little an often over those who consumed more but fewer times during the day. It all seems to stack up to a numbers game. If you eat more than you burn off, the excess calories will be stored as fat

Secondly, we do need carbohydrates after a workout and the whole issue regarding not having carbs at night appears to be part of the whole “Carbs are the enemy” dieting trends popularized by Atkins in the 1990s. Carbohydrates are needed to restore muscle glycogen, which it is going to be needed pretty fast if you have had a very demanding workout. If our body is starved of this it may start breaking down muscle tissue. Protein, of course, is very important, but it appears wise to accompany our post-workout meal with at least some simple carbohydrates so the protein can do its job properly.

All Diets Work and All Diets Fail!

Getting testimonials for virtually any diet is not very difficult. In the short term, some diets work. Some diets work incredibly fast and are therefore very attractive. Taking on a diet is a commitment and an investment. When people invest in anything they feel they have an obligation to justify their decision. The short term physical result makes that justification much easier. Of course, the reason why a diet works is largely based on the simple fact that as soon as you start thinking about what you eat you are less likely to overeat or binge. No matter what the different dieting gurus might claim, this boils down to the old calories in/calories out argument.

However, a pragmatist might argue that if the diet works then does it really matter why it works? They may have a point. Most diets reduce the average person’s intake of sugary, processed and junk foods. Said diets often promote the consummation of balanced meals and regular eating rather than binging. The mass production of bottled water and its endorsement by celebrity athletes has probably led to more people drinking the stuff. This is great, as it can be used to reduce overconsumption of calories and it is healthy to keep hydrated. So do the ends justify the means? Is ignorance bliss? I would argue that it is not. The problem here is that it is very probable a diet will eventually fail. Detailed surveys and research on dieting have shown that the overwhelming majority of dieters will not stick to their diets in the long term. They will cheat, deviate and then eventually give up. Having lapsed, the former dieter then tends to gorge and goes back into his old habits with vigour.

What many dieters fail to realize is that as we reduce our food intake our body eventually struggles to cope. We get stressed and our desire to consume more food for energy increases. One study conducted by neuroscientist Tracy Bale concluded that dieters became more susceptible to stress, which stimulated appetite and food cravings, than non-dieters.[xvii]Carrie Arnold reported on the study:

“To test their hypothesis, the researchers cut daily food intake in mice by 25% for 3 weeks, until the rodents had lost about 10% to 15% of their original body weight. This regimen simulates a moderate diet and modest weight loss in humans. After exposure to mild forms of stress, such as loud noises, the hungry mice had higher levels of cortisol in their blood. And their cortisol levels stayed higher longer than in control mice. This indicates that the dieting mice were more stressed and took more time to calm down.


“The mice were then allowed to return to their starting body weights to mimic yo-yo dieting, when people repeatedly lose and regain weight. After they had been eating standard lab chow for 1 week, the mice again underwent a series of mild stress tests to mimic the ups and downs of everyday life. The study, published today in The Journal of Neuroscience, reveals that ex-dieters remained more sensitive to stress than nondieters and were more likely to eat large amounts of high-fat mouse chow when under pressure.”

Further problems are that some diets can be potentially dangerous for a variety of reasons. The Atkins Diet can put too much pressure on the kidneys. Following the pseudoscience of eating according to pH level in food can have dieters avoiding many healthy foods like berries and tomatoes based on the erroneous belief they will upset their natural balance.

Nutrition remains a highly contentious area of study. Like all science it is always up for review and there is always someone somewhere testing the current established facts. It can be something of a minefield to negotiate, but we do have some useful guidelines. First of all, understand the difference between a dietician and a nutritionist. A dietician is a person with an accredited qualification in the study of nutritional science. The same is not true for nutritionists. I am not saying that all dieticians are correct and all nutritionists are frauds; far from it. Remember, it was a dietician that devised Carol Vauderman’s detoxing diet and there are plenty of very well educated nutritionists out there. However, it helps to know the difference, especially when a product or diet is being endorsed by “expert nutritionists”.

Secondly, our mental and psychological state is clearly closely linked to eating well and eating badly. People are actively controlled by their diet. Ghandi was right in this respect. The old fashioned way to control a nation was to control their food supply. It’s a basic need for survival and has been since life has existed, making it linked to our central nervous system. Therefore it is very much a part of how we operate and behave. Maslow, in his Hierarchy of Needs, correctly puts it at the very base of our needs and, therefore, it is of little wonder that dieting has its origins in religion. For one reason or another, the leaders of certain faiths will have come to the conclusion that food consumption needed to have rules and guidelines. This quickly became tied into culture and tradition. We can see a similar thing happening with certain martial arts. The Gracie Diet is best example of this happening, but several individual martial artists endorse different nutritional quirks that end up becoming part of their appeal.

Take, for example, the highly successful kick-boxer and martial arts actor, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. This is a person who takes his diet very seriously. However, what struck me the most about his eating ideas was his emphasis on chewing foods. Urquidez described chewing as the first part of digestion and it ensured the maximum amount of nutrients was absorbed. Being a very energetic person who has been on the move for most of his life, I tend to wolf down food in a way that is neither big nor clever. Ironically this habit was its worst when I taught kickboxing in several clubs around the country. Food was just fuel to me and I cared little for what I put in body or how it got there. However, I had regularly heard about the importance of methodically chewing your food. It was something everyone’s mother told them to do and some bodybuilders see it as a part of their training regime. Yes, you heard me right; some people count the repetitions of their chomps.[xviii]This is all probably has its origins with Victorian health food enthusiast Horace Fletcher. Fletcher believed in chewing foods until they were virtually liquid before swallowing; his Fletcheriteseven “Fletcherized” drinks, moving the liquid around in their mouths until contained enough saliva to be swallowed.

Today we even have “The Bruce Lee Diet”[xix]. Lee never made his diet public. In fact, there is no credible evidence that he kept to a strict diet that he felt others should follow. His death at 32 that many feel was from a condition aggravated by his lifestyle is not usually a good selling point for a nutritional guru.However, not to keep a dead martial arts legend down, a book has been published and plenty have bought into the diet. Appropriately it is a selection of trendy dieting myths and also provides an insight into the psychology of the enthusiastic fad dieter. Lee believed in eating small regular meals. Like many Asians, he stayed away from dairy foods. However, this did not stop him from drinking the dairy-based protein powders that were beginning to become popular in the bodybuilding world. He also believed in taking various other nutritional supplements from rose hip oil to ginseng. He avoided refined flour. And he ate Chinese food (shocking I know!), which paradoxically contains noodles, which contain refined flour. Lee was clearly doing what many of us have done, exploring and experimenting with the nutritional information available and susceptible with what was becoming fashionable at the time. It is worth noting that much like the maverick submission grappler and Brazilian jiujitsu champion, Eddie Bravo, Lee used cannabis in his training. He preferred to eat it rather than smoke it and remains of the drug were found in his corpse. 

However, it is Bruce Lee’s contemporary, Chuck Norris, who took a far more intuitive approach to dieting in his autobiographical “The Secret to Inner Strength”. He over-indulged in a heavy breakfast just before a karate tournament and subsequently was forced to compete as one of the lightest in the division above him. Having learnt from this episode, Norris explained that he had a light breakfast as his pre-tournament meal, eating just what he felt he needed. It is not a very scientific approach, but it highlights what advocates of mindful eating say.

Mindful eating is a method endorsed by several dieticians. Rather than dieting, it simply works to eliminate “mindless munching”. We often overeat because we are bored, stressed, tired, thirsty or out of habit. Foods readily available to us are typically those high in sugar and high calories, and low in other nutrients. We eat the chocolate bar over the piece of fruit or we eat when all we need to do is rehydrate with a drink of water. Here is where we also note why certain aspects of faddy dieting can be useful. As previously mentioned, all dieting works at the beginning because we start thinking about what we are putting into our bodies. Chewing food consciously, but not to the extent of the Fletcherites, stops us from eating too fast. If we eat too fast and our body doesn’t realize it is full, we are more likely to take in unnecessary calories. Cutting all wheat out might not have any direct benefits for those who are not intolerant to wheat, but it encourages dieters to cut down on processed foods. Atkins might promote over-consumption of saturated fats, but it also stops its dieters from eating a huge amount of sugary foods. Its relatives, like the Paleo Diet, bring home the often very unfashionable truth that red meat does contain a lot of good quality nutrition. Nearly every person I have met who was into serious strength and muscle building was regular steak eaters. This doesn’t mean they ate excessive amounts of this food source, but that they could not get away from the benefits it undeniably provided.

I remember having to cut weight for a competition and being given a strict diet. The diet was given to me by Steve and Sarah Brindle of Stevie B’s Gym. I think I probably took it up too late, as I lacked a certain amount of energy on the day, but nevertheless I got some wonderful results. It was temporary by nature and geared towards a single purpose, cut weight for a fight. I learnt about what foods prompted water retention as well as those that put on fat, and also to consume more fibre.My skin was the best it has ever been and I felt pretty good all round. As with many diets, it was an exercise in “eating clean”. However, unlike most diets it had a realistic end purpose. Once the competition was over, so was the diet. I returned back to my natural fighting weight.

Back when I studied for my G.C.S.E. home economics (yes, I am that old!) we were made to recite, parrot–style, the N.A.C.N.E. (National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education) dietary recommendations: to reduce intake of sugar, reduce intake of salt, reduce intake of saturated fat and increase intake of fibre. It was sound advice then for the majority of people then and it remains the case today. Looking back and Stevie B’s pre-competition weight cutting diet, this was an extreme version of the N.A.C.N.E. recommendations. Over-consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fats has been directly linked to a range of health problems. This doesn’t mean we should reduce them to ridiculously low levels or omit them altogether.

We should be mindful of adding sugar and salt to our foods and mindful of the quantities of foods we consume containing saturated fat. Do we require them? If you are competing or about to engage in some demanding training then you might need larger amounts than the average person. In fact, if you train hard on a regular basis it stands to reason you are going to need to consume a lot more calories than someone who lives a sedentary life and even someone who trains on a casual basis. For example, if you have sweated excessively then you are going to need to replenish your salt levels. Again, this is common sense.

Contrary to popular belief, from my experience, exercise will always beat a strict diet. I have seen the very best tuck into all sorts of fast food without feeling a need to justify their actions. And conversely I have seen plenty of people sticking to strict diets without much exercise and not really reaping the benefits. However, eating sensibly alongside regular training is always going to give you an advantage. Eat whole foods. Drink plenty of water and keep active, mentally as well as physically, to stave off boredom and the “hunger” pangs that will follow. Only use supplements within the original context they were designed for and don’t think of them as a more nutritional alternative to cheaper whole foods. Research your supplements properly. Many are just expensive powdered milk or cordial. Others are superfluous vitamins. And, remember, caffeine does not equal energy.


Food can be savoured and enjoyed. Overindulgence is not really enjoyment. However, food should be considered to be no more than fuel on a regular basis. This is not to say that you cannot appreciate and enjoy the beautiful art and craft of cooking. However, what mindful eating does is give us back the treat. A treat ceases to become a treat the more you consume it or less you feel you deserve it. Eating in moderation gives the treat back its position. Training hard turns most food and drink into treats. Dare I say, food for thought.

[i]“The Truth about Food”, BBC Television 2006.

[ii]Celebrities such as the late Princess Diana – who also helped popularize bulimia – were fans of colonic irrigation and the notorious TV nutritionist “Dr” Gillian McKeith seemed obsessed with examining faeces. See Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”, both the book and the website, www.badscience.comfor details on the life and career of Ms.McKeith.


[iii] course both these mentioned nutritional experts have their own diets to peddle, so their comments could be considered as much competitive marketing. To give her due respect, however, Madelyn Fernstrom’s approach to nutrition is a lot similar to many dieticians. She takes a tailor-made outlook, recognizing that different individuals respond to different eating plans.


[iv]“Top 10 Fasting Myths Debunked” Martin Berkhan. Berkhan’s counter-argument is actually worth a read. He makes a good point about the argument that fasting tricks the body into “starvation” mode: “Efficient adaptation to famine was important for survival during rough times in our evolution. Lowering metabolic rate during starvation allowed us to live longer, increasing the possibility that we might come across something to eat. Starvation literally means starvation. It doesn't mean skipping a meal or not eating for 24 hours. Or not eating for three days even. The belief that meal skipping or short-term fasting causes ‘starvation mode’ is so completely ridiculous and absurd that it makes me want to jump out the window.


Looking at the numerous studies I've read, the earliest evidence for lowered metabolic rate in response to fasting occurred after 60 hours (-8% in resting metabolic rate). Other studies show metabolic rate is not impacted until 72-96 hours have passed (George Cahill has contributed a lot on this topic). 


Seemingly paradoxical, metabolic rate is actually increased in short-term fasting. For some concrete numbers, studies have shown an increase of 3.6% – 10% after 36-48 hours (Mansell PI, et al, and Zauner C, et al). This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline/noradrenaline) sharpens the mind and makes us want to move around. Desirable traits that encouraged us to seek for food, or for the hunter to kill his prey, increasing survival. At some point, after several days of no eating, this benefit would confer no benefit to survival and probably would have done more harm than good; instead, an adaptation that favoured conservation of energy turned out to be advantageous. Thus metabolic rate is increased in short-term fasting (up to 60 hours).


Again, I have chosen extreme examples to show how absurd the myth of ‘starvation mode’ is – especially when you consider that the exact opposite is true in the context of how the term is thrown around”.


[v]Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, had some very odd beliefs. He was tricked into believing that two little girls played with real fairies in their guarding, that snakes could hear and his wife could communicate with the dead. 


[vi]Colonic irrigation is favoured by some fighters when natural laxatives don’t do the job. The body can hold up 25kg of faecal matter, so it is little surprising that coaches advocate such measures.


[vii]“From Yeravda Mandir”, M. K. Gandhi, 1932


[viii]Harriet Hall,M.D. “Top Ten Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine”


[ix]Monica Reinagel,”Food Combining Myths”,


[x]Although there is some controversy over who was the diet’s actual creator. In an interview given by one of Helio Gracie’s top students, 9thdegree red belt, Armando Wridt replied to the question whether Carlos Gracie was the inventor of the Gracie Diet, "No, it wasn't. In fact, that diet was developed by the Argentine author of the book Dr. Juan Esteve Dulin. He said the body is nourished by what it assimilates, not by what you eat, that is the reason why the Gracie spent fortunes in the diet. As Carlos liked to read a lot, he took the diet based on the combination of foods".


[xi]“Similar weight loss with low-energy food combining or balanced diets” – “The International Journal on Obesity”, April 2000, A Golay (Division of Therapeutic Patient Education for Chronic Diseases, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland), A-F Allaz (Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland & Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland), J Ybarra (Serveid'Endocrinologia I Nutricio, Hospital Clinic, Barcelona, Spain ), P Bianchi(Division of Therapeutic Patient Education for Chronic Diseases, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland), S Saraiva (Division of Therapeutic Patient Education for Chronic Diseases, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland), N Mensi (,Division of Therapeutic Patient Education for Chronic Diseases, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland) R Gomis (Division of Therapeutic Patient Education for Chronic Diseases, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland) and N de Tonnac (Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland) 


[xii]Skeptoid episode 139, “Kangen Water: Change Your Water, Change Your Life”, Brian Dunning, 3rdSeptember 2009


[xiii]“Over 100 Super Foods for a Super You”, Becky Hand. To be fair, Hand’s article is much better than most that use the “superfood” term and, as her publicity tells us, she is a licensed and registered dietician.


[xiv]“Are Superfoods For Real?” Suzanne Elvidge, 3rdSeptember 2008


[xv]The Dairy Council claim “Recently, it was reported that the evidence linking saturated fat intake to heart disease is lacking (Siri-Tarino et al., 2010).” However, they also claim that milk is pretty much a complete food, which is not true.


[xvi]Douglas RM, Hemilä H (June 2005). "Vitamin C for Preventing and Treating the Common Cold".PLoS Medicine 2 (6): e168; quiz e217. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020168. PMC 1160577.PMID 15971944.


[xvii][xvii]“Why Diets Fail”, “AAAS/Science Now”, Carrie Arnold and “The Journal of Neuroscience”, Tracy Bale 30.11.10




[xix]“The Bruce Lee Diet – Bruce Lee’s Diet and Nutrition”, Jon Wade, 05.10.10


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