Tuesday, September 8, 2009

P90X Critique Part 3A, Alternatives: to P90X's Diet Plan (or any 12 week diet, really)

In part 2 of this critique of P90x we saw that Body comp change is about diet first, exercise second. We also detailed the specifics and limitations of the P90X diet. Since diet is SO fundamental to fat shedding (& getting ripped), here in Part three where we finally consider alternatives to P90X itself, we're going to consider alternative nutrition/diet first (this post, part A). In part B (the next, post) we'll look at alternative workouts.

Changing Habits and ANY "diet" Plan (not just P90X's)
Getting diet right though is about more than eating less. For lots of us it also means neurological rewiring to support new dietary practices, not just for 12 weeks, but BEYOND - the place that P90X will not go. So we need our alternatives to include support to plan for success. In the following, therefore, we're going to look at two things - diet or what we actually eat - but also, especially, what's rarely discussed, where habit and change come into play to ensure WHATEVER diet we undertake works for more than the diet period. So we'll start with how habit and diet need to go together for successful and lasting body comp change. We'll look at some programs that support change in nutrition practice, and a way of assessing any diet plan to make sure it works for you.

Who is this article for
If we're considering a 12 week program like P90X it's usually because we have some goal where we think that following such a program will let us accomplish. And if we're looking at a 12 week program, it's likely that we don't feel sufficiently knowledgeable about fitness to design a program for ourselves. Or we've tried something else, didn't feel it worked, and are looking for a brand new solution.

So in this article, i'm going to assume that someone is, like the P90X client, a person who once perhaps worked out, played on a team and so on, but feels that they are "out of shape" and also wants to "loose weight" and "get back in shape." Or maybe some folks do not have a previous atheletic background, but want to get healthy now, or have simply been trying stuff recently and it hasn't seemed to work.

And if you're here, i'm also thinking that you may too be wondering if there's other, better or just different ways to get what P90X (or related approaches) promises to deliver.

So how do we even begin to think about whether a plan is appropriate?

In a well rounded health program to deliver on body comp, we'd look at three components:
  1. - a nutrition program to support the work being undertaken - that's first.
  2. - a resistance program not only to develop strength, but also for the associated health benefits of lifting heavy. Lifting heavy also has benefits for bone building as well as fat burning too.
  3. - an endurance/cardio program to improve work capacity which actually means improving fat burning capacity. This endurance program can be further broken down into a couple of parts - interval work and steady state cardio work. We'll come back to that
In this Part 3A of Alternatives to P90X we're going to focus on the Nutrition side; Part 3b will look at workout alternatives.

Deliverables: by the end of this article,
  • you'll have a set of options/alternatives to P90X and other diet plan nutrition approaches that will sustain you during and beyond 90X days of moving to better health, wellbeing and leanness (or bulkness).
  • You'll also have a set of heuristics against which you can assess any diet plan you may be considering to see how well it will support your goals
You can scroll down to the bottom if you just want that template now.

Nutrition When Fat Burning/Fat Loss is the Goal
From part 2, we killed the myth that exercise is the number 1 factor in a fat loss program. For a review, here's a discussion of a couple references.

So, the fundamental requirement for fat loss is: fewer calories in than needed for maintenance.
The result of caloric restriction will always be weight loss. More than exercise, diet makes the difference.

Consider this: 20 mins of HARD intervals on a bike burns about 200 calories.
  • two pieces of whole wheat bread - nothing on them.
  • or 29 almonds
  • or a doughnut
  • or less than two 8oz glasses of apple juice
  • or not quite a pint of guiness
  • or 1.5 cans of coke
  • or two cans of red bull

Change one Thing that = 20 mins of Sweat: If any of the above items are part of your daily regimen, cutting just one of them - like cutting juice or coke or a beer - and suddenly you've done the equivalent of 20 mins of an exhausting work out. This approach of change one thing is described in detail at iamgeekfit.

Any Diet will Do - if you just want to lose fat. On that basis you can use any diet you like: Mediteranian, so called Paleo, Atkins. Anything. Just eat less than you need for your energy requirements.

Research has shown over the past two years (example 1; example 2)with studies lasting way more than 12 weeks (some 2 years) that after about 12 weeks, it doesn't matter what diet you're on, weight loss levels out to the same - based pretty much on predicted caloric deficit.

What Is "less" in eating less? Really: one one level, it's that simple. Here it is: eat less - consistently. How much less can be predicted quite closely, too so that you're burning what's available to burn and not going into starvation mode where, initially, weight loss will stall out and start eating muscle rather than fat. So eat less, but the right less.

You can use the above and start your sensible fat burning (as opposed to weight loss) journey today. Bon Voyage.

Individual Responses and Habits of a Lifetime.

For some people, the above simple prescription is ample to set off on a fat loss journey of success. For the rest of us, the principles make sense, the physics is reasonable, but we still struggle with burning fat. And then we look at exercise programs cuz that must be it rather than looking a little more deeply at our eating practices.

We are complex, multi-facetted, amazing organisms, don't you think? all the stuff going on all the time inside us, reacting to our environment, regulating our heart rate, body temperature, digestion, movement, nutrient flow. Awesomely complex.

Who are we with respect to food? So while the principle of "eat less" is righteous in its truth, sometimes, what less when and how can be important. If we're working out, in order to keep working out, we may find that we get our best efforts out of ourselves if we have some yogurt, half an apple and a coffee forty minutes before we work out. Some folks find a coffee after dinner helps them relax; others it perks right up. Some of us just don't know whether eating breakfast or not in the morning makes a difference to how we feel during the day because we've never tried it for a sufficient period to be able to say.

In other words, before heading into a diet of any kind, it might be useful for us to set aside some period of time in which we get to know ourselves and our responses to food a bit better. This doesn't mean we won't burn fat in the process. But if the emphasis is on learning about ourselves and our responses to food first, then we'll have the knowledge to take into those diet phases of caloric restriction.

I'll talk about an approach in a minute that supports that kind of investigation, but let's take a look at one other issue that informs the perceived success or failure: habits

Change is Pain. "Going on a Diet" often involve significant and sudden revisions to the way we are used to do doing things. And when we do something by rote, we generally refer to such practices as habits - practice that has become an unconscious, reflexive response to a situation.

We practice habits for instance when we train for a sport. In learning, this has been described at a very basic level as a three stage process where we go from very conscious practice of an activity - best done with instruction and guidance to refine technique, to a second level where we know enough to be able to correct ourselves, but still not proficient, to a third level where the behaviour becomes reflexive, automatic.

Reflexive responses are habituated response to a stimulus where we no longer have to think about its performance. That reflexive response could be a backhand swing in tennis, setting up an amplifier for a gig, filing messages from phone calls, or getting up at 7am each morning and putting the kettle on for tea, or snacking while watching TV. Effortless, thought-less activites. Habits.

When we seek to change these habits we are ripping out connections that have been made one way, and re-growing them another way. Ouch. Change in itself can cause headaches: the brain is a sugar feind: it uses a lot of the carbs we ingest to keep going. When it's working harder to process new stuff, it's not just muscularly fatiguing; it's mentally fatiguing. Eating right (not pigging out) for our brains is important when we're going through change. So how great do you think going from lots of starchy carbs/crap food to no crap food would be for the initial transition? We get wired for what we do, even when what we do is crappy.

Habits are Wired In. Really. Neurologically, science is showing increasingly that we build up patterns of responses in our brains that manifest in our bodies: neurological actions are triggered in the chemical-physical soup that is us, so there are strong connections between our brains and bodies. We really do get *used* to doing something a particular way; doing something - like eating or not eating under particular conditions - if we do it for many repetitions - becomes wired into our very chemistry.

Eating = Habits. Increasingly, cool research in eating is also showing that eating is habit/behaviourally based. Our habits reinforce our neurological responses to food. For instance if we regularly eat in the morning, we will feel hungry in the morning if we don't eat. This is in part down to ghrelin telling us we're supposed to get food now, and if it's in the AM, that means carbs now please. We can change our behaviours and affect that physiological response. But changing habits means patience and planning for successful, enduring change. That takes practice. Lots of reps. With conscious attention to the new practices.

So, big point, we need to be gentle with ourselves in this retraining - as we would be with anyone we were teaching a very challenging new skill. Consider that most people do not learn how to play an instrument with proficiency over night. There are techniques to master; skills to learn.

Likewise the nutritional care and feeding of our very complex selves requires this kind of patience. In thinking about alternatives to P90X, the challenge becomes, do you want to try to get to your body comp goal with another 12 week approach? or do you want to get there where 12 weeks is part of a lifelong success story?

What i've seen have tremendous value and longer lasting benefit than just "going on a diet" or "doing a fitness program" for 12 weeks, are approaches that let us
  • a) learn about what works for us in eating and
  • b) helps to adjust our wiring (habits) around eating to plan for and support ongoing success.
In other words, the successful approaches mean thinking about nutrition not just as a 12 week performance piece on deprivation, but as life long behaviors for health.

This focus shift in itself may be challenging for some folks who want that lean body NOW. The good news is that starting out thinking about spending some quality time learning about responses to food and developing more habits also goes hand in hand with burning fat, if that's the goal. What it means is that the effects will endure past 12 weeks. For this to work, as more psychologists who work with dieters state, we need to plan for success. Generally that means we have to plan to reduce the brain strain of change (i like that alliteration).

How long does this loss/learning take? This process of fat burning while learning about ourselves and food intake takes time -6 weeks with a plan sort of at a minimum it seems but 16-24 is also reasonable. The difference is, we do see progress in the results we want, but we're gaining knowledge and habits to support that process.

Some Approaches to Consider
Precision Nutrition. Right now, one of the best approaches that brings together this kind of approach to learning about YOU and what works for YOU while getting into a groove with new habits to sustain this practice over the long haul is Precision Nutrition.

It's constructed around 10 habits: 7 about eating; 3 about food preparation practice. A first phase is to get to 90% compliance with the core eating habits for a month.

1) that means you've had time to practice success with these habits many times a day for 30 days.

One of these habits is to get veggies/greens with every meal; another is get protein with every feeding. - IF one is eating 6 times a day, that's 240 perfect practices or 216 at 90%. over say 540 waking hours. If learning theory is correct, we likely need 5 times that to develop this practice as a habit rather than a conscious effort.

2) that's also 2 microcycles of consistent adaptation to a food plan.
A general heuristic in working with food is when we want to make a change and see if that change is having the desired effect - like dropping 250 kcals a day - folks generally use a two week period to factor out other effects that could be bringing about results in a shorter period. If we have consistency for a month, that's two cycles, and we have a great baseline then from which to start to tweak one thing at a time.

And tweaking once the baseline is established is just what Precision Nutrition supports in it's Individualization plan that considers a whack of variables, from body type to workout type to carb tolerance to get you able to dial in your reality.

And unlike P90X and other programs, PN actually provides the tools one needs to be able to measure body comp progress, including illustrated guides for girth measurements AND 7 site caliper readings for calculating body fat % as well as how frequently to take them, calculations used, etc. Nothing's left to chance. Here's a two part review that details the programs very closely: what's in it; how/when individualization kicks in.

Also you can check out the free PN PDF and see what you think.

Likewise in contrast to P90X, check out some real transformations over 16 weeks of real people with great but realistic transformations.

Working Out and Diet. Another one of the reasons i really like PN is that it's also normal person to athlete tested. It's approach is designed to support nutritional needs around working out - all kinds of workouts. Not all diet books relate to folks for whom movement/workouts are a part of their practice, and physiological needs.

In this case, learning about how eat right to optimize workouts' effects for lean tissue building is a useful thing to know.

If you already have a diet you want to try, plan for successful change/rewiring
Now, i think P90X is fabulous because of the resources it provides (detailed in this review). One of those resources is the online forum which has a wealth of workout options and lots of experts on the site who have done these workout programs while doing PN - lots of trainers who use PN with their clients; lots of gals who lift heavy; guys who run. You want experts and many Folks Like You, PN has both. It also keeps tabs on the latest nutrition research, with expert commentary that's accessible and usable. You just cannot get stuck with PN or the PN community.

That said, you may already have a diet you think would be just great. OK.

Then as said, a huge factor in anyone's success in a diet and MAINTAINING the results of the diet is planning for the diet, and the habits around it: planning for before, during and especially after in that all important and critical maintenance phase.

This model of planning for successful CHANGE has been studied now in psychology for about 15 years. It's been studied in big change areas like smoking, alcohol consumption and diet. Again and again, the big issue for successful changing is planning - and having a reasonable plan.

Now, PN is all about developing new habits, and it says you can take each one in turn: get comfy with one, then move onto the next until you have all 7 under your belt (taking fish oil capsules with each meal seems so easy for me, and yet i know some people who struggle with getting down a bottle. So how plan for success?

My big struggle for adaptation was starchy carbs only after a workout, whereas i know other folks who didn't give that a second thought. Take on the ones that work first; use that success to build on the others. And THEN with that base, swing into individualization (which may just bring back some starchy carbs for other non-post-workout times, once what's known as my own carb-tolerance is understood).

Saying that, some folks find picking up habits like those in PN easy peasy; others struggle - their wiring may be further away from PN's than someone who's already been eating in a PN'ish kind of way.

Deliberate Support for Habit Change.
For support in developing new habits around food and eating, there are two fabulous books that are based on that psychological model for successful habit changing. One is called the Beck Diet, and the other is the Four Day Win. More than anything else you do for yourself, no matter what diet you choose, consider either of these books. Do the "look inside" thing at amazon (linked below) and see which one resonates better with you. These guides are some of the best ways to PLAN for successful change and to maintain that change as the new habit.

The Beck Diet: Train your brain to think like a thin person (US || UK), Judith Beck. Despite its title, is not about Diet at all. It's about how to build up the strategies one needs to make a success of that diet. A lot of it is about providing strategies that will support the rewiring of old eating habits and the development of new habits.

In the Four Day Win: your guide to thinner peace (US || UK) the author (another Beck, Martha Beck, not related) takes the concept of building up both an understanding of what's happening psychologically and physiologically inside a person when just dieting without knowledge about the process (enter the Wild Child and the Disciplinarian, for instance: important characters within to get to know, acknowledge and deal with). This Beck suggests four day micro cycles of practices to build new habits for success. The book is both an awesome, fun read, and some great ideas for practice.

The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep it OffThe Instinct Diet Fascinating work by Susan Roberts of Tufts around the ways we seem to be wired almost instinctively to go for just the kinds of foods that, when there's an abundance of 'um, they become "bad" foods, but at just about any other time than now, really they are survival smart: energy dense, familiar, available, satisfy hunger, and even variety rich.

The research is a cool way to undesrstand more about why we do what we do when making food choices - especially under stress.

Delving into Other Territory: wilder diets

If you're into P90X and working out - or want to be there, at some point you're going to hear about all sorts of diets that are supposed to optimize getting ripped and building mass and doing amazing things.

  • Idea one: get the basics down first - learn about yourself and what works. then
  • Idea two: by all means, experiment.
  • Idea three: experiment THEN with the best information possible.

For this experimentation, Lyle McDonald (b2d article about his approach) is fabulous. McDonald has written perhaps the best reference on Ketogenic dieting out there. And it is a reference. It's about ten or so years old now, but it's fabulous. For folks who have heard about high fat diets and want to give them a go WHILE training - you really owe it to yourself, your health and your well being to read this book.

McDonald has lots of other great books, but the other two to think about are the Ultimate Diet 2.0, and Rapid Fat Loss Handbook. RFL is a revision of something known as protein sparing. and the other is about cycling intake to get off the last bit of fat *if you're already way low body fat %*

Both of these are i'd say largely for folks who are close to or are actually lean, and have already built up the habits of clean eating. If you haven't these books are jumping prematurely into the deep end. I mention them here at all so that you'll have a sense of when they might be most appropriate.

Indeed, Precision Nutrition has with it something called the Get Shredded Diet and the Get Unshredded Diet (it takes time to come down from a lean gets leaner program and NOT put back on a lot of fat) - both approaches for once you have arrived at a really low leanness and would just like to get at that super lean place for whatever reason.

What i really like about McDonald's books is that in each he presents the pros and cons of any approach, for whom they're useful, when, and how to go about running them. Personally, i like them more for what i learn about what's happening physiologically than for the actual diets (that take up about 5% of the texts).

Intermittent Fasting
A few of my Z-Health and even PN colleagues say that they have found themselves moving into cycles of Intermittent Fasting. Human research has lagged behind on the health benefits of IF, because most of them have focused on longevity, and that's harder to measure in humans than in rats in terms of data collection. But it seems some new physiological effects seem to be showing benefits of intermittently, intermittently fasting. So far it seems none of the physiological effects are unique to fasting; they are replicated with good diet and exercise, as this research review shows. BUT, affect is important, too. Some folks report getting mean and nasty with some forms of IF, while other report feeling better.

Happily, these same colleagues suggest IF as an advanced technique - and by advanced i think we all mean, that doing something like PN first let's a person get to know a lot about how we respond best to food under different types of conditions: when working out really hard; not so hard; not at all, and so on. With that knowledge, hitting IF can be a really intriguing process, and i'd say "real" IF as opposed to faux IF. A fast can be any time we're not eating, but physiologically effects seem to show up at 16 hours - some folks stop eating early in the evening and then wait till lunch to eat on their IF'ish days.

Getting into IF detail is beyond the scope of this article. Colleagues recommend Eat Stop Eat as a good template. My suggestion again would be get to know your food self and then check out IF if that makes sense. Especially if you're looking at working out, challenging yourself with fasting and effort can get counter productive fast. This doesn't mean that it mayn't be possible to combine both; it's just it may be asking a lot of your body to pick up a lot of new habits, and new reactions. For some this may be great, but for many it's a combination that initially can retard progress rather than help it. Why?

Surprisingly you may find that to lose weight, if you've already been chronically under eating and working out and not seeing the scales change, you need to EAT MORE to start to burn fat. Adding IF to that can cause some issues. Now, cycling your calories is a cool technique and PN gets into this in the individualization phase for sure. But again, it's everything in its place: plan for success. You have all the time in the world to try everything under the sun. So give yourself a chance to succeed.

Aside: The Lucky Bastards who Need to Gain Weight
If you're a skinny bastard and you want to get not just ripped but built, this book is for you. Why? it has both an eating plan and a workout plan that will take you there. It's been tested; it works. You'll find lots of people on the Precision Nutrition site doing Scrawny to Brawny (US || UK) - there's a forum there for the S2B clan, and it's great. Skinny Bastards can need habit help, too, so do consider either Beck or Beck for support.

Summing Up Part 3A on Alternatives to P90X Diet:
Life Is Longer than 90X days. Learning to Eat better for all of them is a plan.

I haven't gone through a detailed critique of P90X's diet here. That's more or less in part 2, but the main thing is that as part of a 12 week program, it's limited in how well it can actually support what a person is doing or wants to achieve. As we saw, if you're in the first two energy levels, you can count on losing 0-6 pounds in the 90days if you stick to the plan.

A person may learn something about portion size and eating "clean" over that period, and that's great. But it's not great if that 90 days has been a study in deprivation that gets derailed post program.

Template for Assessing Nutrition Plans
This post isn't exhaustive. It's giving some examples of approaches that i can recommend based on my experience of them both for myself and folks i work with, as well as from the results of colleagues and their clients - where i trust their reports.

So what's a template for assessing a nutrition approach that you might be interested in?

First what do we know about making changes to our body comp (fat mass to lean mass ratio):

  • eating is the fundamental biggest affecter in body comp change, whether burning fat or putting on mass
  • our eating practices are largely habit based
  • changing habits and wiring in new ones has psychological and initial neurological cost
  • the better we support ourselves for successful change with nutrition approaches that enhance change while supporting our activities, the better we do over the duration.
What do we know that seems to be pretty solid about fat loss?
  • any diet works for fat loss as long as there's caloric restriction, though some foods/combinations may work better or worse for some people (in terms of energy, well being, results), at some times, pending goals/activities.
  • when adding workouts, there are physiological effects so good to have an approach that is sensitive to these factors and provides for them (until a person knows how to do that for themselves
  • a huge part of diet success of any kind is to develop practices to support the requirements of the diet. the post diet rebound of regaining more than the weight lost is most often the result of not having that support.

Based on the above some practices an effective nutrition program will support:
  1. learning about one's own responses to food, amount of less food amount of more food that one needs when working out or not
  2. providing practices to support successful and ongoing change in practice - till that change becomes the new habit.
  3. with the above two parts, being able to determine a successful plan to support athletic practice or body comp goals.

With these heuristics, you can assess any diet, where it may have shortcomings that you'd want to supplement from somewhere else, perhaps, and what you may need to make a success of the effort.

The biggest shift that this part of the Alternatives discussion foregrounds relative to P90X is the primacy of nutrition over any workout program.

Saying that, a physical practice does have physiological effects that enhance calorie burning and lean tissue building. Physical practice can also decrease inflammation, improve energy levels, make recovery from injury easier, and slow down aging.

SO just because we can cut 200 cals by giving up those 29 almonds (i love almonds and raisins. dang), doesn't mean that workingout out doesn't have huge value. In fact what it means is there are more better and other reasons to work out than fat burning. Some fat burning is just a nice side effect of building a more cardio efficient, more muscular you which only takes 6 mins. Really.

So now that we have nutrition front and center, and hammered down, in Part3 b we're going to look at some alternatives to P90X workouts to get to that more effective, efficient - even ripped, muscular - you, and how to assess workout alternatives to P90X to work for you and for your goals.

Preview of Workout Alterntatives:
The complete article (part 3b) is now up on assessing/choosing workout alternatives. In that piece, we review that P90X is about endurance strength. We look at other parts of strength and skill for a general physical preparedness program where getting lean is the goal.

  • We consider our other energy systems - besides fat burning which P90X privileges - and why that might be important
  • we look at our other systems like joints, tendons and bones, and think about how a program works those or not
  • we look at our neural responses to reps and how rep quality is really important.
  • we also take a look at a few other p90x concepts like reps to failure and the pump and put them in context.

The end goal is - if you decide you want to do P90X you do so cuz you know what it's offering is what you want based on what you know it's doing. But if you'd like to work those other systems that are also a part of us, well, some help on finding alternatives, too.

does any of this help you decide on a program? please let me know your thoughts.
thanks for reading.

Related Posts/Resources:


Copperlaw said...

Hey MC, keep up the awesome reviews/posts!

Just noticed this error: "UD2 is a revision of something known as protein sparing. and the other is about cycling intake to get off the last bit of fat *if you're already way low body fat %*"

It's RFL that's modified protein-sparing, and UD2's the cycling diet.

dr. m.c. said...

right right right! must fix. he's got such good stuff, just go get it!

thanks for the hit. ilove that lard poster.


Unknown said...

I realize I'm 4 years late to this post, but I found it on the internet and it seems really good. Dude your blog is sick. Is all of Begin to dig your stuff? Flipped through a few pages. Great info. Do you have a card or something? :) Or an email address. Been reading a lot of stuff and this just makes sense. Logical, common sense. Thanks for posting! What is the latest now that I am 4 years behind your curve.

As a question, is PN what you endorse?

dr. m.c. said...

Good grief, is it really 4 years? Glad you're enjoying the blog. All contact info is on the blog. For getting one with nutrition habits, yes, PN is what i propose for most people most of the time.

more on why PN



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