Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition: The PN voice of Reason and Wellbeing Education

This post is an interview with Ryan Andrews, Education director of Precision Nutrition. Ryan walks the talk, all the way down. He brings a careful, thoughtful eye to a wide range of issues in nutrition practice.  As you'll see, he's a pretty exceptional person, with a life time's passion for wellbeing, blending good nutrition, health and fitness practices and thoughtful awareness of the choices we make within those practices.

I've said before how much i like the Precision Nutrition program (review) for a bunch of reasons: as an approach to eating, it's based on nutrition habits not calorie counting. These habits act as a baseline to help one learn what and how our bodies respond to different foods in different circumstances. It's also got a great approach to health and well being in terms of getting sufficient movement happening.

But one of the things i have celebrated about PN in particular is the forum, which really means the people and the interaction with people offered there. This is a model of great forum interaction made up of just super folks. And the folks from PN are full participants along with folks just wanting to learn a healthy way to get to understand ourselves and food, students and professionals from all walks of life. As resources there are professional trainers from a rich variety of backgrounds, scientists, nutritionists, body workers, physicians, it's an amazing mix of expertise and experience. The quality of the interaction is first class, polite, convivial, witty, knowledgable and respectful. If you hang out on forums at all you'll appreciate how exceptional this sounds. It's par for the course here.

Personally, i've connected with lots of great folks at PN over the several years i've hung out there, learning about nutrtion and working out. Georgie Fear and Mike T. Nelson have contributed to numerous posts here. Roland Fisher, trainer extraordinaire i've mentioned often and you'll see his comments from time to time on the blog. Carter Shoffer's approach to peri-workout drinks on the PN forum is second to none, and he has a way of coming up with great analogies for difficult concepts - he's one of the guys that makes the Forum such a great place to be.

If we accept that leadership comes from the top and leadership sets the tone, then getting to engage with John Berardi a bit more this year shows that that niceness and professionalism does come from the team lead. His unflagging optimism about folks getting healthy with balanced food and workouts with the best of science and practice is inspiring.

More recently i've had the pleasure of interacting a bit more with the guy who's become literally "the Voice of PN" - Ryan Andrews is the person doing the voice overs for the forum tutorials, and more recently for the Precision Nutrition online Certification materials. He's also the author of 99.9% of PN's incredible and well researched "All About" article series. One of the assets of of getting PN is access to the forum, and access to the forum includes these practical/research summaries on everything from Cholesterol to Creatine; from  Sleep to Protein to BCAAs to Fish Oil to - well anything to do with nutrition health and well being, pretty sure there'll be a PN All About article there.

Ryan Andrews: "PN isn't about dieting. 
PN is about helping people find what works for them." 

I aksed Ryan if he's be willing to have a wee chat about who he is and how he's come to connect with PN, and a bit about his own approach to food and life. He agreed. The following is our discussion. To kick things off, here's Ryan's signature:
Ryan D. Andrews, MS, MA, RD, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, ACSM-HFS, CISSN Director of Education - Precision Nutrition ---Healthy Food Bank --Compassionate Cooks
Can we touch on your training?  The formal path you've taken with respect to nutrition work?
I did my undergrad in exercise science.  I did my graduate degrees in exercise science and nutrition.  When I arrived at grad school, I quickly realized that to have any impact in the nutrition world, I needed to become an RD.  If I didn't get the credential, I would have always felt limited to what I could recommend to people.
Can you talk a little about the RD? That's a biggie in terms of qualifications. But it's also a qualification i've seen met with considerable skepticism of late as people being wedded to the high carb world that is the Food Pyramid.
A RD spends at least 4 years studying nutrition, then does a 6-12 month nutrition internship, then must pass an exam, then does continuing education each year.  In the past, I think RDs felt like they had to follow the governments advice about eating.  But now, more RDs are starting to question old science and challenge strategies that aren't working.  I know some RDs who are bright, cutting edge, and really help people get healthy.  I also
know some RDs who are boring, outdated, and don't know how to help people
eat (and can't eat healthy themselves).  I guess most professions are like this, huh?
No argument there. So moving away from the formal to the personal: one of your first tags on the PN bio is that you were a competitive bodybuilder. My sense of competitive bb is that there's a lot of time spent starving and feeling like crap. is this an incorrect view?
When preparing for a contest, you are hungry and feel like crap.  When trying to put on mass, you are always full and feel like crap.
So why bb, and why competitive bb?
I discovered weight training when I was 13 years old.  I discovered healthy nutrition when I was 14 years old.  I became fascinated with the ability to alter these to alter my body.
Where did bodybuilding and nutrition intersect for you?
They always went together.  Ever since I had my first training partner at age 14 - a discussion about training was always followed up by a discussion on eating.
Sounds like you've had an interest in nutrition from your undergrad days - how did that happen?
I was interested in nutrition before college.  I remember thinking how amazing it was that I could actually study exercise/nutrition after high school.
OK, this is even more atypical. When your friends asked what you wanted to study and you said "food" how'd you describe the interest? Did you also like cooking at this point?
At this point, it was about nutrition science.  People knew I was in shape and competed in bodybuilding.  I was always known as the "nutrition and exercise guy."  It's interesting looking back, because I actually knew very little about food, culture, farming and cooking.  Only about science.
You've written about not stepping on the scale much, and being a vegetarian who has his diet rather dialed in. How long did it take you to get that setting for yourself?
I'm always making adjustments and evolving.  After bodybuilding, I was really able to listen to what my body needs, and treat my body well, instead of always forcing it to extremes.  I know when I am making healthy decisions in my life.  Seeing a number on the scale doesn't serve any purpose to me.
Since this parameter *is* such big deal with so many of us, do you  find that you're working to help folks find your perspective around  the scale? For folks who are concerned about that number - or need to  demonstrate a number for their sport, what is a suggestion you'd make  to either group?

With everything related to nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle, it's about helping the person find what works for them.  What works for me doesn't work for everyone.  I do think that a lot of people feel like they 'need' a scale to have success with health - but really, I try to remind them that daily behaviors are what matters.  We know what to do to be successful - the scale shouldn't dictate how we feel about ourselves and our habits.  Even with bodybuilding, the scale didn't matter much.  It was about how I looked in the mirror and how I felt about my physique.  I would challenge everyone to think about how the scale impacts their life - and how it benefits or harms your decisions.
In terms of food decisions,  when did the vegetarian (or is it vegan?) approach kick in for you? would you care to talk a little bit about that for you, your decision process? Your challenges?
I was taking an "ethics in research" class during grad school.  We were discussing animal research.  I realized I wasn't very comfortable with using animals in research.  I talked to my lab partner about this and she asked if I ate meat.  I told her yes.  She informed me that I was killing animals every day.  I had never made that connection before.  Meat was always just XX grams of protein.  That's it.  So, from that moment forward, I haven't consumed meat.  The more I learned about animals being used in food production, the more I wanted to eat plant-based.  I transitioned to a 100% plant-based diet over the next couple years (empahsis mine, -mc).
That's cool that it took time to make that total plan move. Now that you're there, how long has it been? i ask because many people float back and forth,  and a consistent non-meat approach over time is still pretty rare.
I haven't consumed meat for over 6 years.  I haven't consumed any animal
products at all for over 4 years.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to nutrition practice?
Remembering what my values are when it comes to nutrition.  Sometimes in our society, it's easy to forget and go with the masses.
John talks about every two years doing the get shredded thing - do you have a similar walk in the desert?
No.  Restrictive diets don't lead to anything positive for me.  They mess with my head and end up making me disregard my body.
That's very interesting. Are there any other ways you find that you listen to your body? i  guess i'm thinking about movement, pain/injury etc?
I always allow wiggle room with my workout schedule.  If I feel run down and fatigued, I take time off.  If I feel full of energy and loose, I'll do extra workouts.  If any movements feel awkward and/or painful, I do something else.  I used to force things, and this led to pain/injury.
How did you get SO involved with Precision Nutrition?
I've been following JB since I was 19 years old.  Fast forward several years to when I was at Hopkins, I collaborated on a few projects with JB.   We worked together well and got along.  We did some articles for T-nation and some presentations for the NSCA.  From there, I ended up wanting to transition away from Maryland, and JB offered me a job with PN.
What are some of the features that have appealed to you, and that keep you involved?
PN isn't about dieting.  PN is about helping people find what works for them.  We provide a basic foundation, and then guide people through the outcomes based decision making process.  Is it working?  Or is it not working?  Then make adjustments. PN is open-minded and progressive.  I find those qualities essential. Also, PN has some of the most interesting and bright people I've ever met.
That really resonates with what i've found too from the participant side. Folks on the forum tend to stick around long after whatever body comp challenges we've worked through, too. It's cool.

What are some of the trends in nutrition that are well let's say scary on the one hand or exciting on the other?
Nutrigenomics. It's fascinating and exciting, but opens a new level of "information overload" that North America probably can't deal with right now [see Berardi's interview with field leader Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy here or here -mc].
Have you seen folks general knowledge about food get worse or better?
It's weird.  I've seen knowledge about calories and nutrients get better among the general population, but I've seen peoples knowledge about how to actually eat and listen to their body diminish.
Really? since "listening to the body" seems to be a theme here, let's  make sure we're on the same page for this. I remember you posting about eating now when you feel hungry - listening to that. And i
think ROland Fisher said something like but a child asks for stuff  all the time, too, and it wouldn't be smart to deliver on that  request all the time. So, what's it mean to "listen" wisely, shall we say, and how have you  seen this go south?
We talk about it more here on calorie counting

It comes back to what we REALLY want, what we value.  Sure, eating donuts and sitting around might bring temporary pleasure - but it doesn't REALLY feel good.  It leads to low energy, mood swings, bloating, disease, the list goes on.  When we crave fruit - eat fruit, enjoy the fruit, stop just before being fully content, and move on.  Once we start selecting whole foods, unaltered, our hunger and satiety cues recalibrate. 
This kind of thinking about food, relationships to food, what that means for the body, getting to grips with that, seems to lead to your title at PN is as director of education. What does that mean?
I am involved with educating people.  I help with articles, presentations, coaching, certifications, courses, etc.
Part of this work is the new Precision Nutrition Certification. Let's talk about that for a sec. There are existing certs out there - the CSCS and similar organizations also certainly have big chunks of their exams on nutrition for athletics. What did you want to do differently with the PN certs?
We wanted to keep it real.  We wanted to provide textbook knowledge and then connect it with real world eating.
Is that the main gap in current nutrition training?
Yes.  There is a gap between science and real world eating.  And there is a gap between science and where actual food comes from.
As part of support for addressing this gap, the level 1 cert has put together an awful lot of resource from content to content types including a fat textbook, voice over slides, workbook, a discussion forum where the PN team is very responsive. When did you decide to do this and how did you decide to to in this way?
It was in the works for a couple years.  JB and I collaborated and took it one step at a time.
Let's talk about the text book for a second. How did y'all figure out the degree of complexity or not that you wanted to get into to make the content simple enough without being too simple?
It was helpful for JB and I to reflect on our educational experience and real world coaching experience.  We focused on the items that are useful in both areas.
How will folks know what to expect from a PN certified coach? I guess i'm asking about this because it seems that when stuff comes from organizations that sound generic like Candian College of Sports Medicine (there is no such thing - i just made that up, dear reader), it sounds a bit more authoritative than "precision nutrition" cert - than something effectively associated with a brand. One might think of such a coach "oh great: they know how to sell PN - i need someone who knows about nutrition; i don't want to eat 6 times a day" you know?
We want to empower PN certified coaches.  We want to give them the knowledge base to help people with eating and health.  Trainers are bombarded with nutrition questions, and having this certification will help them feel confident about responding.
In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoSpeaking of bombarding, could we talk a wee bit about popular voices on food right now? Michael Pollan for instance - very popular guy; great presence as part of food inc, very critical of what he calls nutritionism. This is Precision NUTRITION - what's your response to Pollan-ism, let's call it?
Pollan is great.  As people focus on the science and details of eating, we tend to eat worse.  I think if we can join our scientific knowledge of nutrition with real world eating and culture - we'll have all bases covered, and really be able to achieve optimal health.

Cool, can you offer a couple of examples of science knowledge meeting  reality where you seen this happening? that someone would recognize  it as the two places coming together?

Example #1:  "Wow, it seems like eating omega-3 fats is really good for my body.  And gosh, omega-3 fats are found in flax seeds and hemp seeds.  I'm going to start eating those in salads or on oatmeal."

Example #2:  "Protein dense foods seem to be great for muscle mass and body
composition.  I'm going to prioritize things like beans and greens each day
to ensure I get protein."
And related to food combinations, would you like two moments to talk about your take on Paleo?
Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage)I don't really have any strong feelings on Paleo eating.  No matter what, I think a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods is essential.  But I've come across too many guys using "Paleo eating" as an excuse to eat a platter buffalo style chicken wings or get 2 big macs without buns.  That ain't Paleo.  I really like what Jack Norris has to say about it.
And one more again in the more popular/populist voices on food: Taub's good calories bad calories
He makes some excellent points and gives us some things to think about.  
I don't think whole, unprocessed carb dense foods like grains and beans are resulting in health problems.
For yourself, Ryan, how are you working out right now?
For the past few years, I've been doing more full body resistance training
and conditioning. 

I'll do Monkey Bar Gym workouts 3-4 times per week

monkey bar gym tour with founder John Hinds
I'll also do a yoga class 1-2 times per week

Other than that, I bike and walk each day since I don't have a car.
Yay on the no car. And with your own eating?
I don't like to spend too much brain power on my own eating.  I already think about it enough with my coaching and job.  Thus, simplicity rules.

I'll sometimes prep food in bulk.  Stuff like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, or split peas for the week.  Otherwise, I just prep food as I go.

I hardly ever carry food with me, as my job allows meals to be at home.  If I'm going to be away, I just stop at a grocery store or healthy restaurant.

Most days:

-after my AM workout I'll have a super shake (with greens, fruit, nuts, etc.

Just like here: pn's super shake creations
If I am hungry later in the AM I'll have a slice of sprouted grain bread with some peanut or almond butter and some cut up veggies or salad
-Early afternoon I might have some roasted garbanzo beans and a piece of fruit
-For dinners - I'll rotate between veggie burgers, bean burritos, yams/potatoes, rice/beans, pizza, stir-fry's, big salads with aduki beans....stuff like that.  
I drink lots of tea and water during the day -In the winter, I eat more grains, beans and cooked foods.  In the summer, I eat more raw veggies and fruits and salads.

My meals aren't very "typical."  I might have a big yam for dinner - that's it.  Or a bowl of beans.  Really basic stuff.
A big yam for dinner, Ryan? This approach on the surface may seem a little un-PN's habits of protein and greens and fats at each feeding.
The way I eat works for me and my goals.  And that's what PN is about.  PN is about giving people a foundation and then helping to guide them in finding a strategy that works for them and their goals.  Something that gets results and can be sustained.

The way I eat is 100% PN.
When you're not being Director of Education, what are you up to?
I help at an organic farm.  I am a newsletter editor for the American Dietetic Association.  I do a lot of Monkey Bar Gym style workouts.  I read lots of non-fiction.  I help in the Boulder School Lunch Program.  I like to go outside and bike, walk, swim.  I really try to challenge myself to live a better life each day and figure out how to make the world a better place to live.
A lot of folks would ascribe these kinds of principles to a religious  or spiritual belief system. If that's not too personal, is that the  case here, or is this the evolving Zen of Ryan?
I don't really follow any specific religion.  Most organized religions don't appeal to me because it creates barriers between groups.  One of my favorite quotes is by the Dalai Lama - "My true religion is kindness."  I do my best to follow that religion.
If there's one thing you'd like people to hold onto about nutrition, eating, what would it be?
Take a few minutes each day to think about the repercussions of your food choices.  Think about how they impact the planet, your health, animals, workers, and so forth.  Then make sure you are living in line with what you value.

Thank you very much, Ryan.

Related Articles:


    Roland Fisher said...

    The more people write about Ryan, the easier my job will get. I'll eventually be able to coach folks by simply saying, be like Ryan.

    mc said...

    Hi Roland. Get a web site, will you? It will make referencing you so much simpler.

    As to "be like ryan" ya well, the mind reels.


    StrengthandWellness said...

    Great interview, thanks!

    Georgie Fear, RD, CPT said...

    Rarely do an interviewer and subject both have such insightful comments!

    Great interview!

    Ryan is certainly someone I'd strive to be more like :)

    Georgie Fear RD

    Dr. John said...

    He's a vegan?
    Since B12 is an essential human nutrient, only found in animal sources, how does he justify "not eating animals"? B12 shots? B12 sups?
    Only modern science keeps our fragile vegans alive...on a long term basis....4-6 years is NOT long term. Let's see how he is in 20...
    Homocysteine levels will skyrocket without it.=atherosclerosis.

    And if you "don't want to kill animals", then why do you use paper products? Millions of animals are killed in the process of paper milling.

    Or the millions of animals killed by the grain harvesters over acres of fields?
    I kill one cow...feeds my family for 6 months...
    You eat a loaf of kills 1000 mice?

    Hypocrisy at it's best....

    mc said...

    goodness, it sounds like your issue is with vegetarianism and veganism as opposed to Ryan - and that you'd call anyone a hypocrite who espouses these practices. Is that right?

    And if you're a dr of something - an educated man trained about how to think - as opposed to this being a nom de plum, then something must be triggering you around this to have such a constrained and clouded framing of this topic to call someone who simply says he chooses not to eat animals a hypocrite. That's pretty strong stuff.

    As a thoughtful person, you must see, surely, that one can choose as best as one is able to avoid engaging in or supporting practices that one considers harmful to self, others, planet.

    Sometimes the best we can do is to choose as best we can to reduce impact as best we can; no one i know claims to eliminate it.

    I don't think Ryan spoke of his views on paper products or electrical production, but if we're trying to leave as light a footprint in our passing as possible, we figure out the ways we each can do that. Ryan walks pretty softly.

    You'll find that even meat eaters - famous ones like Michael Pollan - who also likes i think to see to the slaughter of the animals he eats - suggest that we ought to eat more plants and reduce the amount of animal proteins in our diet. Eat less, mostly plants, i believe is a statement.

    You may be interested in this latest statement from the scientific community around animal / human consciousness and their similarities .

    That makes the work of temple grandin on slaughterhouses even more compelling, i think, and her work to audit them and make them more ethical

    Ryan did a really nice piece on Precision Nutrition awhile ago looking at meat and why we have needed it. as well as a look at its economics, and relation to environmental eating

    He also did a compelling look at feed lot practices that i bet you would find interesting.

    Here's a quote from the end of the article:

    And, I have to say it. If my experience at Magnum is representative of other cattle farms, all those accounts of the dismal, depressing, disastrous cattle conditions seem to be exaggerated.

    No, I’m not going to start eating meat again.

    However, if I did eat meat, my visit to Magnum would have made me feel great about eating non-organic, non-grass-fed beef. Seriously. I can’t imagine the quality of meat would be substantially better with organic and grass-fed. Nor can I imagine the living conditions would be substantially better for the cattle.

    As for loaf of bread comment, well, i think you'll find that ryan is very much a grains only when whole and sprouted kinda guy. Processed food, not really his thing. Or yours as a paleo guy no doubt. So you have these things in common.

    Again, many vegans/vegetarians get this: if you don't want to kill animals do you wear leather - the what about paper one is new to me - and actually it reminds me of robbie burns with his poem To a Mouse. Have you read it? The famous line about the best laid the mouse gets rolled under the plough. Ick. I've for a very long time maintained that farming is the root of all evil in "civilisation"

    as for b12 yup science can certainly get it from fermenting some glucose around the bacteria i understand that actually produce what becomes b12 but if ryan stops by all let him answer that one.

    Thanks for reading; just sorry that one bit set up such a fire.

    All the best

    Ryan Andrews said...

    Dr. John,

    Good call on the b12. I use a supplement. If I am ever in a situation where I'm unable to supplement, I might consider consuming animal products.

    I really admire people who choose larger animals with more meat (like a cow). This helps to minimize animal suffering (instead of killing multiple chickens).

    With all of the foods and products I buy, I try to minimize animal suffering. I know I'm unable to live a perfect life, but I do my best to strive for it.


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