A couple weeks ago, out of nowhere, I received an introductory email from Sol Orwell, one of the guys behind Examine. Once I was able to stop fangirl-screaming, I replied to Sol’s hello with a few questions that I’ve been curious about for some time. We went back and forth with some questions and answers, and Sol was kind enough to allow me to publish his answers right here.
For the uninitiated, Examine is a brilliant project that breaks down information about supplements and nutrition based on references to more than 20,000 scientific papers. Examine is completely unbiased and, in my opinion, is one of the best resources out there to help debunk myths about supplements and nutrition. It’s like Snopes for people who want to know how much protein they should eat every day.
Science is one of the reasons I became interested in low-carb, and then paleo, so I’m a huge proponent of what Examine strives to do and want to educate people about the information on Examine.
I really enjoyed reading Sol’s answers to my questions and hope you’ll find his insight as useful as it is interesting.
Which matters more: calorie intake or macronutrient ratios?
Me: I’ve read quite a bit of Taubes and have an understanding of how everything works (generally), but am interested in the research on Examine that says calorie intake matters more than macronutrient composition. On one hand, I believe what I’m reading, but I also think there’s so much new anecdotal information out there that seems to prove the opposite, that macros matter more than the number of calories consumed. What are your thoughts on this?
Sol: There is an important distinction between weight loss and fat loss. In regards to weight loss, calories are pretty much key. Where your body gets the deficit calories from (muscle, bone, fat) doesn’t matter—you will lose weight.
Now—in regards to actual fat loss, I think Taubes reminds me of someone who found something that worked for him (low-carb) and decided it must be the only way. Bodybuilders have been getting absolutely shredded for years (even excluding drug use) on HC for decades. Not just years, but literally 50-plus years.
Physiologically, what matters is high protein (if you want muscle and to be lean). It’s what lets you retain bone mass, and when losing weight, lets you retain muscle mass. After that, high-carb vs high-fat is really about the psychological aspect. Some people work best on HC, some work best on HF. Why it has to be “my way or the highway” is perplexing to me.
I won’t even get into Taubes’ specificities—there are enough people far more brilliant than I who can correct his errors. If anything, this demonization of insulin completely boggles my mind. James Krieger has an excellent piece on insulin and [so does] David Despain.
I will state that for people who are metabolically damaged, e.g., pre-diabetes, then LC is likely more effective (factoring in insulin sensitivity). That’s more from the perspective of their already damaged bodies and psychological aspects.
Why does the myth of “starvation mode” persist?
Me: Why do you think the “starvation mode” myth became so popular in mainstream health and fitness media? Do you think it’s a possible response to anorexia and other eating disorders that gained more media attention in recent decades, and encouraging people to eat in order to be healthy as well as to lose weight in situations like low-carb diets? I’m trying to figure out the genesis of this myth (the Minnesota Starvation Experiment is all I can think of) and why it’s persisted.
Sol: The reality is that metabolism is responsive. That old adage of one toast a day (100 calories) = 1 pound of fat per month is ridiculous. Subtracting one toast does not mean your net calories are suddenly -100—your body likes to balance itself—”homeostasis.”
Also, is there anything more emotionally appealing than “eat more and lose weight!”
With that in mind, I think people who have extreme dieted for 6+ months are not in a “starvation mode” but in a “hormonally f***ed up mode.” But the caveat here is that there are very very very few people in such a state. We are talking about people who go into figure competitions. For the general person, this fear of starvation mode is overblown. It is especially overblown for anyone above 20% body fat (literally ridiculous, why would your body be afraid of starving when 1/5th of your weight is literally fat?).
What are the key supplements for CrossFit and endurance athletes?
Me: Based on research, are there supplements that you think are absolutely vital for active people like CrossFitters and endurance athletes to help recovery and improve performance? I’ve always been curious about this and seem to get different answers from different sources.
Sol: Two relevant articles we’ve written:
Honestly though—sleep. It boggles my mind how people get drunk on weekends, get 5 hours of crappy sleep, and then ask me what to supplement with. We’ve written about the magic of sleep here.
Our viewpoint honestly is stress-free, stop worrying about that crazy 1% (BCAAs before workout? After?! Within 30 minutes!!) and just leave a simple life that has ample protein, ample sleep, and ample sex (yes, I said it).
Keep it simple
In conclusion, it was interesting how Sol’s answers, as well as a lot of what research tells us, is that keeping things simple is often a good way to do the right thing for your body. We underestimate how much sleep we need and brag about it like we’re above our biology, which obviously isn’t the case. We get crazy about which supplements to take and when. We undertake futile efforts like counting grams of fat and calories in every bite we ingest, when it’s really easier to focus on eating more protein. I’m a fan of keeping things simple and will continue to make this an effort in every area of my life.
What are your thoughts on Sol’s answers above? What surprised you the most?