OK, so my last blog here was kinda long, and wasn’t really aimed at fitness people. I’m going to try to make up for that now by writing something for you nutrition-y folks that’s a little shorter and to the point.
We’ll see how that goes…
A while ago I posted a blog to the BTN site that noted the flaws and failings in nutritionism. The main point was that methodological reductionism – the act of explaining stuff in terms of its smallest parts – falls down when it comes to the applied science of nutrition coaching. Once you take the behavioural, human component out of nutrition and look only at foods in terms of their calorie, macro and micronutrient content you start to forget about the way that people actually interact with what they eat. People don’t eat macros, they don’t eat micros, they don’t even eat foods. They eat meals, and the composition of a meal (as well as the context that a meal is in) matters just as much as if not more than the numerical values in a lot of ways.
With that being said, I feel like that blog didn’t quite emphasise the benefits of methodological reductionism. Sure, learning about psychology, behaviour, habits and subconscious drivers is cool (I’m very aware I’m using the word “cool” somewhat loosely here), but we can’t escape the fact that there are some aspects of hard nutritional science that you really need to know, in order to properly form an understanding of what you are doing.
As I mentioned in that blog, most nutritional science that you will learn online comes in the form of soundbites, cliff notes and actionable takehomes. That’s great, of course – if you read something and change your nutrition for the better because of it then that is a pragmatic win; but there is absolutely something to be said for knowing the background stuff, too. Sure, if you eat 2g protein per kilo of bodyweight, you’ll likely gain muscle at a greater rate than if you only ate .8g protein per kilo and knowing any more than that won’t make your quads grow faster - but if you’re a coach and you ask a client to do that and they ask why, you’re going to look like a complete amateur if you have no answer.
Furthermore, if you only know soundbytes and no backstory, then you have no capability to think critically about what you have heard. If you know that insulin is ‘the storage hormone’ then it makes perfect sense that reducing carbohydrates – the hormone supposedly responsible for the majority of insulin release – would lead to greater fat loss. With your limited knowledge that makes perfect sense.
Of course, with a greater appreciation for biology, you’re able to point out that this is not likely to be the case – this is undeniable, but the prevalence of low carbohydrate dieters to this day who swear by the role of insulin on fat gain shows that somewhere along the line, a lot of folks aren’t taking the time to appreciate the fascinating and complex nature of human metabolism.
So – what DO you need to know? It’s fair to say that you don’t need to go to university to be able to help someone eat a little better, but there are still some things that I feel are essential for your understanding of how nutrition works. Here’s a list, and why I feel each point needs to be included:
Some knowledge of biochemistry, especially the basics of energy production
Biochemistry is the point in most biology degrees where people start to consider just becoming a barista instead. It’s arguably the most ridiculously difficult area of science (though a lot of physicists would probably stone me for saying that) simply due to the terminology and the abstract nature of what you need to learn. It takes forever to make these things ‘click’ because, until you understand most of it, you don’t really have any means of tying the various parts together.
FORTUNATELY you don’t need to really know all of it in order to talk about nutrition. What is important, is that you know how the various macromolecules like proteins and fatty acids, and smaller molecules like amino acids and hydrogen ions interact with each other within the body. Without knowing some basic biochem, it’s very difficult to properly articulate what happens to a protein, a monosaccharide or a fatty acid once it gets past your small intestine, and in fact most of the points below are related to, or branches of biochemistry. A familiarity with looking at molecular diagrams and talking about hydrolysis reactions can really help you a lot.
Energy production is probably the key area to focus on when you start. It’s incredibly useful to know how a cell turns the chemical energy in glucose into the kinetic energy used to move your arm, and the situations in which the means of production alters according to the intracellular environment.
Again, you don’t have to be an expert on this stuff (I’m certainly not), but knowing roughly what you are talking about here makes everything else oh so much easier.
A solid understanding of how energy production pathways play in to exercise performance and fat loss
Understanding energy production on a molecular level allows you to fully appreciate the intricacies of the energy systems we talk about when we are considering nutrition for exercise performance.
Most of us know that carbohydrate fuels intense exercise, but without knowing what happens in the cell when no oxygen is present, it can be very difficult to appreciate why fatty acids can’t do the same job. Similarly, it can be very useful to know what exactly is meant when people say things like “At 65% of your maximum heart rate and lower, you oxidise mostly fatty acids” because there are a lot of myths that crop up around topics like that…
A rough knowledge of what muscle protein synthesis is and how it works
Muscle protein synthesis is the process by which your body turns free amino acids into muscle proteins, most people who lift know this. What does that mean, though? Why exactly does protein ingestion cause it to happen, and what happens if you eat a really big protein dose vs eating a few smaller ones, vs eating a ton of really small ones?
Knowing the answers to these questions bulletproofs you against a lot of the myths surrounding protein timing and meal scheduling – but it also allows you to understand some of the important nuances for maximising your results or that of a client.
A clear appreciation for nutrient transport in the blood
How do fatty acids get to where they need to be, and what does that mean for our health? Is it true that saturated fats cause heart disease? What about cholesterol?
Moreover, what exactly does it mean to say that a certain food raises your blood glucose, and what are the impacts of that? And what happens when you don’t eat for a while – does blood sugar really ‘crash’?
An understanding of what an allergy is and what an intolerance is
These are two totally different things, but because they can both relate to food they can often be conflated. This is a problem because the approach to both needs to be slightly but significantly different, and the outcomes for messing up can be very different, too.
Then there’s the facts of testing. Is it possible to test for an allergy? What about an intolerance? Knowing what each of them is, will help you answer all of this and explain these things to a client with some authority.
Knowledge of the placebo effect, expectation bias and regression to the mean
It’s a blog by me – there was going to be some non-nutritional stuff in here somewhere.
Whenever we utilise an intervention, or indeed a client strays away from the plan, stuff will happen. It’s vital, however, for us to be able to determine whether the change caused the stuff, whether something else caused it, or whether the stuff just would have happened anyway. If a client increases their carbohydrate intake and gets bloated – does that means that they bloat when they eat carbohydrates in general? Probably not – but why is that, and what could it be instead? These are all things that will come up during the coaching process, and it’s only by understanding both the physiology and the behavioural science that you can properly plan a course of action.
A rudimentary appreciation of the endocrine responses to nutritional intakes, and what this all means in context
This goes so much further than understanding the role of insulin. Without having some understanding or glucagon, grehlin, leptin, peptide YY, ASP, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine you are only partially able to explain what foods do when you eat them. Because of that, you risk falling in for a lot of the misinformation that dogs the nutrition industry. Again, you don’t need to be an endocrinologist, but it’s nonetheless important to appreciate what happens when you eat something, or when you don’t.
A good understanding of the principles of nutrient storage within the body
Remember when everyone was terrified of eating after 6pm? That indicates that most people didn’t really think about glycogen. Similarly, it’s really useful to know why there’s a big difference between eating protein twice per day and four times in terms of muscle gain.
Then there’s fat to consider, and the whole mess of misinformation that surrounds ‘fattening foods’, things that ‘turn in to fat’ or hormones/behaviours that lead to fat storage. If you know, on a cellular level, what causes fat to enter an adipocyte and stay there, you’ll never find yourself asking “Hm – DOES that cause fat storage?” again.
A full understanding of how digestion works
Last but by no means not least – you simply cannot talk about nutrition unless you know what happens to the steak that you eat in the time between it being a delicious bite and being a part of your bicep. Most Level 3 PT courses cover this in some small detail, but it’s then cast aside as not being important – that, in my view, is a mistake. A good understanding of digestion is a fundamental part of any nutritional education – don’t skip the basics
That’s more or less it, really. I mean, sure, most of this stuff isn’t strictly speaking actionable: learning how fatty acids enter adipocytes doesn’t change the energy equation, and your clients will benefit from eating a calorie-appropriate, balanced wholefood diet whether or not you know what glucagon does; but that’s not really the point.
The point is that you need to have a skeleton to hang muscles on, or you’re not able to move – and you need a solid grounding before you can alter variables to get an outcome. If you don’t know the science behind the recommendations, then you’re prone to learning stuff that isn’t true and recommending things that aren’t safe, effective, appropriate or factually correct. This makes you unsuccessful at best, and liable at worst, and both of those are best avoided.
If you want to get a head-start on the competition and be known as the PT in your area that ACTUALLY understands nutrition and can explain it in a way that makes sense – rather than just another coach that tells their client that ‘protein is good for building muscle’ then consider checking out the BTN Practical Academy. We’ve revamped it with a sick new Syllabus that will be delivered by Ben, Tom, Simon, Will, and some special guests – we’ve spent a lot of time pulling this together, and we think you’ll be impressed.
More importantly we think you’ll be a better nutritionist.
Thanks for reading.