Bodybuilding, in it’s purest form, isn’t about shredded glutes or packing on as much size as humanly possible. It’s about using training and nutrition as tools to optimize our health. Yet somewhere along the path from the birth from of the sport to where we currently stand we took a hard left turn and strayed off course from what this lifestyle is truly supposed to embody at it’s core. The days prioritizing our health have given way to a “get big or die trying” mentality. And, given the wave of recent deaths that have rocked the community, I believe that it’s time we sit down and take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’ve allowed things to get too far off course. There was a time when the bodybuilder was admired, when he was looked to with admiration as the gold standard of what a lifestyle of healthy living could accomplish. Now, given the current landscape of the sport, how many of us would encourage our children to pursue this same lifestyle that we’ve fallen in love with? To say that I don’t believe that the issue of drug abuse (not use) plays a role in all of this would be lie, but even more so than the obvious chemical components I believe that the “eat big to get big” mentality is the biggest culprit in the deterioration of health in the modern bodybuilder. I believe that the biggest culprit responsible for our nutritional down fall is gluten, and more specifically wheat.
The Not Quite Complex Carbohydrate
The issue of whether or there’s a difference in the way simple or complex carbohydrates effect the system isn’t up for debate. We know that simple carbs cause the body to release greater amounts of insulin and thus are responsible for causing greater fat accumulation, the buildup of advanced glycation end-products (AGE’s), and a whole host of diseases that we’ve come to know as metabolic syndrome. We also know that complex carbs cause smaller spikes in insulin and less of the unwanted side effects associated with the consumption of simple sugars. One of the common nutritional dogmas that’s been drilled into us over the last several decades is that whole wheat and whole grains are heart healthy complex carbohydrates that should be up to bat first when it comes to our dietary carbohydrate selection. The problem is, wheat isn’t quite a complex carbohydrate.
The complex carbohydrate we know as wheat is actually comprised of two sugars, 75% of which is what we know as amylopectin-A, and the remaining 25% is another form of sugar known as amylose. Carbohydrates, just like other macronutrients, aren’t just broken down by hydrochloric acid and liver bile in the stomach. Instead, the digestive process is aided primarily by the secretion of digestive enzymes in the salivary glands in the mouth and by the pancreas. Amylose, one of the sugars we find in wheat, is only able to be partially broken down for digestion by the digestive enzyme known as amylase. Because amylose is only partially broken down for digestion, the remaining undigested food particles continue to pass through the GI tract causing gastric distress until they finally make their way to the colon where they cause bloating and gas as the fermenting undigested food causes you to let room clearing farts fly on unsuspecting friends and family.
Although amylose is only partially digestible, it’s partner in crime amylopectin-A is passes through the digestive tract with ease and is absorbed so rapidly that it causes greater spikes in blood sugar than so called junk foods that we typically associate with causing insulin levels into the stratosphere. In fact, contrary to popular belief, eating two slices of amylopectin-A containing wheat bread will increase your blood sugar more rapidly, and to a higher level, than drinking a can of Coke or eating a Snickers bar. If we take the health component out of the picture and take a look at this as superficial narrow minded meatheads, does it make sense to continuously eat foods that elevate our insulin levels and cause us to gain fat, decrease our insulin sensitivity, and turn our high powered performance vehicles into inefficient gas guzzling jalopies? I don’t think so.
A Bitch Named Gluten
Have you ever heard about some poor guy who was married to a money hungry crazy woman that took him to the cleaners in their divorce leaving him with nothing and a shell of his former self? Well, if our bodies are that poor unsuspecting sucker then the crazy gold digger who’s destroying our life and our credit from the inside out is gluten. Gluten’s are proteins that come from grains like rye, millet, and barley, but the guilty party responsible for contributing the most gluten to our diets comes from wheat? Remember our talk about the importance of digestive enzymes? Each macronutrient – proteins, fats, and carbohydrates – require enzymes in order for us to be able to digest them properly and assimilate the nutrients that come from our food. The digestive enzymes that are required for us to properly break down proteins are known as proteases. Our bodies use various types of protease enzymes to break down the protein we consume, however, humans do not produce a protease enzyme capable of breaking down gluten. Consuming gluten causes severe distress in the digestive tract, and gluten’s inability to be broken down normally during digestion essentially makes it an anti-nutrient because it prevents the other food we consumed with it during our meal from being properly absorbed. We’re told that we are what we eat, but the more accurate statement would be that we are what we absorb. As athletes that place the highest of premiums on nutrition, why in the world would we constantly consume food that hinders the absorption of the vital nutrients we need for recovery and growth?
The list of problems associated with gluten doesn’t even come close to ending at gastric distress. In fact, the insidious effects of wheat gluten consumption have been linked to a staggering amount of conditions and diseases such as: celiac disease, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, sleep disorders, asthma, headaches, learning disabilities, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, dementia, obesity, chronic digestive disorders, ulcers, food allergies, hypo/hyperthyroid, sinusitis, and irregular gut bacteria just to name a few. In Dr. David Perlmutter’s bestselling book titled Brain Grain he illustrates the role that gluten plays in the decline of our cognitive function.
The process of developing a Grain Brain starts with gluten’s inability to be properly digested. Partially digested gluten breaks down into various different polypeptides (groups of amino acids). One of those polypeptides named exorphins have the unique ability to cross the normally stingy blood brain barrier. The blood brain barrier shields the brain from potentially harmful substances, but exorphins find themselves able to pass through due to a very unique circumstance that plays a critical role in our addiction to wheat consumption. Once they cross the blood-brain barrier exorphins then bond with morphine receptors (yes, that morphine) and form structures known as gluteomorphins.
Morphine, just as any other opiate, is highly addictive, and once gluteomorphins are formed we essentially become addicted to wheat. Each time gluten is consumed those gluteomorphins trigger the reward system in the brain and small amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine are released. Dopamine is a part of the pleasure/reward center in the brain and while elevated dopamine levels are associated with feelings of happiness and positive moods, decreased or low levels of dopamine are known to cause feelings of depression and sadness. With each meal we eat that contains gluten we trigger a series of physiological events that results in us essentially feeding our need to get our “gluten fix”.
The Age of AGE’s
Advanced glycation end-products (AGE’s) are the sneaky little things wreaking havoc on our health that no one’s ever heard about. Let’s imagine for a moment that our bodies are a house. Well, if our bodies are house, then AGE’s are the termites that eat away at our foundation. AGE’s form when excess sugar molecules bind with either a protein or a lipid molecule. Once an AGE is formed it floats through the bloodstream until it is ultimately finds a home in our tissues and joints. Once a tissue becomes glycated the process is irreversible, and as large amounts of AGE’s begin to accumulate in our joints and tissues a number things begin to occur. For example, if AGE’s build up in our joints the cartilage that is supposed to be the sponge-like shock absorber that cushions us from our daily activities (i.e. training) becomes brittle and begins to break apart resulting in inflammation, joint destruction, and arthritis.
Glycation is a naturally occurring process, however, it is irrefutable that having large spikes in insulin and frequently elevating blood sugars results in accelerated accumulation of AGE’s. If wheat elevates blood sugar to a greater degree than nearly every other carbohydrate then it is reasonable to assume that consuming wheat causes us to form a significant amount of health decaying AGE’s. And, if we know that accumulation of AGE’s will ultimately lead to increased inflammation and the destruction of our joints, why would we intentionally consume food that will cause of health and training performance to decrease over time?
It’s A Cholesterol Thing
If we were to take a poll and ask what biomarker gave the most accurate prediction of developing heart disease the majority of us would answer cholesterol. And, if we were asked what element of our diet is most responsible for elevating cholesterol, I’m betting that most of us would answer saturated fat; and that would make us wrong on both accounts. When it comes to cholesterol and heart health the general consensus is that the higher our LDL cholesterol numbers are, the greater our risk for heart disease. However, the thing about having our LDL cholesterol measured is that the measurements aren’t all that accurate and they don’t take into account perhaps the most important factor of LDL cholesterol – particle size.
This may come as a shock, but the way we measure LDL cholesterol isn’t really a measurement at all. Instead, it’s more of a rough estimate using something known as the Friedewald calculation. In order to calculate your LDL cholesterol the following equation needs to be completed: LDL= total cholesterol – HDL (triglycerides/5). At first glance it appears complicated so we assume that these numbers must be a clear indicator of what our LDL cholesterol levels are, but they’re not.
One of the critical components that’s often overlooked in analyzing LDL cholesterol is particle size. LDL cholesterol particles come in two sizes; small particles which are the villains responsible for arterial blockage, high blood pressure, and heart attack or stroke, and large particles which are disposed of normally by the body without doing any damage. Just like in the bedroom, when it comes to LDL cholesterol, size matters. Having a greater proportion of small particles means a person is at a significantly greater risk of developing atherosclerotic build ups which are ultimately the cause of heart attacks. Do you know what causes LDL to shift from large relatively harmless substances to small agent provocateurs doing their best job to bring us down from the inside? Glycation. Having excessively high blood sugars causes damaging LDL particles to form and puts us on the express train for developing heart disease.
The Wrap Up
Is it possible to be in good health and still be a good bodybuilder? There was a time when the answer to that question was a resounding yes. But, in today’s version of the sport, has the answer to that question changed? There’s an old bodybuilding cliché that states “Bodybuilding is marathon, not a sprint”. Well if that’s the case, and we see far too many runners dying before they ever reach the finish line, isn’t it time we reevaluate our racing strategy. There is no single element more critical to the success of any bodybuilder, competitive or not, than nutrition. It turns the elite into legends, the good into great, and the average into awe inspiring, but we can’t continue to ignore the idea that we may be eating ourselves to a tragic early death. Chasing the crown in this world already comes with a high price due to the things that are necessary for success at the highest levels, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the pursuit of trying to optimize our health on the quest to try and optimize our physiques as well. We need to take a serious look at all of the factors that are contributing to our health and stop passing them off as something we’ll worry about when we decide to hang it up. We have a tendency to think that because we look in the mirror and see a bulletproof version of our self that everything must be great, but the reality is that we might all just be trying to hide the ugly truth from ourselves.