In this article I’m going to talk about why the micronutrient density of your diet is the number one thing you need to focus on to lose body fat and weight. Before I get into the details of what this article is about, it’s important to discuss what this article is not about as giving recommendations for fat loss can be a loaded topic in the fitness industry.
This article will not give a blanket recommendation for any dietary system popularized by another author. This article is my own interpretation and synthesis of a number of viewpoints and dietary systems.
Specifically, this article is aimed at natural, recreational physique athletes who want a faster and easier way to get lean. While this article will be useful to competitive physique athletes, that is not the intended audience.
Alright, finally, on to what the article is about. In this article I am going to get into the most important reasons that physique athletes need to focus more on the micronutrient density of their diet then anything else diet related, including protein, macronutrients and even calories.
While tracking calories and macros is definitely more effective then not tracking, it is not what you should be focusing on nutritionally speaking. Nutritionally speaking, you should be focusing on manipulating the micronutrient density of your diet.
If you spend your time tracking calories, while cycling your diet and adhering to other complex nutritional strategies, you are managing minutia that is overly complicated at best and possibly even counterproductive.
Once you learn to manage the micronutrient density of your diet, your body fat and weight related goals will be much easier to achieve by using more traditional metrics like calories per day, steps per day and strength in the gym.
Why focusing on Micronutrient Density Is The Easiest Way To Loose Body Fat or Weight
In nearly every study conducted on long term weight loss, diets with the highest micronutrient density produce results superior to less micronutrient dense diets, regardless of macronutrient composition. What this means is that regardless of the relative amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate, the diets with the largest amount of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals outperformed the diets with lower amount of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
While many people are familiar with the importance of vitamins and minerals, far fewer people understand the drastic affects phytochemicals have on your overall health. The reason for this is that nutritional scientists are only starting to discover the thousands of phytochemicals that are in many of the most important foods.
“However supplements cant match or duplicate all the protective strengthening elements of fruits and vegetables. There are too many unknown, undiscovered factors in these natural foods. There are more then 10,000 unidentified phytochemicals with more being discovered all the time. Only be eating a diet rich in whole foods can we assure ourselves a full symphony of these disease-protecting, anti-aging nutrients. ” – Joel Furhman M.D. Eat For Health
While there are many studies on the ability of different types of foods to promote short term weight loss or satiation, nearly any study that looks at long term weight or fat loss comes to the same conclusion. Higher micronutirnet intakes per calorie are more important then relative levels of fat, carbohydrates and proteins. High micronutrient density diets are also the only diets that are sustainable under prolonged sub maintenance calorie intakes i.e. cutting.
What Typical Dieters, Physique Athletes and Obese People Have In Common
One thing that typical dieters, physique athletes and the obese have in common is a deficiency in their micronutrient intake. For all three of these types of people they do not see or feel the affects of this deficiency like they would when skipping a meal or otherwise running low on calories.
For example, if you look at your body like a car, the micronutrients are like the oil for the engine or the lubrication on the moving parts. Macronutrients and calories are like the gas in your car.
If you don’t put gas in your car you are not going anywhere, it’s impossible not to notice. If you don’t replace the lubricants or the oil, you won’t immediately notice a difference. It will seem like everything is fine until all of a sudden your engine blows up or the bearings on your wheels explode!
Similarly, most people don’t notice chronic micronutrient deficiencies until they get some form of metabolic disease like type 2 diabetes, some type of chronic skin condition or autoimmune disease or they get cancer. Unfortunately that is not much of an exaggeration.
In this case, the difference between cars and people is that no one really cares about actually getting enough micronutrients. If you ask anyone how important getting enough vitamins and minerals is probably 9 out of 10 people would say its super important.
In the same way that everyone knows being overweight is detrimental to your health yet 69% of the U.S. population is overweight, everyone knows they need micronutrients, but hardly anyone actually gets enough.
How Most Common Sub Maintenance calorie Diets Are Deficient In Nutrients
You can see evidence of this lack of micronutrients if you look a the tissue levels of nutrients in dieters utilizing some of the most popular diets. In one study, researchers looked at the tissue levels of nutrients in Atkins, Ornish, LEARN and Zone dieters.
What they found was that after 8 weeks of dieting, each of the 4 groups participants had lower tissue levels of micronutrients. In fact, there were no micronutrients measured where more then 20% of the participants did not show a decline in their tissue levels of that nutrient after 8 weeks.
While this is important for recreational dieters, it is even more important for physique athletes who regularly go through prolonged periods of sub-maintenance calorie dieting. Most physique athletes incorrectly assume that eating some broccoli, asparagus spears or spinach with each of their pre-made meals is going to ensure they consume adequate quantities of vitamins minerals and phytochemicals.
What’s worse is that many people believe that a multivitamin can replace the foods that they are supposed to be getting their vitamins, minerals and micronutrients from. While there are some studies that show positive effects from vitamin and mineral supplementation, there are far more that are inconclusive or show negative results.
Antioxidants and phytochemicals in particular are difficult or impossible to replace with supplementation. If that wasn’t bad enough, the complex array of fiber that people should be getting from whole plant foods cannot be compared to the supplemental sources of fiber many people take.
The affects of micronutrient deficiencies in physique athletes usually only manifest as additional stress and aging. After all, since physique athletes are usually tracking calories and bodyfat, the solution is to cut calories further in order to maintain or further reduce bodyfat.
When this happens, many of the bodies stress responses and cellular aging processes are stimulated. Often times physique athletes will not notice these chronic deficiencies, they will just notice themselves looking older, getting more easily fatigued and having increased difficulty losing stubborn body fat.
“Without and adequate variety and sufficient amount of phtochemicals from unprocessed plant foods, scientists note that cells age more rapidly and do not retain their innate ability to remove and detoxify waste products and toxic compounds” -Joel Furhman M.D. Eat For Health
The biggest issue with micronutrient deficiency is that even people who regualrly get tested for tissue levels of vitamins and minerals can be woefully deficient in the thousands of phytochemicals found in plant foods. In turn, this deficiency can have serious negative consequences on a person’s ability to lode fat and gain muscle.
Micronutrients Effects On Fat Loss and Muscle Gain
Micronutrients directly impact fat loss and muscle gain by regulating the production and usage of many of the bodies hormones. Insulin in particular which regulating both fat loss and muscle gain.
“You have been told for years that testosterone is the most anabolic hormone in your body. What if I told you that statement was a lie? Insulin is actually the most anabolic hormone in the body.” – Jamie Lewis ChaosAndPain
The bodies ability to produce and utilize insulin efficiently is heavily impacted by the body’s tissue concentration of micronutrients. Researchers have proven that insufficient quantities of a number of micronutrients can lead to reduced insulin sensitivity and eventually will cause diabetes.
“The importance of certain micronutrients as cofactors in glucose metabolic pathways, pancreatic β-cell function and in the insulin signaling cascade suggests that deficiency in these micronutrients may play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes.” – The Malnutrition of Obesity
When people try to replace some of these micronutrient with supplemental vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, the results are generally pretty bad. In the same study quoted above, researchers determined that trying to replace any of the insufficient micronutrients with supplements was insufficient and could not be recommended.
“Despite importance of reactive oxygen species and increased oxidative stress in the development, progression, and associated complications of type 2 diabetes, trials using antioxidant treatment in both diabetic patients and patients with impaired fasting glucose have been largely disappointing and indicate little to no overall effect [84–86]. As a result, the routine supplementation with vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin A in diabetic patients is currently not recommended.”
Pretty much the only way to get sufficient quantities of micronutrients is to include very large amounts of them in your diet every single day. Most physique athletes and bodybuilders who regularly eat the same protein, starch, vegetable combination day in and day out will notice immediate improvements when they hyperdose the most nutrient dense foods, or consume them in a manner that allows the body to absorb a larger amount of those micronutrients like stew or mixed vegetable/fruit juice.
The performance enhancing effects of higher then normal doses of micronutrients have been noted by powerlifters and bodybuilders. In his article about the use of stews in ancient warrior cultures, and their affects on the physique, nationally ranked powerlifter Jamie Lewis notes:
“The Scythians, a tribe of man-eating, death dealing superhumans who dominated the Russian steppes for centuries were huge fans of stewing, and would stew their food whenever they weren’t sewing their enemies’ scalps into horse blankets and capes. For those of us who view vegetables as a necessary but horrible evil, you end up eating far more of them in stews than you would otherwise.”
I would be willing to bet that a large part of the benefits Jamie and his audience notice from eating stews is due to the increased quantity of micronutrients absorbed by the body when vegetables are cooked into stews or broth.
In his book Extreme Muscle Enhancement author Carlon Colker talks about using structured fasting where he would only eat vegetables for a day. Carlon Colker is a long time bodybuilder, pictured below, who believed that superdosing vegetables prior to a fast was one of the secrets to breaking plateaus in body composition.
Why micronutrient sufficiency is more important then 1g of protein per lb. of bodyweight
Insufficient protein intake can cause a host of negative effects, the most notorious of them being muscle protein break down. Any time an athlete reduces the protein content of their diet, they will experience a transient loss in muscle tissue.
As their body adjusts to the new lower protein level they might lose a small amount of muscle tissue. However, after a couple of weeks the body will adjust to the lower protein intake and be able to execute all its normal functions at peak levels.
Often times when physique athletes reduce their protein or calorie intake they feel that their muscles are shrinking. Usually what is happening is the transient loss in muscle tissue mentioned above along with a decrease in inter-muscular triglycerides and a reduction in inter-muscular glycogen stores.
Most people who are cutting calories or dieting do not need to greatly increase the level of protein in their diet. Due to a series of studies showing the efficacy of a high protein diet under starvation level caloric intakes (800 kcal), many people have been convinced that high protein diets are better when cutting.
The truth is that insufficient micronutrients will have a far more drastic impact for the natural physique athlete then exaggerated levels of protein. Consider the following study that was conducted on 4 groups of weight trained individuals.
In this study, researchers looked at the effects of 8 weeks of weight training on a group of 4 dieters: High protein diet, high protein diet with supplemental creating, low protein vegetarisn diet, low protein vegetarian diet with creatine supplementation.
What the researchers found was that all groups were able to gain substantial amounts of muscle over the 8 week period regardless of diet. In fact, the vegetarian + creatine group, who ate 80 grams of protein vs. 140 in the high protein group and consumed over 400 calories per day less then the high protein group, gained significantly more muscle than any of the other 3 groups.
We already know that protein is extremely important for muscle growth. What this study shows, is that above a relatively easy to reach threshold, additional protein has no benefit. When protein is eaten in place of more micronutrient dense foods, it can reduce the effectiveness of a diet by negatively impacting endocrine balance.
Why Micronutrient Sufficiency Is More Important Then 1g per lb. of Bodyweight For Endocrine Regulation
Micronutrient insufficiency can become one of the largest problems physique athletes face when trying to alter their body composition. As athletes diet down and then regain their lost weight after shows or through binge eating, they slowly start to reduce their tissue levels of a number of important nutrients.
Think about the type of foods that most people eat when they “cheat” or binge after sticking to a strict diet. Usually, its the most nutrient defficient foods like baked goods etc. There is nothing wrong with eating these things, the problem comes when they make up a significant portion of your calories.
Once a person passes a certain threshold, their tissue levels of micronutrients become depleted to the point that their body is having difficulty producing the hormones it needs to maintain muscle mass, process adipose tissue and maintain cellular detoxification.
This is one of the main reasons competition bodybuilders often look so old and tired after a few years of competing. Besides the many drugs that competitors take, their tissues are very depleted. This will absolutely destroy the endogeneous hormone production that is so crucial to natural physique athletes.
Testosterone alone has been shown to increase as much as 30% by restoring adequate levels of Vitamin A, Magnesium, Vitamin D or Vitamin E. If you think about all the other micronutrients that increase the production of testosterone by less then 30% or all the other hormones that are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, you can get and idea of the relative importance of the micronutrient density of your diet.
Why Micronutrient Dense Diets Are The Best Way For Naturals To Get Ripped
Over time, standard physique dieting inevitably causes micronutrient sufficiency. When this happens your bodies levels of key hormones are going to be reduces or become dis-regulated.
Over time this will make it more and more difficult to lose body fat and gain muscles. if a physique athlete takes the opposite approach and megadoses the most important micronutrients, they will notice a steady improvement in their health and fitness along with an increased ability to lose fat and gain muscle.
The reason most people don’t do this is because it is assumed that supplements like multivitamins can replace the affects of micronutrients found in food. Besides the previously mentioned inability of supplements to replace the thousands of phytochemicals yet undiscovered by nutritional scientists, most vitamin and mineral supplements do not work.
That is no exaggeration, most vitamin and mineral supplements have been shown to be questionable and possibly ineffective. If that were not the case, most bodybuilding and physique diets would work all the time.
These diets do not work all the time because the assumptions many of these diets are based on are false. Most importantly, the assumption that multivitamins and supplements can replace the nutrients people should be getting from the most nutrient dense foods.
Consider this “evidence based recommendation for a natural bodybuilding contest preparation“. In the article the authors go to excruciating lengths to explore the different factors that affect preparing the physique for competition. In total, they consider the following areas:
- Calories and Macronutrients
- Calorie Intake For Competition
- Determining Macro Intake
- Ketogenic Diets and Individual Variance
- Nutrient Timing
- Meal Frequency
- Nutritional Supplements
- Branch Chain Amino Acids
- Citrulline Malate
- Psychosocial Issues
If you go ahead and take a look at the paper, you will notice that they elaborate about things like “psyvhosocial issues” and their affects on physique preparation while conveniently glossing over major issues like “micronutrients”. In reference the micronutrients the authors note:
” previous studies have observed deficiencies in intakes of micronutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron, in dieting bodybuilders [3, 17, 18, 204, 205]. However, it should be noted that these studies were all published nearly 2 decades ago and that micronutrient deficiencies likely occurred due to elimination of foods or food groups and monotony of food selection [3, 205]. Therefore, future studies are needed to determine if these deficiencies would present while eating a variety of foods and using the contest preparation approach described herein. Although the current prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies in competitive bodybuilders is unknown, based on the previous literature, a low-dose micronutrient supplement may be beneficial for natural bodybuilders during contest preparation; however, future studies are needed to verify this recommendation.”
I guess micronutrients stopped being cool around the time people discovered they could cure scurvy with vitamin C pills, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, the authors researchers don’t seem to want to be bothered with something as commonplace as the micronutrients in the food people are eating.
I cant say I am surprised. Most bodybuilders and physique athletes focus more on minutia then they do on the basics. It took me years of worrying about calorie cycling and macronutrient ratios before I ate consistently and got even a little better at the basics of lifting.
After all, it is human nature for people to be attracted to novel or advanced solutions. I probably spent the first 5 years of my lifting career doing advanced routines before I realized I would make way better progress by focusing on the basics.
On top of that, no supplement company is going to spend thousands of dollars marketing collard greens, fresh air and sleep. The incentive is to focus on things that can be sold like advanced supplements, drugs and routine.
We know that most athletes taking performance enhancing drugs have more flexibility in their macronutrient ratios and calorie intake then naturals. This includes naturals with a perfect diet. If more people would focus on micronutrient sufficiency, their production and utilization of many anabolic hormones like growth hormone, testosterone and insulin would be greatly increased making most types of time intensive nutritional minutia less important or un-necessary.
Instead of focusing on advanced manipulation of macros and calories, focus on consistently improving the micronutrient density of your diet to include more vitamins minerals and phytochemicals. In doing so, you will stabilize your endocrine system and increase your bodies production of your hormones related to building muscle and losing fat.