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There are no shortcuts to a successful fitness regimen, only hard work and consistency. And to navigate through the mountain of fitness advice available, candidates must learn to separate fad from function. I’m Daniel Fletcher, welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, The Official Navy SEAL Podcast. In this extended series, we’ll speak with select special warfare performance experts to clarify common training misconceptions and provide insight into areas of focus specifically important to special warfare candidates.
Today we extend our fitness series with a discussion about protein powders and supplements with Performance Dietician, Justin Robinson. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: Justin, first of all, thank you so much for taking a little bit of time out of your day to sit and speak with us. We appreciate you being on the podcast. [J: It’s fun. Thank you.] Yeah, it’s been I think a year plus since we had you on episode 11, so if you guys are listening at home, you guys can go back and listen to episode 11 and hear your official intro and learn all about you. But just spend a couple minutes, tell us a little bit about your history and what brought you to NSW and what your function is.
Justin Robinson [JR]: So, my background is pretty broad. I spent a lot of time in both strength and conditioning and sports nutrition, going through school and after school, my bachelor’s degree is a dual in nutrition and kinesiology, my master’s degree is in exercise science, and so I was working at a sports performance center for a while, and then the call came almost out of nowhere to interview with a professional baseball team. And so, I took that route and spent a year working with the Los Angeles Dodgers as their team dietician, and then I taught for a while in college, and then these opportunities in the military came up in 2015. And so, I’ve been working here in this community since then, and it’s been an awesome experience. I learn something new every day here.
DF: I think that’s a cool part of your job focus is just being on the edge. You’re constantly learning about the human body, performance, and it’s just kind of an ongoing thing. It doesn’t really stop, you know.
J: Never, and part of that is driven by my colleagues, so I’m part of a Special Operations Forces dietician working group, so there’s about 40 of us across all branches of the military. Part of the learning is us driving each other and coming up with questions, but the other component to that is this community, and hence, why we’re doing these podcasts is that I get questions from students and operators every day, and so they’re constantly challenging me about new diet trends and new supplements and research studies. It’s a very well educated population here, so it keeps me going.
DF: Yeah, it’s interesting cause I think a lot of the guys that are in this community, they are the types that would do their own research I think [J: Definitely.] and try to seek their own path, which it’s seeking out professionals like you is obviously the smart thing to do. So, we have a bit of a series we’d like to talk with you about, a few specific misconceptions or big talking points in the community for prep in BUDS or even in the pipeline in general. We’ll start out talking about protein powder and supplements cause obviously that is a big, broad topic, and it’s very common in exercise and performance. There’s a huge, widespread rich market of products that are in front of people all the time. How do you recommend recruits start navigating all these products out there and them versus eating clean, real foods, and how do you help people or how do you recommend people negotiate that balance?
J: Great question, and I’ll tackle that from two aspects. So, I will, you know, what they say, CYA, on my part. You can look it up to see exactly what that stands for. In terms of what the students should do when they’re here, what they’re allowed to do when they’re here. So, I’ll tackle that, and then I’ll discuss the student prepping for this program. So, we do have a rather strict supplement policy, and that is essentially no supplements at all once you are within Naval Special Warfare. If you have a circumstance such as a stress fracture history, then we can prescribe calcium or vitamin D. If you have a food allergy, we could probably prescribe something like a probiotic. So, there are ways around that, but your basic, pre-workouts, Creatine, anything that is a pill or powder is not allowed while you’re a student here. So, I’m a big fan of, I didn’t come up with the phrase, but, “Gain the way you train.” So, one of my recommendations is if you know you are only allowed to have extra calories and extra protein from whole foods, as you mentioned, while you’re here, then a large portion of your training should consist of getting those calories, getting the extra protein, extra vitamins and minerals from nutrient dense and calorie dense foods, so doing things like eating trail mix instead of chips. Instead of a salad, maybe you have cooked vegetables cause that’s going to wilt it down, and you’ll get more on your plate, using olive oil or coconut oil in the foods that you eat to get some extra calories, hardboiled eggs, for example, so getting your calories from there. But I’m also a realist. So, I understand that a lot of the individuals prepping for this program probably have part-time jobs or still in school and are probably training twice a day, and so if you’re going from one training session to school, or from school to a job, you might not have time to prepare a meal. And so, grabbing a protein shake is a very convenient thing. So, my advice for when or why to take a supplement really comes down to convenience. I do feel that whole food calories are better calories, but, you know, we’ll discuss recovery aspect in a little bit, but I think you may not be able to get the calories that you need just from whole foods if you have such a busy, hectic schedule, especially if you’re 18 or 19. Maybe you’re living in an apartment with some friends, and it’s just not there. So, definitely valid reasons to take a supplement.
DF: Let’s just talk about protein maybe just for a second. I think that’s probably one of the most popular powdered, we’ll say supplement, that’s really commonly used for good reason I think a lot of times as kind of an add-on to an existing really well-rounded diet. Do you think that protein powder itself is wise to use in addition to whole food, as in maybe you’re not even able to take in enough protein throughout the day, not necessarily for convenience but just for pure volume?
J: Yeah, and again, the answer to all of these questions is it depends. That’s the best response I can give for anything. If we look at most Americans, most Americans get enough protein. If you are very, very active, you need more protein than the standard individual. If you are prepping for a program such as this, you probably need more protein and more total calories, so also more carbs and more fat, than that really active person. So, yeah, I think it is feasible to have all of your calories and all of your protein needs met from food, but, again, I think it’s a matter of do you have the time and the means to prepare all that food. If the answer’s no, I think protein powders can be a very solid option. When it comes to any supplements, so whatever you do choose, whether it be a Creatine or a protein powder, my first tip is get things that I call strip down. So, a lot of times you’ll see protein powder, and it’s part of a protein complex, [DF: Or like a weigh gainer or something like that?] oh, exactly. It’s a weight gainer, it’s a pre-workout, it’s a post-workout, and the ingredient list is a mile long. [DF: Like sugars and all kinds of other junk in there.] Exactly, so one of my biggest things is make sure you know what you’re putting into your body. Don’t be naïve. Don’t leave gray area, in terms of what you’re putting into your body. And I’ll talk about certification here in a moment, but you hear all the time collegiate, professional athletes, they pop positive for a test, and like, “Oh, well, it must have been this protein powder that I was taking.” And so, also point the finger back at them and like, “Well, it’s your body. Somebody may have handed you that shake, but you still drank that.” And so, don’t be naïve.
DF: The proprietary blend, you read that word, right?
J: Yes, proprietary blends, you don’t know exactly what amounts are in a proprietary blend. So, the two major points, take homes with supplementation, whether it be a protein powder, pre-workout, post-workout, one, know precisely what you’re putting into your body. The strip down, take a protein powder that’s just protein, added flavor and really nothing else. If you do take Creatine, it should say Creatine. And that simplistic approach…
DF: That cuts out a lot of the products right there already.
J: Absolutely. The second and most important is third-party tested supplements, so the research is all over in terms of the contamination and tainted aspects of supplements. And what I mean by that is some studies will say, “Well, there’s 25% of products on the shelf at common health food or supplement stores are contaminated with something not on the label.” I’ve read another one that’s up to 75%. So, roughly, if you split the difference, roughly half of the products that you can purchase on the shelves at a grocery store, even at a specialty store, probably don’t have in the bottle what’s actually on the label.
DF: Some residues or contamination, something…
J: And exactly, and that can be any number of things. So, it could be to the left end, the not very dangerous spectrum, yeah, maybe there’s not the exact amounts. So, it may say it’s 25 grams of protein per scoop, but it’s actually 20 grams. Where that can get a little dangerous is maybe with some of the micronutrients, things like iron, vitamin A, some of the fat-soluble vitamins that can maybe be toxic. It may say it has 20 milligrams of something, but it really has 40. It may have, to the right end and more dangerous aspect of that spectrum, it may be contaminated with anabolic steroids or amphetamines or maybe heavy metals, as you talked about, other residue. So, when you have a product that is third-party certified, and the primary organizations for that are NSF Sport and Informed Choice, it’ll have that label on there, you can check out those websites, it’ll list what products are verified. That at very least assures that what you’re taking is safe. It may or may not work. [DF: At least, yeah, there’s somebody else looking at it.] Exactly. [DF: Those are the people that are selling it to you.] At the worst, you’re wasting your money, but you’re not potentially wasting your kidneys or wasting your military career by having too much heavy metals in your system or popping positive right on a test. [DF: Or hurting yourself.] Or hurting yourself because we look at things like total caffeine intake, and total caffeine intake should be less than 500 milligrams per day. So, if you’re having a cup of coffee and an energy drink and a pre-workout, if the pre-workout label says 150 milligrams, but it really has 250, and you’re doing two scoops of that, now you’re getting 2, 300 extra milligrams of caffeine.
DF: Triple and quadrupling your recommended or, yeah, max those, right?
J: Exactly, and so you’re being unaware of what you’re putting into your body.
DF: I think that’s a really good kind of cornerstone. Just dig deeper past that page in the magazine that’s the ad, and find out what’s really in there, and that’s huge. A lot of people just read the label on the front and don’t spin around to the back to find out what’s in there or try to find the stuff that’s been tested.
J: Or the worst reason, “My buddy’s really jacked, and this is what he’s taking, so that’s what I’m going to take.”
DF: Yeah, right, right. Let’s talk about vitamins maybe for a minute. What are some of the common nutritional deficiencies that you think people should actually be supplementing for, if there are any?
J: Good question, and, again, the CYA on my part is I have a hard time prescribing any individual vitamin or mineral without having some sort of a blood test first. We look at those, the one that comes up more often than not is vitamin D. A lot of athletes, especially people who are very active, people who are training for a military Special Operations Forces program such as this, are typically deficient in vitamin D.
DF: Now, why is that?
J: So, it’s not just a standard vitamin. It’s also a hormone in the body, and because it’s used in so many different processes, I don’t know the exact path of physiology of it, but because it’s used in a number of different processes, it’s not just for bone health. It’s important in gut health, it’s important in other hormone regulations in the body. Especially in our community, even though the guys are outside quite a bit, they’re usually wearing long sleeves and pants and covers, and so that minimizes skin exposure to the sun. Depending on where you live, if you are, I forget the exact longitude number, but if you’re north of Denver area across the United States, you have lower UV ray exposure, and so that may increase your risk for vitamin D deficiency. So, I’d say that would probably be one of the big ones. Calcium and iron, we do see a little bit. However, I wouldn’t prescribe iron especially without that iron panel because iron can be toxic in the liver.
DF: So, yeah, maybe a multivitamin and vitamin D is like, right?
J: Yes, yeah, there’s, if people talk about it, it’s great for insurance, so I have no problem if somebody wants to take a multivitamin, but there’s been zero conclusive evidence that taking a multivitamin really does anything for performance or even for our immune function. So, people will say, “Oh, well, take a multivitamin cause you won’t get sick as often,” or, “It’ll improve your strength or performance or recovery.” There’s really no evidence to support that. However, there’s really no evidence to say that a multivitamin is dangerous [DF: Or, yeah, bad for you.] or bad for you, outside of taking something that is not third-party tested that may have other contaminants in it. So, if you go to, again, a popular health food store, a lot of the times, they’ll have the men’s pack multivitamin, and it doesn’t just have vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D. It’ll have an herbal [DF: There’s tons of stuff in there.] extract pill. It’ll have this and that, and going back to what I mentioned with supplements not matching the label, not matching the product, the biggest culprit of those are herbal supplements, so things like gingko and ginseng. Those are really all over the place in terms of not matching that, again, the 250 milligrams of whatever it says that amount not being in the bottle.
DF: How do you recommend people decipher between a high quality vitamin and something that isn’t? I mean is it just based on price, or where do you start with that?
J: To some extent, yes. I do think you get what you pay for, but the caveat to that is there are a lot of overpriced products. So, I probably would not go to a dollar store to buy my vitamins. I would say it goes back to making sure that it’s third-party tested. A friend of mine who works with the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, she has a two-step process. Step one, is it third-party tested? If the answer’s no, you stop right there, and you don’t even go to that, and I like that approach. So, again, that affects more of the safety as opposed to the efficacy of that, but most third-party supplements are at least above average in terms of quality. And the other caveat is that even if a supplement touts that it is a very high quality compared to food, pills and powders are still pretty, pills especially, are pretty poorly absorbed. So, even a highly bio available supplement is still not as highly bio available as food.
DF: So, with vitamin D, you mentioned being remotely commonly deficient in people I guess kind of a broad stroke. What can people do to give themselves exposure or what foods to eat to kind of cover that base, if that’s possible?
J: Sure, and that’s the thing, vitamin D is pretty tough to get from the diet. Mushrooms are one of the only natural sources. We talk about dairy products, but that vitamin D is added a lot of the times to those products, but they are in dairy products. So, again, I’ll go back to the same analogy of making sure that your supplements are stripped down. I would say the truth also applies to most foods, so things like yogurt and milk. I’m actually a bigger fan of Greek-style whole fat yogurt, whole fat milk, it’s less processed. Looking for products that maybe have less added sugar, so the whole fat natural, grass fed, if you can afford it, dairy products. Outside of that, it’s really fortified foods. So, you might see things like orange juice that have calcium and vitamin D added to them, but it really is tough to come by in a lot of foods. If you like things like anchovies and sardines that have little fish that have the bones in it, you can get some of the vitamin D and calcium from consuming those bones. Bone broth probably has, which my grandma used to just call chicken stock, but it, now it has…it’s fancy now, exactly. So, getting some of the nutrients from leeching the calcium out of some of the foods there. Sun exposure, as five to ten minutes of mostly body exposure, or maybe 15 to 20 minutes of partial body exposure, again, depending on what part of the country you live in or part of the world you live in, should be enough. I don’t have any problem with people supplementing 1,000 IUs per day. Again, this is Justin…[DF: And you’re talking about vitamin D here?] This is just vitamin D.
DF: Aren’t there like a few different vitamin Ds, like different numbers, vitamin D3, or there’s 11. Two and three? Okay, alright.
J: Two and three. There’s D2 and D3. D2 is from non-animal sources, so plant-based. So, if somebody is a vegan, they will probably only choose vitamin D2. So, if you have an almond milk, or flaxseed milk, soymilk that has vitamin D added to it, that’s actually going to be vitamin D2, which going back to the bio availability or how absorbable the nutrient is, Vitamin D2 is less bio available than D3. D3 is derived from an animal source, so regular milk or yogurt is going to have that D3, and most vitamin D supplements that come in bottles are going to be D3. Again, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you may need to consider that when selecting that supplement.
DF: Gotcha. Let’s go back to that moment when you’re between meals, and you’re trying to get a workout in and you know you’re kind of walking into it with an empty stomach or not feeling 100% because your blood sugar is low. There’s a lot of different packaged products, whether it’s like bars, we talked about protein shakes. What could you maybe recommend people either like steer towards or maybe avoid, obviously, there’s things that are just going to be like sugar products, you know. But I think that certain people maybe gravitate towards certain types of protein, whether it’s a whey protein versus an egg protein or something like that. You were talking about the bio availability of vitamin D3, one being more absorbable or faster absorbing than others. In the protein spectrum, is that the same? Is everyone different, or maybe you can unpack that a little bit.
J: That’s a lot to unpack, but, yes. So, to answer the first part of the question. The simple message I give is that if it’s two to four hours before a heavy workout, that’s when you want more sustained energy, and that’s going to come from a combination of a carb, fat and a protein. And beyond that, it really does depend on what works for you and for your stomach. Quick example, a lot of people love bananas cause they’re high in potassium. I love bananas as a snack, but I know that if I eat a banana within two hours of workout, it gives me indigestion. But that’s something that I only learned from years of training and racing and just learning that about my body. So, trial and error I think is a huge component to know what works for you and for your body. The other side to that is if you’re within an hour, 30 to 60 minutes of workout, that’s where you want a more carbohydrate based meal or snack. And that’s where a lot of the sugary products sometimes do come in, gels, goos, sports drinks that are all sugar, those are fine, I think if it’s timed right around activity. And, yes, is something like watered down orange juice probably better than a sports drink in terms of your overall health? Yes, but is a sports drink effective in providing fluid, carbohydrate and electrolytes? Absolutely, so it meets that bill.
DF: I think the thing that you mentioned earlier about testing and knowing your sources, reading the ingredients, kind of doing a little deeper examination of products. Is that the same thing you’d recommend for diet bars or nutritional bars or meal replacement bars?
J: And those products are a plenty right now. There are different ones with different targets. I think when it comes to the bars, the meal replacement options, again, it depends, what is your goal, what is your purpose of consuming that? Are you trying to get extra calories? Are you trying to get extra protein? So, I’m still a fan of diet quality over the macro content of the food, so…[DF: Can you explain that a little bit?] Yes, absolutely. So, the macro content, macro nutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fat, we have a tendency when we look at products to get the ones that have the most protein and the lowest sugar. And it’s not that high protein, low sugar is unhealthy, that’s a great way to eat.
DF: It’s just a little empty, is what you’re saying?
J: Exactly. We know that sugar, fat and salt all taste really good, and so if you take one of those products away, you have to add more of something else to it. So, a lot of the sugar-free foods are high in fat. And again, not that high fat is wrong, but I just want to make sure that people are not naïve about what they’re putting into their bodies and that sugar-free or low-carb is not necessarily low calorie. So, if your weight loss is a goal, that may not be the best approach. If they don’t add fat, they maybe add something artificial to it. So, a lot of the times in protein bars specifically, they’ll add a lot of sugar alcohols, and we discussed doing what’s right for your body. Sugar alcohols take longer to digest, and some people have digestive issues with high amounts of sugar alcohols. So, you may wonder why, alright, I ate this bar, and I was gassy and bloated. Well, that’s the 15 grams of sugar alcohols in there. I’m still a fan of looking at the ingredients list, and we mentioned this in the previous talk that the fewer the ingredients, the better. A whole food approach is better if the ingredients are actual foods and not chemistry words. That’s still what I look for. So, I do have a tendency to skip the grams of protein and grams of sugar, and I go almost directly to the ingredients list. It’s food, and that’s what I think we need to put into our bodies. We don’t have time to get into gut health, but the short answer to that is artificial colors, flavors, artificial sweeteners may negatively impact gut health. And so, the whole gut microbiome discussion in five years, in ten years we’re going to have really a lot of discussion about this cause we’re just…
DF: Kind of getting the data back finally, yeah, right?
J: Just the very, very tip of it, but it’s related to our sleep, it’s related to our immune system, it’s related to weight gain and weight loss and appetite. So, if we are constantly pumping our bodies full of artificial ingredients, yes, we may be cutting down on our calories or increasing protein or cutting down on sugar, but at what cost. And so, the major concept now is lower calories not necessarily the best way to lose weight. I believe that performance, weight loss, overall health comes from higher quality of food and more real food as often as you can.
DF: I think that’s a really great note to end on. Look at your ingredients, eat as much whole food as possible and only rely on these when you really, really are in a pinch.
J: Exactly, and plan ahead. If you know that you’re going from school to work to a training session, then, yeah, pack trail mix, pack a bar or two, pack a protein shake that has a nutrition facts label or is a third-party tested protein shake and that has, again, those simple ingredients inside of it, and then that way you don’t come home at 6:00 at night and overeat on unhealthy food because you have no willpower cause it’s been four hours since you’ve eaten, and you’ve been expending all this energy. So, yes, you’re absolutely right. I think planning ahead is an aspect that I would add that has an enormous amount of benefit.
DF: Awesome. Thank you so much for talking with us about protein powders, supplements and all this stuff.
J: Thank you.