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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 body composition with performance dietician, Justin Robinson. Let’s get started.
DF: Through a lot of our extended discussions with a lot of various health and performance professionals in the podcast, we’ve heard that endurance athletes tend to do really well at BUD/S and a lot of endurance athletes are thinner guys, and people entering the pipeline underweight seems to be potentially, you know, if you have guys that are used to running cross-country or whatever. [14:54:05:22] Do you think there are more underweight people coming into BUD/S than overweight, or what’s that look like for you?
J: Great question, and I think one of the biggest mistakes people can make is to think that being an NSW operator, you have to be a certain height and a certain weight. So, we see the guys who are 5’5”, 150 pounds, we see the guys who are 5’6” and 200 pounds, and we see the guys who are the prototypical 5’11”, 185. So, there’s all across the board, and I don’t think that your height and weight and even your body composition is a predictor of your success in this training program. So, there’s my big caveat. I think what it really comes down to is how your body mass index, how your percentage of body fat, how your frame size allows you to do the things that are required for BUD/S training, running, pushups, pull-ups, obstacle course types of activities. So, it probably just happens to be that people who are strong and fit and lean excel in those three or four categories.
DF: But they don’t have to necessarily fit in a certain cookie cutter mold? [J: Precisely.] So, I think that maybe this applies to people that are a little bit earlier in the process of determining whether they want to do this or not, and I think whether it’s high school or around that period of time in your life, you know, people have a chance still to step in and make lifestyle changes, to be able to either work on their fitness in one way or put on weight, eat differently, whatever. Do you think that there are people that are underweight or overweight that make it through BUD/S?
J: Oh, no doubt about it, yes.
DF: I guess that’s like maybe based on the like a clinical number. I don’t know how…
J: Yeah, and that’s why, again, there’s no formula for making it through, and I think if we talk about mental versus physical, which one of those components is more important, it’s probably the mental component. Not probably, it is the mental component of making it through this program. Getting your body composition where it needs to be before you get here is optimal. So, this is not, BUD/S is not a weight loss or weight gain program. So, if you know you’re overweight or over fat, then lose that fat before you get here.
DF: So, how can someone determine that? I know that might be very simple, but…
J: It is very simple, and it’s not as simple of an answer because it comes down to looking at some of the physical fitness standards and seeing how you fall into those. So, some examples, if you’re strong as an ox, you can deadlift, you can bench a house, but your three-mile run or your mile and a half run is terrible, well, then maybe you need to lose some weight, whether that be actually some muscle mass and/or percentage of body fat so that you can be a faster runner. Likewise, if you can run, you know, I’ll use the three-mile as an example, if you can run a 16-minute three-miler, you’re a cross-country runner, but you can only do five pull-ups, and you maybe can’t deadlift your body weight, you probably need to get stronger, and that may include gaining a little bit more muscle tissue and/or body fat, and maybe your 16-minute three mile goes to a 17-minute, but that’s the other thing that we look at here. We’re not looking for the fastest person or the strongest person. We’re looking for somebody who’s pretty darn good at a lot of things. So, I would say that’s how you can tip the scale, no pun intended, is you look to see if you’re an outlier in either direction. Are you overly strong and big and fast and explosive, and if so, you may need to lose some muscle mass and get lighter. If you are the twig who has all kinds of endurance and maybe a lot of speed, but you don’t have that relative body strength, then maybe you actually need to go from, arbitrary numbers, 8% body fat to 12% body fat. Where we do see the fewest number of injuries is in that 10 to 15% body fat range. So, I tell a lot of the students here towards the end of their training, where we test their three-mile, bench press, deadlift, pull-ups, along with a few others, if you are 16% body fat, that’s outside of that range, but if you can still run a sub 23 mile, why do I care about 16% body fat cause that’s you. That’s where your body is at. But if you are 18% body fat, and you’re running a 23-minute three-mile, okay, maybe we need to get that body fat down a little bit. We need to get you a little bit faster. So, there’s no single answer to it because it really is looking at all of those different physical components that are least the basic requirements for getting to BUD/S and then using that as an assessment and saying, “Okay, how is my total body weight, how is my lean body mass, and how is my body fat mass impeding or, you know, not allowing me to do what that is what is physically required?”
DF: I think that’s a much better approach than someone Googling a number and trying to make a self-assessment on their body fat percentage. You’re saying it’s a lot more, it should be a lot more based on your performance capability than a chart, let’s say.
J: Exactly. And, again, we talked a little bit about data and metrics and how those are tools because if you look at, and we can’t get too wrapped up in it because maybe you get your body fat tested, and that’s a separate conversation itself because body fat is only an estimate. We can’t 100% accurately, measure your body fat unless, as morbid as it sounds, we slice you open on a table cause that’s the only way to 100% accurately measure body fat. So, we estimate our body fat, whether it be with a bod pod or the Bioelectrical impedance analysis or the skin fold. But let’s just say you have a pretty accurate number, and let’s say you’re at 12%, and you do an eight-month BUD/S prep program, and you go from 12% to 14% body fat. You can’t beat yourself up about the fact that I gained fat. Yeah, well, you’re faster, and you’re stronger, and your endurance is better. “Yeah, but my body fat went up.”
DF: If anything, that sounds pretty impressive to me, if you ask me. You’re able to eat enough to do that.
J: So, even, despite the fact that your body fat went up, then that probably tells you that you maybe needed a little bit more body fat for some of the more endurance types of exercises because when we look at endurance athletes, triathletes, triathletes aren’t 6 and 7% body fat. They’re lean, they’re light, but they’re not as lean as an NFL running back, for example, who maybe is in that 6 to 8% body fat. And if an NFL running back is incredibly good at what they do, but they get a lot of recovery from one session to the next, and they’re not doing 12, 13, 14-mile types of evolutions, whereas somebody, an endurance athlete, is maybe 10, 12% body fat, and that might be more optimal for an endurance athlete. So, that’s the other thing, too, is that we maybe allow our eyes to lie to us as to what something is. We may look at an NFL running back who’s very, very muscle bound and look at an endurance athlete and be like, “Well, the endurance athlete is skinnier, probably has lower percentage of body fat.” That may not be the case.
DF: Yeah, I think, easy trap for a lot of people to fall into the vanity aspects of physical fitness, and that’s like, obviously way outside the bounds of performance, and it’s kind of easy to get caught up in that.
J: Exactly, performance over vanity, man, if more people followed that, we’d probably have a lot more people who were successful in this training program, no doubt.
DF: So, speaking to candidates that might be in that outlier body mass index, whether it’s overweight or underweight, in our culture, there’s always been like a rush to “make weight,” so to speak, and how do you recommend candidates approach reworking their body composition? And I know that’s a big question cause it could be either underweight or overweight, but obviously people, if they need to lose weight to make it and to do something, I mean that’s where people I think sometimes get, maybe not desperate is not the right word, but they will cut corners or do, that’s where I think that’s it’s kind of created that market for fad diets and such, but.
J: It’s a great question, and I think this is where the general health advice overlaps with the performance advice. And so, I would say focus on healthy habits, and try to gain or lose your weight over the course of a few months versus over the course of a few weeks because, yeah, if you do something drastic to gain muscle mass or to lose muscle mass, what happens at the end of that four weeks or that six weeks, or what happens when you get hurt? I’ve seen this a lot around here, is people will do, do what they’re doing, lose body fat, lose weight, they get hurt, bone injury, and they balloon up in body weight. And that’s because they just continued doing what they were doing before, and they didn’t necessarily develop healthy habits, healthy recovery habits, healthy sleep habits, healthy nutritional habits for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, so I think the more you can ingrain just general healthy eating, I like to look at is as a pyramid. And on the base of that pyramid, you have just your wellness, and then you maybe have fitness above that, and then high elite performance is at the very tip of that. How that translates to food is overall healthy eating, healthy carbs, fats, proteins, real foods, as we’ve talked about in some of the other episodes, and then in the center of that is more of the fitness-y types of foods, and that’s where maybe some of the protein shakes and meal replacement bars, whatnot, will fit in, and the very tip of that might be supplementation. I think we skew that, and when we focus on gaining or losing weight too fast especially, we focus a little bit more on those convenience foods and the supplements, and that pyramid gets inverted.
DF: I guess that’s maybe kind of the way the marketing works, too. This person looks like this, they’re an elite athlete, and, yes, maybe they are taking this, or they eat a certain way and ignoring all the work it took for that athlete to get to that point, which is years of not eating terrible foods. [J: And genetics.] Well, yeah, [J: More than anything else.] and genetics. We talked, in one of our other episodes, about supplementation and protein powders and all that kind of stuff, and I think this is another place where supplement use is pretty popular, like “fat burners” and such. [J: The thermogenic supplements, yes.] Right, right, exactly. Talk about that a little bit for us. For people that might not be familiar or people that maybe have used it, just give them kind of a brief.
J: Again, and we discussed in the supplement episode that you gain the way you train, so I say whatever tools you are utilizing to make it through here are the ones that you should have while you’re here. And you don’t want to be on a supplementation regimen just to get to BUD/S and then get here and have everything cut out, and then mentally and physically, how are you going to respond? Are you creating some form of a mental crutch when you take certain supplements because you do gain benefits from those, whether it be an actual benefit or placebo effect, you have that perceived benefit from taking it. So, when you take it away, and things here get really, really, really challenging from a physical and mental standpoint, can you perform without that crutch? So, that’s one of the big messages I really drive home on. Outside of that, are weight loss supplements effective?
DF: Yeah, do they even work is a big question that I think…
J: They do work, which is why they continue to sell as well as they do, but now the more important question is are they safe, and I would say most of the weight loss supplements are not safe. When we talk about what is in a product that makes it effective for thermogenesis or weight loss or fat burning, it’s probably caffeine and/or some derivative of an amphetamine. So, can you get those same benefits from a very strong black cup of coffee? Probably. So, again…
DF: Right, and not all the mystery what else could be in there.
J: Without all the mystery, without the tainted and contaminated potential of many supplements. And again, the herbal supplements are some of the biggest culprits of the product not matching what’s on the label and having more product in them than they should or less of something or just flat out not what’s on the label, that a lot of the weight loss products are derived from herbal supplements. So, anything that’s herbal, I just stay away from it. We talk about risk/reward, and with something like an NSF-certified for sport or Informed Choice certified protein powder that says whey protein, natural flavor, very, very low risk in a supplement like that. Thermogenesis with shredded male and female on the label saying, “Lose 10% body fat in only three weeks,” very, very high risk with something like that versus a very low benefit, whereas, okay, what’s in this product that actually works? It’s probably whatever stimulant that’s in there. It’s the stimulant that’s going to make you burn that fat, and where can we get natural forms of that stimulant, and I would say, [DF: Or natural ways to get yourself in that same state.] natural ways do that, coffee or a natural form of caffeine, maybe some of the stronger teas that are a little higher in caffeine. But then you have to look at it the fact of, well, there’s no coffee breaks during Hell Week, and so I really try to get the students to wean themselves from even coffee when they’re coming through the program because you’re not going to get coffee while you’re here. So, it’s tough because it’s sometimes a double-edged sword, whereas caffeine is a performance enhancing substance. We, as a fitness and nutrition community have done thousands of studies on caffeine demonstrating its effectiveness, but you don’t get coffee breaks during Hell Week. So, that’s something to keep in mind, and then we get back to the sleep and rest and recovery session. Can you improve your testosterone to cortisol ratio from better sleep? Yes. Can you potentially store more lean body mass and less fat mass by altering some of the hormones by getting adequate recovery over the course of the week, over the course of the month? Hands down, yes. Can you rely on supplements because you’re not getting enough sleep or recovery? Sure, and so there’s just so many different ways to get there, but it keeps coming back to the basics, to the base of that pyramid. Hey, how’s your sleep, how’s your overall basic quality food intake, and if you are choosing to take supplements, are you taking the ones that are third-party tested, and is there a convenient food alternative that we can maybe swap for one of those?
DF: Yeah, I think that’s a really big piece. For whatever reason, if a person is approaching weight loss, and obviously they want things to happen as quickly as possible, just point me at the right thing, and it’s really not that simple. Or people trying to gain weight, the same, you know, it’s not just two scoops of this and go for a jog. You know, that’s not really how it works.
J: Yeah, and exactly. If weight loss was easy, then this nation wouldn’t be 60% overweight and 30% obese, right, so it is a very challenging aspect, and it is funny that SOF, Special Operation Forces, is vastly different from the general military. The general military, unfortunately, has a problem with people being overweight. We have a very small portion of our operators are probably overweight, but we probably have a bigger instance of people who can’t keep weight on. They have trouble keeping weight on their frame.
DF: Let’s talk, about that for a minute because I struggled with that whenever I was younger. I was a skinny guy. I was a cross-country runner, and then going into try to like change your body composition, to me, it was difficult to eat enough, and I think that this, almost it’s equally as hard on the other side of the spectrum as well. People that are underweight that want to be stronger or need to be stronger to be able to hit the numbers that they need to get into BUD/S, what are some of the big areas they should be putting their focus into cause obviously it’s about what they’re going to put in their body, but break that down a little bit for us.
J: Sure. This is being very, very simplistic, but I feel that nutrition is what controls weight gain, weight loss, and I feel that the exercise stimulus is a little bit more of what can control body fat, muscle mass. So, in order to gain healthy weight, which would be a little bit of body fat and a lot of muscle, you know, proportionately, you have to first have the stimulus. So, you can’t sit around drinking a bunch of protein shakes and gain healthy weight. You can gain weight that way, you know. Ice cream, of course, you can gain weight, but if you don’t have that stimulus from the exercise, then the body’s not going to respond in the way that’s necessary. So, it really is that multifaceted approach of, okay, let’s have a good stimulus from training in the gym or outside, and then let’s have the food or the building blocks to support that. And so, it does come from total caloric intake and then, yes, more protein. Now, do athletes or candidates for a SOF program trying to gain weight, do they proportionally need more protein? Maybe not. I talk about plates, and if you think about your plate as a pie chart, so you’ve got about a third of that plate is protein, about a third of that plate should be vegetables, and then a third of that plate should be your carbohydrates or your starches. If I say you need more protein, that’s a factual statement, but that doesn’t mean that 33% or so of your plate has to get bigger. It just means you need a bigger plate. So, the portions maybe increase but not necessarily compared to the other foods because if you just start eating more protein, then you’re kind of pushing out other healthy foods that your body needs for recovery, for energy production and for that weight gain. So, filling half your plate with meat may give you that more protein that you need, all right, but then what about the vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables and other healthy starches? So, eat a bigger plate, and eat a more dense plate cause, as you said, it’s sometimes difficult just to, the sheer volume of food is overwhelming; to get five, 6,000 calories a day is hard.
DF: Especially, if you avoid the ice cream or peanut butter or whatever it is.
J: Yeah, if you’re trying to do so and eat clean and eat 6,000 calories a day, you can’t do that with spinach and, you know, egg whites. So, it really comes down to the concept of eating foods that are both nutrient dense and calorie dense, some quick examples. Nutrient dense foods would be vegetables, bell peppers, spinach, very, very high in vitamins and minerals for their volume. A calorie dense food would be a candy bar, very, very high calories for its volume. So, the focus for healthy weight gain should be foods that are both nutrient dense and calorie dense. We might look at something like iceberg lettuce that’s neither, but something like trail mix, very calorically dense but then also has the healthy fats and different minerals in there. So, snacking on trail mix I think is one of the easiest ways, eating nut butters, you know, doing the peanut butter lollipop thing after dinner, where you just get a heaping spoon of, I say natural, try to find ones where the ingredients are peanuts and salt, natural peanut butter, maybe sprinkle some dark chocolate chips on there. So, yeah, you’re not spooning ice cream, but you’re spooning healthy fats into the body. Olive oil and other healthy oils. Olive oil is not great for cooking cause it breaks down in high heat, but it’s great for finishing your food. And this might be nice, too, especially if you’re in a family setting where not everybody else is burning 6,000 calories a day.
DF: Yeah, they all don’t get to eat spoonfuls of peanut butter…
J: Of peanut butter, yeah, after dinner, but maybe if you’re having spaghetti with a nice vegetables and meat, all right, maybe you take the olive oil, and you pour some extra olive oil over those vegetables or over the pasta so that you’re getting those extra three or 400 calories that Mom and Pop and Brother and Sister maybe aren’t getting cause they don’t have those needs.
DF: So, now, I guess on the flipside, for people wanting to cut down on their body mass for performance reasons, is it as simple as the flipside of what you just said, or is there more to it?
J: On paper, yeah, it is that simple, that, yes, then they would focus on those highly nutrient dense foods that are also low in caloric density. So, for example, a big plate of spinach is like 30 calories, but if I take that spinach, and I sauté it with some avocado oil, which is a great high heat cooking oil, now I maybe tripled the amount of spinach for half the size, and I added the oil, so now instead of 30 calories, I’m at like 200 calories for just a little sliver of my plate. So, those, those are some of the different concepts. Whole fruit versus dried fruit, fruit juice versus whole fruit. Somebody who’s on a weight loss program, eat an orange, eat an apple. Somebody who is on a weight gain program, eat a handful of raisons or dried tart cherries and drink a glass of orange juice because you’re getting four or five times the amount of calories with those dried or juice types of products. I know people are really into smoothies for breakfast, and I think that’s actually a great weight gain program, but not so much for weight loss because there’s not really the satiety from juicing or from smoothies, and it’s… [DF: What do you mean by that?] So, some people wake up, have breakfast and make a smoothie, “I’ll pour some soymilk and a banana and a scoop of protein powder,” [DF: For a “healthy” breakfast.] for a healthy breakfast, for weight loss. And, yeah, maybe that’s only three or 400 calories, which might be an appropriate amount of calories for a weight loss breakfast, but it’s not very satiety…It’s not going to fill you up. You have that at7:30, at 9:30, you’re looking for something to eat.
DF: Yeah, if you get that long, right.
J: So, liquid calories I would say are something to avoid if you’re trying to lose weight.
DF: I think that’s really huge. I mean I have always said, people drinking whether it’s sodas, you don’t realize how many calories you’re putting down, and it’s so much easier than trying to eat that amount of calories of anything.
J: Exactly. And, one of my quotes is, “The fastest way to gain weight is to drink your calories. The fastest way to lose weight is to not drink your calories.” And as we discussed in some of the other topics, I’m not super into calculating macros, and I don’t necessarily believe that it’s a simple equation of calories in, calories out. From a very global approach, yes, if you want to lose weight, you need to create that energy deficit, but there are hormones and how we store energy in the body is all…
DF: Yeah, you can’t just turn it up to 11.
J: It’s all very involved in that, so it’s really calories in, calories how we store it and then how that affects calories out. It’s not just calories in, calories out, but, you do need to cut down on some of the caloric intake, and you probably do need to ramp up a little bit of the physical activity or change the physical activity in order to create that energy deficit. Now, getting into the low calorie stuff, we talked briefly in one of the other episodes about gut health and how artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners may negatively impact the gut health and maybe even to some extent trick the brain into thinking that it actually had sugar, so that’s why diet sodas maybe aren’t as effective, [DF: Like artificial sweeteners you mean?] which are artificially sweetened, you know, one calorie or five calorie, whatever they may be. We’re looking at, oh, “Instead of 200 calories from soda, I had five calories from a diet soda; therefore, I’m going to lose X amount of pounds per week cause I’m cutting so many, you know, 3,500 calories in a pound,” and you’re doing that math, but it never, ever works out that way. That’s not really what happens. So, the chemicals that we consume from those artificial sweeteners and colors and flavors may negatively impact hormones in the body. Hormones may impact how we store body fat or lean body mass. So, again, not to sound like a broken record, I know people probably out there want this, “Oh, hey, you know, maybe Naval Special Warfare dietician’s going to give me a really sexy answer on what I need to do.” [DF: The silver bullet, so to speak.] It’s, yeah, that doesn’t exist. It’s still actual food. So, yes, drinking orange juice is a great way to get extra calories, and drinking water instead of orange juice is a great way to cut calories out of your diet, but, yeah, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no such thing as a super food. That’s a nonsense term. It’s a marketing term. And from a very, you know, 10,000-foot approach, cutting calories is the way to go about it. Fifty calories of a whole food natural product is probably better even for weight loss than five calories of something artificial. So, getting back to this, this smoothie thing, it’s really easy to get a lot of calories into a smoothie, and if we even have a low calorie smoothie, it’s not necessarily improving the satiety mechanism and filling us up versus a more standard approach of, “Okay, let’s maybe have some protein and a complex type of carbohydrate,” eggs, fruit and avocado for breakfast is probably better than a smoothie for weight loss, even if it is a few extra hundred calories cause you’re probably going to not over-consume calories later in the day cause you had healthy fats and protein and fiber in that meal that actually told your brain that you’re full, so you’re not searching for food an hour and a half later.
DF: I think a lot of people fall into that trap of oversimplifying things and trying to just kind of get the equation down for themselves, but it takes a little bit more work than that. Well, I think it, you’ve done a great job of kind of hammering home that this is about a lifestyle and [J: 100% yes.] constantly feeding your body. There’s no shortcuts. So, you’ve heard it here first. There’s no silver bullet from NSW to get you a perfect body mass index. You have to put in the work, research and read the labels. [J: Absolutely.] Thanks so much for all your knowledge.
J: Thank you.