Building Your Own High-Performance Athletic Body
Carl Lewis, the world’s
fastest man, is my biggest claim to fame for an athlete who follows the
McDougall Diet. (Not too shabby, huh.) He set the world record for the
100-meter dash, won two gold medals, and had the best long-jump series of
his career (29 feet three times – these are considered the best series of
jumps of all times) while following the McDougall diet.1 I met
Carl Lewis in 1990 in Minneapolis one morning while we were both appearing
on a TV talk show. He told me he was frustrated because all previous
eating plans had either caused him to become overweight or left him too
weak to compete and win (these were mostly low-calorie, portion-control
diets). Shortly afterwards he began eating our recommended low-fat,
pure-vegetarian diet and his dilemma was resolved. Yes, he discovered
there IS a diet that would allow him to look, feel,
function, and perform at his best without ever being hungry – shouldn’t
that be the way for all of us?
the introduction to his new cookbook “Very Vegetarian” (written by
Jannequin Bennet – Rutledge Hill Press -- released in 2001), he says, “In
fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan
diet.” He continued, “Dr. McDougall challenged me to make a commitment to
eating a vegetarian diet and then to just do it.” Thousands of other
world-class athletes have learned to follow a near-vegetarian diet simply
because they have no other choice if they want to join the winners’
circle. By the nature of the foods, a winning athlete must eat mostly
plants to obtain high-octane fuel (carbohydrate).
Serious competitors would drink cockroach saliva and eat
rat droppings to improve their performance by 0.0001%. Fortunately, the
winning edge is not so unappealing. All knowledgeable scientists agree
that for the best performance during prolonged exercise the best fuel for
the body is carbohydrate. In practical terms, this means eating starches
(rice, corn, potatoes, beans, pasta, bread), vegetables, and fruits – all
of these plant foods contain 70% to 95+% of their calories as
carbohydrate. Winning athletes shun foods devoid of meaningful amounts of
carbohydrate – these are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheeses, and vegetable
oils. Therefore, a near-vegetarian diet is necessary for athletes to
attain the recommended 60% to 70% of their daily energy as carbohydrate.2,3
Except for milk and honey, carbohydrates
are found in significant amounts only in plant-derived foods. Even
these two foods (milk and honey) obtain their simple sugars
originally from plant sources (grasses, grains, and pollen).
There are 3 potential
sources of fuel (calories) from our foods – protein, fat, and
carbohydrate. Protein is only used as fuel during times of extreme
deprivation, such as starvation. Fat is the “metabolic dollar” stored for
the day when no food is available (a day which seems to never come).
Theoretically, fat can provide fuel for several days of continuous
low-intensity activity, and is reserved for use when sufficient
carbohydrate is not available. Carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel
for daily activities and high-intensity exercise performance. Following a
low-carbohydrate regime will impair performance.4,5 In
general, research shows 3 to 4 days of following such a high-fat,
high-protein diet is enough to deplete the body of its stores of
carbohydrate, clearly impairing short-term performance.6 The
well-known feeling of fatigue results from low carbohydrate
reserves in the body.2
Carbohydrate is another name for sugar. The topic of
carbohydrate is so important to human health that there are medical
journals, like the Journal of Carbohydrate, and yearly medical
symposiums that focus solely on these vital sugars. Some cells in the
body, like the red blood cells and filtering cells of the kidneys
(glomerular cells), can only use carbohydrate for energy. The brain and
other parts of the nervous system have a very strong preference for
carbohydrate – burning fat only under extra ordinary circumstances. When
sufficient carbohydrate is not available, because of starvation or when
someone foolishly follows a low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss, the
body then makes carbohydrate from protein (for example, from the body’s
own muscle protein). This process occurs primarily in the liver, and is
called gluconeogenesis. Fatty acids (fats) cannot be converted to
Forms of Carbohydrate
divided into complex and simple carbohydrates (sugars).
Simple sugars are usually thought of as unhealthy foods – for
example, white sugar (sucrose) or high- fructose corn syrup. But
simple sugars are also plentiful in sweet-tasting fruits – an
important part of a healthy diet. Complex carbohydrates are long
branching chains of simple sugars connected together – they are
often called starches. This kind of sugar is abundant in
common starchy plant foods, like corn, potatoes, rice, whole wheat
flours, and beans. Green and yellow vegetables also synthesize and
store complex carbohydrate.
is a form of complex sugar (branching chains of glucose) synthesized
in the human body and then stored for use during future strenuous
activities. The liver and muscles are the primary depots for
glycogen storage. Glycogen resynthesis is maximal – twice as rapid
– during the first 2 hours after exercise.7 Running out
of glycogen is described by long-distance runners as “hitting the
High Glycemic Foods
Athletes have learned to choose foods that have a high glycemic index.*8,9
You eat in order to replenish your energy supplies – the more efficiently
a food raises the blood sugar, the better. High glycemic index foods,
such as glucose, rice, potatoes, and bread, result in faster and more
efficient storage of glycogen, than do low-glycemic foods, like fructose.
Winners need their glycogen stores filled to the brim in order to last the
long race. To seek foods with a high glycemic index is good advice for
every person wanting to be strong and energetic throughout the day – not
The glycemic index
is a measure of how high a sugar level rises and how long
it stays up in the blood after eating.
may have learned that you should avoid foods high in this index because
these foods cause the blood sugar to rise, which then leads to diabetes.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You may even have heard that
candy bars are healthier for you than potatoes and carrots because of the
candy bars’ lower glycemic index – how silly (I’m sure you didn’t fall for
that one). Populations of people worldwide who eat diets centered on high
glycemic index carbohydrates, like rice for rural Asians, and potatoes for
people in Peru, are essentially free of diabetes.10,11 People,
living like Americans, choosing foods lower in their glycemic index, those
foods which are also high in fat and protein, suffer from an epidemic of
diabetes – of both types. (For more on type-1 diabetes – see my July 2002
newsletter, and type-2 – see “Common Diseases, Diabetes” on my web site.
Type-2 diabetes is soon to be the subject of a newsletter.)
The More Protein,
the Better (Not!)
Athletes and their
trainers focus on protein, extolling its benefits for muscle size and
power. They encourage unlimited consumption of steaks, chicken breasts,
pork chops, and fried eggs. In addition, protein powders are touted as
absolutely necessary for even the amateur body builder. Advertisements
claim, “You only live once…live large…These supplements make body building
easy and fast!”
Protein is necessary for
building all tissues in the body, including muscles. However,
incorporation of protein into the muscles follows hard work, not “hard
eating.” If eating muscle foods (cows, pigs, chickens, and fishes) was
crucial for building muscles then all Americans would look like (the much
younger) Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a result of the huge amounts of protein
they eat everyday. Excess protein is metabolized by the liver and kidneys
and excreted out of the body through the kidneys – it is not destined for
the muscles. You already know where all that excess protein goes. Recall
the pungent smell of the amino acid, asparagine, from your urine after
eating asparagus or the froth in the toilet bowl following a high-protein
meal. (Fat, on the other hand, is easily stored in our fatty tissues when
As far as the supplement
nonsense – there is no convincing evidence that muscle growth would be
improved by taking protein supplements.12 Likewise, taking
certain amino acid supplements, like arginine and ornithine, to stimulate
growth hormone, insulin and/or testosterone secretion in the body is
Athletes Eat More
Food – Not Higher Protein Food
The World Health
Organization recommends people consume about 0.5 grams (g) of protein per
kilogram (Kg) (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Commonly, dietitians talk
about 0.8 g/Kg of protein for the “average” adult (a figure far too high
for our actual needs, however). For strength athletes, recommendations
are for 1.2 g/Kg and for endurance athletes, 1.4 to 1.5 g/Kg.15-17
Increases above these levels do not enhance muscle mass or strength gains.18
However, it is
imperative that you understand the higher protein needs of athletes do not
mean athletes need to eat foods (diets) more concentrated in protein –
like more meat, poultry, fish, and eggs – or worse yet take concentrated
protein supplements. They simply need to eat
In practical terms, this
increased need for protein is naturally met because exercise stimulates
appetite, causing the athlete to eat more food – thus consuming more of
all nutrients. Let me provide a simplified example: A 70-Kg (154 pounds)
sedentary man burning 2000 calories consumes a diet of potatoes, beans,
and broccoli. This combination of foods provides him 56 grams of protein
(0.8 g/Kg) per day. He then begins training for the Boston Marathon – by
gradually building up to run 3 hours a day, he increases his calorie
intake to 4000 calories a day – or twice as much food. He now consumes 112
grams of protein from his meals of potatoes, beans and broccoli. He is
now consuming 1.6 g of protein per Kg of body weight – an amount in excess
of even the higher scientifically-backed recommendations.
Protein and Seek Carbohydrate
All of the great feats
in history have been accomplished by men following near-vegetarian diets
from infancy. Grains, fruits, and vegetables made up most of the diet of
ancient conquerors of Europe and Asia,
including the armies of Alexander
the Great (356-323 BC) and Genghis Kahn (1167 – 1227 AD). Caesar’s
legions complained when they had too much meat in their diet and preferred
to do their fighting on corn and other grains.19
The protein intakes in
athletes are always adequate, whereas carbohydrate intakes often fail to
meet their needs because of faulty nutritional advice and dietary myths.
15-16 A notable exception in athletic circles is the Tarahumara
Indian ultra-marathon runners and triathletes. These people are known
worldwide as "the running Indians," because their entire culture is based
around this activity, and they have been known to travel between 50 and 80
miles every day at a race-like pace. There are currently about 50,000
Tarahumara living in the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico.20
Their diet is practically meatless, consisting of 90% corn and pinto beans
(chili), and vegetables (like squash).21
There is a growing
trend, especially among females, for athletes to eat more like these
winning ultra-marathon runners – in other words, vegetarian diets.12
Uhl, age 38, from Santa Fe, New Mexico is an example of this trend – she
has been a follower of the McDougall diet since she began competing. She
just took a 2nd place at Ironman Wisconsin on September 7, 2003. (A
triathlon – Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and
run 26.2 miles.) She writes, “Earlier this year I was 7th at
Ironman New Zealand, and last year I was 3rd at Ironman
Canada. I'm still McDougalling (it has
been about 7 years now) and I think it is a key reason that I can race
well and recover quickly from the Ironmans. This diet is perfect for the
training I need to do to race at a very high level in triathlon. People
often ask me how I can perform so well with the diet and my question back
to them is "How can I NOT perform well on this diet?" It keeps me
healthier than ever before (my asthma no longer exists). I can't really
understand why anyone would think the standard American diet would be
better for an athlete...” (Letter from Mary on
Ruth Heidrich is a 68-year-old Star McDougaller from
wins triathlons all over the world. She changed from a sedentary
lifestyle and the American diet more than 20 years ago after discovering
invasive breast cancer that had spread to her bones and lung. (Read more
about Ruth under “Star McDougallers” on my web site
www.drmcdougall.com.) “Since my diagnosis in 1982, I have completed
the Ironman 6 times, run 67 marathons, have been declared "One of the Ten
Fittest Women in North America" in 1999, and have a Fitness Age of 32
although chronologically I am 68! Last weekend I did a double-header, a 5K
race Saturday and a 10K Sunday with first places in my age group in both.
These were my 19th and 20th races this year so far with every one of them
gold medals. My total of first-place trophies is now up over 900! I
should reach 1,000 sometime before I reach 70. My daily training routine
consists of an hour run, an hour on the bike, and alternating a mile swim
with weight training. I also do 100 crunches a day in addition. I do all
this on a vegan, low-fat diet which I've been following now for 21 years.”
Vital Statistics on Ruth:
My Body fat % = 14%; Ave. 20-yr-old female = 30%
My Resting Heart Rate = 44; Ave. adult RHR = 72
My Blood Pressure = 90/60; Common BP = 120/80
My Bone Density = 529 mg/cm2; Ave. 30-yr-old female = 411 mg/cm2
(Letter from Ruth on 9-25-03). Learn more about Ruth
Many other vegetarian athletes are listed at this web
Body Builders should be Vegetarians, Too
Andreas Cahling, a former Mr. International bodybuilder
(1980) and vegetarian for more than 25 years, used to tell me the
difference between him and other bodybuilders was he did not have to diet
for 2 weeks before a competition to get the fat off. Pre-contest dieting
was the normal routine for bodybuilders “bulking up on protein” in order
to remove that extra layer of fat that covered their rippling muscles.
The protein in vegetables is every bit as high quality as the protein in
meats. Hard work builds hard muscles. Consider the biggest-muscled
animals on earth are pure vegetarians (horses, elephants, etc.) –
obviously there must be loads of protein in plant foods. Too many people
think they can take an easier route and “eat their muscles bigger” – not
Some of the
best known vegetarian bodybuilders are (most are
Pearl (Mr. America, Mr. USA, and four times Mr. Universe)
Cahling (IFBB Mr. International)
Steve Reeves (Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe – and
vegetarian at least part of the time during his competitive
Lalane (TV personality and bodybuilder)
now an organization for vegan bodybuilders using no animal products.
inspiring story of a lifelong vegetarian, 77-year-old Roy Hilligenn,
can be found at:
Animal Protein Can
Stimulate Growth – At a Price
It has long been
rumored that the levels of the muscle building hormone, testosterone, are
raised with meat-eating. However, recent research comparing people
following various diets has found vegans (no animal products) have 8% more
testosterone than lacto-ovo-vegetarians, and 13% more than people on the
standard Western diet (with meat and dairy).22 (Fortunately,
this extra male hormone is kept safely bound with a protein to prevent
over-stimulation of the tissues, including the prostate.) So, if not
testosterone, then what in the meat-eater’s diet could possibly be
There may be some truth
that eating all that protein stimulates muscle growth.24,25
Protein raises insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in the human
body, stimulating the growth of muscle and all other tissues.
Meat-eaters are found to have 9% higher levels of IGF-1 than vegans.22
People eating dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo-vegetarians) have 8% higher
levels.22 Unfortunately, IGF-1 also stimulates the growth of
cancer of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon by stimulating cell
proliferation and inhibiting cell death – two activities you definitely
don't want when cancer cells are involved.26,27 Eating all
that meat and those dairy products could make bigger muscles – but, how
often do athletes think about the effects on their health? Beauty is
more than skin deep – for sure. And ugly goes clear to the bone.
The rippling firm
muscles of athletes send a message of good health, but this appearance is
deceptive because what lies underneath is a quagmire of disease. All that
“muscle building” food is also loaded with acid, cholesterol, saturated
fat, and is deficient in dietary fiber and complex carbohydrate. Looking
beyond the exterior you will find bones depleted of strength and structure
(osteoporosis) by the acid, arteries filled with festering sores
(atherosclerosis) from the fat and cholesterol, and bleeding-bulging
hemorrhoids caused by straining to pass a fiber deficient stool
(constipation). You may think you are looking at a new Lexus, but rather
it’s an overdriven Edsel.
Big is Not Better
Greater height and
sometimes greater muscle weight are generally considered desirable
qualities and size may be the winning difference for athletes, especially
for basketball and football players. However, when winning at life and
health, increased body size is counterproductive. Shorter, smaller bodies
have lower death rates, longer average life-spans, and fewer diet-related
chronic diseases. Research shows shorter, lighter people live longer.
For example, men of 5 feet 9 inches (175.3 cm) or less live almost five
years longer than men over this height. Men shorter than 5 feet 7 inches
(170.2 cm) live seven and a half years longer than men taller than 6 feet
(182.9 cm).28,29 Taller women have more cancer of the ovary30,31
and breast,32 and men have more prostate cancer.33
Overnutrition, especially during youth, results in greater height, and
You Can Have Height,
Strength, and Life
If you met my 3
children you would find a serious contradiction with the above
discussion. My daughter, Heather, is an inch taller than Mary. My
oldest son, Patrick, is 3 inches taller than I am, and my youngest son,
Craig, is 2 inches taller (and the boys are very muscular, too). They
were all raised on the McDougall diet. So how did they grow so tall and
Feeding a high-fat,
high-protein diet is only one way for a person to attain greater body
size. The alternative, healthy way is to encourage natural development by
allowing the growth plates of a child’s long bones to remain open longer,
into their mid and late teens. The growth plates (called
epiphyseal end plates) are located at the ends of the long bones and, as
the name implies, this is where growth occurs. A rise in sex hormones
(primarily estrogen) after puberty causes the growth plates to close.35,36
The rich Western diet prematurely raises sex hormones, causing
precocious puberty, and prematurely closes the adolescent’s growth plates.36
(For more information on precocious puberty and diet see the McDougall
Program for Women book.) A healthy diet, like the McDougall diet,
allows puberty to occur at the correct age (say 14 to 17 years rather than
8 to 12) – thereby growth continues into the late teens. Therefore, you
can have it all for your children and grandchildren – tall strong bodies
and good health by feeding them plentiful amounts of delicious meals, like
oatmeal for breakfast, vegetable soups and sandwiches for lunch, and bean
burritos and spaghetti for dinner. (People from some Asian countries,
like Japan, and from our own past are small because of a relative
deficiency of food (calories) during their adolescent growing years.34,37)
The diet of a horse is
essentially grass and grains. To raise a racehorse would you feed your
colt meat? – Of course not. You would just feed it more grasses and
grains during growth and training. The same applies to people. Basic
nutritional needs do not change with an increase in activity. So the same
diet recommended for people applies to athletic people, too. To violate
this basic truth results not only in horrific health, but also pitiful
However, the more
important lesson we have learned here is: the best diet for athletes is
also the best diet for all of us. If a diet very high in carbohydrates –
starches, vegetables, and fruits – makes athletes – those living at the
extremes of human performance – winners, then following their example will
result in superior nutrition for all of us and our families. Can’t
possibly be any other way.
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