Health Tips That Are Good Enough For a Man, But Made For a Woman

By now I’m sure most of you have heard of the name Dr. Allen Lim. Allen is one of the guys behind the highly successful combo of cookbooks (The Feed Zone and Feed Zone Portables) that cater to cyclists. Besides Zap’s fawning over him (and his partner, Biju Thomas), Allen has made a name for himself as an advisor to a litany of pro riders and teams. More recently, he and Biju (as Skratch Labs) were hired to cater the food for the teams participating in the Amgen Tour of California. When it comes to knowing about nutrition and how it relates  specifically to cycling, there are few people who know as much as Allen. Recently, Allen came to my rescue while I was researching nutrition information for my ‘Girl Talk’ column. After he responded to my questions, it was apparent that many of his answers could be useful for male cyclists as well. If you need to know more, I would advise you to read The Feed Zone.

RBA: How differently should women and men get fueled up?
I’ll preface that question by mentioning that I don’t recommend using the word ‘should.’ In my experience, there isn’t a single question or statement that has the word ‘should’ in it that has amounted to much. It’s the biggest ‘maybe’ in our language. I’d also like to preface this entire interview by letting everyone know that I don’t have a lot of experience with gender differences in sports, except when it comes to pulmonary physiology. Because of that, I took the time to discuss a lot of these questions with Dr. Danielle Day, a close friend, whom I did my graduate work in exercise physiology with at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Day was recently at the University of Massachusetts where her research focused on the effects of reproductive hormones on metabolism. This was before she decided to use her brain to take over the world of corporate America.

Still, she’s one of the brightest in the area of women’s-specific exercise physiology, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge her for the contribution she made to these answers. With all of that in mind, there isn’t any real evidence that women need to fuel differently than men, especially when it comes to macronutrients like carbohydrate, fat and protein. While it is true that at the same relative sub maximal intensity, women are better at oxidizing fat than men, this doesn’t necessarily mean that women are better off eating more fat compared to men. Pound for pound, women may do better on a lower carbohydrate diet than men, but that doesn’t mean that eating fewer carbohydrates will optimize their performance. All that being said, compared to male athletes, female athletes probably need to consume relatively more calcium and iron to help protect their bone mass and to help replace iron lost due to menses. At least, that has been the conventional wisdom.

Recently, however, more and more evidence is appearing that shows that many male endurance athletes also need to consume more calcium and iron. In particular, among professional cyclists, my experience has been that just as many men suffer from anemia and low bone mass as women. With that in mind, for elite cyclists of any gender who are training or racing hard, I almost always recommend that they consume at least 1 USRDA of calcium (1 gram) for every 1?2 hours of heavy sweating that they experience. If they are eating dairy products, like yogurt, cheese and milk, supplementing isn’t always needed. But, if they aren’t eating dairy, supplementing may be warranted.

I also recommend that during heavy training or two weeks before coming up to high altitude, athletes consume at least 10mg daily of a heme-based iron. Heme iron is the form of iron found in the red blood cells of animals. At present, the only heme iron supplement I know of is called Proferrin. If you do feel you need to supplement iron, I’d highly recommend using something like Proferrin, because there are specific transporters in the small intestine that recognize the prophyrin ring that surrounds the iron in a red blood cell. It’s that prophyrin ring that is essentially what the ‘heme’ in ‘hemoglobin’ is. When a person’s iron levels are low, prophyrin transporters in the small intestine naturally increase. When iron levels are high, those transporters decrease. This lessens the chance for iron toxicity, and because there is a specific transporter for heme iron, the chances of constipation and other GI problems common with iron salts are much lower. Anyway, long story short, outside of differences in serving size due to differences in body size or activity and the need for some specific micronutrients, I don’t see many reasons why women need to eat differently than men. That means, if you happen to be sharing the same meal with someone of the opposite sex, there’s no reason to get all weird and awkward.

RBA: Address the common ‘I can’t eat carbs, they make me fat’ issue that is so often a part of a cyclist’s diet.
I asked Dr. Day if ‘she can’t eat carbs because they make her fat,’ and rather than slap me, she gave me a very reasonable answer. The bottom line is that she’s never seen a study that controlled for calories and then manipulated the amount of macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) that showed a difference in weight loss in either men or women. Said another way, it’s not the type of food that makes someone gain or lose weight, it’s the amount of food. That being said, she and I both acknowledge that when you eat less carbohydrates or avoid them altogether, we’re all probably just eating less calories. That’s because carbs are delicious, amazing, energy dense and few of us have a lot of self-control. Like most addictions, high-carbohydrate foods, especially processed carbohydrates designed by very smart scientists, likely stimulate our brains, causing us to release a little neurotransmitter called dopamine every time we indulge in them, creating a Pavlovian-like reward response that creates an addiction to carbs not too dissimilar to smoking crack cocaine.

Personally, I have this type of relationship with fried chicken. But as a woman, Dr. Day has admitted to me that she has a hard time looking at a loaf of freshly baked bread without immediately putting on a few pounds. It’s all probably much more psychology than physiology. In fact, functional MRI studies performed at the University of Colorado have shown that when women are shown pictures of food, the emotional centers of their brains have a stronger response compared to men, showing that women may have a stronger emotional connection to food than men. But, this only proves my hypothesis that Chef Biju is a very, very sensitive man.

RBA: Typically, calcium and iron are important parts for a woman’s health; what foods could be beneficial for supplying these nutrients? Juicing?
With respect to calcium, I highly recommend juicing a cow. It takes a bit of time, but if you squeeze hard enough, those big animals produce something called milk that is very high in calcium. Dark leafy greens also have a decent amount of calcium and iron, so juicing them could help. That being said, some studies have shown that for some green leafy vegetables like spinach, the iron is only released when it’s cooked and when paired with a little acid. So cook your spinach, squeeze a little lemon on it, and add a little bit of olive oil and Maldon salt for flavor and you’re set. Sardines are also high in calcium, so put that on your cooked spinach too.

RBA: Much has been written about drinking teas and the benefits of tea to one’s overall health; do you agree?
Have you ever seen a photo of me? I’m Chinese, so in principle I agree that drinking tea is beneficial to one’s overall health. But what kind of tea are you talking about? There’s herbal tea, black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, big-fat-leaf tea, skinny-leaf tea, tea from China, tea from America, tea from India, and on and on. Green tea is not going to increase your metabolic rate unless you drink 8000 cups of it. Black tea might keep you awake, but so will Red Bull. Herbal tea is soothing for your mind, body and spirit.

Regarding metabolism, nothing has been shown to increase metabolic rate except for caffeine and capsaicin-that’s red hot chili peppers, folks. Even studies on green tea have had a hard time differentiating between the EGCGs (epigallocatechin gallate) versus caffeine. Still, those green tea EGCGs are strong antioxidants, along with many other compounds in tea. That has to be good for something. At the end of the day, I’d be apt to say that someone heavily engaged in tea culture is probably a lot healthier than someone involved in fast-food culture. So go ahead, make it part of your healthy, happy lifestyle.

RBA: Is there a perfect balance ratio for carbs, proteins and fats in a meal for women?
What’s interesting about this question is that many people have a particular belief about the type of diet that makes them look and feel their best. And once they figure it out, they are usually fervent about it, pushing that diet on others as if it’s the Holy Grail of diets. While I used to think that people who were evangelical about their diets were crazy, recently, I’ve begun to realize that they may be right. In fact, some recent data suggests that there are specific genes associated with the optimal balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat for different people. That is, your genes may determine what ratio of carbs, proteins and fats are ideal for you.

While studies looking at weight loss across different diet types show that there is no difference when calories and activity level are matched, these studies often have quite a bit of variety within each type of diet. Said another way, the average weight loss between different diet groups may be the same, but when you look at the differences in weight loss in each group, you’re likely to see a wide range of weight loss-from some people losing a lot of weight to others actually gaining weight. This variability may be due to differences in our genes that make some people more responsive to certain diets and less responsive to others.   With all that in mind, my general sense of it is that most of us know what works for us. We often just don’t have the discipline or lifestyle to
accommodate what works for us, so the real question is this: is there a certain diet that you know works for you? And if so, why aren’t you on it?

Finally, if you find something that works for you, don’t go pushing it on me or anyone else. That’s like assuming I want to date your new fianc‚e. For those of you who don’t like the answer above, try 60 percent carbs, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat-100 percent love. Final answer.

RBA: What are some portables are easiest to make for cyclists on the go?
The easiest portables to make are obviously the ones that don’t require any cooking. Take a tortilla and slap some peanut butter and jelly on it. Or, find something that comes in its own container, like a banana, an orange, chopped carrots, an apple or a handful of nuts. While I’d love to just plug the Feed Zone Portables by Chef Biju Thomas and myself-distributed by Skratch Labs, the first of its kind and best-in-class cookbook for busy moms looking to make easy portables for their on-the-go lifestyles-the reality is that the easiest things to make are raw, so try it raw and enjoy 

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