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With the New Year comes the strong promotion of diet trends aimed at those looking to lose weight as part of their New Year’s resolutions. A little less than a year ago, Triathlete Magazine Editor Brad Culp decided to take on a drastic diet of only pills and powders. Given the timing, and the overall entertainment of the article, we thought we’d re-run the feature, which originally appeared in print in the May 2009 issue of Triathlete Magazine.
Written by: Brad Culp
I had no doubt it would be possible to survive on only powders and pills for seven days, but two questions remained: How much would it suck? And how badly would my performance suffer after a week without real food?
I cheated. On day four of my attempt to abstain from real food for a week, I caved in. It was almost 4 a.m., and my stomach was making sounds that really shouldn’t come from an internal organ. They sounded like Grandma’s sausage gravy slowly coming to a boil over a stovetop. I didn’t really feel that bad, but such a sound is usually a cue that your body is seriously unhappy about how you’re treating it.
Before starting my Super Supplement Me challenge, I donated just about every ounce of food in my apartment to a local food bank. That way, if my self-imposed starvation caused me to sleepwalk my way into the kitchen, there’d be nothing but protein powders and flaxseed oil to binge on. Sure, it also felt good to donate, but that was not my primary motive. As I stumbled into my kitchen four nights into the challenge to mix up yet another Muscle Milk shake, I spotted a carton of Yoplait in the back corner of the fridge. I must’ve missed it when I cleaned out the kitchen. I began salivating like a rabid coyote. Yogurt was the perfect fix to coat my ailing intestines. I tore off the lid, downed the strawberry goodness like a shot of cheap tequila, and scooped out every last bit with my fingers.
“I need help,” I said to myself. Then I crawled back into bed and listened as my insides continued to belt out a disturbing chorus. I still had three more days of this left and a 40K, all-out time trial awaiting me at the end of it.
This whole idea came about as sort of a dare from my co-workers. I’ve been known to take quite a few more supplements than the rest of the athletes around the office. I don’t think I’m much more excessive than many triathletes in my supplementation habits, though, to say nothing of certain other types of athletes. In college, I got into bodybuilding for a year, and during that time, I met guys who popped more pills than Ozzy Osbourne. Those dudes were excessive. I got heckled for taking only protein, creatine and a multivitamin.
A few months ago, one of my colleagues jokingly remarked that I should try to live off of my powders and pills for a week. Not really considering the consequences, I boldly stated that it would be easy. The way I see it, your body is like a fine sports car: It prefers 93 octane, but it won’t break down if you fill it with 87 octane for a week—it’ll just run like a Datsun instead of a Porsche.
As confident as I was, I seemed to skirt the topic whenever I was asked when I was going to start. Giving up real food for a week is much easier said than done. Finally, in mid-February, I went for it. My girlfriend (who is too responsible to ever let me attempt something like this) was out of town for almost a week, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to hole myself up in my apartment and sulk in my self-invoked misery while catching up on the last two seasons of ”Lost.”
There was one little problem, though: Starting the challenge on Feb. 14 meant I would finish on Feb. 20—one day before my first race of the season. After not-so-careful consideration, I reasoned that it was only a 40K TT and it would add an interesting twist to the story. My performance at the time trial would give me a somewhat objective measure of just how much damage I had done. Before I got started, I made a list of allowable nutrition sources
• Protein powders (whey, casein, soy, etc.)
• Meal replacement powders (Enduroplex, Myoplex, Muscle Milk, etc.)
• Metamucil (My GI tract would need it.)
• Powdered “superfoods” (Emerald Balance, Enduro Shark CRM, etc.)
• Powdered milk (It actually makes many powders taste almost OK.)
• Coffee (no way I’d give it up for a week)
• Beer and bourbon (for the same reason as coffee)
• Anything and everything that comes in pill form (flaxseed oil, multivitamins, amino acids, aspirin, you name it).
I made a chart to track my weight, caloric intake, general state of physical wellbeing, how much I was able to train, my mood and a box for any additional notes. The night before I began my absurd endeavor, I grilled a massive T-bone steak, ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and stockpiled enough powders and pills to make it through the week.
Here are the results of my very important experiment:
Day 1: Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009
Weight: 171 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 1,700
Physical Wellbeing (1 being near death, 10 being on par with Crowie): 7
Training: 65-minute, moderate tempo run; 20 minutes of resistance stretching
Mood (1 being akin to how I feel at the end of another miserable Chicago Cubs season, 10 being how I’d feel if Ed McMahon came to my door with a giant Publisher’s Clearing House check): 6
Notes: I definitely didn’t get enough calories today, especially considering that I burned over 1,000 calories during my morning workout. I took about 15 flax oil capsules today, which really helped curb my hunger. My head started to hurt a bit by the end of the night
Day 2: Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009
Weight: 169 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 2,250
Physical Wellbeing: 7
Training: 90-minute tempo ride, 20-minute transition run.
Notes: I was surprised that I didn’t feel much worse today than I did yesterday. The extra calories helped keep my energy levels up until about 5 p.m. Almost 70 percent of my calories came from protein today, which is definitely too much. I need more meal replacement powders, which have more carbs than the straight protein mixes. As long as I keep doing my workouts in the morning, I feel that I’ll be able to exercise a little each day. I actually felt pretty good on my ride this morning.
Day 3: Monday, Feb. 16, 2009
Weight: 168 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 2,100
Physical Wellbeing: 5
Training: Slow 52-minute run.
Notes: Today it hit me. I feel like hell. I took a two-minute walk break in the middle of my run this morning because I felt like I was going to pass out. My blood pressure feels strangely low. I’ve been getting really lightheaded if I stand up too quickly. Hopefully it’s just because my hydration is out of whack. I’ll take in some extra salt tabs and water tomorrow. The lone bright spot of the day was that I never really felt hungry at all. I think my body has given up, and hopefully it’ll just bear with me for four more days. My stomach is a bit more vocal than I’m comfortable with, but I suppose that’s just an effect of the absurd amount of Metamucil I’ve been consuming.
Day 4: Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Weight: 166 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 1,900
Physical Wellbeing: 3
Notes: Everyone who told me this was a horrible idea (which was just about everyone I know) was right. My energy levels suck and I feel a bit out of it, but my biggest problem is the stomach discomfort—by far. It’s not much of a problem when I’m sitting down, but the minute I try to do something more taxing than lifting the remote control, it begins making odd noises and I become nauseated. I broke down last night and had 90 calories’ worth of strawberry yogurt. I thought a little real food might help settle my stomach, but it didn’t. This sucks. If my stomach feels like this on Saturday, there will be no time trial for me.
Day 5: Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009
Weight: 165 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 2,600
Physical Wellbeing: 5
Training: 45-minute indoor spin (moderate), 32-minute treadmill run (easy).
Notes: Just like Lance, I’m making a comeback. I wasn’t up for exercising in the morning, but I was able to get in a late-afternoon nap and a quick workout afterward. I had a double-strength Muscle Milk shake before I napped and I think that helped my energy levels once I woke up. I decided to cut back on the coffee today, since I figured the extra caffeine wasn’t helping my stomach do what it’s supposed to do. I found a protein powder called “100% Natural Oats N’ Whey” at my local vitamin shop, and I think it’ll help me get through the last two days (and the TT). It has real oats blended into the protein, which will give me some much-needed complex carbs and dietary fiber. I think if I rotate that with Myoplex and Muscle Milk, both of which have a bit of fat, I’ll have enough carbs and fat to get through this. Lord knows I’ve had enough protein.
Day 6: Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009
Weight: 166 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 2,400
Physical Wellbeing: 4
Training: 80-minute plyometric/core workout at the gym.
Notes: I was shocked to see that my weight was up one pound from yesterday morning. I think it’s because I drank 600 calories’ worth of Muscle Milk just before I went to bed. I felt absolutely horrible for most of today, but I think a lot of that has to do with this morning’s workout. A high-intensity anaerobic workout was a terrible idea. The workout ramped up my metabolism, and no amount of shakes and pills could satiate my stomach. I probably had the least productive day of my life at work because I spent most of the day thinking about food. It really didn’t help that the folks at Baker’s Breakfast Cookies sent an enormous care package of cookies and granola to the office. It also didn’t help that my co-workers found it necessary to gorge themselves with granola and tell me how good it was between chews. I stashed a bag of peanut butter granola and I plan to eat the entire thing before the ride on Saturday.
Day 7: Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
Weight: 164 lbs.
Caloric Intake: 2,700
Physical Wellbeing: 2
Training: 40-minute open-water swim (easy).
Notes: Why the hell did I even attempt swimming in the Pacific this morning? I must have looked like a wounded sea lion trying to make its way through the surf. Thank God the sharks didn’t take notice. What worries me the most is that my heart rate monitor said I was almost at threshold even though I was hardly moving. I think that was my body’s way of saying, “Please stop now.” What’s funny is that I look like I’m in the best shape of my life. This is the lightest I’ve been in five years, although I know most of what I’ve lost has been straight water. I have more veins bulging out of my skin than Normann Stadler, but I definitely don’t feel like a two-time Kona champ. I’d have trouble running around my block right now. As soon as midnight strikes and the challenge is officially over, I plan to down a couple bowls of the aforementioned granola. Hopefully that’ll give my depleted muscles something to run on at tomorrow’s ride. If I wait until tomorrow morning to eat, the race will be over before my body can process the carbs.
The Consequence: Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009. 40K Time Trial.
My original plan was to race the Tritonman Sprint Triathlon on the day after my challenge was over, but after injuring my shoulder the week before this ridiculous challenge, swimming was out of the question. So I opted to do a makeshift 40K race that a few locals put together to cater to those who weren’t ready to swim in the Pacific in February. (It’s damn cold.)
It was a course that I’m quite familiar with. It’s flat, smooth, fast and completely shielded from traffic. There are a lot of turns throughout each of the four laps, but other than that, it’s made for a PR. Last fall I finished another 40K “race” in 56:40 (26.05 mph) on the very same course—the fastest 40K of my life. Before starving myself for a week, I felt that I was in similar physical shape as when I set that personal best.
I wasn’t shooting for anything close to a PR this time around. However, as I started my ride, I felt that I wouldn’t be too far off. I made it through the halfway point in 28:38 (25.4 mph), so finishing in under an hour was well within reach. Apparently my body thought otherwise. Twenty kilometers was all it had on this day. My pace sank below 24 mph on the third lap and down to 22 mph on the final stretch. I finished in 1:01:12 (24.52 mph overall average) and immediately looked for a nice patch of grass on which to take a nap. While losing only 1.53 mph may not seem like a dramatic decline, my fatigue after the race let me know that the human body definitely prefers solid foods.
If you’ve waited until now for the take-home message from all of this, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I won’t lie—I didn’t really learn anything.
I went into the experiment knowing that it was a horrible idea, and I got exactly what I expected. There’s a reason powders and pills are considered dietary supplements and not staples. In moderation, they have their place in every serious athlete’s diet. In excess, they have absolutely no use—save for causing intense gastrointestinal discomfort and stark decreases in performance.