Improving Digestion with James Fitzgerald

Article borrowed from Opex Blog

Here at OPEX, we are big on education, and the continued education, of our coaches, athletes and clients.

Knowledge is power when it comes to learning, and today we are talking about Basic Digestive Health and Food Hygiene practices with Coach James FitzGerald.

James has been working with clients and athletes for years on finding what is best for their bodies when it comes to feeling good, performing well and fully recovering with a foundation of good nutrition.

Here he breaks down some of the ‘basics’ of improving digestion, as well as clears up some common misconceptions when it comes to the ‘perfect’ diet practices for both health and performance.

Q. First things first, the concept of ‘eating small frequent meals throughout the day’ for sustained energy has become popular over the years in the health and fitness world. How much should a person really eat, and how frequently?

James: Of course the answer to this question first comes with asking the question:

What are the functional reasons to be fueling in the first place?

Some basic tenants to keep in mind include: (1.) People cannot go without water to breakdown nutrients and use nutrients; and (2.) Food is meant to give each of us enough energy to sustain the things we do in our lives—fuel the tank so to speak.

So, knowing this, the next thing one must ask is: What does your nutrition support and what do you want to do?

If your primary motivation and focus is to: “Live long and prosper”, then high frequency eating is simply not needed. More often than not, high frequency eating is done out of anxiety, due to stress, due to inflammation (caffeine, lifestyle, high cortisol levels). We are told that in order to “maintain blood sugar balance throughout day, we need to eat 5-6 times per day.” However, this only sets the body’s blood sugar levels and inflammation/stress into a cycle of ups and downs—and during the ‘downs’ is when people dip in energy or hunger, and then think they need more food. In general, most people should be able to eat, allow plenty of time to digest foods—several hours, and have enough nutrients and stores to stabilize blood sugar levels for a long time. Three meals per day of quality, nutrient-rich, balanced foods, on average, should provide a person with the general-wellness they desire.

The reason a person is told he or she is a “high oxidizer” or “fast metabolizer” is often because their cortisol is higher…which makes you burn energy quicker. It’s like having the gas on and break on at the same time. People then think you need to eat frequently to manage it, but it only perpetuates the ‘stress’ (cortisol) cycle. So does this mean it’s time to go on a cleanse or abruptly restrict your intake to eating much less frequently? Swinging 180-degrees in the opposite direction will too confuse the body, because body doesn’t know how to assimilate and stabilize them. Aiming for that balance I talked about, with plenty of calories and nutrients within your main meals is ideal for most.

As for athletes and high-training individuals, that entails another layer: These individuals must eat more frequently to support training sessions. And, if someone needs to have quick simulation of nutrients, then you think of glucose drip (i.e. more food).

In answer to your question, first choose and identify who you are, or who you are working with: Health vs. athletes. That answer will then help determine meal amount and frequency.

Q. So for ‘athletes’, there are so many varying opinions on performance-based nutrition? Any guidance you have in navigating what a person really needs around training for optimal performance and well-being in their sport?

 James: How to prescribe nutrition for athletics? That is multi-folded. There’s just not a book out there, because large population is not eating necessarily clean. People don’t want to hear about the rowers eating cereal in the morning before and after they row; or the triathletes who are eating chocolate cake or coke to recover from a ride or swim. In short: real athletes need fuel that is utilized and supports their performance—and recovery—at a faster rate. Put the gas in the car to be used. That being said, there are general guidelines of course that an individual needs all food groups—proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and opting for whole foods sources as often as possible, is ideal. As for post-workout nutrition, we hear, “No fat post-workout”, or “Protein shakes”, or “A combo of carbs and proteins”—what is ideal? The 50+ years of research around post-workout nutrition has primarily been conducted around strength training and endurance training—really not fitness training. The majority of this research tells us: Carbs and protein, or just protein post-workout.

For fitness though, I am finding, in the 8 years that I’ve really been looking into it, that fats in the post workout window may actually help enhance recovery—Peripheral recovery at a cellular level and central nervous system recovery. After all, fitness-based athletes are doing a whole bunch of work in their training window, so fats, protein and carb can certainly play a role in that post-workout window. As for a higher metabolic-output workout, that post-workout liquid (shake) with a little bit of sugar in it can be just what a person needs to promote the recovery process.

Q. Say I am an athlete who swears by a shake post-workout…but it hurts my stomach…every time. What do I do?

James: Many athletes and people in general get it in their head that liquid protein post-workout is a must. And many people drink these shakes…and crap their pants…time and time again. The cycle ensues: Workout. Gulp the shake. Crap the pants. Workout. Shake. Keep crapping pants, and keep going back to have shake and crapping pants.

There’s something more there. For some reason, this person believes the value of that shake is more important than digestive upset. Education must be brought up: It’s not normal to have that kind of feedback. As a coach, I would help problem solve with them what they can have post-workout instead of incurring the stomach upset. Nutrients are great and necessary of course post workout to feel recovered, but it’s important though to actually digest this ‘food’. Making a person understand, over time, digestive upset (as in crapping the pants post-workout shake) puts wear and tear on their system; and, every time you do that, you prevent yourself from recovering and doing better on the next workout.

As a coach, I also try to speak to their values and priorities in order to get them to recognize things like this. Otherwise, the  ‘I don’t care, I’ll keep crapping my pants’ mentality ensues. I then guide them into a substitution; perhaps a real-foods based post-workout snack or meal, or even a different quality and brand of protein. Finding what works for them.

Q. A client says they have ‘no energy’ or they are low in energy when they train, but they don’t want to eat too closely to their workouts because it upsets their stomach. How do you navigate this?

James: People need energy, yes. And, if they are getting enough energy, theyshould be able to wake up in the morning, have some water, and quote on quote, have ‘energy stores’ in them from their food the day before. Low energy—no matter when they are experiencing it—is generally attributed to a few things. They are either:

  • Doing the wrong training program;
  • Not consuming enough total calories in a given day to support the training they want to do;
  • Lifestyle factors are off (inadequate water intake; lack of quality sleep; energy-draining work)

Energy is really a matter of the body resynthesizing sugars. If you are eating enough food (say you train on a lighter stomach during the day, and then eat more in the evening), your body is still going to be able to tap into those energy stores—regardless of when they were consumed. In fact, training is typically a period where you don’t want to have a full gut in order to allow the body to do some more intense stuff. As for your training program, if you are constantly in ‘beat down’ mode—not balanced with various amounts of intensity, beat down, build up and recovery, of course energy is going to be lagging; and the same goes for not getting your sleep or water intake. Simple stuff, yes, but the basics are so fundamental.

Q. Many people are low in stomach acid, which impacts digestion, how do you address this?

James: I make sure to individually look and test these things before making any assumptions for a person, with the help of Bio-Health. Once this is determined, digestive aids and enzymes can certainly help a person, along with a good probiotic, but more than anything, I look into addressing the root cause: most often chronically elevated cortisol levels, low level autoimmune issue;  and/or shitty foods for a long time. Why do people have this chronic inflammation? Because they are not living life to support anything else otherwise: Quality food, sunshine, quality sleep, water? Basic tenants of wellness. Yes, some enzymes can help with digesting food appropriately, but if these other things are not also addressed than supplements are just holistic band-aide approaches.

Q. What type of protocol to you suggest for people to improve digestion in general?

James: Hands down, it all comes down to food hygiene-cooking your food, cooking plenty of fresh veggies, sitting down, relaxing while you are eating, chewing food thoroughly, really allowing your saliva to break down food. These are the things you don’t see posted on Facebook or many blogs out there because they aren’t as ‘sexy’ as say this new supplement you should try or product you should consider.