Reid Reale is a BJJ Black Belt who also holds a master’s degree in dietetics and a PhD in sports nutrition. His PhD thesis was entitled “Optimising Acute Body Mass Management in Australian Olympic Combat Sports”, which he completed while working as a dietitian at the A.I.S. and for the Australian Olympic Combat Sports athletes before and after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Additionally, he published other research papers in the field titled “Acute weight management in combat sports: pre-weight-in weight loss, post-weight-in recovery and competition nutrition strategies” & The effect of water loading on acute weight loss following fluid restriction in combat sports athletes”.
Since then, he has worked as a sports scientist at the Gatorade sports institute before starting as a performance nutrition manager at the U.F.C. Pi in Shanghai, China.
There he has worked with the local Chinese team managing nutrition, weight loss & weight cuts and after the recording of the interview, he has been over at fight island helping competitors with their weight cuts there. We discuss these issues and the practicalities around dealing with the fighters in his programs and more.
If you are interested in learning more about the subject, you can purchase his book called “Combat Sports Nutrition” at https://combatsportsnutritionebook.com/ which has been recently updated, and use the discount code “sonnybrown” for a 40% discount!
LISTEN TO REID REALE
Reid Reale Interview Transcript
Sonny Brown: Beautiful. Dr. Reale, how are you today?
Dr. Reid Reale: I’m good, mate. How are you? Thanks for having me on.
Sonny: My pleasure, sir. My pleasure. Now, I’ve known you for, I guess– When did we first meet? Was it 2016, 2017? A few years at least.
Dr. Reale: I think we actually first met at a Jiu-Jitsu Comp, and then maybe a year later, at the Institute of Sport in Australia.
Sonny: I blocked that Jiu-Jitsu Con out when you strangled me, mate.
That was that CTE dark memory going–
Dr. Reale: I think that was your return after a big layoff or something there, wasn’t isn’t it? Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Sonny: I had a broken finger, but excuses please only those who give them.
Since, then mate, you have been living the life, haven’t you? Tell us about your current role at the UFC Performance Institute. You have really been, as far as a person into a weight-cutting nutrition, you’ve found yourself in a pretty plum gig, haven’t you?
Dr. Reale: Yes, it’s worked out quite well for me. When you and I met under less strangling each other circumstances at the Institute of Sport in Australia, I was doing my PhD, looking at weight-cutting in Olympic combat sports, and I finished that in 2017. After that, I moved to the US for two years where I worked for Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which obviously Gatorade have no interest in fighting.
Fast forward two years, working with Gatorade actually landed a job with the UFC at the Performance Institute in Shanghai. Basically in Shanghai, I run the nutrition department there. The title is performance nutrition manager. Everything to do with the fighters making weight, but also their day-to-day nutrition, also coordinating with the kitchen, also external parties to do with supplements. Pretty much anything to do with supplements, or food, making weight, or nutrition in general, with the fighters at the Performance Institute in Shanghai, I oversee that. It’s literally exactly, if you had to create a perfect job for me, based on my personal interest, and then also what my PhD was looking at, this job is it. I’m really fortunate.
Sonny: That role with UFC, you’ve recently been at the fight shows, managing fighters and taking care of the day-to-day, like around the world with different fight shows, yes?
Dr. Reale: Yes. Most people listening to this probably are aware of the Performance Institute in Vegas. It’s a little bit different to what we do in Shanghai. In Vegas, they serve us any rostered UFC fighter, and we do that as well. The fact that we’re located in Shanghai means that most of the fighters are in the US, or Brazil, or whatnot. Most of the roster fighters are making use of the Vegas PI, whereas in Shanghai, we had the full-time academy of Chinese athletes who aren’t yet in the UFC, and so my day-to-day is managing those guys.
The reason why I’m explaining this, is a big part of what they do in Vegas is they actually go to fight shows, and they team up with Trifecta Nutrition. Some people might have heard that name or seen the logo is getting around. Trifecta is like a meal prep service, but they offer really good service at UFC events. Not every event, but every pay-per-view of many of the fight nights, they offer a service which is free to fighters, where they will cook all of your meals for fight week, as well as provide you post weigh-in recovery nutrition, drinks and supplements and whatnot.
A big part of what I do at Vegas is fly around the US and the world and do that, but because of this coronavirus shit that’s been going on, I’ve been out of China since January 22nd, and so I’ve had the opportunity to do more of what they do in Vegas. I went to Auckland to do the Felder card. I was there for a week. Then I was also in Vegas for the Zhang Weili, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and the Romero and Adesanya card. Prior to that, the only other UFC event that I had done on the ground doing the Trifecta meal prep service, was the card in Shenzhen. When was that? Was that last year? Yes, that would have been last year when Zhang Weili won the belt.
What we do with our Trifecta is Trifecta have a chef, and the chef does all the cooking of course, but they have a UFC dietician on the ground at the fighters hotel, to manage the fighters and be the middleman between the fighters and the chef, and to get ideas of where the fighters are at, and where their weight is at, what kind modifications you would need to make to their diet to ensure they make weight, and then communicate that to the chef.
Obviously, the chef isn’t an expert in nutrition, but the chef is the expert when it comes to cooking delicious food, and so we work on side by side with the chef, and then also the fighters during fight week to, as best we can, make sure they make weight. Of course, [chuckles] you can’t make sure everybody makes weight, but we provide the best service as possible to the fighters.
Sonny: When you’re working with the chefs going around to the different fighters, how are you getting those fighters to be accustomed to the different tastes of all the different foods? Are you just telling them what to eat or are you dealing with the tempers and, “I don’t want to eat this, Reid. Take it back, mate. Get me a steak.” What kind of things are going on there?
Dr. Reale: They actually provide a really good service. I didn’t come up with this service, the UFC were doing this before I was on board, but something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. The service that they provide was actually based on a lot of the research that I published during my PhD. That’s good and makes me feel like I actually did something in my PhD.
Basically, you’re a fighter, your listeners are fighters, we know how much shit fighters put themselves through in that fight week. A lot of them barely eating anything, eating really bland tasteless foods, and all this sort of stuff. If anything, the fighters are actually quite surprised with, number one, how much food they get eat, number two, how good they feel during fight week, and number three, just the taste of the food. That’s the whole idea of having a chef on board.
We’ve got cookie-cutter approaches based on the different weight divisions, because obviously, it’s like all these calories, and proteins, and macros, and whatnot, are based on the size of the athlete. We’ve got basic plug and play recipes for fighters of different weights, but then we adjust that based on how far they are off weight. Because obviously, if you’ve got two lightweights and one has only got five pounds to do in the last week, it’s a walk in the park, or as the guy walks in, he’s still 20 pounds overweight, you wouldn’t be giving them both the same meal plan for fight week. We have these stock standard approaches that we implement, and then adjust based on the fighters specific situation.
Within that, because in nutrition, what we’re doing is just providing energy and macronutrients, there’s a lot of wiggle room. We ask them, “Protein preference, do you prefer steak, fish, chicken?” Things like this. Then, during fight week, there’s not much carbs for most people, but it’s quite a high fat diet. The fat sources that we have is like nut butters, peanut butter, almond butter, avocados, sometimes cream-based sources, things like this. Then we’ll ask them what their fat preferences are. Then, what else? Then, post weigh-in is when they get their carb back up, so then we also ask them, “Carbohydrate sources, are your rice guy, a potato guy, a pasta guy?”
We do the best that we can to deliver them the nutrition they need in a way that suits their palate, but also doesn’t make it too hard on us. Because if you just completely had everything open for discussion, you can imagine logistically, it’s quite difficult when you serve some 25 fighters and you’ve only just met them a day ago. It’s a lot of work for the chef.
The chef, man, this guy, Mario. I can’t pronounce his last name. I can pull up the Facebook and find out. Chef Mario does such a good job, man. He’s really passionate about it. He’s always tweaking these recipes and the sauces and to make them taste better and everything, and so he does a really good job. He gets feedback from the fighters because he travels around. They had just put a new chef on Trifecta, but prior to this, there was only the one chef, Mario and he would do every single event, this poor guy. He would be in London one week, then he’s in Perth the next week, then he’s flying all around the US. He just loves it, this guy. Actually, he’s an absolute workhorse. He’ll see the same fighters every couple of months and get feedback from them, and adjust the recipes and things. He does a really good job. Here he is, Mario LimaDuran. I don’t know if we can see this. There we are.
Sonny: Mario LimaDuran. What a legend.
Dr. Reale: Yes. Man, he’s such a good chef and such a good guy. Yes, he works his ass off during those fight weeks.
Sonny: I remember when you worked out a meal plan for me, the first thing that you did was put us through a DEXA scan to figure out body weight, fat, muscle, bones. Is that how you’re–? Are you putting all the fighters when they come in through that same process, or how do you figure that out?
Dr. Reale: During fight week, obviously not, because fight week, the fighters just rock up on a Tuesday for a Saturday fight to a hotel. We don’t have a DEXA scanner or anything there, but we’ve got a bit of an idea about just what weights they’re at. In terms of in Shanghai, for sure, man, we’re doing DEXAs on these guys. During fight camp, every three weeks outside of fight camp, every five or six weeks I would do RMRs, resting metabolic rate assessments on these guys, and trying to make it as scientific and keyed-in as possible.
Having said that, everybody’s different. You can get two fighters, both 70 kilos, both 10% body fat, you do all the calculations, you figure out what diet they should be on, you give them both the same diet, one guy loses weight, one guy puts on weight. There’s a lot of genetic variation within people. The way it is, with all sports sciences, you use the science to guide you in your decision-making, but then you assess the progress as you go and adjust accordingly.
Sonny: That’s interesting of the genetic variation with the food. Is that something that people had a handle on yet, or you can make adjustments for that with some kind of testing or anything like that, or is it still early days?
Dr. Reale: Yes. Certainly, very early days. In the long term, this is where this stuff is all heading, but I think we’re decades off, getting this stuff nailed down. Genes are so complex, even with disease and with everything. We get sniffs of what might be going on when a new study comes out about nutrient gene interactions and things like this. The way dieticians and sports dieticians that are worth their salt around the world do it, is just to make– I don’t want to use the word rough, but it pretty much is rough calculations, based on what the scientific literature says. Then you’re just getting the people to report back to you, how’s your weight changing? How much training you’re doing? How are you feeling? Then you’re making, I will say, informed subjective guesses as to what’s actually happening within the body and then adjusting accordingly.
Sonny: Yes, okay. That makes sense. I think I may have already seen some ads starting to pop up here and there for genetic testing for a nutritional profile. That’s probably they’re jumping the gun just just going for the money, is that–?
Dr. Reale: Yes, 100%, man. As is the case with everything, right? Soon as something promising comes out, these people are going jump on board and tell you that, “Come and spit in this tube and we can tell you how much carbs you need, and how much fat you need, and your blah-blah-blah,” all this stuff, but, I wouldn’t be investing in this. Well, investing is one thing, I wouldn’t be basing my diet based off these nutrigenomics tests just yet, when we’ve got perfectly effective means of doing it outside of that.
I think some nutrients, they’re certainly further along than others. I’ll give you an example, like with iron. Iron is a very important nutrient. It’s using red blood cell production and blah-blah-blah. Very important for athletes. There’s certain genetic anomalies or conditions, or genetic– I’m trying to think of the word. I don’t want to swear in your podcast, but anyway, there are certain genetic conditions which mess with your iron absorption or your iron regulation. There’s certain people–
One’s called hemochromatosis, where your body doesn’t regulate iron absorption and excretion the way that it should. These people, what normally happens, when your iron stores are quite full in your body, your body will stop absorbing so much iron from your diet. Vice versa, if your iron stores are very low, your body will absorb more iron from your diet.
This is because iron in excessive amounts in the body can be toxic. Our bodies evolved over millions and billions of years to get by in this world that we find ourselves. People with this genetic anomaly, hemochromatosis, their body doesn’t regulate this iron absorption and excretion. They just keep eating iron, and they end up poisoning themselves and dying.
Something like this, I believe they can test for, but in terms of figuring out exactly how much magnesium you need based off your genes, I don’t think that’s there. Certainly, there are certain things that they probably can test for and do a decent job of, but long term, maybe this is where this stuff is all heading.
Sonny: Yes, okay. then to make those informed decisions with the different variations on athletes, I guess then you need that constant data. You can’t just see them once and you can make your decision from there. You need to be getting that constant feedback and constant data. I guess that’s what having a full-time fight team living in camp in China has allowed you to be able to do around the clock, right?
Dr. Reale: Yes. It’s really awesome. Like I said, we do the DEXA scan, which for people who don’t know is just a body composition scan. It’s originally designed to assess bone mineral density, but you can also get indications of muscle mass and body fat from it. We’ll do a DEXA scan– I forget, we’ve got it in the schedule. Maybe it’s every three weeks, maybe it’s every two weeks in fight camp we do it. Then outside of fight camp is every four or five weeks where we do that.
Then, of course, for fighters, the big thing that you’re concerned about is body weight. We just track their body weight every week. We have them weigh in Monday, Tuesday, and then Thursday every week. The reason why we pick Monday, Tuesday is because most people don’t train as much on the weekend, they pig out over the weekend, and so Monday morning, you’re typically at your heaviest, but then for whatever reason, sometimes you’re not.
Sometimes for whatever reason, you’re like, maybe you just fell asleep early on Sunday and you didn’t eat as much, you didn’t drink as much fluid and you’re a little bit lighter than your, “true body weight” on a Monday morning, so that’s why we do Tuesday as well. Then we just take the average of Monday, Tuesday, and use that as an indication of their heaviest weight for that week. That’s that weekly feedback that we’re getting to see how their weight’s tracking.
Then we also do Thursday, just because we want to see them later in the week after a few days training, how it looks like. We had discussions about the best day to do it. I think when we go back to China, we’ll move that one to a Saturday morning. It’s more towards the end of the week when a fighter’s depleted, so you can get an idea of them at their heaviest and lightest for the week. We do that.
The body composition measurements, the DEXA scan is more assessing, number one, their white division fit. Are they in the correct weight division? As we all know, you get guys that are fighting at lightweight that have absolutely no abs at all and maybe they’re only at 10 pounds above lightweight, and they’ve got so much body fat on them that if we could just get the fat down, the amount of muscle mass they actually have under that fat is more in line with the guy at featherweight or sometimes even bantamweight.
The DEXA scan gives us a good idea about weight division fit. Then also whether we’re dieting them too fast, or that they’re losing weight so fast that then you can see the muscle mass start to change as well, but generally, body weight is a pretty good indicator for most people as to what’s going on. If you’re losing weight really slowly, chances are, you’re probably not losing a whole lot of muscle.
For the people listening at home or fighters who don’t have routine access to a DEXA scan, getting a DEXA scan a couple of times a year is probably sufficient, and then you’re just tracking your body weight in between that. For our fighters, we’ve got the luxury of throwing them in a DEXA scan whenever we want, so we make use of it.
Sonny: Of course, if you’ve got the equipment there, why not use it? Those days of weighing yourself, is that something that just the the regular fighter, or jiu-jitsu, or regular athlete, that three days a week, is that good enough or should they be getting on it more since they don’t have the DEXA?
Dr. Reale: It depends what kind of person you are. The issue with weighing not frequent enough, is that you don’t actually have an idea of the way your weight’s tracking, because if you just jump on the scales on a Wednesday one week, then you don’t weigh for two weeks, and you get on it on a Monday, then a week later, you do a Thursday, then two weeks later, you do– It’s just you’re not getting a good indication of the way your weight is tracking.
Also, something else that I should say is that like the time of day when you weigh. Really, the only thing that we care about is that fasted waking weights. We want them to get up in the morning, don’t eat or drink anything, go to the bathroom, and then get on the scale so that we can get an indication of the empty, rested fasted weight. If you weigh yourself after training when you have sweat, you don’t know how much exactly you’ve sweat, you don’t know how much you’ve drank, if you’ve eaten meals throughout the day, it confounds the numbers that you’re getting. That’s one thing. If you don’t standardize the way you weigh yourself, the information is somewhat useless. Then, we’re also going with that.
Then, the danger of weighing yourself too often is that sometimes people will develop complexes with this, like body image issues, eating disorders, and things like this. That’s not good either. If you’re the kind of person that can be really objective with this, and I’ve worked with fighters in the past that are, that they really don’t care. They understand the body is the vehicle that they drive for their sport. The number on the scales doesn’t seem to put them into spirals of depression or anything like this, so for these people– Some people just want to weigh themselves every day, and that’s completely fine, providing it’s not causing you any psychological ill harm.
Like myself, jiu-jitsu competitor for 15 years, dietician, PhD in weight cutting, and blah-blah-blah, all this. When I got jiu-jitsu comps coming up, I’m the kind of guy that’s going to be weighing myself every day, just because I’m interested. I want to see what my weight is at the start of the week compared to the end of the week, and things like this, but people who– Look, some athletes don’t really want to think about all this stuff. They just want to do the bare minimum, do what they’re told, not have to think about it. If you’re this kind of athlete, I would still say you want to get at least weekly weigh-ins, so you have an idea of whether you’re actually putting on weight or losing weight, and the same way we do at the academy.
I think doing two days back to back is a good idea just because weight does tend to fluctuate day-to-day, and so we have heavy days and light days based on a variety of factors. If you just do like a Monday, Tuesday, every week, I think, they’re good days to do it because that’s probably when you’re going to be at your heaviest. As a fighter, you probably want to know how far off are you from your weight division.
If you don’t want to think about it, just Monday, Tuesday, every week, log that weight. If you don’t have fights coming up and you really don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I would argue that’s slightly irresponsible if you’re the kind of person that balloons out. We know from research in general population but as well as athletes, people who weigh themselves compared to people who don’t weigh themselves maintain their body weight better. That’s probably no surprise, right? Because if you’re head in the sand, hands over your eyes and ears, and you are not paying attention to something, that’s when things can get out control without you realizing it.
Sonny: Yes, for sure. I’ve had situations where I’ll ask a fighter with a fight coming up, “What’s your weight?” You can tell they’re a bit, “I’m not going to do it until I’m ready mentally and then I’m confident enough that what’s going to be on the scale is what I want to see.” It makes me think then, when you’re dealing with those athletes and you’re tailoring it to their different personalities even, is there any way that you’re figuring out what their personalities are, questionnaires or anything like that, or are you just gauging it and using your intuition?
Dr. Reale: Yes, the second one. We don’t do any questionnaires in terms of getting an idea of their personality types. I’m not sure whether there’s any out there that would help, but certainly, it’s about getting to know them. It’s quite interesting, working in China actually. There’s a lot of downsides to the- I’ll just come out with it and say, lack on interest in sports nutrition and performance nutrition amongst Chinese athletes, but there’s some upsides where they don’t tend to have these body image issues around weight and things like this. You know what I mean?
It’s a lot more just part of the sport and do what you’re told. They don’t tend to do their heads in over it as much. There doesn’t seem to be these issues around, like you just alluded to, like fighters dreading stepping on the scales and things like this. There’s that. There’s this certainly cultural differences, but then there’s individual athlete differences as well. Yes, you just got to get know your athletes as a coach.
Sonny: Yes, that makes sense that you’re just going to have to have those people skills as a coach to be able to know what that particular person is going to require.
Dr. Reale: There’s two kinds of athletes. There’s athletes that turn into– I’m trying to think of a diplomatic way to say this. There’s athletes whose weight increases dramatically in between fights, and there’s athletes who don’t. If you are working with athletes whose weights don’t increase dramatically in between fights, then maybe there’s nothing to worry about. You know what I mean?
We’ve got several athletes in our academy who without really thinking about it or making concerted efforts to get it right, their body-weight management is essentially perfect. They just sit around 10% to 12% above their weight division, in camp, off camp, whatever. They don’t even have to diet during fight camp. Their weight will slowly come down but they don’t even have that much to lose. Then they do a weight cut of like 10% in the last week. Then, two weeks after the fight, they’re not any heavier and maybe at their biggest, they’re like 13% or 14% above their weight division. Again, that comes down during fight camp anyway without them really trying to do so. Certainly, it’s not the majority of them. Most fighters balloon out in between fights, that’s probably the reality. right?
Sonny: I hear that.
Dr. Reale: [laughs] Yes.
Sonny: [chuckles] I know that all too well. Obviously, if you’re getting fighters, one of the best things they can do is just keep their fight weight low between each fight or in that range, so that they don’t have these massive weight cuts six weeks out, that they’ve got to start freaking out about it. It that–?
Dr. Reale: Yes. We work with some numbers, some guidelines that we like to use with our guys. I don’t think it’s a case of you should always be ready. Some of the review papers that we published as a part of my PhD, we recommend fighters should not try and cut, I’m not talking fat loss here, I’m talking like acute weight loss or weight-cutting, in that last 7 to 10 days, that fighters should not try and cut more than 10% of their body weight.
For a lightweight who’s going to fight at 70 kilos or 70.5 kilos or whatever it is, we don’t want them to be any heavier than 77.5 kilos, 7 to 10 days out because we know that fighter’s can– It’s not a walk in the park but fighters can, without hurting themself, cut 10% of their body weight, and then recover really well. It’s always a balance because people who don’t understand the sport say, “Why don’t you just get down to 71 kilos or 72 kilos so the weight cuts easy?” It’s like, “Well, then you’re going to be too small when it comes time to fight, right?”
That 10%, that’ s a good, pragmatic balance between not cutting so much weight that you’re going to hurt yourself and ruin your performance, but also not giving your opponent a significant size advantage. Now, obviously, some people do a lot more than 10%. I won’t say names but there’s been some UFC fighters that have gained 25% of their body weight, after weigh-in. That’s crazy. In order to gain that 25%, you’ve probably have to lose 25% in that last 7 to 10 days. Losing 25% of your body weight is ridiculous, that’s how people end up dying in the sauna.
It’s certainly not a case that the heavier fighter always wins, but we would be foolish to think that size does not play a part in competitive success. Each fighter has got to figure out what works for them. The numbers that we use is about 10%, we want them to cut. If it’s a little bit less, no problem. If they’re 8%, I still don’t think they’re too small. 11% or 12% that can probably do but it’s going to suck a lot more. Once you cut more than that in that last 7 to 10 days, is when you start to- all the support staff around the fighter are getting a bit worried.
Having said that– This brings me back to my actual point. Having said that, you could then be led to think that a fighter should just constantly remain at 10% above their weight division and that way, they never have to lose body fat. They can just do weight cuts after weight cuts and never have to actually do a fat loss phase. That’s fine for some fighters. If that’s where they sit, that’s fine, but in my experience and what we’ve worked with with our guys, we allow them to put on some fat and indeed some muscle in between fights, but we don’t want it to be too excessive.
We tell them at the start of fight camp, “We don’t want you to be bigger than,” I think we say “about 13%-14% above your weight division.” That means in that last– We have shorter fight camps for our guys. We want them to be able to take a fight on six weeks’ notice, and so that means that we’re going to drop 1% of their body weight per week. If they’re up around that 15% above their weight division, in order to get them down to 10% above their weight division a week.
There’s a lot of research to support the claim that once you’re losing more than 1% of your body weight per week, the calorie deficits that are required to achieve that, increase your risk of injury and illness, lead to greater loss of lean mass and muscle mass, and things like this. As best you can, you want to prevent yourself having to lose more than 1% of your body weight per week in fat loss. Then, try to aim for around that 10% in the last 7 to 10 days. That’s the way we come up with these numbers.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. Some fighters just go home and pig out and come back 20% above their weight division. Then we say, “You’re 20% above your weight division, there’s no short-notice fights.” Then they get a short notice fight on four weeks notice and then you’re pulling your hair out, trying to figure out what you’re going to do. That’s when it’s like, “What are we going to do?” The fighter has to make weight or at least come very close to making weight, otherwise, you’re not going to able to fight.
The unfortunate reality of these sports are then, you’re starving people in order to get their weight down. You’re putting them on severe calorie deficits. Their training’s affected, increased risk of injury, they’re going to lose muscle mass, they’re going to feel like crap the whole time, but you got to do what you got to do to get that weight down. Then it sets up the rebound again afterwards, so some people get trapped in that cycle and they never escape it.
Again, we’ve got a few good examples of athletes in our academy that do it quite well. Generally, not through any concerted effort of their own. That’s just kind of the way their genetics are set up. They pretty much just pig out the whole time. They eat as much food as they can and they’re just that kind of body type where they stay jacked and lean. They don’t ever get greater than 12% to 13% above their weight division, then we just do a weight cut at the end of it, and they’re good.
Sonny: I like that, that you do give a people a bit of allowance and keeping it [unintelligible 00:32:36] in the ballpark, shall we say. I’m interested, you mentioned then that some people, given those circumstances, are going to have to lose a lot of weight, and they are going to have that rebound effect. One phrase I had heard thrown around is metabolic damage, that people can permanently damaged themselves. Then, that throws everything off, they hold more fat into the future, something like that. Is that a thing, or what can happen there?
Dr. Reale: Yes, I don’t know about permanent. Obviously, that side depends on your definition of permanent, but permanent is actually pretty clear. Permanent means forever, right? I don’t know– [crosstalk]
Sonny: Pretty much.
Dr. Reale: Yes. [chuckles] I don’t know if it is forever, but certainly you can– What happens is, we have a resting metabolic rate, which is how much energy our body burns at rest. If you use the analogy of like a car, when you do exercise, you’re putting your foot on the accelerator, you’re burning gas, but even when you’re laying down in bed or sitting down, the engines idling, so it’s heating over, and this is that resting metabolic rate.
What happens is when you start dieting, or when you’re overtraining or under fueling yourself, that resting metabolic rate starts to decrease, and they’re starting in recent years, last 5 to 10 years, it’s become really fashionable in the research community to use resting metabolic rate as an indication of overtraining and under-fueling. We do this at the PI in Shanghai where we test at resting metabolic rate every couple of weeks. When you start to see their resting metabolic rate drop, again, that’s an indication that maybe they’re not fueling well or they’re overtraining.
What you find is that, yes, when people diet, their resting metabolic rate decreases. There’s several reasons for this, one, is you’re feeding them less calories. Two, if you lose muscle mass. Muscle mass is metabolically active so the less muscle you have, the less fuel your body requires just to maintain that muscle mass. Then there is some research to suggest that this suppression lasts longer than the period of the calorie deficit does. What that means basically, you diet for 10 weeks and then you stop dieting. Your metabolism resting metabolic rate decreases throughout that 10 weeks, your calories come back up, but your RMR stays low. That would be an indication of metabolic damage, so to speak.
There was actually some interesting studies looking at ex Biggest Loser contestants. Biggest Loser that television show where they had the morbidly obese people that lose all the weight. That was showing that in these people, even two years after the show, their metabolic rates were all screwed up. It’s certainly possible. The caveat around this is that everybody’s different. You wouldn’t believe the genetic variation in humans. I’ve seen athletes that you feed them ridiculously low-calorie diets in order to get them to make weight and their RMR stays very high, and they don’t lose any muscle mass. These people are just genetic specimens.
That’s just the way the human race is set up. Pretty much everything exists on a bell curve, and most people, some are in the middle and you’ve always got people at the tips of the bell curve. Generally, the people at the tips of the bell curve are the people winning Olympic gold medals, and Tour de France, and UFC world champions, and things like this.
Sonny: Yes, that’s fair enough. It’s probably then a bit unreasonable for me to blame my difficulties losing the Christmas kilos on a weight cut I did five years ago.
Dr. Reale: What was your quote at the start, about the excuses are only–?
Sonny: [chuckles] Excuses please only those who gives them. [laughs] I hear you. How are you guys then testing getting that metabolic rate for the guys in China? Is that something that the regular athlete can do?
Dr. Reale: How do we do it, and how is it done in the research setting? Basically, not a lot of people might be familiar with how it looks like, but people may be familiar with Vo2 max test. Maybe you’ve seen somebody on the treadmill with the mask on jogging on the treadmill. A lot of people have seen this, whether it’s on the TV or at a university or something like this. What that’s doing is that that mask is attached to a gas analyzer, which is measuring the amount of oxygen that you’re sucking in and the amount of carbon dioxide that you’re producing. Then we do a bunch of equations on these numbers to figure out how much energy you’re burning, and also how much fat and carbohydrates you’re burning and things like this.
Basically, it’s the same thing, but resting metabolic rate, as the name would suggest, you do it at rest. We just get people to come in and lay down, they lay down for 30 minutes with the mask on, and we just measure how much energy they’re burning at rest. It’s really important the standardization of that, so similar to the way you do your weight. When we do this, it’s early. It’s like 7:00 AM. I think the last one we do is like 7:45 something like this, but the athletes don’t really like it because it’s 30 minutes lying on your back, and it’s at an ungodly time for these Chinese athletes to get up at 6:30 and come in and do a resting metabolic rate test.
That’s how it’s done. How is it–? You have to be fast. You can’t eat or drink anything. You can drink water, but you can’t eat or drink anything with energy. You shouldn’t have tobacco, or alcohol, or caffeine for the 12 hours beforehand, things like this. No marijuana either for all the fighters out there. Then can–
Sonny: You’re breaking dreams.
Dr. Reale: [laughs] The argument could be made that if you’re always smoking marijuana, maybe you should do it on marijuana, because then it’s a better indication of your typical resting metabolic rate.
Sonny: I’d give them the chance. That’s all a fighter would need to hear, and then they’ll take that around with it, mate, so don’t give me the opportunity.
Dr. Reale: Then can fighters do it themselves? To be honest, I haven’t heard of commercial places that do it. DEXA scanning is very popular now. There’s a lot of, I know certainly in Australia, in the US, I guarantee, and other places I know, in the UK as well, you can go and get your body composition tested via DEXA scan. I haven’t heard of places doing RMRs. Your best bet might be to contact a university. If you have any friends that study sports science or nutrition, tap them on the shoulder, but it wouldn’t surprise me if places do start to provide this service because it’s kind of becoming a standard nutrition diagnostic test in many sports institutes around the world.
Sonny: Okay, so the best then that the regular athlete without that access might be able to do is you get a DEXA scan, and then there’s some calculations you can make off that, and then get the feedback and see how that’s going. Is that–?
Dr. Reale: Yes, exactly. Right, but to be honest, you don’t even really need a DEXA. Two ways to do it. One, is just Google metabolic rate equation, and there’s a bunch of different equations out there. Common ones are the Schofield equations, Harris-Benedict equations, Cunningham equations. Cunningham requires you to know your muscle mass. If you want to use a Cunningham equation, then you would need to get a DEXA, but these equations are just based off your body weight, maybe your height, maybe your age, and definitely your sex, male versus female.
These equations, they’re pretty accurate. They’re accurate for most people plus or minus 10%. If you wanted to design your diet this way, you could just get one of these equations, feed your info into it, and then that’s going to tell you how much you burn hypothetically at rest. The issue then anyway is this, even if you do– There’s two different ways to get the RMR, right? One is to measure it directly or indirectly, via a test that I just described, or two, use one of these equations, but that’s only one component of your energy expenditure.
Then, there’s the actual energy that you expend through training and even like incidental exercise. Even if you don’t go to training, you’re moving around, you’re doing housework, things like this. Then, you’re burning energy that way. That way, you can’t really measure anyway. There’s no good way to do it. Even if you have the actual perfect gold standard RMR measurement, you’re then getting the energy expenditure through exercise anyway.
Really, what it comes down to is, like you said, it’s like you’re just looking for feedback. This is how we work with athletes, right? Like I said, right in the beginning, you come up with an intervention or a diet or some sort of plan based off the scientific literature, and then you adjust based on the reality and the feedback that you’re getting from the athlete’s weight, or their training quality, or whatever. For you, Sonny Brown, what’s your weight right now?
Sonny: Oh, I’m ready to go, coach. Throw me in, I’m the fight weight, I’m in striking distance, don’t worry about that. [laughs]
Dr. Reale: Let’s say you’re 75 kilos, 80 kilos.
Sonny: Yes, 80.
Dr. Reale: All right. Let’s say you’re 80 kilos, and you’re going to try once per day, right? I’m going to ballpark it here. Say you burn 3,000 calories in a day, it may not be exactly 3,000, it may be more or less, but it’s probably not too far off. What we do is we feed you 3,000 calories, and then we weigh you according to a standardized procedure we’ve described earlier, and then we just see what happens. If we feed 3,000 calories a day, every day, for three weeks, and your weight stays the same, then we nailed it. If your weight increases, then we’re obviously feeding you too much, which means that the combination of your resting metabolic rate and your exercise energy expenditure is actually less than 3,000. Or, if you’re losing weight, then we’re not feeding you enough.
Really, this is the way that we do it anyway. Even at the academy, we have all these plug and play diets for the different weight divisions that we use. We have these menus set up, where we say, “All right, a lightweight wants to lose body fat.” We estimate that for this lightweight to lose body fat, they’ll need to eat two 2,500 calories a day. I’m just pulling out numbers here, maybe it’s a little bit more. Then we give them this menu, and the menu says like, “Pick a protein, pick a vegetable, pick rice, or noodles, dumplings whatever,” and they tick what they want, and then they follow this diet.
Then they do it for two weeks. If they’re not losing weight, then we have to reduce the calories. No matter what their RMR said or no matter what any calculations that we come up with said, you have to work with the feedback that you’re getting from reality. Really, you don’t need to go and get RMRs. It’s interesting, but it’s not critical to your success and even to your weight loss efforts.
Then you don’t even need to get a DEXA in order to base your diet off. The main reason why athletes who don’t routinely have access to a DEXA and will have to pay for access to a DEXA, the reason I would recommend that they get it, is to do an assessment of whether they’re in the right weight division or not. If you’ve ever wondered, “Can I go down a weight division?” Your first step should be to go and get a DEXA scan so you can see exactly how much fat-free mass you have underneath your body fat.
Sonny: Yes, okay. Then I guess the best way then just for the regular fighter just piecing it together, is really just be paying attention to what their weight is on the scale or a couple of times a week at least, be paying attention to how many calories they’re eating every day, and then just adjusting as they go. Is that reasonable?
Dr. Reale: Yes, 100% correct. You don’t even have to do calories. My mind works that way and a lot of people’s minds do work that way, and I would say that a lot of fighters do actually. Fighters are either particularly anal and on top of their numbers like that or they don’t really care, but a lot like the numbers because it gives them a sense of control, so that is one way. Even if you just know you eat the same stuff every day and your weight’s not moving, you don’t even have to add the numbers up. You just say like, “All right, I’m going to eat a bit less. I’m going to reduce the fat in my diet. If I always cook with a shitload of oil, I’m just going to reduce some of the oil in my cooking. If I had two cans of Coke every day, I’m going to switch the Coke Zero.”
You don’t even know what the total amount of calories you’re eating, but if your weight has stayed the same and you’re eating the same, then obviously, you’re providing the correct amount of energy for your expenditure. If you want to lose weight, you need to reduce that energy intake.
Sonny: Okay, that makes sense. Did you just summarize it as to lose weight, eat a bit less, Reid? Is that what we’ve come down to here?
Dr. Reale: Pretty much.
Sonny: [chuckles] All these PhD years of research?
Dr. Reale: Yes, that’s it.
Sonny: That’s incredible, but it makes sense. As long as you’re paying attention to it and just unconsciously shoveling stuff in your mouth and not moving, if you’ve got an idea of what you’re cooking with, what you’re eating, you can adjust accordingly and wing it and “All right, I’ll have one scoop instead of two,” or something like that, and just figure it out yourself, right?
Dr. Reale: Yes, correct. That’s 100% correct. If you know roughly what you’re eating and you just reduce down, but it’s important for people to understand, it’s not the volume of food, it’s the energy content of the food. Often, we can actually keep the same volume of food or even more, but reduce the energy intake, because it’s the energy that we need to decrease not the volume of food.
The example that I just gave you is, reduce the fat content of your diet, things like oil, butter, margarine, spreads like these, even things like nuts, the fat on your meat, this stuff is incredibly energy-dense. You can remove some of that fat and you can actually put in more vegetables and salads, and things like these. You might actually eat a greater volume of food, but you’re eating less energy. I’ve got a plug for a book that I wrote. Maybe you can provide the link or something.
Sonny: Combat Sports Nutrition, is that–?
Dr. Reale: That’s the one. We’ve recently updated, mate. Recently updated. Seriously, that probably explains a lot of this stuff in greater detail and in the way that fighters can understand, but exactly what you said, it’s eat less, move more, end of story.
Sonny: Now the problem with that advice though, I’ll just hang on just before I go into the problem with that advice, is it does seem that the main thing is, know which foods are energy-dense and which foods are not, and just as long as you then have that knowledge, you can adjust accordingly, right? Is that–?
Dr. Reale: Correct, yes.
Sonny: That’s important that even if you don’t know the exact amount of calories, if you know that this one is dense and it’s going to have lots, then that’s going to be an important thing to know. Now the problem with the advice of, “Just eat less, you’ll be right, monitor yourself,” is it’s very hard to actually get people enthusiastic about that and to like that idea of that simplicity. People want some form of diet that they can attach onto, and buy into, and follow to a tee. Do you make sure that they get that buy-in or how do you get that buy-in from your athletes?
Dr. Reale: Yes, it’s different for different people. Like you said, a lot of people want– Nutrition is funny, right? A lot of people want a name for the diet. What diet are you on? It’s like, “Well, I don’t know. I just eat a lot of vegetables, and some meat, and some carbs, and the way it adds up, it’s less calories.” It’s like that’s not as sexy as the carnivore diet, or the paleo, or a modified Atkins, or whatever it is.
That’s our job as dietitians with the fighters that we work with, is to get that buy-in. The way most dietitians would do it is to just explain the physiology and the nutrition to them, and hopefully, once they get it, that they don’t need a name for the diet. This is one of the big benefits of working with the Chinese athletes is like, man, veganism, gluten-free, paleo– What else is there? Probably some Scientology diet or- but all these things–
Dr. Reale: All these things are not a thing in China. When we put them on these plans, they get it. It’s like, they don’t overthink it. We just say, “Look, all right, you’re currently eating four steaks for lunch and three massive bowls of noodles, so we’re just going to have one bowl of noodles, and two steaks, and then a bowl of salad.” It’s kind of easier in a way.
Dr. Reale: They don’t take ownership of it themselves, they just do what they’re told. Whereas your Western athletes, sometimes, you really got to sell things to them. Yes, it’s difficult, man. That’s the difficult job as a dietitian is working with different personality types. In the past, I’ve had good success just reiterating science to people, and I think because of– I’ve never fought MMA, but just training jiu-jitsu, competing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, being around fighters all my life and things like this, I think that’s helped me get buy-in. I can speak to people on their level.
Sometimes, people, it’s easy– It’s like, you’re not giving them the answers they want because they want the paleo diet, or the monopoly diet, or whatever it is, but if the person that they can’t relate to– Maybe the person that they can’t relate to is the reason why they’re not buying in, and then this other thing is just another reason.
Whereas with me, it’s like, I’m not going to give them the paleo diet or the monopoly diet, because I’m going to explain it to them in a way that they understand, and use my own experience to say, “Look, man, I know sometimes it sucks, you got to make white, but trust me, if we do it like this, this, and this, you can still have a bit of cake on Saturday. We’re just going to make sure it all adds up in a way,” blah-blah-blah, use a bunch of analogies. Often, like money analogies work where it’s like reverse saving, like, “You’ve got this money in the bank, but we need to spend more money than we’re making in order to get that bank balance down, because the bank balance is your body fat and things like this.”
That’s what’s difficult about being a dietitian is selling things to people, and that’s why often, not always, but often you’ll find that dietitians that have done the particular sport themself in question, have a lot of success. Like if you’re a marathon runner or a cyclist, and you work with cyclists, you’re kind of halfway there in terms of generating buy-in.
Sonny: I can see that where people are not going to take advice on diet from just, “What do you know about our sport, mate? Stick to golf course or something like that.” Whereas if you’re in the sport, they go, “Okay, he’s speaking from a– At least he’s had some experience in.” Yes, I understand that. I guess also, I’m taking in that I guess in China, you haven’t had the athletes come to you and say, “Hey, I just watched Game Changers mate, I want to be Conor McGregor.” “Nate Diaz told me, eat your veggies.” That’s not happening over there?
Dr. Reale: No, it doesn’t happen. The big one that gets in the way, but it doesn’t get in the way as much as we thought, maybe it would have, and I’ll give you a two-part answer here, but traditional Chinese medicine, because they’ve got a lot of strongly-held beliefs around healing powers of food, and the hot and cold thing, and eating tiger penis for your vitality, and all this sort of stuff. They do have these kind of held beliefs.
A big one is like the hot and cold stuff. There are certain foods in the traditional Chinese
medicine beliefs that either have hot properties or cold properties and it’s not temperature. It’s not like curry is hot and cucumbers are cold, although I do believe cucumbers are cold. It’s to do with, I don’t know, the yin and yang or the balance or something like this. They believe that there’s certain times of the year, and certain times of the day, and whether you’re a female on your cycle or whatnot, where you should have more hot foods or more cold foods et cetera. This is a big thing.
When we first started, there was a few examples where it’d come up but to be honest, I think now the athletes have been there for long enough and the good thing about China is that, from a practitioner point of view, is the athletes are used to doing what they’re told not like Western athletes. They grow up in a system at their school where they don’t ask questions, they do what they’re told. Then the gyms are even worse in the sporting system, where it’s like you don’t ever question your coach, very hierarchical, or authoritarian coaching style. They do what they’re told, even if they maybe had issues with it.
Having said that, what’s happened was when we first opened, there was a few times where some things were said and athletes maybe had problems with certain things. They were like, “Well, my grandma said I shouldn’t eat this thing after training because–” One of them was like, “You’re not supposed to eat fruit after training.” This one’s a bit of a problem actually. They don’t drink a lot of water with their meals. Obviously, athletes need to stay well hydrated, and particularly if you’re training twice a day. That one’s a bit of an issue that we haven’t cured actually, [unintelligible 00:54:41], no fruit after training, whereas we put fruit out for them, try and get some carbohydrates and some vitamins and minerals and whatnot.
Then what happened is particular with the weight cutting. The weight cutting is where we got a lot of buy-in because they were cutting weight horrendously in their home gyms and then they did what we told them because they were part of his program. We provided all the food for them, we gave them structured plans, we sat them down and told them how it all works, whether they listened to or not, but they just did it because they do what they’re told.
Then I would say 100% of the athletes that went through a more evidence-based scientific approach to cutting weight after their fights, regardless of whether they won or lost, although we’ve got a very good win record. We’ve only had maybe three losses or something from over 30 fights I think. That they all say that it was much easier, they felt much better, the weight come off a lot more easy, that the recovery was fantastic. They felt great in the ring– in the cage, sorry, and et cetera.
Then what happens is after they’ve gone through the process once, even though the first time maybe they didn’t really trust it, but they were just doing what they’re told, then they bought in hook line and sinker. Then what’s happened is we’ve got new athletes that have come into the academy and because we’ve now developed this culture with the first group of athletes, the new athletes have stepped in and you’ve already got all these advocates standing around the place saying, “I’ll listen to these guys. These foreign experts know what’s going on. Just do what you’re told, you’ll be good, you’ll be good.”
It hasn’t been as difficult as maybe we thought it might have been. There was a few teething issues but yes, we certainly got the buy-in after they’ve gone through it. This isn’t talking nutrition but even if they’re training, Chinese MMA training, tipping all their sports training is the harder, the more, the better. If two hours a day is good, four hours is better. Six hours is even better, eight hours is even better. What’s a rest week? What’s a rest day? There’s no such thing as tapers leading into competitions and things like this.
Our head coach has obviously brought a more evidence-based periodized approach to their training. A lot of the athletes were like, “Well, I don’t know about these rest days and I don’t know why we’re doing less on this day. I feel like I’ve not really trained that hard and all this.” After they go to their fights, and they’re actually well rested, and they’re more poppy, and they’re explosive, and they’re not feeling so fatigued all the time, they’re bought in hook line and sinker to have a more evidence-based scientific approach to their training as well as the nutrition.
Sonny: Okay, so it’s like give them a chance to see the benefits of an evidence-based approach and you’re pretty confident that they’re going to be happy with the results and buy-in after that, right?
Dr. Reale: Yes, and I think this is a good thing for all athletes. I would always tell athletes when they cutting weight, part of your weight cutting process is to plan the weight cut and then evaluate it afterwards. After every time you cut weight, people do this instinctually but it’s also good to do consciously, to plan the weight cut and then afterwards assess, “What did I do different this time to the last time? What worked? What didn’t work? How did I feel?” et cetera.
With our athletes, because maybe they don’t have as much insight into nutrition and they don’t care, we sit them down, and interview them, and give them probing leading questions to make them think about it. We get some really good quotes out of them about just how good they felt from the weight cut, they didn’t know it could be this easy, et cetera, so yes. That solidifies the buy-in. It’s one thing for them to go through the process and realize that it was better, but when you guide them and give them the leading question to actually make them say those words that, “Man, this was way better than the last weight cuts that I did with my previous gym.” Not that their previous gyms were bad but it’s very old school hard training methods in these gyms that they come from around China.
Sonny: That makes sense. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries on how Chinese MMA has been developing and it seems like still a bit of the Wild West days over there, right?
Dr. Reale: Yes, you want to watch one. We got a lot of guys from this gym in I believe it’s– Is it Chengdu or Sichuan area? It’s near Tibet area. You want to watch this. It’s a vice documentary on YouTube. Type in Enbo, E-N-B-O, and it’s called an Enbo Fight Club for boys. It’s an orphanage where this local mafia boss gets these abandoned orphaned street kids and trains them to be MMA fighters. They’re all like from 12 years old, dropped out of school, and just fight MMA, but they’re the best gym in China. We’ve got those athletes in our program and they’re weapons these kids.
Sonny: Yes, right, that’s scary. They’re coming off for everyone. Just go back, one thing I want to clarify is that did you ever at a stage then, were you designing diet plans with those hot-cold principles in mind? I wasn’t sure about that.
Dr. Reale: Never.
Sonny: Never. Okay. Just checking mate, just checking.
Dr. Reale: I’m against it because I’m like, science, integrity, and all this. I see the value in reaching people on their level so maybe I’m a little bit too digging my heels in here. Maybe you could– but I’m in two minds about it. Some people say, “Well, if they want to eat hot foods at a certain time, can’t you just find foods that you would have them eat but make sure they are the hot variety?” Like if we want them to have protein after training, and let’s say chicken is a cold food and beef is a hot food, and they want to eat a hot food, just give them beef, and then you can tell them why we’re giving you hot foods because that’s what you want.
That’s one option. You could do it like that where you’re sitting on the fence, and I’m getting what I want and they’re getting what they want. But then I also think I don’t want to lie to people and I want to teach them about evidence-based nutrition. I never rubbish their beliefs, but I would rather be honest and in my mind have more integrity and do what I know to work and explain to the athletes. Because I want them to develop these skills so that when they leave our academy that they know what’s going on as well.
Sonny: Yes, I agree with that. It’s maybe something though coming back over to Australia with athletes and just giving them glucose a little bit pre-competition, glucose or after training, whatever, and just telling them that they can have a Red Snake or a Red Frog or just like a lolly. That idea itself with a lot of people have said that, “Here, just mate, have had a couple of snakes.” They’re like, “That’s junk food, that’s lollies, that’s unhealthy. I’m not going to touch that.” Have you experienced that as well, that pushback on that side of things?
Dr. Reale: With our Chinese athletes or just athletes in general?
Sonny: Just athletes in general?
Dr. Reale: Yes, for sure, and particularly with fighters because fighting or MMA, it’s a relatively new sport. It hasn’t had a lot of involvement with evidence-based training and nutrition practices. There’s a lot more of these– how do you term it, these beliefs and these counterculture and subculture lifestyles and beliefs and stuff. Whereas when you talk to a swimmer or a rower or marathon runner, they get it. They’ve been reading about carbohydrates and electrolytes and stuff for decades. When you tell them, “I have some Gatorade, it’s sugar water,” they know. It’s like, “Yes, it’s sugar water, but the thing that I need right now is sugar and water so sugar water is perfectly appropriate.
Fighters are the same in terms of their needs when they’ve got these high-energy needs but like you said, it’s like some people are resistant to this stuff. I’ve certainly encountered it but again, the best thing that I can do as a dietitian is just to explain it to them and say it in an honest way. The thing with fighters as opposed to maybe these- -other sports is that often fighters are working with incredibly low energy budgets because they’re trying to bring their weight down so there actually might be less room in the diet for some of these junk foods.
Whereas if you are Michael Phelps, and you’re burning 7,000 calories a day in the pool, maybe he meets his protein and vitamin and mineral needs in 2,000 calories. If he eats 5,000 calories of crap, it doesn’t really matter because it’s just fuel for the fire. Whereas the fighter is maybe burning 3,000 calories a day gets their protein, vitamins, and minerals in 2,000, but they’re trying to lose weight. Instead of eating how much they’re burning, they’re trying to eat less, so there might be less room for it. There’re certainly times where it’s appropriate. But yes, I think it’s, again, from my point of view, it’s just about explaining the physiology to them and getting the buy-in that way.
There’s few situations in a fighter’s nutrition program where they have to have candy, so if I really don’t want it, I can certainly work around it. The time that I think about when it’s appropriate is more like– one is post-weigh-in because if you’re trying to beat these incredibly high carbohydrate targets and carbohydrate is sugar. If you’re trying to get 700 or 800 grams of carbohydrates in before you go to sleep that night, it can be quite hard to do that in a sweet potato. Having some sugary crap in that post weigh-in period is completely appropriate. Interestingly enough, people that have these beliefs around not wanting to eat the candy, those beliefs go out the window post weigh-in anyway, so that’s an easy fix.
Then the other times is like maybe judo or jujitsu competitors who have competitions where they’re fighting multiple times throughout the day and you don’t want to eat heavy foods in between comps, so candy and stuff is appropriate then. But then you’re talking about your fighters in their day-to-day training environment. One Snake is not going to hurt anyone. One Snake’s– I don’t even know, but what is it? It’s probably five grams of sugar. That’s probably 20 calories, maybe it’s probably 30 or 40 calories max. Again, it’s probably not going to make the difference in their performance anyway, so if they really didn’t want it, half a banana’s just as good.
Sonny: You can always find something to substitute in that’s going to suit them if they really want it. Is that what you–?
Dr. Reale: Correct, yes. Nutrition’s– there’s many different ways to skin a cat, and yes, everyone has their tastes, preferences in things like these. A good dietitian will– That’s a dietitian’s job, is to understand somebody’s requirements, understand their likes and desires and beliefs, and make these things line up.
Sonny: There’s a lot of the mental aspect it seems like to actually goes into play with a lot of this stuff. One thing I want to talk about is going through some of the specifics of the weight cut, maybe some of the methods that you’ve seen that are inappropriate to use. Maybe first, particularly one I want to discuss with you is the sauna suit and just how that gets used, and what you think of it.
Dr. Reale: It’s interesting. Do you mean in the weeks leading up to a weigh-in?
Sonny: Yes. I’ve seen it used in so many ways. My thoughts on it is people see the name sauna suit and think that it’s a suit you wear in the sauna and not a suit that simulates sauna-like conditions. Say that six times quick. Should you wear a sauna suit in the sauna?
Dr. Reale: You can. At that stage, you’re just trying to get water out of the body. If that’s going to help you sweat more, and you feel comfortable to do so, there’s no reason why you can’t. The thing that’s going to– and there’s a lot of different considerations. We’ll say MMA, we’ll just put it in an MMA context, rather than jujitsu or judo or something like this because there’s different considerations with same-day weigh-in, multiple-bout competitions and things like these, so one, we’re talking MMA.
At the end, you’ve used all the other weight-cutting methods, the low carbohydrate diet, the low fat in the diet, the low salt, you’ve brought your body fat down, you’ve stopped drinking fluids, blah, blah, blah. That last push is just trying to get water out of the body. Any way you do that– There is some nuance differences between the methods, particularly active versus passive sweating. If you’re just going to jog on a treadmill for five hours, and that’s probably a dumb idea because you’re going to get quite sore from the exercise and the fatigue. In terms of pushing the water out of your body, the thing that’s going to affect you the most is how much water you get out of your body.
Whether you get 4% of your body weight in sweat out of your body from a bathtub, a sauna with no sauna suit, a sauna suit with no sauna, or a sauna suit in the sauna, it’s probably not much difference to your health and then your performance as well. Because as we know with MMA, there’s 24 to 30 hours, depending on the event, between the weigh- in and when you compete. I’m not really that concerned, and I certainly allow athletes to make a lot of decisions themselves, within reason but how they feel most comfortable.
Some fighters definitely prefer the bathtub to the sauna. Some fighters, particularly in China– This is the problem we have actually with a lot of the Chinese fighters is that they want to work the weight off. They want to just jog around the block with their sweats on until the weight comes off. Although I think it’s fun if they like this, if they’ve got a big weight cut, I don’t want them to work all the weight off. Maybe you do that to get yourself sweating, and you drop a kilo or two maybe, depending on how hydrated you are to begin with and how big you are.
Certainly the passive methods, sauna, hot bath, heated rooms, things like these is going to cause less physiological distress and causes less muscle fatigue on the athlete. So in terms of the sauna suit, I don’t have a problem with it. The other thing that I would just mention on that is, and I’ve come 360 on this, it was always intriguing to me when fighters, and you see this in– definitely, it happens in China. I remember being in Korea five or six years ago with our judo team. These guys wouldn’t have a competition for four weeks, five weeks, and they’re wearing their sweat suits under their gis and I thought, “What are you doing?”
But there’s actually something to it. There’s a process, and endurance athletes know, it’s called heat acclimation, where if you’re going to go compete somewhere in the heat, acclimatizing yourself to the heated environment prior to going to the heated environment aids your performance. Part of this heat acclimation process, what happens is your body learns to sweat better, because when you’re in a hotter environment, obviously the temperature is hotter, but your core temperature is hotter as well. Our body likes to maintain a fairly static core temperature and the way our body cools down is to sweat.
Part of acclimatizing to heated environments, is your body, what it does is it lowers the sweat threshold, so you sweat earlier and you sweat more. There’s different ways you can do this. One is to just exercise in heated training environments, but also wearing a sweat suits can simulate the same thing. If you know you’re going to do a big sweat the day before weigh-in or weigh-in day, depending on when the weigh-in is, it’s actually beneficial to acclimatize yourself to the heat in the weeks leading up to it.
You can do it by having saunas every day, you can do it by having hot baths every day, or you can do it by putting these sauna suits on. It’s actually not as stupid as maybe people who run off with it thought.
Sonny: That’s new to me. I’ll have to go look into that but that’s interesting. You’re saying that all you really care about then, when your fighters are losing weight is how much they’re sweating out, and whatever they decide is their most comfortable way to sweat that out is all right, as long as it’s not just working themselves to the bone?
Dr. Reale: Pretty much, yes. Our head coach, he loves the bath. In his experience with all these fighters, he uses the bath. Where we take our Chinese fighters, we always go to this one city, Jiangzhou. It’s definitely not Shanghai. Shanghai is a worldly cosmopolitan tier one beautiful city in China and Jiangzhou is not, let me just put it that way. We go to Jiangzhou every four to six weeks for these fights and there’s no bathtubs there, so they all go to a local sauna. The sauna is definitely longer than the bath, but the fighters don’t mind because they’re getting the sauna, they’re talking shit and doing their thing so there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Again, the biggest consideration is how much you’re going to sweat. We want to manage our fighters in a way where hopefully, they’re going to sweat 5% or less of their body weight for that final sweat. If we get them to 10% above their body weight- -seven to ten days out, we then implement a low carbohydrate diet and then a low fiber diet to empty their guts. They’ll typically lose 5% of their body weight through low carbs and low fiber and then also low salt in the last two to three days and some of the fighters even more.
That’s another good thing about China, there’s no such thing as a low carb diet. These guys are always eating lots of noodles and lots of rice so when we finally come to take the carbs out of their diet, they lose a tremendous amount of weight compared to like a Western athlete who might not have even looked at a carb for six weeks prior to their fight, you know what I mean? Our guys actually have reasonably easy weight cuts, of course, some worse than others and there’s a few that comes to mind. But yes, if we can get them to 5% or less above their weight division on that final day, we know they’re pretty much right.
It seems like it’s harder for women and then it’s also just harder or easier for individual athletes. Who knows why? Just genetics I guess. But yes, that’s where we’re at with there. So yes, again, 5%, even if they had to work 5% off from exercise, I would wait for them to do that, but it’s probably no big deal. Sometimes they’ll have to– Actually, with this coronavirus stuff, the fights have started back up again and we’re not even there, but some of the fighters have been going there to Jiangzhou and the sauna is shut down because of the coronavirus considerations.
They’re working the weight off. They’re there with their sweat suits on, and jogging, and doing star jumps and whatever. It was cold when they first started going there so yes, they must’ve been struggling. A lot of them took short notice fights so they were probably doing big sweats. Again, MMA, you’ve got 30 hours. As long as you’re a [unintelligible 01:14:45], it’s amazing what the body can do with 30 hours.
Sonny: One thing you mentioned there that I’ve heard a lot is when you ask a fighter, “How do you plan on losing weight?” “Cutting carbs out, cutting carbs. That’s the only way to do it, cut carbs.” What do you say to a fighter when that’s their response?
Dr. Reale: Yes, well, again, we’re talking two different phases for the actual weight cut. Like that last seven to ten days, you definitely should cut carbs because carbs are holding onto water in the body but we can do that acutely. Really, you can do it in a couple of days if you’re training hard but you should be tapering in that final week. You’re probably not training that hard that final week so you’re probably not burning as much carbs as you normally would. For that reason, we always do about seven days of zero carbs or close to zero so that’s one thing.
I think what you’re more talking about is during the fat loss phase, when people are like, “All right, I’m not going to eat carbs for six weeks.” Now, the thing is, is that carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source for high-intensity exercise. It’s very difficult for you to have quality intense training sessions when you’re not eating sufficient carbs. For that reason, I generally recommend that we cut the fat. It’s somewhat contentious in popular media. Everyone’s like keto diets and whatnot, and high-fat this and low carb that, but it’s pretty rock solid science that high intensity exercise is improved when carbohydrates are high compared to when they’re lower. I always try and get my fighters to reduce their fat intake first before carbs.
Now you’ll reduce both because you’re trying to get energy down but certainly reduce most of the fat in the diet and then start to cut some carbs. Reduce carb portion sizes certainly, particularly on rest days and things like these. But when you’re doing two sessions a day and you’ve got hard sparring sessions and stuff, if you’re not having some carbs your performance is going to suffer. The thing is, is that you don’t have to go without the carbs, it’s just calories. Any way you can get those calories down is the way to do it.
If you can get the calories down by reducing a little bit of carbs but more of fat, you still get to have carbs, which are going to fuel your training. Even sometimes people are over eating protein so they can even shave a little bit off the protein side of things. Then of course, if you’re drinking alcohol, that’s just a waste of calories right there. Certainly get rid of the alcohol first, get rid of not all but a good chunk of the fat and then start cutting your carbs.
Sonny: It’s in that weight loss phase, not the weight cut phase, right, that’s the definition, the change between those two, is that not really?
Dr. Reale: We say chronic weight loss versus acute weight loss or you can just say fat loss versus weight cut. In my mind, whenever I say the word weight cut, I’m always meaning that non-fat loss weight loss, if that makes sense.
Sonny: Yes. That’s where you’re losing the water weight in that last couple of days, so to speak.
Dr. Reale: Correct. Yes. We say last week, seven to ten days, something like that.
Sonny: In that last lead up, they’ve been doing some water loading. I don’t think we’ll get into the specifics of how that all goes down, but what are some of the problems that you’ve run into when you’re working with professionals that you’ve had to modify your practice on the go? If you come into it and just something’s not working and you’ve had to shift gears in the middle of a weight cut.
Dr. Reale: The funny thing it’s fairly simple. It’s like we know where the weight is stored within the body and we know how it comes out. We just do these things like the carbohydrates are going to bond to the water in your muscles, so we’re reducing carbs. Excess salt is going to make you hold onto water, so we dropped the salt. You don’t want fiber hanging around in your guts because that’s just like undigested plant matter and it’s also drawing water in. We’re never going to change these things, you’re always going to be cutting carbs, cutting salt, cutting fiber.
The things that will change is sometimes the calories because ideally– and here’s the thing, it’s like fat loss is all about calories. But these acute weight loss methods that we’re talking about, they’re actually not to do with calories. At that point, we’re not trying to drop fat. We’re just trying to empty your carbs stores, empty your gut and get rid of some water. None of these three things are affected by calorie intake. Maybe carbohydrate stores if you over eat calories, but if you just cut the carbs and keep calories the same, you will deplete these [unintelligible 01:19:42] stores.
What we actually want to do in that final week as best as we can is actually keep calories relatively high. You might actually be eating more energy and more calories on the week of a fight than you have for weeks beforehand because we’re no longer targeting fat loss. That’s a hard thing for fighters to often wrap their head around. It means that you don’t have to suffer as much as maybe fighters have in the past. The way we do that is by really bumping the fat out.
Before we talked about keeping fat low because we’re trying to reduce calories, but in that final week, we’re trying to target these other compartments of body mass, and we can actually bring the fat intake back up. This is what they do at the UFC PI in Vegas, we want to trifecta, meal prep service during fight week. They include a lot of high fat sources and high fat protein bomb, little snack balls and things like these. Where was I going with that? Yes, so we keep fat intake and calorie intake relatively high.
Now if somebody is really struggling to make weight, the modifications we make is what will actually start to bring the calories down. Not only are we attacking all these other methods, we’ll actually start to really bring the calories down just to try and get any extra fat loss that might be necessary and maybe even muscle mass loss because it’s like you’re running out of options. It’s like we’re throwing the kitchen sink at this guy, but he’s still just too big. What else can we do?
Well, we can drop calories, whereas like that 10% body mass loss, that doesn’t rely on any fat loss at all. If somebody is 10% above their weight division, we don’t really have to worry about the calories, keep calories adequate. If the guy’s burning 3,000 calories a day, give him 3,000 calories but cut the carbs, the salt and the fiber. That’s one thing we’ll do is bring the calories down.
Another thing that we’ll do is play around with the water intake. Normally, like our Chinese athletes even, they fight on– has a similar weigh-in protocol to the UFC where they weigh-in in the morning around 10:00 AM. What we normally do is if they weigh-in at Friday at 10:00 AM, that means Thursday, they’re doing their weight cuddle, Thursday night/Friday morning. We’ll just tell them to either cut– they can drink all day, Wednesday, and even water load until Wednesday night when they go to bed and then Thursday, they get up and don’t drink all day Thursday, or they might even drink until lunchtime.
Now, if somebody is really cutting their weight close as well, maybe we’ll cut the water earlier. Maybe not even cut it completely, but instead of saying you’re going to water load all day Wednesday, it’s like, you’re going to water load into a Wednesday lunchtime, and then you’re just going to do half a liter for the last second half the day, Wednesday. Two things wil6l change. One is that we will bring the calories down lower than we would normally like to and two, will start the fluid restriction a bit earlier. That’s some things that we do.
Other problems that you run into is when athletes don’t listen to you and they start their sweat too early. There’s been examples where for whatever reason, a fighter’s gone to this event before we left with- -them. We generally travel as a team. There’ll be like 10 fighters going, the head coach and myself, and we go out there and we tell them what to do. We’re like, “Drink this. Eat this. All right, now, the time’s this, stop drinking right now.” But then they go there by themselves. We had this girl, she’s freaking out. She’s like, “Oh my weight, my weight,” so it’s like she thought she’d start sweating on the Wednesday.
She’s jogging around, she stopped drinking, but then of course, what happens is, she goes back to her hotel room that night, she’s like, “Jesus, I’m still not weighing in for two more days.” Then she fucks it up, because then she’s drinking later than she should have because she tried to cut it earlier than she should have. She’s sweating now, although she’s then going to replace the fluid and throws a spanner in the works that way. I’m sure, if you’ve been around fighters, this stuff happens all the time. Yes, they’re kind of the issues that we run into. In terms of the food, they just do what we tell them, so that’s handy.
I think fighters compared to other athletes, and the nature of the weight cut compared to any other situation in sport, if people don’t listen to what you do 99% of the time, the 1% of the time, they’re going to listen to what you do, if they’ve trusted you, is going to be for that weight cut. You’ve got instant buy-in then.
Sonny: Then if we could just touch briefly on maybe the dangers in weight cutting? Flo put out a new documentary, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s about bad weight cuts. We know that there’s that inherent risk. We know ONE FC has got hydration testing if we can believe that they’re actually doing that. Who knows? It’s all behind closed doors but there are these other ideas out there about how weight can be managed for the sport itself. Is that something that you would advocate for or is it just you’re doing the job in the system that’s there now?
Dr. Reale: Both. First of all, I haven’t seen that the Flo documentary that you’re talking of. Second, agree with your political commentary around the ONE FC weight-cutting situation there. Then third, would I advocate for trying to– in one’s defense at least they’re trying something. When you’ve got people dying from weight cutting, it’s ridiculous. What kind of sport do we have where the people are dropping dead? If there was a way that you could fix it, it would be fantastic. I don’t know what that way is.
Actually, having said that, if you weigh people in right before they fight, that will fix it but there’s a whole lot of reasons why that’s never going to happen, because of, I don’t know, basically, financial interests and logistic interests and things like this. Then if you’re going to do a day before weigh-in or even a morning of weigh-in, people are going to cut weight. How do you stop it within that context? I don’t know. Would it be a good idea? For sure.
Having said that, it’s kind of cool, isn’t it? Everyone loves it like it’s this little challenge. Yes, I don t know. It’s super interesting. This is what my PhD looked at. If you can detach yourself from it and not think about the people dying, it’s super interesting and really nuanced. It’s a really stupid situation where you’ve got people dying a day before they’re going to go and fight somebody to try and kill each other. It’s ridiculous. I certainly would, if there was somebody come up with good ways to stamp it out, I’d be all for it.
Sonny: It’s pretty difficult it seems because, anyway that anyone can come up with, there’s always people who are going to push for ways around it. They extended the weigh-ins in this. California does that testing that if you put on too much, they will restrict your weight limit. Have you run into that yet with any of your athletes?
Dr. Reale: No, we haven’t actually. I’m not actually sure 100% how that’s enforced and whether it is or not, but yes, you’re right. Apparently, it’s if you put on more than 10% of your weight, the fights cancelled, although, I haven’t heard of people doing it. What happens in judo, because in judo, now they have the 5% rule, where you’re not allowed to be greater than 5% above your weight division the morning after competition.
Two things. Number one is what people do is they still cut, let’s say 10% of their body weight, and then they just rehydrate 5%. Then you just wait to see whether you’re going to be randomly checked. Then either you’re not checked and then you just keep recovering, or you’re checked. You step on the scales, you get ticked off and then you keep rehydrating and recover the weight anyway.
There’s that and then also, there’s a certain amount of corruption with the way that these random checks are enforced. You can almost guarantee that if the competitions taking place in Russia, that the officials are not going to randomly check the Russian fighters. Then also, if you’re going to randomly check people, why not check everyone? In which case, why don’t you just bring the weigh-in closer to competition? There’s that issue. I forget what else I was going to say. But yes, so that’s with that.
Sonny: It’s a very complex situation. I don’t expect us to get to the bottom of this one right now because who knows how it’s all going to play out. There’s a lot of information to take in. We only scratched the surface on some of those issues. There’s a lot to actually learn about this topic. Final question. What would be something that maybe you would change to maybe bring everyone into a more evidence-based approach for nutrition rather than– Is there something that you would do to prevent people from clinging on to fat diets or gurus or stuff like that? Is there something that you could say that would make a difference?
Dr. Reale: I don’t know. I think we’re heading in the right direction, because it’s certainly more of evidence-based now than it was five years ago, or 10 years ago. All sports have followed the similar trajectory, where just over the years, there’s more research and there’s more– the science permeates the sporting culture more. I think the biggest thing that probably helps is role model behavior. If some more, high-profile athletes advocated for evidence-based approaches that that would help. I know that’s certainly a conscious part of the UFC Performance Institute is doing good work with people and hoping that these top fighters speak about it. Often, they don’t.
Often, fighters will make a lot of use of the services and completely change their training camps, and nutrition, and strategies, and everything based around advice that they received from the PI and then don’t make a mention of it. But then they’ll make mention of somebody or something else that was impactful so that doesn’t help.
We know from the research, this is common in all sports, but I feel especially fighting sports that when athletes rate who their biggest influence is on their nutrition practices are it’s never dieticians and it’s never doctors. Certainly, it should be dietitians over doctors, but at least a medical health professional. The biggest influences on athletes behaviors in nutrition and otherwise is always coaches and other athletes. If we had more high profile athletes and high profile coaches advocating for evidence-based nutrition, that would help.
Something that the UFC PI is got on the horizon is some coaching, accreditation type workshop system for MMA coaches. IBA, the International Boxing Association, they do with boxing coaches where you can be a level one accredited coach, a level two or level three, blah, blah, blah. Part of these coaching accreditations give you basic coaching knowledge, how to structure training camps, and then also things to do with medical safety concussion knowledge and nutrition, et cetera.
I think we’re heading in the right direction and long-term, these kind of coaching accreditation schemes will be available for MMA coaches, which will go a long way as well. But yes, again, I think we’re heading in the right direction with all this stuff.
Sonny: I love that. That sounds like a real good plan. Hook me up when that course goes live. Come on mate.
Dr. Reale: Surely will, mate.
Sonny: [laughs] Thanks so much for your time, mate, today or tonight. Really appreciated the chat. Of course, people want more of that information, more of that knowledge. It’s the Combat Sports Nutrition book, and where else can I get in touch with you?
Dr. Reale: I’m not very prolific on social media. I’m making concerted effort to do some Instagram posts but I’m pretty bad at it. My Instagram is just my name Reid Reale. Do we say hashtag? Is it #ReidReale or @Reid Reale?
Sonny: @, this one I think, yes.
Dr. Reale: I’ve got a Facebook page, Combat Sports Nutrition that I never posted on. I’ve figured out how to link it to the Instagram, so that will work. They can get my personal Facebook or if they’re interested in the notes side of it, Google Scholar has all my research articles and as well as the website research guide. But yes, I guess, Instagram or Facebook is probably the way to do it.
Sonny: You’re not on Twitter- -waging the nutrition wars on there? Is that–?
Dr. Reale: There’s just too many things, man. Now that I live in China, all that stuff’s blocked anyway. I’ve got a WeChat. You can add my WeChat and–
Sonny: What’s that?
Dr. Reale: You don’t know WeChat?
Sonny: I know what it is. [laughs]
Dr. Reale: It’s like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Gojek, Uber Eats, Skyscanner, everything rolled into one. An added bonus, the Chinese government gets to read all of your texts.
Sonny: [laughs] They can answer some of my unread emails for me. We can work out a deal with them. That sounds good mate. I will do this again in the future sometime if I can ever track you down again whatever part of the world you’re in. Thanks so much, mate.
Dr. Reale: Perfect.
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