4 Dietary “Secrets” to Becoming Stronger, Kicking Ass and Staying Healthy (That Every Karate-ka Should Know)

By Jesse | 21 Comments

The Dalai Lama is on a diet.

So is your mom. And your best friend. And your sensei. And his pet frog.

In fact, everyone you can name is on a diet.

And so are you.

How can I be so sure? Because a “diet” isn’t something you go on and go off of, like, say, a prescription. A diet is what you eat, day in and day out, whether you plan to eat it or not. It’s simply your regular food/drink intake.

The million dollar question, however, is…

What kind of diet are you on?

Did you know that Funakoshi Gichin (the founder of Shotokan Karate), was on a pretty strange diet?

Funakoshi sensei doing applications to kata Bassai Dai

According to his autobiography Karate-Do: My Way of Life, in the summer he only ate hot food and drank hot beverages. Conversely, during the winter, he only ate/drank cold stuff. I guess he thought it was more “natural” or something.

Well, in that case, I like his thinking.

Because, sadly, “natural” is far from how we’re eating these days.

(And before we go any further, no, this post is not about “Karate” per se. It’s about food, eating and being healthy. You’ll thank me later. Or sue me.)

See, nutrition is something I’m pretty interested in moderately obsessed with. I love learning more about how the human body functions, in order to optimize my present and future life (and diet plays a huge part in this). But it’s strange how society today has fooled most of us into blindly following this evil pattern of industrial “food” laid out by evil corporations during hundreds of years on what to eat and how to eat, without really educating us about the options.

I believe every person is fundamentally unique.

I hope you do too.

To make a comparison; we can’t produce a million cheap t-shirts of the same kind and expect them to fit everyone, can we? Of course not. Some people will want a different color, some will need a different size, some will need a different material, some will need a different cut… and some can’t even wear a friggin’ t-shirt at all.

But, for some reason, apparently, everyone should eat the same grains, dairy, sugar, meat and potatoes provided everywhere!

Because that’s how we’ve “always done”.

Screw that. I think we ought to pay more attention to individual differences in how we process, utilize and react to nutrients found in our food. This is so incredibly important. What we mostly eat today is the result of decades of economical calculations, industrial streamlining and clever mass marketing. Not health. Not following our instincts. Believe me, high fructose corn syrup was not what we were made to ingest on a daily basis. Never.

Kind of like the modernization of Karate… one mold that everyone nicely needs to fit into, right? And any “protruding nail” gets swiftly hammered down.

But, as y’all know, I like to break the mold.

Stuff commonly referred to as “food”

Not just for the sake of “breaking the mold” (sometimes the best results might actually be found inside the mold), but for finding the optimal results. No matter where they’re found. Inside or outside of the proverbial box.

Now, I know, I know, I know… I know. I feel ya. You can’t fully control your environment. The system doesn’t allow for that. School, work, restaurants, cafeterias… they don’t always understand that you might actually want to eat healthy. That you don’t accept their cheap cooking oils, their plastic ham and fake cheese. That you want to be in control of your own health, and make your own choices. That you want to shape your own life. So, today I thought I would help you by giving you a couple of simple things to just think about when it comes to your eating habits. Four things, actually. Nothing radical, just a couple of pointers, or tips, that I strongly recommend you to consider when eating stuff.

The goal?

To simply maximize your chances of having the optimal nutritional intake that your body deserves.

And, to fight the powah. Mess with the system. Be a health rebel. Be annoying.

Sounds good?

Great.

Then think about this:

#1: Omega-6 vs. Omega 3

Omega-6 and omega-3. Heard about these before? They are essential fatty acids (meaning we cannot make them on our own and have to obtain them from our diet) which aid in maintaining certain functions of your body in order to keep you healthy. However, while both are fatty acids, each one has a different role in keeping your body performing at its absolute best.

The thing is, they need to be balanced.

Few people know this.

See, the body constructs hormones from these fatty acids. And in general, hormones derived from these two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effect. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation in the body (acne, anyone?), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions.

Thus, both families of hormones must be in balance to always maintain optimum health.

Sounds simple enough? Think again.

The problem is that sources of omega-6 fatty acids are super many in the average modern diet, while omega-3 sources are comparatively few.

For instance, an abundance of omega-6 is found in most seeds and nuts and the oils extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, for example, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers, and sweets we consume… as well as in most fast food. Soybean oil alone is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American diet are estimated to come from this single source. Yuck.

So here’s the deal:

You need to balance your omega-6 and omega-3.

Like, today.

Many nutrition experts believe that before we relied so heavily on processed foods (back when we were still natural, and kind to our bodies) humans consumed omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in roughly equal amounts.

1:1.

But to great detriment, most people now get far too much of omega-6 and not enough omega-3. This dietary imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as contributions to obesity, depression, dyslexia and hyperactivity. Serious stuff, in other words!

So, my advice is to cut down on omega-6 levels by reducing consumption of processed/fast foods and polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed, for example). At home, use extra virgin olive oil (preferably cold), coconut oil or plain ol’ butter for cooking. They’re much better.

Then, increase omega-3 intake. Eat more oily fish or take fish oil supplements, or perhaps omega-3 fortified eggs? The normal recommendation is consuming two 4- to 6-ounce servings of oily fish a week. Salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, and trout are awesome. As a bonus, research suggest you’ll greatly improve cognitive functions and actually become a bit smarter!

So ditch the omega-6 and increase omega-3 to get that perfect balance.

I mean, why the heck not?!

#2: Mix Colors Like Crazy

Mother nature is thrifty. So, so clever.

She made plants, vegetables and fruits with several different colors.

These colors serve multiple roles in plants in addition to attracting animals (including us), such as protecting from UV damage, dampening the effects of excess light, enabling photosynthesis, and even acting as endogenous antioxidants (plants can’t really pop vitamin pills, after all).

Luckily, it appears that we humans can leverage many of these pigments for our own gain by eating brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

So eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

The more the merrier. There are hundreds of different bioactive plant pigments, each with unique effects (three of those explained below). So, rather than isolate just one or two, by eating a variety of colorful plants we ensure consumption of a wide range of potentially health-promoting plant pigments.

Three examples:

  • Need anthocyanins? Anthocyanins are flavonoids, the most common type of polyphenol, which interacts with your body at the cellular level to produce beneficial antioxidant and/or hormetic effects. Pretty much any fruit, vegetable, or flower with a significant amount of purple or blue gets that color from anthocyanins. Even some reds can be anthocyanin-based. The deeper the color, the more awesome the anthocyanins!
  • Need carotenoids? Carotenids are pigments that provide the orange, yellow, and red colors found in foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, bell peppers, squash, watermelon and tomatoes. This is awesome for vitamin A and our eye-sight, as well as our skin.
  • Need betalains? Betalain pigments are described as “deep red” and “purple” (sound similar to the anthocyanin family, but they’re different). Found in beets (where “betalain” gets its name), rhubarb, and the stems of chard, for example. Betalain is awesome, and protects against prostate and breast cancer, among much more.

Conclusion?

Mix colorful fruits and vegetables to get maximum nutritional awesomeness!

As an added bonus, your meals will also look nicer too, which should never be underestimated. Eating is a much more rewarding experience if your food is as sweet for your eye as for your tooth. Sure, you might feel like a rabbit. But rabbits are cool.

Something to consider.

#3: Timing Is Everything

You know what makes me sad?

When I see people training hard for hours without fueling their body.

People, listen up: You need to eat, and/or drink real stuff before and after intense training. Preferably both carbs and protein.

Why before? To have energy.

Why after? To restore energy.

It’s so, so, simple. High-intensity physical training is a catabolic process, which means that if you don’t have those carbs (glycogen) stored up in your muscles, your poor muscles will soon go “Dude, seriously, we have no friggin energy, let’s sacrifice ourselves in order to survive!” and so you’re breaking down your muscles… fool! And for those of you who are trying to gain some muscle, this is especially important after training. Eating a quick meal containing protein and carbs immediately post-workout takes advantage of a specific period of time in which the muscles are particularly insulin sensitive. Meaning, we can “fly” nutrients into the muscle “under the radar” via a mechanism called “non insulin mediated glucose transport”. So get that energy/protein bar (or preferably a shake) going, my friend!

Said another way, you recover from exertion faster if you re-fuel your body immediately after intense exercise.

As well as before.

Or face the consequences…

Timing is everything!

#4: Inflammatory vs. Anti-inflammatory

When we consume foods that our body does not naturally tolerate well, we put our body in an inflammatory state – putting stress on the body’s organs. Ever felt like your digestion is a bit “sluggish”? Ever felt a bit “swollen”, perhaps? Probably because you’re eating substances that the body does not even recognize as proper “food”!

Result: inflammation.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, about 12.9 million people worldwide died from some cardiovascular disease a couple of years ago. And each year, the World Cancer Research Fund estimates that some eight million people die from cancer. Heart disease and cancer, the deadly manifestation of chronic inflammation, are expected to remain as the leading causes of death in developed countries for many years to come. You’d better beware.

So, what to do?

Simple.

Avoid inflammatory food.

And consume more anti-inflammatory food.

In other words, try to eat less of:

  • Sugars (candy, soda, soft drinks etc.)
  • Common cooking oils (omega-6, remember?)
  • Trans fatty acids (deep fried foods, commercial baked goods etc.)
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese etc.)
  • Red meat and processed meat (ham, pork, sausages etc.)
  • Alcohol (beer, cider, liquor etc.)
  • Refined grains (white bread, white flour, noodles, pastries etc.)

Sounds hard? It is. The (Western) world is literally drowning in these things, and most of them are even considered delicious! But fact remains: the above list of “foods” severely aggravates inflammation in the body. We were never made to eat them as we do today. We’ve been fooled.

Instead, eat more of:

  • Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, tomato, kale etc.)
  • Fruits (apples, lemon, lime, berries, pineapple, passion fruit etc.)
  • Herbs and spices (cinnamon, chili, turmeric, cocoa, ginger etc.)
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds etc.)
  • Fish (salmon, sardine, tuna, herring etc.)
  • Good oils (extra virgin olive oil, macadamia oil etc.)
  • Tea (green tea, white tea etc.)

Anti-inflammatory foods like these should be incorporated into your regular diet (that means daily), as they will help bring a balance to inflammational responses in your body and make you awesome.

Stop feeling bloated. Stop having aching joints.

Stop becoming sick.

________________

Wrapping up: At the end of the day, these four points above are really easy to theoretically comprehend for any adult, but a bit hard for most people to actually follow on a day-to-day basis. “I can’t, my boss/wife won’t let me, it’s too hard or expensive, I don’t have time to think” yadda yadda. You know the drill.

Sure.

Fine.

That’s all right.

My goal with this article was just to inform you that a couple of simple tweaks to your diet can totally change your life. And last time I checked, Karate was more than just mere “punching and kicking” to you. It was a lifestyle. A choice. Literally a “way” of life. I bet it still is.

So why wouldn’t you want to take care of that?

My work here is done.

Now go be healthy.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

21 Comments

  1. Dan

    February 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Makes me feel pretty good about just putting together my first stew. Sweetcorn, carrots, cabbage, cauliflour, and chicken. Sadly don’t have mushrooms or peppers or they’d have gone in as well. I drink water almost exclusively (I have a coffee or two each day and about every month or so will “treat” myself to a bottle of pepsi max just to taste something different.. otherwise my diet’s improved a lot over the last not-that-long :)

  2. Jim

    February 23, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Great article Jesse, I think its way under emphasised that a lot of the discipline we get in the dojo is a result of the discipline we exercise out of the Dojo particularly with reference to our diet.

    Its the one thing you don’t need to sweat to work at but its also the one thing your are least likely to do anything about.

    To heck with the spinning ushiro mawashi-geri when it comes to regulating our diet most of us are white belts, and rest assured most of the ailments described in this article are a lot more likely to get take us down a lot harder than any attacker ever could.

  3. Barbara Hesselschwerdt

    February 24, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Great article. I’ve spent a lot of time researching diet since I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I can’t believe how brainwashed I was into eating rubbish. Now I have a chance to live a long and relatively healthy life. It’s not easy. Some damage has already been done but it is so worth the change. Natural food and plenty of variety is the way to go. I totally agree.

  4. jamonco

    February 24, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Jesse,

    I liked the last bit, #4, really insightful! Also Jesse, I have a tournament coming up in a month, and was wondering if you had any advice on the fears of being hit or dominated in kumite.

    Appreciate it,

    Jason

  5. Maria

    February 24, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I just find it slightly ironic that the more we talk and research and preach about health and nutrition the more “lifestyle” diseases (the best I’ve heard -- carbohydrate hypersensitivity ie bread makes you fat!) pop out of the bag -- maybe our Oprahesque obsession with “the real me” and what we eat and how it makes us feel could be the underlying cause of the increase in modern,newly diagnosed syndromes rather than what we eat and don’t eat. Common sense with the odd indulgence should keep us healthy -- it is not rocket science. We are supposed to get old and die.

  6. Alessandro Timmi

    February 24, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Awesome post Jesse. I’d add this:
    #5: Neapolitan Pizza on saturday makes you happy.

  7. Ørjan

    February 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    #6: Do not underestimate the power of the carrot cake either:-)

  8. tian

    February 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Cold pressed colza oil has a 2:1 ratio of omega6 to omega3 which is very good. It is affordable and easy to come by. Lineseed oil actually has more omega3 than omega6, but it becomes rancid really fast.

  9. Szilard

    February 24, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Be careful with “extra virgin olive oil” in the US. The United States is not a member of the IOC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not legally recognize its classifications (such as extra-virgin olive oil). Normally (in EU) “virgin” means that the oil was produced by physical means instead of chemicals. In the US it means free fatty acid content of 2g per 100g or less, extra virgin means 0.8g per 100g oil or less. This is a level of quality, but it can be as well 30% rapeseed, 20% sunflower, 50% olive, + added chlorophyll + residual chemicals from oil extraction, as long as they keep the fatty acid content low. You can buy way better canola oil than that.

  10. Dan

    February 24, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    I barely drink tea at all! Let’s start with that.

  11. Mike Noga

    February 29, 2012 at 3:47 am

    Nice article Jesse. Would you consider noting your sources for anyone interested in doing further information?

  12. Cristian

    March 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Nice article, most people ignore the huge importance diet has in the everyday performance and health in general.
    Have you read “The china study” by Campbell? That book and the documentary “Forks over knives” actually made me make a huge shift in what I eat on a daily basis, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

  13. Theodore Kruczek

    March 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Any thoughts on how much meat we should be consuming Jesse? I am the last person to have moral objections to eating meat, but the more I look at the old Okinawan diet (they live longer on average than anyone else) I keep noticing they didn’t eat much meat (less than 3% of their diet).

  14. Alexander

    April 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    A quick question -- what kind of “quick meal containing protein and carbs immediately post-workout” would Jessy suggest? I’m reluctant to touch protein shakes precisely because they are so unnatural!

    • Jesse

      April 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Well, the problem is timing. Liquids are absorbed faster than, say, a banana and sandwich, which is exactly why most athletes take carb/protein loaded drinks (aka “gainer” or protein shake). However, if that is too unnatural and/or expensive, studies suggest basic chocolate milk (you know, what we used to drink as kids!) is almost as efficient! Definitely cheaper, and often tastier too. ;)

      • Jesse (Not Jesse)

        July 27, 2013 at 9:43 am

        One of the benefits of a protein shake is you get protein energy as well as that muscle-building protein. Even though it’s a difficult process, our body can extract energy from protein.

        However, there’s a much easier way of gaining protein as well as the energy you will need for after a workout:

        Bananas and chocolate milk. Either blend them together with ice, or eat together within 40 minutes of a workout.

        Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, carrot and banana juice. :P

        • Jon Law

          September 30, 2013 at 12:35 pm

          One of the benefits of a protein shake is you get protein energy as well as that muscle-building protein

          Blimey what a weird thing to say. Excess protein is either stored as fat or excreted. The body uses fat and carbs as energy only turning to protein in extreme cases. Running a marathon is one of those times.

      • Steve

        February 5, 2014 at 5:50 pm

        Chocolate milk is a great post workout drink as it has the right ratio of carbs to protein…..roughly 4:1
        Do check the rest of the contents though as some do contain heaps of sugar (amongst other ‘not so good’ stuff).
        As regards protein shakes etc as one far more qualified than I once said….Always better to chew your calories….on this topic of performance/strength and diet I’d suggest looking at the following link http://rippedbody.jp/english/introduction-english/

  15. Kyle Buttress

    September 30, 2013 at 3:00 am

    I’d say eat real food, cut sugar and grains and you’ll be so far ahead of the pack you’ll wonder why you never did this earlier.

  16. Bill

    March 6, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Seems like we have post workout well covered here, how about pre workout?

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