Many fitness and weight loss experts come and go, but Tom Venuto has been around for a long time, and isn’t going anywhere but up. Tom is my go-to guy for anything relating to nutrition and fat loss. He has helped hundreds of thousands of people improve their lifestyles by changing habits and adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Even though Tom is a bodybuilder at heart, he has a wealth of health-first nutrition knowledge. Tom has been laboring away in research and academia almost as long as I have been alive, and has held many prestigious positions within the fitness industry including health club manager, best-selling author, and the founder of the internet’s premiere fat loss membership support community, the Burn the Fat: Inner Circle.
I caught up with Tom after a well-earned break from his normally hectic schedule as a fitness author and nutrition researcher to bring you this exclusive interview.
What is the average day like for Tom Venuto? How do you fit training and eating into your hectic schedule?
It’s the other way around. I work my hectic schedule around my training and eating. Training and nutrition are among my highest priorities. Everything else is scheduled around the priorities. So an average day starts with me reviewing my priorities for the day and I make sure those priorities get accomplished, if nothing else.
Can you give us a word picture of how much you enjoy training and competing in bodybuilding? For you, what is bodybuilding?
The way I see it, bodybuilding is the human body as sculpture. If you have appreciation for art and if you can look at Ancient Greek sculpture or Renaissance sculpture like Michelangelo’s David and say that’s a beautiful work of art, then couldn’t you look at a sculpted body and say that’s even more beautiful than an inanimate piece of art? I think most people don’t see bodybuilding that way because they think it’s a superficial pursuit. They think it’s only about vanity. Or they think its just about winning a trophy. That would be like saying martial arts is only about violence and beating people up. Obviously there’s an art and even a spiritual practice there as well.
I believe that as a bodybuilder, you’re a sculptor. And the food you eat and the training you do are your hammer and chisel. If you know how to eat and how to train, your body is your canvas. You can paint whatever you want. You can chisel off a little bit on the waist, and slap a little muscle on the lats and deltoids and carve out more definition and you look like a different person. Bodybuilding nutrition and training give you a feeling of total control over creating your body – you don’t feel like you’re at the mercy of genetics or environment because you’re holding the tools to change it. This is what I love about bodybuilding and why it’s the method of physique transformation I teach in my Burn the Fat program.
How important is your competitive bodybuilding to assisting you with your vision and purpose?
My business vision is to inspire and motivate as many people as I can to change their lifestyles, become fit and achieve their ideal weight and great health – naturally. I think the best way to inspire and lead is to set the example and what better way than drug-free bodybuilding?
What is your favorite quick and easy, nutrient-dense meal?
My all time favorite has to be my high protein, apple cinnamon oatmeal pancake. You can see the recipe here: http://www.burnthefatinnercircle.com/public/124.cfm?sd=2
When Tom Venuto has guests, what does he serve?
I “serve” whatever the best restaurant has on the menu! Seriously, last time I had some friends over, we went into Manhattan and ate some Italian at little Italy. I don’t eat in restaurants often, but when friends are over, that’s an occasion when I like to go out and enjoy a good meal in a place with some good atmosphere.
Favorite protein source? Favorite veggies? Favorite fruits? Favorite starchy carbs? Favorite treat or cheat foods?
Favorite protein: steak. I also eat eggs, fish and chicken daily. Veggies: A favorite is mixed veggies like mushrooms, onions, peppers, tomatoes, etc. in an omelette or a huge raw veggie salad with a nice balsamic dressing. Fruits: I like them all, but I eat grapefruits and apples and blueberries the most. Starchy carbs: oatmeal, yams, potatoes, brown rice. Favorite treat foods? A big restaurant steak, sushi or pasta. I don’t cheat often – I don’t crave junk foods most of the time.
Let’s say someone wants to build lean muscle, how much should they be eating, and how important is food quality? I’ve heard a lot of guys say they just need to eat a TON, even if it’s from McDonald’s.
The amount of calories a person needs is totally individual based primarily on gender, body size and activity level, secondarily on age. The guy who eats a ton of fast food to gain muscle who doesn’t get fat is the exception, not the rule. In fact, that’s usually the genetic freak on steroids. The average natural guy needs to eat the right quantity and high quality food to make solid, lean gains while staying healthy. It’s true though, it takes a lot of food to gain large amounts of lean mass. Most people who complain that they can’t gain muscular weight simply aren’t eating enough. Some pro bodybuilders say that during mass building phases, eating literally becomes their job.
From a fat loss standpoint, how important is it to eat organic, whole, raw, and unprocessed foods? From a health standpoint?
From a fat loss standpoint, it’s hardly important at all, which really irritates the heck out of the “clean eating” or “natural health” people and they yell at me for even suggesting this. But a metabolizable calorie is just a calorie from a pure energy balance point of view. However, I’m not saying you should only worry about the quantity of food you eat and not the quality. Eating unprocessed foods is very important for your health. Food quality does impact body composition as well, by way of nutrient partitioning and the effect that each type of food has on hormones, cell quality, appetite and long term health. But eating organic or raw and so on has very little bearing on actual fat loss unless doing so makes you eat less.
What about foods that contain zero calories – like diet sodas, should these be avoided or welcomed as a nice treat away from our diet?
I have no problem with an occasional diet soda or diet Snapple or crystal light, etc., strictly from a fat loss perspective. It’s all over the news again that “diet soda makes you fat,” but that’s not true. The recent wave of publicity against diet soda came as a result of a mouse study. Rodent studies, especially in the area of obesity research, have almost no bearing on the results in humans. The human studies from a few years ago were epidemiological. They looked at data that had been collected from a large group of overweight people and said, “aha, these overweight people drink a lot of diet soda, therefore, diet soda made them fat.” That’s confusing correlation and causation. That’s like looking at data about all the fires in your city for the last 10 years and saying, “aha, the fires with the most damage had the most fire trucks at the scene. Therefore, fire trucks caused the damage.” Perfect correlation, but obviously the fire trucks didn’t cause the damage. The reverse is true, actually.
There are no calories in diet soda. If diet soda makes you fat, how do you explain it? One suggested mechanism is that it may increase appetite. This has not been proven, but if it’s true then that would concern me. However, if diet soda increases appetite and you eat more of other food, then what was the true cause of the fat gain – the diet soda or the additional food eaten? What if you had the awareness and restraint not to eat the additional food?
That said, it’s important to realize that diet soda is not real food. It has no positive nutritional value and it’s entirely possible that drinking large quantities of it may have negative effects on health over the long term – especially from daily consumption. I think we should be very selective about what we eat every day as part of our habitual intake. However, as you suggested, non-caloric diet drinks can be a nice occasional treat with sweet taste, to help take the edge off a strict diet. Just keep your consumption of anything artificial to a minimum. Also remember that the correlation found between diet soda intake and being overweight shows that using reduced calorie diet products is no guarantee that you’ll lose more weight if you compensate by eating more elsewhere.
Is there a best nut to eat? I’ve heard that peanuts should be avoided because of the allergens. What nuts do you recommend eating?
Peanuts are a highly allergenic food, so for sure, if you’re allergic to peanuts, don’t eat peanuts. That doesn’t mean we should warn everyone to avoid peanuts – well, except when there’s a recall from a salmonella outbreak, as there was recently, but that’s not an everyday type of occurrence. Interesting enough, natural (no sugar) peanut butter is one of the all time favorite dietary fat sources for dieting bodybuilders. It tastes good so it helps take the edge off the diet and provides some energy and satiety when carbs are low. All nuts have some valuable and unique nutritional qualities, so nuts can be a part of almost any nutrition program. I like almonds and walnuts in particular. Walnuts are one of a few whole food sources rich in omega-3. All nuts are high in calories, so the quantities should be carefully controlled and measured.
What do you think about juicing vegetables and fruits – any thoughts on the pros and cons? Do you have any favorite recipes?
I don’t have any favorite recipes, because I don’t use a blender or juicer that often, I eat a lot of whole fruits and vegetables instead. But sure, I think it’s a great idea to make smoothies or drinks, provided the ingredients are mostly whole foods, especially the veggies because they’re so low in calorie density. If you’re talking about using fruit juice from a carton, then I don’t advise that for fat loss programs except in very small, carefully counted quantities because liquid calories don’t activate the satiety mechanisms in your body the way whole foods do. But fruit juice in a carton is different than something you could blend up at home straight from whole foods because in the latter case you have the fiber and pulp and its just the whole food liquefied. You could even make the shake somewhat thick and chunky and research has shown that shakes or smoothies that are thick or even have a degree of “chew factor” can help with satisfying appetite.
How much attention should we pay to our fiber intake – and what are some of the best fiber-filled foods?
Fiber is very important for health but also it has implications for appetite and body fat control. The fiber itself is not fully metabolizable so all the caloric energy is not available; it gets passed through the digestive system unabsorbed. Fiber also contributes to the feeling of fullness and helps with control of blood sugar. For fiber, eat lots of fruits and veggies of course, but don’t forget about the natural starchy carbs. The starchy complex carbs often get snubbed on a fat loss diet, but those can be some of your best sources of fiber, especially the beans and legumes. Also, if you don’t eat a lot of berries, some of the berries like raspberries are loaded with fiber. Put some on your oatmeal in the morning and you’ll have half your daily fiber intake in one meal.
What do you think about intermittent fasting? I’ve read about some plans that involve fasting for 24 hours every so often. Some plans call for alternate-day fasting. It’s said to improve insulin sensitivity and increase longevity, among other benefits. Any thoughts?
I think it’s noteworthy that you said many people are interested in fasting or intermittent fasting (IF) for life extension, independent of weight loss interests. Discussing “life extension by caloric restriction (CR),” including IF, is still entirely academic and totally theoretical because the life extension claims are all based on animal studies or at best, looking at biomarkers of aging in humans. CR clearly extends the lifespans of animals, and the subject is being studied in earnest to find mechanisms and see if animal findings transfer to humans. But we still have no direct, conclusive proof that CR will extend human life and even the CR researchers say so themselves.
I think an area that’s usually overlooked in life extension and improved quality of life as you age is psychology. I believe that understanding the mental and emotional side of health and aging are worth greater consideration than dietary factors. People with a purpose, a passion and a reason for living – especially if that includes other people – are going to live a long healthy life – that’s my personal belief anyway. I’d recommend some deep introspection on this before starving yourself. I also think you have to think about quality of life above all else. Lifelong hunger is a tough sale, and nobody wants to tack on years of dysfunction and illness. What if you under-eat yourself into a weak and frail body – what will be the consequences when you’re older? One of the poster boys for CR is 6 feet tall and 115 lbs.
With intermittent fasting (IF), alternate day dieting or just an occasional fasting day, you have more reasonable and feasible approaches than prolonged CR. If fasting is not carried to extremes and or if short fasts are done infrequently, I don’t think you have to worry about metabolic slowdown or any major muscle losses and there may be health or psychological benefits. Some people say the IF approach gives them a sense of freedom and relief from regimented diet programs especially ones requiring meals every three hours like Burn The Fat or other bodybuilding-based programs.
IF practitioners are quick to say that bodybuilding diets with 6 meals a day is not mandatory and may actually be an inconvenience to many people’s lifestyles. That’s a perfectly legitimate point. However, what does not make sense to me is that their answer to 6 meals a day is to eat nothing for an entire day or the better part of a day rather than taking a balanced approach and meeting in the middle with just 3 meals a day. So if someone absolutely does not want to use the bodybuilding method of 6 small meals a day, why not just eat 3 slightly larger meals a day (or 3 meals plus snacks), every day instead of having days with zero meals or just one big meal? Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner is actually the traditional and socially acceptable meal pattern and will help alleviate the hunger of long stretches without food, which is a big problem with any fasting approach.
For bodybuilders and those seeking muscle mass, I still strongly recommend eating 5-6 protein-containing, meals per day as I explain in my book Burn The Fat, and this method has a decades-long proven track record. However, given the research on IF and the interest in alternative lifestyle choices today, we don’t need to be dogmatic about meal frequency nor fear the occasional missed meal or short fast. IF could be a legitimate quick fix way to lose weight because it virtually guarantees a calorie deficit, without having to do any calorie counting. A high meal frequency is not an absolute requirement to lose weight, only the caloric deficit is, but I don’t believe there’s any physiological fat loss magic in IF outside the caloric deficit. Some people are best advised to avoid IF and that would include those with a history of binge eating or hypoglycemia and people who don’t tolerate hunger well. I also wouldn’t recommend IF to people who want to optimize muscle mass gains.
By now, most of us know that carbohydrates aren’t the arch-nemesis of fat loss progress, and we all know that we do need carbs, in different amounts for different people. What is the best way to find out how many carbs we need individually?
There are some questionnaires that are designed to help a person find their metabolic type. They’re not scientifically validated, but they do seem helpful to some people. There are also some clinical tests for glucose tolerance or insulin that might help. But I think there’s always going to be a little bit of trial and error necessary.
My preferred way to do it is to begin with a diet that’s nicely balanced between protein, carbs and fat, with about 40-50% of the calories from carbs. From there, if necessary, experiment with lowering that proportion of carbs and see how that affects fat loss and also how it makes you feel.
Some people may be able to avoid the trial and error because they already have an instinctive sense about whether they are the low carb or high carb type of person. They intuitively gravitate towards that approach. For those who aren’t sure, I’ve put together a pretty good set of criteria that will give you a good way to screen yourself for carb sensitivity. This might give you a better idea where to start and also reduce the trial and error period.
First, run through the list of metabolic syndrome symptoms:
1. Abdominal obesity, which for men is a waist measurement greater than 40 inches, and for women, greater than 35 inches
2. High triglycerides (over 150)
3. Reduced HDL cholesterol (under 40 mg)
4. Elevated blood pressure (over 130/85_
5. Elevated glucose (fasted – over 110)
Then ask yourself
1. Are you overweight or obese?
2. Are you over age 45?
3. Are you sedentary?
4. In your opinion, have you had difficulty losing weight on high carbohydrate diets? (keeping in mind that high carb diets make it easier to overconsume calories)
5. If you’ve tried a low carb diet before, in your opinion, did you feel that you were more successful with this approach than with any other? (keeping in mind that its easier to keep a calorie deficit on low carbs)
6. After eating a large dose of concentrated carbohydrates, especially simple sugars or calorie dense starches, do you tend to crash mentally and or physically shortly afterwards? (as compared to feeling more sustained energy and alertness)
The more of these you say yes to, the more likely you are carb intolerant which means you might want to be conservative on the carb intake. Since there’s so much variation from person to person, that’s one of the reasons I don’t prescribe a high carb or low carb diet exclusively to everyone. My Burn The Fat program has moderate carb and lower carb phases based on your goals and your body type. For most people, reducing carbs somewhat does help with the last bit of stubborn fat and I use a modified low carb program before competition myself. I explain that in chapter 12 of the Burn The Fat ebook.
Last but not least, one should keep in mind that the carb intake is relative to the activity level and training volume and training intensity. People who train more can and should eat more carbs. And in general you can eat more carbs on training days – after your workouts in particular – and all but the most extremely carb sensitive people will benefit greatly from that type of nutrient timing.
From a health standpoint, should people be concerned with their blood acidity versus alkalinity?
When I first heard about blood acidity I didn’t think there was anything to it. I thought it was just another fad coming out of the “alternative health” movement. But that was probably because my first exposure to the concept came from someone claiming that balancing your blood ph properly was the key to weight loss. I immediately thought that was a bogus claim and still do to this day. I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that eating a more alkaline diet will make you lose more weight if calories remain equal. However, I’ve read scientific papers which discussed the value of acid – alkaline balance for good health.
If we go easy on the processed grains and sugars, that will help. Some people also talk about acidity as a reason to avoid animal proteins and meat, but demonizing an entire macronutrient is never a good long term strategy. I see the issue as a matter of balance, which means balancing the acids with the alkalines which very simply means eating more greens and plant foods. That’s something you should be doing anyway for good health, so ph balance is really not an issue I focus on that much because if you’re eating lots of greens and vegetables you’ve got your bases covered.
Any exciting plans for 2009?
Big plans. But I should keep quiet because I tend to jinx myself on deadlines when I announce stuff before I have it finished. I’ll announce some of the new projects when they’re finished!
A big thanks to Tom for doing this interview!
To your health and success,
Fitness Professional and Manager of www.BurnTheFat.com