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A World-Class UFC Fighter Shares His Views on Fitness and Nutrition

Story at-a-glance -

  • World-class UFC fighter credits athletic success to proper nutrition and organic lifestyle, especially high amounts of fresh vegetables
  • Many athletes still make really unwise food choices, and there’s no telling how much their performance and recovery from injury would improve with proper nutrition
  • Many Americans eat far too much protein. Some nutrition experts believe most adults need about one gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass, or one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body weight
  • Protein is clearly useful for building muscle mass. If your goal is to optimize your muscle mass and compete professionally, then higher amounts of protein may be appropriate

By Dr. Mercola

Can leading a healthy lifestyle contribute to excellence in professional athletes? According to world-class Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Rich Franklin, the answer is a resounding yes.

Rich won the middleweight world title in 2005, which he held for about a year and a half, and he's had a successful mixed-martial arts career ever since. His passion for organic nutrition is unmistakable, and it even led him to open a 100% organic juice bar in LA called Ze/Lin, about a year-and-a-half ago.

"I wholeheartedly believe that living an organic lifestyle can make a difference," he says. "My home is in Cincinnati, Ohio. I'm a Midwest guy. Out here in California, there are many people who believe in the healthy lifestyle of organic produce and just organic food in general.

But in Cincinnati... a lot of people view that as you're just paying extra money for something that really isn't any better for you. It's just a way to be cheated out of your money."

Why Choose Organic?

For the past few years now, I've argued that buying locally grown foods may actually be an overall better choice than the strict focus on organic—in part because organic produce from overseas may or may not have been grown according to strict organic standards, (not to mention the environmental damage caused by shipping food across the globe).

Many small farmers also grow their food according to sustainable, organic principles even though they may not have received organic certification, which is a very costly process.

That said, a major benefit of buying organically grown foods—whether certified as such, or grown locally in accordance to organic principles—is the reduction in your toxic load, as synthetic chemicals are not permitted in organic agriculture.

A 2012 meta-analysis, which looked at 240 reports comparing organically and conventionally grown food (including 17 human studies), found that organic foods are safer and probably healthier than conventional foods, in this respect.1 Two of the included studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, for example.

Previous studies2, 3 have also found that organically-grown produce is more nutrient-dense than conventional. For example, a 2010 study conducted by PLOS ONE4 and partially funded by the USDA, found organic strawberries to be more nutrient-rich than non-organic strawberries.

This has to do with the different compositions and health of the soils in which the food is grown. Agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate decimate critical microorganisms in the soil, and glyphosate's chelating activity actively blocks nutrients from being utilized by the plants.

The Makings of a Champion

When Rich was young, his diet was much like most American kids' today. Lots of fried foods and Fruity Pebbles for breakfast. Lunch was typically accompanied by a Nutty Buddy and sweet chocolate milk. He began running track in his junior year of high school. Once, his track coach made mention of "living the lifestyle of an athlete," and this one-time comment turned out to be a pivotal event for Rich.

"The next day after this little pre-season speech that he gave us, I decided that I wasn't going to get my chocolate milk. I was going to get white milk, and I didn't get my Nutty Buddy. That was my first step in the direction towards paying attention to my nutrition. I kind of took ownership of this myself," he says.

In his senior year, an assignment in an elective fitness and nutrition class made him realize just how poorly he was eating—how few real nutrients he was getting from his diet. After his dad passed, Rich became even more interested in learning how the body recuperates and regenerates from within, on a cellular level. The rest, as they say, is history...

"[L]earning about organic produce, superfoods, and all these kinds of things, I realized that it really affected my body – the recovery stages of hard workouts and things like that. I believe that in the later years of my career; that is really what helped carry me through," he says.

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Advice for Athletes—Eat REAL Food!

That your body needs real food to perform optimally should be common sense, but alas, it is not. Exercise is one of the most powerful tools you have available to normalize your insulin and leptin levels. This is important because elevated insulin and leptin levels are primary drivers for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, weight gain, and any number of other chronic health problems. But the foods you eat are equally importantto maintain healthy insulin and leptin levels. You can't expect to be optimally healthy if you only do one right and ignore the other. Although you'd think professional athletes would know better, many athletes still make really unwise food choices, and there's no telling how much their performance and recovery from injury would improve with proper nutrition. As Rich says:

"I do believe that the measure of success that I experienced in the martial arts world was heavily dependent on my nutrition. When I graduated from high school... all I was doing was reading these muscle and fitness magazines.  I was nose-deep in these books... thinking about people like Lee Haney, Frank Zane, and all these bodybuilders of the day and bodybuilders of yesteryear, and what they eat. They ate eight 12 ounces of chicken six times a day and this and that.

This is what I started doing. (My body isn't accustomed to that now.) I started putting protein in my body—good-quality protein, protein that's highly bioavailable to your body. Of course, at that point in time, I didn't understand things like hormone-free meats, grass-fed beefs, cage-free eggs, and all these kinds of concepts. 
But I did understand the importance of protein. When my body hit this growth spurt, rather than fueling itself off of things like Doritos for lunch and Fruity Pebbles for breakfast, I fed myself off of things like rice, chicken, and a little bit of vegetables."

Nutrition and Fitness Go Hand-in-Hand

UFC is a professional sport, and even while Rich was in college, he treated it like a job, spending at least 20-25 hours a week in the gym. Over time, his nutritional approach became more sophisticated, shifting from the conventional focus on protein, to a focus on whole-body nutrition that also supports recovery and not just muscle growth.

"When you're 32, your body doesn't recover as quickly as it does when you're 20 years old," he says. "I started thinking like, 'How can I recover from these workouts faster? How can I give myself the energy that I need? How can I repair the damage of a tough workout to my body?'

That's when I started reading about giving your body proper nutrients, the vitamins and minerals that it needs to rebuild tissues on the inside. My focus shifted to making sure that I had enough fruits and vegetables and things of that nature in my diet. That was my initial phase. Once I got into that, I started really focusing on things like organic versus non-organic produce, grass-fed beef versus conventional beef, or cage-free chickens versus conventionally farmed chickens."

Veggies—A Critical Component for Optimal Health and Fitness

At the time of the recording, Rich only has one professional fight left in his contract, and then he's going to retire from the UFC. About a year and a half ago, he opened up his LA-based juice bar, Ze/Lin, which will undoubtedly take center stage once he's retired.

"For me, it's a good, convenient way to get in a lot of my raw vegetables," he says. "Oftentimes, I'll wake up in the morning and I'll have a green drink in the morning. It's easier than having to sit there and eat a salad that would be the size of a dinner serving tray. I always tell people that I probably consume more vegetables in that single meal than most Americans consume in probably a week."

Indeed, lack of vegetables is one of the downfalls of most Americans' diet. This goes for professional athletes and "regular folk" alike. Unfortunately, as Rich says, you don't really notice the physical effects of poor nutrition until you get older. Many athletes overlook proper nutrition for this reason, as their bodies recuperate well when they're younger. A decade or two later, however, the effects start to catch up to them.

"I would imagine that no matter what community you're in – whether it's the NBA, NFL, within mixed martial arts, or whatever – a lot of athletes really don't take into account the value of proper nutrition," he says.  "I always tell people that you have to separate yourself from everybody else, like, 'What is your differentiating factor?' This is why nutrition is so important to my career. I was a third-string high school football player who graduated high school at 155 pounds. I was six-foot tall. I was a skinny kid. If I had continued eating the same way that I had been eating when I hit my growth spurt in my freshman year, I would have had the same body composition.

The differentiating factor for me, what makes me different from most other athletes, is my work ethic. My work ethic doesn't just tie into the things that I'm doing in the gym, it also ties into what I do for my nutrition... [W]hen I went to classes on campus, instead of eating... something like McDonald's for lunch, I packed my meals... I did this during my entire college career. Nutrition had a high value in my life. I had the work ethic to every day diligently pack this stuff. That's what ended up making the difference for me.  I believe that that was a big factor in why I was able to become a world champion rather than not. Otherwise, I would have just been like every other fighter on the block... A lot of guys weren't putting the effort where I was putting the effort in."

Fitness versus Optimal Health—How Your Goals Alter Protein Recommendations

You may recall my mentioning that many Americans eat far too much protein. Nutrition experts like Dr. Ron Rosedale believe most adults need about one gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass, or one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body weight.

As an example, if your body fat mass is 20 percent, your lean mass is 80 percent of your total body weight. Let's say your total weight is 200 pounds; you would then divide 160 by 2.2 to convert pounds to kilograms and come up with 72.7 grams of protein. If you are doing vigorous exercises or are pregnant, you can add up to another 25 percent or another 18 grams in this illustration to increase your total to 90 grams per day. Rich, with his history of conventional thinking about protein and muscle building, agrees that many eat far more protein than needed.

"I've indoctrinated myself into the whole thought process of, 'if you want to build muscle, you need a gram to a gram and a half of protein per day per kilogram or pound of body weight.' There's a point in my career where I was probably consuming somewhere from 350 to 400 grams of protein a day... I've gotten to a point now where I probably consume maybe about a gram per a pound of body weight. My protein from animal sources has basically been cut in half. But then I've began to give more value to the protein in vegetable sources that I eat, whereas before I would completely discount those."

Protein is clearly useful for building muscle mass. There's no question about that. But it has its downsides. It's somewhat similar to anabolic steroids: they can do similar things but they have a downside, too. It depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to optimize your muscle mass and compete professionally, then higher amounts of protein seems appropriate. But if your goal is to be optimally healthy and live longer, the amounts of protein you'd want to aim for is likely to be closer to the amounts I cited above.

"There are other components that are involved, too," Rich says. "For example, if you're not giving yourself the proper carbohydrates that you need, the amino acids are never going to rebuild the muscle anyway. These are the kind of things that you learn—that you can't just eat protein all the time.  But it's difficult to take that indoctrination and undo that thought process. It's been a slow process, but it's happening... because I realized that there are other things going on in my body than just muscle-building that need proper nutrients as well."

Where to Find Healthful Food

Your health, and indeed your fitness, is an outgrowth of your diet. The more we learn about modern farming practices, including the genetic engineering of crops, the more self-evident it becomes that these methods are part and parcel of America's declining health. On the upside, this knowledge also tells us how to fix these problems, and that is to return to traditional farming practices of old that work with nature, instead of against it.

If you value your health, I would encourage you to support the small family farms in your local area. They are part of the solution. Here are some great resources to obtain wholesome food that will help you optimize your health—and your fitness:

  1. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  2. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  3. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  4. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  5. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  6. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.