Friday, February 3, 2012

Nutritional analysis of the RDWC2012 Meal Plan (or, Why I’m Ditching the Meal Plan)

Roller Derby Workout Challenge

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to take part in the Roller Derby Workout Challenge 2012 (RDWC2012), an 8 week training program designed specifically for roller derby. The organisers repeatedly told us that it was not a weight-loss program, that is was designed to gain strength. This was perfect for me. I have no desire to lose weight, my only goal being to build fitness for derby, and strength to prevent yet another injury. Sounded too good to be true.

Turns out, it may well be.

After a few days following the meal plan as closely as allergies and availability allowed, I was getting sick of feeling hungry within half an hour of eating. As well as that, I felt flat, was having trouble concentrating, and just generally feeling like crap. A quick look at the group told me that several other girls were experiencing hunger pangs too. What concerned me, however, was that it was just being brushed off as ‘sugar/carb withdrawal’. Ok, that might fly for some people. Sugar is a hard thing to come off of. It makes you crave, it makes you cranky. But I didn’t have a high sugar intake to start off with, and my refined carb intake (White flours, pastas, rice, etc.) is usually pretty low (I think my two weeks in Italy in December could be forgiven!). For me, I didn’t feel like sugar withdrawal was the answer to what I was experiencing.

What’s a molecular nutritionist to do?
I work in a molecular nutrition laboratory. We routinely do trials that involve analyzing food diaries, designing nutritional interventions, and creating meal plans designed to combat a multitude of problems. So, naturally, I decided to run the meal plan through our typical protocol, and see what turned up.

We run a program in our lab called “Foodworks”, a software package developed by Xyris. It allows us to enter data from meal plans, food diaries, etc, utilizing a large database of items, just about any food you can think of, which can be modified as products change, or new data becomes available. It gives a full nutrition profile of kilojoules (or Calories), carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, breakdowns of fatty acid types. You name it, it probably looks at it. We are then able to compare this profile to recommended daily intake (RDI) guidelines, which we can tailor to reflect age, weight, gender, fitness and activity levels, whether you’re pregnant, or depending on your specific goals.

The Profile
I tailored the protocol to give me Australian RDIs for, well, me. 24, female, 65kg, 165cm, with a light activity load. This means I sit at a desk for most of my week, skate a few hours, and walk most places. I then transferred the meal plans (Week 1 & Week 2). Wherever possible, I have matched like for like. Where there has been a low salt option listed, I have selected that instead of the standard. Any salad was automatically assumed to contain lettuce/spinach, cucumber, capsicum and snowpeas (because they are representative, and correlate well to most substitutions), and was not dressed unless explicitly stated. If an amount was not specified, I went with the generally accepted serving size. The only two changes I made were the addition of 2L (8 glasses) of tap water per day, and string cheese, which due to lack of data I substituted for 2 slices of Colby cheese. How did the first two weeks of the diet stack up?

READ ME FIRST: Before starting any new diet plan, always consult your doctor or nutritionist. The data presented is tailored for my situation only, and should not be taken as nutritional advice, but rather as “food for thought”.

The Results
Fig 1. Based on average daily intake calculated form Weeks 1&2 of RDWC2012.
Your EERM, or estimated energy requirement for maintenance is “the dietary energy intake that is predicted to maintain energy balance… in healthy individuals or groups of individuals at current levels of body size and level of physical activity” (Source). Basically, that means for me to stay at the same level as I am now, I need to consume this amount of calories. 

If I follow the meal plan to the letter, I will only obtain about 61% of the energy I require to maintain my current level, and that means one of two things: a) If I continue at the same activity level, my body will take the energy from elsewhere, i.e. start eating itself, or b) in order to maintain my current body composition, I’d have to reduce my activity level. Neither of these are things that are conducive building fitness and muscle. The fact that it is a 39% deficit concerns me even more though. That is not just cutting back a little bit. That is a hardcore, shed-your-pounds, starvation-style diet.

No wonder I was so hungry!

The protein content is more than double the RDI, but as the aim is to improve muscle, this would normally be highly desirable. You have to eat protein to make protein! The only issue at the moment is that rather than going to building muscle, it is more likely being diverted toward creating energy to keep you running. Excess dietary protein can also exacerbate hypertension, and lead to renal damage. This is just one recent study that appeared in my inbox a few months ago, there are many more out there!

The big killer though, the one thing that would have put me off this diet within moments, whether or not I was looking for a quick weight-loss fix, was the sodium content. Basically, salt. 

Fig 2. Based on average daily intake calculated form Weeks 1&2 of RDWC2012.
29% extra ON TOP of the daily recommended MAXIMUM. That is 448% of what is called the ‘adequate’ intake, or what the average human will be able to consume and remain healthy. When that result came off, I actually went back and triple checked it was correct. The list of issues associated with a high-sodium diet is long and varied, and include increased blood pressure, heart disease, kidney problems, hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance to name a few, and that this diet is so high in sodium is cause for serious concern.

We all know that calcium is important for healthy bones, with low calcium levels increasing the risk of osteoporosis, or brittle bones, later in life. And I think we can all agree, brittle bones are the enemy of roller derby girls. However, rather than maximising calcium intake, this diet only provides 63% of the RDI (Fig 1). Iron, another nutrient that young women are often deficient in, was also only at 62% RDI (Fig 1). Iron deficiency limits oxygen delivery to cells due to anemia, resulting in fatigue, poor performance, and decreased immunity. Certainly not conducive to good derby!

Most of the B-group vitamins are well represented (with the exception of Folate, 79%RDI) as is Vitamin C and total Vitamin A (Fig 1). They fall below the suggested target for prevention of chronic disease, but that is another post for another time. There are also several issues with other micronutrients, but to write about any but the main ones would take a much longer blog than this, and I felt it important to outline the major issues, such as energy, calcium and iron.

Summing Up
I want to finish by saying that I *do* respect what the girls at the Roller Derby Workout are trying to do. The exercise regime is brilliant, the community they’re building is beautiful, and they are trying to encourage people to live healthier, fitter, derbylicious lives. However, their meal plan cannot be pushed as a “one-size-fits-all” dietary solution, and should only be used as a guideline, adapted to each individual's requirements. My mantra when it comes to changes in diet is “when in doubt, check it out”. Participants in any dietary plan, regardless of weight-loss goals, should always do their research, and if in doubt, consult a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or nutritionist. There are plenty of good, free food-tracking/calorie counting programs and websites online, which will give you a rough idea of how your diet is stacking up against your RDIs. For me personally, to achieve my desired results, I will have to increase my calories by almost double the meal plan in order to accommodate the extra exercise, cut the salt, and get my calcium and iron consumption back up to normal levels.

I hope this won’t discourage people from completing the challenge, but also hope that it will help some people who may be confused about why they are feeling less than stellar about the food side of things. As always, I’m happy to answer any questions, cop any criticism, and take any suggestions.

Neysa xo


  1. wow, I was blown away by the amount of sodium that your analysis showed, I didn't think a diet would have that much salt in it.

  2. Love your post and the research you provided to back it up!!

  3. Where is all the sodium coming from?

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Most of the sodium is coming from cheese, bread, mayonnaise and pasta sauce. You find that many stock-standard commercial products like this are salt-loaded to help with preserving, or to enhance taste. Sodium in forms other than salt is also found in fish, meat, eggs, etc, which helps to increase those values a bit more. I always recommend reading your labels, and searching for low-salt options.

  4. while i see the plan's shortcomings, i have to say that i'm eating better than i would be if i wasn't doing this at all. i've eaten more vegetables in the last week than i've eaten in the last 3 months! i feel much better, less bloated, and i noticed i have more energy at practice than i used to. i haven't been hungry at all myself, but for those of you that are, please use common sense and EAT! some of us have more muscle mass than others and more muscle = more calories you need to maintain it. just make wise food choices and take your time when you eat - recognize your body's cues telling you that you're full. if you're eating because you're bored, recognize that as well. find a fun game to put on your iphone, read a section of the wftda rules, drink a glass of water, do a plank - anything to get you 'unbored.' as far as sodium goes, just watch your labels - e.g. i know there's a lot of sodium in cold cuts, so if you're looking to cut back, buy a turkey breast and roast it yourself and make your own cold cuts. the whole point of this plan is to make it quick and easy so you're more likely to stick with it. every plan has its imperfections, but overall i'm loving it so far and i wish you all great success. remember - if it were easy, then everyone would be thin/awesome/jacked/gorgeous, etc.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I agree with everything you've said here, especially the tips for your own cold cuts, and distracting yourself from "boredom eating".

      It is important to remember that some people do have trouble recognising those cues for hunger/satiety that others of us take for granted. The great thing about a program like this is that it is helping people to listen to their body more, and learn the different things their body is asking them for.

      Good luck with the rest of the challenge!

  5. I appreciate the analysis of this program. I have never believed in the mass-marketed (though on a much smaller case here) diets as one-size-fits-all. Everybody has varied nutritional needs, as you explained, and while it should be our goal to be eating healthier, your body knows what it needs and if you listen, you'll be able to tailor a nutrition program to suit your needs. What any good program should do is wake you up to what you're shoving in your face. Once you become more aware, you'll be able to make better choices. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thanks for the response Megan! I agree that the important thing about any program is that it makes you consider what you eat, and hope that this helps people to do just that.

  6. Thank you for this post! I have commented to other participantsto eat more. I know that my eer is around 1700. On a practice day, I aim for 2000. I live what the challenge offers, and the healthy life style it promotes, but it seemed too pre-packaged

    1. It's great that you have a good idea of your EER, and vary it according to your daily requirements! Not many people do that, and instead just respond to cravings and such, whether to their benefit or detriment! I love the challenge, and the principles is it built on, but really encourage people to manipulate the program where thy need to to make sure it is the healthy choice for their situation.

  7. I'm not taking part in the RDWC2012 diet. I'm not a Derby girl but I'm in the process of working out a healthy balanced diet for my situation. It has been incredibly frustrating few months of careful research and trying foods out that won't upset my digestive system. Apologies for TMI. I have found it an incredibly irritating situation when my GP tells me one thing when a plethora of marketing and advertising claims other things. I never thought I would ever need to see a GP about diet and nutrition but I would have been worse off without consulting them first.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mags, love to have a non-derby point of view! And there's no such thing as TMI in my opinion.

      I agree it can be a pain to try to sift through the mountain of information, often completely false, that we get from marketing, especially when it comes to a multi-billion dollar industry like nutrition and dieting. GPs can be invaluable when trying to balance your diet, often addressing issues you never would have thought of yourself. I would much rather approach a radical change of diet having consulted my GP than face that glut of advertising glitz unarmed!

  8. Hell Kitten ChicagoFebruary 5, 2012 at 3:08 AM

    Thank you so much for this info. i had already run the week one plan through to see what the nutritional breakdown is so I can adapt it for my vegan/gluten-free/corn-free diet. I was shocked at how much protein there is in their plan. I've just decided to eat pretty much how I normally do, but to try to focus on getting a bit more protein. (but not the percentage in their plan!)

    1. Thanks for reading, Hell Kitten!
      I'll be honest, as the main aim of this program is to build strength and endurance, the protein level didn't shock me too much, although the level of *animal based* protein did. I would have preferred to see it balanced out with more legumes and other plant-based foods, even for those of us that aren't veg*n. Glad you're following a nutritional plan that suits your personal beliefs/lifestyle. If you have any tips for customising the program to a more veggie-friendly style, I'd love to hear them!