|Understanding Food: Sports Nutrition with Cory Holly
As Ambassador of Sports Nutrition, Health, and Fitness for the Canadian Health Food Association, Cory Holly devotes his life to educating the public, routinely lecturing at health shows, fitness symposiums and trade conventions throughout North America. At the age of 12, he discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger, and determined to develop for himself a muscular physique to rival his boyhood idol. Today, 33 years later, Cory is a Canadian Masters Natural Bodybuilding Champion and a world class Masters Track and Field athlete. He is a life-time drug-free athlete, having participated in a range of competitive sporting events from hockey, football and soccer to baseball, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, boxing, rowing, running, swimming and TaeKwon-Do. As a clinician and naturopath, he specializes in sports nutrition and body composition management. We spoke with Cory about sports nutrition and the necessity of understanding how food works.
Q. Since we’re going to be talking about sports nutrition, I think there’s a need to localize that term. What does ‘sports nutrition’ refer to?
A. Well, you have to workout, exercise and move the body to connect yourself to the spirit of sports nutrition. It revolves around exercise and the strategy of maintaining health through exercise. Because we’re not active in any way, shape, or form normally (we don’t hunt, farm, fish and move the body), we have to artificially bring exercise in. Now when you exercise and train, you have to eat in a special kind of way to fuel and nourish the body, and maintain resilience of the body so you can withstand the strain of exercise.
Anybody that moves their body, exercises, or is involved or engaged in sport and who eats food is actually involved in sports nutrition, whether they know it or not. The key with sports nutrition is to get in touch with your own body, biochemically. So, for example, strawberries are not universally an ideal food for every single person. We’ve got allergies, ethnic origin issues, blood type, biological uniqueness, and so on. One of the principles of sports nutrition is to learn how to feed your body in relation to the nature of your commitment to exercise and movement. And then feed yourself so you can utilize food, maximize the value, retain the highest quantity of micronutrients, get into food partitioning, and understand the function of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. All of which is a science and a huge amount of information coming at somebody who has no back-up, no reference point, no information to process it with reference. This is why education at a young age is so important.
Q. You have said that when it comes to nutrition and exercise, “most people live in a state of total chaos, and yet these two components of life influence the outcome of our health and well-being more than any factor.” In the Information Age, why do you think this still happens?
A. Well, part of the issue is correct information. I came out of high school and university without knowing how to take care of my own body. I’m talking about more of a fundamental, naturopathic care, where we learn how to prevent the body from degenerating, and how to maintain form. So let’s take the average person who’s a high school graduate and put them in a gym. They have no idea how to use the equipment. They should have learned how to use the equipment in high school physical education class and have the maxim drilled into them that ‘exercise is not an option’. In twelve years of formal education they should be experts on their own body and understand basic anatomy and physiology - what the spleen does for example and how the heart functions - in relation to performance. They should understand that a fitness assessment is and how the results can easily determine risk of mortality & morbidity throughout the aging process (this should be incorporated as part of a standard medical profile as well).
I think that education deficiency is a huge issue. When I interact with clients that are, perhaps, extremely well-off (financially) and have everything except health & a high degree of physical condition, they essentially don’t know how to make the changes that are necessary to achieve health & more vitality through exercise training and nutrition. When we drive on the road, we learn to drive on the right-hand side collectively, as a society; without which, we’d be driving all over the place, smashing into things. We stop on red and go on green, and that same kind of order is necessary to incorporate into our lives, regarding routine, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle. But most people don’t understand or comprehend or know how to assimilate the information, pattern a routine, and then follow the principles because they’re getting mixed up and confused with a wide variety of information sources, especially unreliable ones that ignore science. We need to go back to basics and understand that the key to reducing the economic burden on our health system is to teach people to look after themselves so they don¹t get sick, and therefore don’t require any treatment. This is the only way we will ever reduce the huge financial burden of health care (which is more appropriately called disease management).
Q. You’ve said that one of your goals is to empower people to take their health into their own hands by becoming more knowledgeable. Do you think it’s possible for people to get to that point, or do you think we are too used to giving up that responsibility to some other authority like a doctor or other health care worker?
A. I think that once an individual reaches his or her own critical mass of ’dis-ease’, they have the power to make the right decision, but that decision is often a matter of persuasion and compliance based on fear rather than knowledge. They can continue to give their power away to a mechanized system of disease management, which will chew them up and spit them out, and still leave them without knowledge of how to look after themselves and prevent disease. Or they can investigate, by necessity, what it takes to be well. These are simple, basic, primary principles that are taught not so much in conventional medicine or allopathy, but more so in biological medical schools. I think correspondence, home study, distance learning, the internet offers a wonderful opportunity for people to educate themselves. But the conventional policy makers that control public & medical education through monopolization do whatever they can to denounce and discredit this approach. If for example you don’t have a ‘degree’ from this school or that university, it’s implied that you’re somehow less of a person, or that what you have to offer based on your own private investigation, home study or discipline is worth less.
I think that as a society, as the critical mass relating to an individual (and now to a whole society) becomes evident where we have an extremely high incidence of obesity, cancer and heart disease, younger people are beginning to ask questions which, in the past, were never asked. They challenge physicians, they’re doing their own investigation, they’re attending seminars and clinics, they’re reading books - slow, but sure. And what we need now is support from the government, but perhaps more importantly, we need to reform and update public education programs because they¹re not teaching the correct information. For example, I¹ve got three kids in the public school system and they are not learning how to exercise, eat or use dietary supplements as a science like math or chemistry, and yet these areas are absolutely critical to understand because of their connection to health and the prevention of disease.
Q. How do you get kids to eat well?
A. By setting an example, by role-modeling, by demonstration. You raise your kids in an environment which they think is normal. Our kids think it’s normal to juice fresh juice every day. They think it’s normal to drink plenty of water because we have a water station in every one of the rooms, and we bring filtered, clean water in. And we tell them why. We talk about issues that relate to their health and nutrition. Halloween is a good example. 25% of a kid’s total annual intake of sugar is obtained in one night. We point out the infections, the runny noses, the colds that all of their friends get - that even the kids themselves might get from junk food - and we then create a connection. We say, “You see what happens? This is what happens when you eat the junk, and the garbage, and the crap.” We also define a relationship between health as a function of discipline, and the way that we live, like going to the gym, in our home it’s the same as brushing your teeth. All of our kids were raised in the gym. They think that working out is completely normal, and they ask us why the kids in other families don’t do this, and we explain why. So it’s more of a wellness rationale, and to us, it’s just basically a logical, sensible approach.
Q. Not many people have had that kind of upbringing. Many of us in our 30s and 40s are starting to notice the results of growing up in the average North American lifestyle: obesity, premature aging, fatigue, illnesses, etc. Is it too late for adults to get back on the path to wellness?
A.It's never too late. I’ve got clients that started weight training in their 70s and 80s. My grandmother works out and she’s 86. She goes to the Y, swims, uses resistance training. But she has a teacher. When you go to a martial arts school, you expect a master in the school to provide instruction. You don’t just show up and start kicking a bag without any support or help. You need to have expert instruction. Go to your gym. Get a
personal trainer. Get educated. We now have a certification program available through the Cory Holly Institute that certifies each student as a Certified Sports Nutrition Advisor. It ties in the exercise with the integrated natural food and dietary supplement use. I think that if there’s a will, there’s a way. We have to challenge status quo & tradition, recognize the difference between schools of thought and look at outcome. One of the things that I look for in a teacher or mentor is physical evidence of what they say. I want to see the value of what they’re offering in their own physical bodies.
I’m a Masters athlete, so when I go to a competition, like the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Brisbane, Australia, I see thousands of men and women, all over the age of 40, who are lean, fit, up, happy, loving their sport and functional. This is a completely different paradigm from walking down the street, anywhere else, looking at people who are 50 or 60 and seeing them normally decay and degenerate. They’re completely inactive, not really concerned or connected to why, and they’re looking at some kind of rescue health care system to remedy their situation. It all has to do with understanding how the body works, as a science. I just think that people have an abstract perception of reality when it comes to their own health.
Q. As an athlete, you made the choice to remain natural and drug free. What does that mean to you?
A. Drug free means staying away from banned doping agents that are harmful, where the downside is greater than the upside. For example, the reason that the IOC has not been able to ban the use of creatine is because they cannot find any evidence in research to demonstrate that it’s harmful. On the other hand, there is evidence to support the prohibition of the use of, say, various steroids or growth hormone and agents that are used to enhance performance or build muscle (as opposed to the way that they are used to manage disease or compromised individuals; for example, testosterone is helpful in treating patients who have had bypass surgery). I think that the ultimate issue is not so much the substance from a moral point of view, although if you choose to compete you should be prepared to follow the rules of engagement. But more importantly, does the substance hurt and damage the body to the point where the logic of its application would bring attention to the fact that if I get onto this stuff and use it, the benefits are short term, but the detriments and cost to my health are long term?If so, then that would be illogical.
Drug free means the observation of sport more as a biological phenomenon, as opposed to a pharmaceutical phenomenon. World class bodybuilding for example has evolved into a ‘freak’ show and has nothing to with health. Once you take muscle for show and its function to its maximum genetic potential naturally, you can definitely enhance it pharmaceutically. But then you’re going to have to live with the outcome of that, and that dark side is necessary to understand so you can evaluate the risks, especially for young kids who idolize bodybuilders. I still believe that when a man or woman makes the choice and incorporates those risks, that decision is their own personal choice, and it should not be confused with morality, unless they’re breaking the rules as a competitor. Everyone has to live with the choices they make, and what’s unfortunate is that in the long run after the handshake and trophy, thousands of athletes are left damaged and depressed.
Q. Despite all the information that is in the media regarding drugs in sport, their use continues. Is the message just not getting through?
A. I think that if you took the average person who actually is injecting Decadurobolin or swallowing Dianabol, sat them down, and said; “Now you tell me exactly what it is that you’re doing. Define the pharmacology of the substance. Tell me how it works and what it does.” Well, odds are they can’t do that. This is true with recreational drugs too. Take the average user of ecstasy or cocaine. Ask them what the alkaloid or active component is where it comes from, its root, and its history. People don’t understand. They just kind of engage in things they associate with a pleasure or benefit or certain outcome, but they don’t truly understand. It’s like broccoli. Everyone knows what broccoli is but how much do they really know. What is its macronutrient profile? What is its composition? How does it affect the body or the thyroid gland? People have very little understanding of what it is they’re actually doing with food, and of course, this is a function of education.
So when I stand up in front of a classroom and talk to kids about not using steroids, I don’t hammer away and say “Don’t do it,” because that doesn't work. What I would do is say, “Steroids actually work. If you take these things, you can grow larger and stronger way beyond what is possible genetically, naturally. But let’s look at what happens to the body when you use them. What is their effect on the endocrine glands, and the organs that are vital to health and the economy of the body? What are the risks associated with addiction?” Let’s look at the addiction profile of an athlete. Why? What’s motivating them to win at any cost and sacrifice their health, and are these issues associated with low self-esteem and self-worth? These people are willing to literally, give up everything to win. It’s important to look at that.
But if we provide the logical alternative of using dietary supplements like glutamine, HMB, ribose, creatine and whey protein, and get them on an excellent diet, and teach them how to use food as an art…then we can demonstrate the benefits which include a real, solid, good-quality health outcome and a beautiful physique, a beautiful body. In fact, look what happens when you take the steroid paradigm to its maximum, most people don’t like the look of the “gronks” on-stage at a bodybuilding competition. They don’t like what happens to a woman on steroids. They don’t like what happens to a man. Now, in the cult of bodybuilding and fitness, there’s certainly a following. But the wide mainstream people don’t like the gronky, vascular, striated look of a bodybuilder. They like the more rounded, symmetrical physique of, say a 100-meter sprinter or a gymnast. That’s what people like to see, and they imagine themselves looking like that. I think we need to use photographs of natural athletes because most of the magazines that market products to athletes use steroid-mongers: the muscleheads who never even use the natural products. We have to change the whole appeal. But, ultimately, we have to bring the facts down, lay the cards out on the table, and tell people the truth, as opposed to just saying, “Say no to drugs. Don’t do them or you’re a loser if you do drugs” That approach definitely doesn’t work.
Q. How would you describe the way that you eat?
A. Functional. Logical. It’s a rational approach. I think of food as a means to an end, not an end unto itself. I like the taste of whole, natural food, but I developed it because of a consciousness that came into my mind through study and my desire to learn how to take care of myself. I never wanted to evolve into a disease-ridden, decrepit body. I think excess body fat is ugly and I know that it fosters disease. Maybe there’s a connection right there. I want to stay functional and lean. I like muscle. I like the function of sport and the skill involved. I love sports and want to compete for as long as possible. Food, I learned, is necessary as a vehicle to supply the nutrients that I require to sustain my health. When I’m exercising and training with intensity, I need more antioxidants for example. Taste and texture is secondary to the function of food as biological nourishment, but in our society it’s become a fundamental aspect of selection. People look at food and think only what it’s going to taste like, instead of knowing exactly what it is, how it affects the immune system or insulin chemistry and how it’s going to function in the body.
This is what I call the “Vulcan logic” of nutrition. You analyze everything and consider what it is you’re doing and why. You intellectualize, rather than emotionalize with food. We’ve got disordered eating and eating disorders everywhere and the problem is getting worse. People are using refined, processed food to overcome emotions of rejection, resentment and pain, just like people use drugs. Anyone that I’ve interacted with, clinically, with anorexia or bulimia never uses whole, natural food to induce this state of pleasure. They choose man-made, refined, processed junk, highly concentrated with fat and sugar to induce a state in the brain that takes them away from the reality of their emotional pain. You can’t do that with whole natural food. Ever heard of anyone junking out on steamed spinach and turkey breast? In native societies where there’s no refined, processed foods, you won¹t find any eating disorders. It’s only in the urban jungle where you have access to potato chips and doughnuts and soda pop, for example. So part of the problem with nutrition is the ease of access to the wrong food supply, which is driven by large scale corporate production, based on profit alone. We just order in or drive thru and the education we need to overcome temptation is not supported by our government. In other words, if every child, in every school of Canada was told that sugar (sucrose) is poisonous, toxic, addictive, and in actuality was (in part) associated with creating the slave trade, then our management of sugar would be much, much different. Right now, the average child and adult consume well over 100 pounds of sugar a year, and a century ago it was less than five pounds.
Q. You've been an advocate of supplements for quite some time. How much of your nutrition is supplementation?
A. Well, for example, I’d say about 60% of my protein is a derivative of whey protein isolate. It extremely ‘clean’ and is second to none in biological value. Most supermarket meat is way too high in fat and is usually tainted with antibiotics. Animals that are domesticated are not well, they’re not exercised, they’re not lean and they’re not fed correctly. So they’re contaminated, to some degree. Our heritage, our ancestral nutrition is based on hunting and gathering; hunting wild game, very lean, healthy and strong, because in the wild it’s eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest.
Supplements, to me, are an advantage. They’re what I call the “intelligent choice”, an opportunity to bring science onto the plate, literally. By incorporating antioxidants and dietary supplements that, from science, have been evaluated for safety and function, we can take food to its highest possible level and learn how to manage it correctly. We can go beyond food alone from a function of performance by using, say, creatine. Take two groups of people: one is using creatine and the other not, and everyone is eating natural, whole food and working out. The group that’s on the natural, whole food alone will not be able to lift as much or run as fast as the group taking creatine and this has been proven in dozens of studies for more than a decade now. So we have some advantages that relate to performance. And performance is, in and of itself, intimately connected with the preservation of health. If you can perform well as you age, this is an excellent demonstration of health. This is the connection of sport nutrition to health, and this is the connection of exercise and nutrition, as it relates to feeding the athlete. More than just aesthetics or appearance, we want to keep the inside of the body strong and tensile. This is why I take vitamin C copiously throughout the day and vitamins and minerals that essentially fill gaps and bring my level of nutrient and micronutrient density to a degree that is impossible to achieve by eating food alone. This is the new science of sports nutrition.
Q. So sports nutrition isn’t just for athletes?
A. Absolutely not. Again, if you understand that exercise is a necessary function of life, to counter or compensate for inactivity and sedentary living, then when you start moving the body, going to the gym, running, swimming, hiking, cycling, whatever, you need to eat food also. And now you’re engaged in a form of nutrition that’s related to sport. Now I also use this analogy, that life is a sport, the function of which is to have fun and succeed. But you can’t have fun if you’re not well. You can’t have fun if you’re injured. You can’t train and make progress in sport, in life, or in work if you’re sick. We have to take the logic and function of health to a level where in order to stay well, we understand the need to exercise and eat a certain way. Dietary supplements are a new science that’s raising the bar, and so this is simply a logical, step-by-step process that anyone can apply. But you’ve got to start with the basics and an understanding of the principles. And these principles are not being taught to people, generally. When someone steps into this area with any degree of interest, they’re overwhelmed with a huge amount of information. And, again, it’s because they don’t have any back-up. They’re walking into this at 30 and 40, without any reference in their mind to some of the most basic, simple concepts.
You’ve got to bring people down to that level, and this is why I think it’s important to get involved in a home study program, to listen to audio cassettes or CDs while you’re driving, to pump your mind with useful information that keeps you motivated and focused. People do not, on a daily basis, incorporate the right kind of information through audio and visual, and it’s absolutely essential, because action is preceded by thought. This is what keeps me motivated. Being in the gym business, I can tell you after January 31st, 80% of new members who join as a new years resolution disappear, and this fall-out is generally caused by poor nutrition, because without a good diet, the body can’t cope with the strain of progressive exercise.
Q. At this time of year, a lot of people make the resolution to eat better. What are some simple changes they can make in their lives today?
A. An individual has to come to terms with what they want from life. They need to determine their ultimate purpose and spend some time, introspectively, and take a review of their life, history and situation. Determine where you want to go, and why. So number one: determine what it is that you want. Number two: the next step is to find out how to get what you want. If you want to be a teacher in high school, you need a teaching degree. You need to find out how to get that teaching degree. So if you want to be well, if you want to be strong and prevent disease and illness in your body, be specific and determine exactly how to achieve that objective. So for example, we have a young student coming into the martial arts studio who wants a black belt. She’ll have to climb the ladder from the bottom up and start with a white belt, and then graduate to yellow and green and so on. It’s a step-by-step process, and it all starts with knowledge of technique, practice, education and learning as a module. Number three: you have to take action. Don’t wait for anything to be perfect, because it never will. Change that mentality in your mind from the attainment of perfection to simply making progress. Taking the first step is the beginning of a journey. I refer to what I do as “a journey of self discovery.” By learning more about yourself and how you interact with your environment, you can take more control over your life.
We need to learn how to exercise correctly. Many people including athletes do not understand the principles of exercise, such as the importance of core training, for example, how to use a Swiss ball, or a balance board, how to hang from a bar and do scissors, or use your legs as a gymnast would to exercise your core. Just simple, basic principles that relate to using a treadmill, and what interval training is, or principles of weight training that involve full range of motion and the execution of a squat or deadlift with perfect form and precision. This needs to be taught. We need to practice and develop exercise as an art and a science. In the meantime, you’ve got to bring optimum nutrition in. I think that everyone should buy a blender and recognize the significance of protein shakes. The blender is the athlete’s best friend, the appliance of choice. Protein shakes deliver an unbelievable quality of fuel to the body in a very short period of time, very practically, very conveniently. Then start getting into some basic, primary, essential nutrients. Clean up the diet. Improve the quality of food staples. Again, it all relates to understanding what you’re doing, so that someone is not just giving you a fish to eat, but someone is actually teaching you how to fish. But a hungry man, or woman, or child needs a fish to eat right now. So while they’re eating the fish, they’re also learning how to fish, and eventually you can walk away as a teacher and leave that student knowing they’re well on their way to becoming a master. Now they’re able to take care of themselves and share what they’ve learned with other people. And that’s how it spreads.
Q. Do you have any other comments?
A. I would just extend the necessity to every man and woman that they are responsible for their health and well-being and that it’s absolutely essential, every single day, to incorporate knowledge, and this means you devote a period of time to read, listen to audio and visually get stimulated. This is how you learn to incorporate these principles into your life. It’s your life, it’s your body, and it’s important to understand that no one else is really capable or interested in taking care of you. My position is this: if you create strength, then from a position of strength you’re able to offer your family, friends, colleagues and the world whatever it is that you have to offer from that position of strength. But if you lose your health & strength, you become dependent on other people. You lose your independence and freedom, and that’s a drag. And finally have fun! Travel. Set goals and work in a field that you love. Get involved with sport, any sport and play for fun, because that’s what sport is essentially all about, having fun!