Ian Craig is an exercise physiologist, nutrition expert, lecturer, blogger, and author and the founder of two groundbreaking nutrition and exercise centers (The Nutrition Institute and The Centre for Integrative Sports Nutrition) focused on individualized, integrative, functional and sustainable nutrition.
In this interview, Ian answers all our questions about nutrition, individualized functional medicine, sustainable food production and the best book on nutrition you can read!
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This is part of Nutrishatives’ Ask an Expert Series, where we chat with movers and shakers in health, wellness, nutrition and medicine about their careers, their current work and their expert opinions on… well… their area of expertise!
You have an impressive academic background in health, exercise physiology, and nutrition! What drew you to that very first Physiology & Sports Science program in Glasgow?
I was a good runner as a child and had my sights set on the top honors at the Olympics! I was, therefore, fascinated by the physiological workings of the athletic body. However, I actually took the safer route into Glasgow Uni, starting with a degree in physics, thinking that I would progress to a career in engineering (with my scientific brain).
After one term, physics confused and frustrated me. I was allowed to transfer to the physiology and sports science program only if I passed the biology exam after the Christmas holidays, with only 2 weeks of catch-up. I did, showing that I could understand the human body easier than a mechanical one!
After you earned your Master’s degree in exercise physiology, you went back and earned another undergraduate degree in nutrition!
Are we right in thinking that means that somewhere in your exercise physiology studies something fostered a deeper interest in nutrition as well? If so, could you tell us a little bit about what that was? If not, what inspired your return to the classroom for your nutrition degree?
I actually had a six-year gap between my masters and my third degree, so had plenty of time to foster my interests more.
I returned from the US to the UK and became a personal trainer so I had time to train and could continue my athletic dreams. Up until that point, classic dietetic teachings didn’t interest me much because it was all just about quantities and calories. However, while I was personal training, somebody handed me a Michael Colgan book (Optimum Sports Nutrition), which I loved. At this point, I realized that there was more to be learned than what was handed out at uni.
Additionally, in the early 00s I attended a Jeffrey Bland lecture in London and became hooked on Functional Medicine. It was at that point that I decided to study nutritional therapy, which is a practice that uses nutrition in a very ‘functional’ way.
You and your colleagues, Rachel Jesson and Simone do Carmo, are doing some really amazing work at The Nutritional Institute and The Centre for Integrative Sports Nutrition.
We were really struck by the philosophy of integrative, individualized health that underpins everything you do at these organizations. Can you elaborate a little bit on why individual health and personalized nutrition plays such a foundational role in your clinical practice?
Thanks a lot for your compliments – it means a lot. I (and Rachel and Simone) step out from the crowd quite a bit in how we work and think. So, gaining some verbal support is really helpful.
Personally, I believe strongly in the ‘n = 1’ philosophy in that every single person is incredibly individual in all aspects of their physiology and mind.
I see some quite complex cases, such as autoimmunity and chronic fatigue (in the sporting and general population arenas), and the only way to gain traction is to use a complex model to understand them as a unique person and to slowly try and untangle the web that they’ve found themselves in.
It frustrates me incredibly when I see practitioners using formulaic and quantitative approaches with their clients – who will ultimately end up practitioner hopping, looking for answers. The answers ultimately reside within them, but we need to be good health coaches to ultimately empower their ongoing choices.
We really love the idea of personalizing nutrition and exercise to create genuine health! After all, as you so succinctly put it in your book, Wholesome Nutrition for You: “we are all different.”
We’re curious, though, about how far-flung you think the individual differences in a healthy diet and lifestyle may be? Do you think there are some foundational “healthy” dietary and lifestyle practices that hold true for everyone? Or is health so dependent on so many factors that nearly anything can be part of a healthy life?
Yes, absolutely – the real basics of a healthy diet and lifestyle apply to everyone.
A simple philosophy that I reinforce about food is: “Is it man-made or nature-made?” If we take just one step towards real food that comes out of the ground, off trees and from grass-fed, healthy animal products, we will be healthier in one go.
Additionally, stress has a negative effect on everybody. So, if we can gain some control there, that would make a difference to health.
Another consideration is exercise. Exercise is good for us, but “not too little and not too much”. We can overdo anything, and push our body into physiological stress.
In addition to not being a fan of one-size-fits-all dietary plans, you’re also clearly not a fan of fad diets! (Neither are we!) Could you talk a little bit about why fad diets are not compatible with your view of a healthy lifestyle? And, just out of curiosity (and because we like to stir the pot!), do you have a least favorite fad diet? If so, how did it earn this ignoble title?
Good question – you’re trying to get me into trouble here!!
Okay, after considering the real ‘health’ basics that I mentioned in the last question, the carb-fat debate (that’s been going on since the turn of the century) actually becomes rather academic. I would say my biggest dislike is not of any particular diet, but of scientists standing on their soap boxes when they only have part of the nutrition/health picture to preach about.
Previously, I referred to the quantitative approaches in nutrition – I was meaning the macronutrient over-focus – for a long time, we were over-doing the carbs and now sub-sections of the populations are over-doing the fats. I call this ‘black-white’ thinking. It’s either ‘this’ or ‘that’. I prefer ‘shades of grey’ when it comes to nutrition – our body is designed to metabolize carbs AND fats, so neither are demon foods, but their processed modern equivalents most certainly are.
So, I look for discernment around ‘quality’ when I read other authors’ works and a heavy reliance on plant-based foods. Not necessarily exclusively, though, because that is potentially another fad extreme diet, too!
Not many health and nutrition practices have a global perspective, but The Nutritional Institute does! Can you explain a little bit about how you integrate food production and sustainability considerations into your clinical practice? How, and by how much, do they influence the way your practice is run and how you counsel your clients?
Food production and sustainability are of passionate importance to us. The chapter “Soil to Plate” in our book, Wholesome Nutrition, was written by Rachel, who is very connected to food sourcing and preparation. I actually send some of my trickier clients to her for more of a food-first focus and I call her my ‘secret weapon’ when some people need a bit of a shift!
With clients, the main focus is to get them thinking about how much healthier their body will be without pesticides and growth enhancers, but also how much tastier their food will potentially be.
However, at the back of our minds, food sustainability is a major forum for us because it seems that we’re blindly accepting unsustainable practices at the moment. We strongly support local retailers who are in turn, supporting farmers who have returned to their traditional practices of soil and animal care.
We know all too well that there is tons of misinformation out there about nutrition, healthy eating, and healthy living! (That’s a huge part of our driving mission — to combat all the misinformation out there!) Is there any single misunderstanding or belief about nutrition that you wish you could erase from the world’s mind?
In the way that I personally work, with a lot of focus on sports nutrition, calorie is king. The average person, even (or especially?) very educated ones, believes that we simply need to burn more calories than we consume to reduce body weight or body fat.
Please excuse my French, but that is the biggest load of c**p I’ve ever heard. In fact, I actually wrote a blog called Calories are C**p! In actuality, many things affect our body composition, including:
- blood sugar regulation
- detox capabilities
- adrenal and thyroid hormone health
- female hormone balance and clearance
- etc., etc.
I also strongly believe that our mind can keep us stuck in an undesired health state. I also believe that if we ultimately find inner physiological health, that our body fat will find its own happy level, too.
If you could get everyone in the world to make a single healthy lifestyle change, what would it be and why?
Get to know their farmers, or very least, their organic retailer who knows the farmers, their farming practices, and who understand the rhythms of nature and the production of food better.
As an example, I was in London in May this year, eating delicious English seasonal strawberries. When I returned to Johannesburg a week later, which is the exact opposite season, I was given a dessert with not-so-delicious strawberries. How were they grown in the winter? That’s what I would like to know!
If we blindly trust the supermarkets, our health is in for a nasty shock, in due course.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
Let’s just say that I would like to play a small part in the awakening of consciousness when it comes to healthy behaviors.
Food and sustainability are key components. But so, too, is the management of stress, sleep, personal relationships, exercise balance, and most ultimately… happiness.
We might have all the money in the world, but if we don’t have the health to enjoy it, I, for one, would prefer a simpler life.
What is one question you’ve never been asked in an interview that you’ve always wanted the opportunity to answer?
I’ve been thinking about my answer to this one all the way through the 9 other questions! And I think I have a good one!
“What is your favorite health book?”
I really like the Blue Zones, which was a National Geographic study in the early 00s. The researchers searched the world for hot spots of healthy centurions. (Centurions are people who lived to 100 still in healthy body and mind.)
All locations were rural and living a very basic lifestyle. In our modern way of thinking, we might call it ‘poor’. However, life is simple in these locations, and healthy and happy. We can’t all live this way. We can, however, certainly learn a huge amount from these people and reading this book is a good start.