The power of food
Everyone has seen the food pyramid before. Many studies have come out both in favor of and against it. Many people have made money by claiming it is ineffective for one reason or another and touting their diet as the way to lose weight. These diets have ranged from eliminating certain groups entirely (e.g. Atkins and the elimination of carbohydrates) while others have recommended not eating certain groups in conjunction with others.
Let me be the first to say that I do not hold myself out as an expert in nutrition. However, there are a few basic things that I know for certain. I’ll list those in a second. Additionally, I’ll share with you probably the best advice I’ve ever gotten on nutrition (from my nutritionist) at the end.
First, if you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.
It’s as simple as that. Our bodies are designed to store fat because our systems are still adapted to a time when there were periods of abundance of food followed by periods of extreme shortages. As such, when you go into a period of abundance of calories, the body wants to store as many of those as possible so it can use them at a later time. The only problem is that we don’t have a problem on the shortage end and all too often find ourselves on the abundance end of the equation. FYI: one pound of body fat is equal to about 3500 calories, so in order to burn a pound of pure fat per week, you’d need to be in a caloric deficit of about 500 calories per day.
Second, fad diets and other extreme forms of dieting don’t work and generally just aren’t healthy.
These types of diets are typically too different from any normal eating pattern to be sustainable. A person may lose five or ten pounds on some magical diet, but will often put this (and typically more) weight back on as soon as they go off the diet. They will lose the weight quickly typically because of my first point (i.e. they have created a caloric deficit), but often times the caloric deficit is too large and the body will end up burning muscle along with the fat in order to meet the body’s demands. Lean muscle is the #1 contributor to your resting metabolic rate (i.e. how many calories you burn at rest) so the more lean muscle you lose, the fewer calories you burn at rest. The body will eventually adjust to this new extreme deficit created and when the person goes back to their old habits (which inevitably always happens), they will put on the weight very quickly because their body is actually burning fewer calories at rest than they were before they started dieting.
Additionally, many of these fad diets simply aren’t healthy. I’ll admit Atkins was a genius. If I would have thought of the idea of making money by convincing people that it was a great way to lose weight by cutting out things like healthy whole grains and fruit in favor of a burger with bacon (no bun, thanks), I wouldn’t be taking the bar exam in three weeks. I’d be retired. Absolutely brilliant. People lost weight on this, but most of the initial weight loss was water weight due to the additional needs of the body to process the extra protein. Again, true fat loss is simple math. You can’t cheat on this test.
The Best Advice
I’ve read so many articles on nutrition and done enough research that I’m probably a quasi-expert. In fact, 90% of the things that came out my nutritionists mouth on Monday, I already knew. Things like the positive effects of whole grains vs. processed grains on blood sugar and the balancing effect of protein on blood sugar levels (i.e. consuming a protein in conjunction with a simple carbohydrate will balance the blood sugar spike) were all very familiar to me.
However, the best advice I’ve ever received was so simple that I’m amazed I’ve never seen it before. So, here’s the advice: For every meal, visualize your plate as being divided into two halves, with one of those halves being halved again (i.e. you have a 1/2 portion, plus two 1/4 portions). Proteins and grains make up the two 1/4 portions and colors (i.e. vegetables/fruits, including good fats such as avocado, olive oil, etc.) make up the 1/2. Every meal should be aimed at achieving this balance.
So why is this such good advice? It’s simple really: it’s all about the effect on your blood sugar levels (which, in turn, effect your energy levels and the storage of fat in your body). Protein is needed by the body for a number of things and also serves to balance the spikes in blood sugar that simple carbohydrates (fruits, starches, etc.) cause. Your body needs carbohydrates in order to restore the glycogen levels in your muscles. Veggies/Fruits…we all know that one can probably never eat enough of these. The healthy fats help your body absorb the nutrients you just took in and, without an adequate fat intake, your body actually holds on to fat more (i.e. ironically, by not taking in an adequate amount of fat, you might actually be doing your gut more harm than good).
So simple and so effective. In addition to upping my calorie intake based on my recent RMR test, I’ve also been structuring my meals in this manner. I can tell you that my energy levels have been great ever since. I no longer feel lethargic in the afternoon and no longer have a problem concentrating while I’m studying. Overall, I feel great!
(1) Structure your meals as described above. Most importantly though, use foods that YOU like to eat and try to find new foods that you like. A diet is sustainable if you like what you’re eating and it doesn’t feel like a diet!
(2) Eat often (at least every 3-4 hours). I eat every 2.5-3 hours at least and typically take in about four to five hundred calories each time. Your caloric levels may vary based on your activity level and RMR, but the time frame holds true. This is the best way to ensure that your glucose levels remain high throughout the day.
(3) Use common sense. Whole foods are better than packaged foods and if you can get it via a drive-thru, there’s probably a better choice to be made.
(4) Swim, bike, run! 😉