I’m going to take a brief detour from my usual rants and raves to blast an opinionated rant and rave about a another non-technical subject that I am under-qualified to discuss 🙂
The topic of food and dieting is very big in the old USA (no pun intended). There’s an epidemic of epic proportions, with the percentage of overweight population in the US reaching 75%, and a lot of interesting research about the causes, effects, and issues at hand.
I’m going to share a summary of my research and thoughts on the subject as part of my plan to “get fit” this semester. I’ve switched to a low carb, high fat diet over the past 5 weeks or so and I’d like to share my findings. Take it with a grain of salt (hah) but definitely read on.
When anybody wants to lose weight, you’ll typically hear them say “I need to go on a diet” or some similar phrase. As I’ve come to see recently, there’s something very basic wrong with that statement.
Let us refer to the world’s best source on any topic, Wikipedia:
In nutrition, diet is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism.
Now here’s the problem: A literal interpretation of that phrase by someone unfamiliar with the typical colloquial usage does not translate. You can’t go on a “sum of food consumed by a person or other organism.” In colloquial health speak, diet has come to be defined more as:
A period of depriving oneself of one’s usual amount of food.
Maybe we argue for a while and decide that this is an alternate definition of the word diet and settle there. But I argue that this misconstruction is representative of a fundamental error in our society’s thinking about food, weight, and it’s associated considerations. The implication is a temporary state of deprivation to induce weight loss, but that entirely leaves out what caused the weight gain in the first place.
The ideal diet cannot be obtained by limiting nutrients.
Let us look at this a little deeper:
What do I eat today?
In my experience, we often entirely overlook this fundamental question. When we change what we eat, we’re not “going on a diet,” we’re “changing our diet.” We seem to lack a fundamental understanding that on the most basic level, the question is:
From what sources will I derive my nutrition from today?
The train of thought from which we get “going on a diet” also carries with it a very basic understanding of what causes us to gain weight and drives our various health problems. By framing the question differently and evaluating what we’re eating now, we can get a much different answer. Instead of simply eating less, we can look at where we’re getting our calories and explore alternate sources that may have different effects upon us.
I want to lose weight
There are a lot of Americans in this position. In fact I’ve really met only a few people for which this has never been a concern.
I, for example, come from a lineage in which our genetic predisposition generally causes us to gain weight given our normal diet. We don’t become morbidly obese, but pretty much every member of my family has excess belly fat of some quantity, even when we exercise regularly.
Once we “want to lose weight,” there are really two questions to be answered:
- What were the conditions that caused the weight to be gained?
- What adjustments can and should be made to reverse that process?
I’ll address both of these questions:
Why did I gain weight?
The typical answer to this question goes something like this:
The amount of calories you were eating exceeded the amount of calories you burned through through metabolic processes like your heart beating and your daily exercise.
Nobody is really going to try to refute that statement in its essence–because it is true–but there are some suggestions that it’s a bit of an over-simplification.
If you haven’t gotten the chance to watch it yet, there’s a new movie out by Katie Couric and Laurie David called Fed Up. I got the chance to rent it on iTunes when it flashed across my news feed early last month, and found it very interesting. For those who haven’t watched it (you should), I will summarize my take-aways:
Our food, overall, has seen a tremendous increase in added sugar. Sugar has an addictive quality and makes basically all food taste better, so you’ll find it in many surprising places (mustard, cold cuts, marinades). It also has a somewhat disconcerting effect on our metabolism.
Contrary to the “Calorie counting” mentality, our bodies process different types of food in very different ways. When you ingest a 150 Calories of almonds, your body begins the process of digestion and extracting nutrients from those almonds in a relatively slow fashion. The fiber and complex nature of the almonds slow the rate of digestion and absorption into the bloodstream and present nutrients to your system at a rate to which our body can easily accommodate.
However, when we ingest 150 Calories of Coca-Cola, the body is able to absorb the nutrients (essentially pure sugar) significantly faster. The digestive system is not good at handling such a rapid influx of simple sucrose and in order to deal with it, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin which promotes the absorption of glucose into fat cells and skeletal muscles. (You may be familiar with insulin due to its association with type II diabetes, which occurs when frequent ingestion of large quantities of sugar desensitizes your cells to its presence and your body loses the ability to properly regulate blood sugar.)
The result is that the excess quantity of added sugar in the soda causes you to gain fat. This has very little to do with the quantity of Calories in the soda, and more to do with the relative concentrations of the nutrients in the beverage. The soda does not fill you up or provide with you with long lasting nutrients as your digestive system quickly converts it to fat for storage. The effects of the overload of sugar also have a depressive effect on the metabolism, so you tend to feel tired and lazy (leading some to incorrectly believe that the lack of exercise caused the obesity). The almonds, on the other hand, make you feel full and translate more of their Calories into energy for you to burn.
As the low fat craze hit in the 80s and 90s, food scientists added sugar to foods when the fat was removed to improve taste. First, I suggest that the incessant application of sugar desensitizes your sense of taste to its presence leading you to crave more of it more often. Further, it would appear that the sugar has a greater detrimental effect on our health than the fat it replaced.
Since we derive no nutritional benefit from sugar, there is no recommended quantity to consume as part of your diet. However, the AHA recommends a maximum added sugar intake per day of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. That makes a maximum of 36 grams of sugar per day from ALL ADDED SUGAR, including sugar added to foods like yogurt, marinades, and juice (which doesn’t have added sugar but is basically all sugar). For reference, a can of coke has 44 grams of sugar which exceeds the absolute maximum amount of added sugar in a whole day for a male.
Another point which I found particularly interesting is that while fruit has sufficient fiber to slow the digestion of the sugar it contains to reasonable rates, fruit juice which has had the fiber removed behaves in a very similar way to soda. Technically, the Glycemic Index (the measurement of how fast your body absorbs the glucose into your bloodstream) of juice is lower partially due to its high amount of fructose, but nevertheless you may wish to avoid it.
Moving Deeper: Carbs and Fat
Our bodies are not efficient at storing glucose or carbohydrates in sufficient quantity to power our metabolic processes for significant lengths of time. The result is that we have to eat fairly frequently to supply a steady stream of carbohydrates.
While previous nutritional literature (read: the food pyramid) have suggested to lower your fat intake, what people fail to really grasp is that fat is a source of energy like protein or carbohydrates. When you remove fat from your diet and attempt to keep your Caloric intake the same, you must add other nutrients to your diet. This additional nutrition is, most always, derived from carbohydrates. You can readily see this fact from the FDA nutrition recommendations, which suggest that 60% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates.
Now here’s the problem: we don’t have a base of statistical evidence which suggests that replacing fat with carbohydrates in your diet will lower your risk of obesity or heart disease. It would appear that the basis of the low fat movement was the misconception that associated the nutrient “fat” with the state of being overweight, which we also call “fat.” I can also say from personal experience that I find carbohydrates less filling and will tend to eat more of them for that reason.
The most famous study looking into the matter is the “Seven Countries Study” by Ancel Keys. This study established a correlation between saturated fat intake and risk of heart disease. However:
- The traditional measurement of cholesterol (pure volume of cholesterol per unit blood) appears to be misleading, insofar as the particle count of cholesterol per unit appears to more accurately correlate with risk of heart disease and arterial damage. Saturated fat increases the size of Cholesterol particles in the blood, which does not correlate with an increased risk of heart disease.
- Plaque in the arteries (which causes the clogging of said arteries) appears to be a response to damage caused by other factors like high blood sugar, imbalance of Omega6 to Omega3 fats. For example, if you remove the plaque it regrows fairly quickly.
Further, there’s research that suggests that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fats is important, and many of us have skewed ratios which contain 15:1 or 25:1 whereas our body needs a 1:1 ratio.
Your body actually does not need any carbohydrates to survive. There’s a vast array of information on the internet about the benefits of low carbohydrate diets and “ketosis” so I won’t cover that in incredible detail here, but feel free to read up on some of those articles.
What adjustments should be made to my diet?
Well I’ll tell you what I did. First, I cut out all sugar. No soda, candy, or juice was the start. Next, wherever possible remove additional sources of added sugar like sweetened yogurt, crackers with added sugar, marinades with sugar, etc. Basically anything that says “sugar,” “evaporated cane juice,” or any word that ends in “ose” is to be scrutinized and avoided if possible. Remember that there is naturally occurring sugar in milk, for example, so when you count the added sugar you have to subtract the naturally occurring sugar.
It sounds hard but since I’ve been living by myself in my own apartment, I only require self-control at the grocery store to make the plan work. It turns out that I’m fairly good at that but would eat all the sugar were it available at home.
Next came the big change: adjusting macronutrient ratios. I switched my diet to think about protein and fat first. Instead of starting with pasta or bread, start with meat or nuts or fruit. A good ratio is about 40% protein to 60% fat (or more fat, but not less), with less than 150g of total carbs per day and as little added sugar as possible. You will most likely have to add oil and fat to your meals to get to this ratio. I don’t particularly keep track as it isn’t terribly important to me.
That was actually much more difficult, as my mom has often told me “You’ve never met a carb you don’t like.” Carbohydrates and grains are so cheap in this country that there are few foods without them, and I have previously in my life just purchased a baguette and eaten it all. But here’s my view on the topic:
A very salty, savory, fatty, and flavorful meal absent of a carbohydrate base tastes good. Really good. Think bacon and salty eggs with whole cream and cheese.
There are several notes: you will feel crappy during the first week or two while your body adapts to lower levels of sugar and carbohydrates and approaches ketosis. This is generally due to electrolyte loss induced by falling insulin levels. Confusingly, you want to eat more salt (both table salt, potassium salt, magnesium, etc). In addition to heavily salting your meals and consuming more salt especially before exercise, you can purchase salt pills and electrolyte solution. Watch out for symptoms of low sodium which include lethargy, nausea, dizziness to name a few.
What do I eat actually?
Some suggestions based on what I eat:
- Apple with peanut butter (a lot of all natural peanut butter with salt). If you want to cut carbs even further, avoid fruit and peanuts because they’re fairly high in carbohydrates.
- Home made meatballs in red sauce with salt and spices (choose higher fat beef)
- Steak with a high-fat marinade like a salad dressing or oil. Add salt to all your meat before cooking (it makes it taste 1000x better)
- Chicken and vegetables
- Sausages with vegetables and Alfredo Sauce
- Nuts (cashews, trail mix with raisins/cranberries, peanuts — I do allow some minimal added sugar on my roasted peanuts because it tastes good 😉
- Chicken salad
- Latte with whole milk and no sugar. Skim milk is all carb to no fat, cream is much higher in fat than carbs. A cappuccino with cream will reduce your carbs to fat for equivalent calories compared with a latte made of skim milk.
- Protein powder with whole milk after workouts. Add cream and reduce volume of milk for greater fat.
- Whole milk yogurt (unsweetened) with a bit of granola or low carb fruit.
- English muffin with butter and blueberry jam (I eat some carbs, obviously, but you should choose your favorites)
- Blueberries/other fruit as you see fit
- Vegetables: leafier things have lower carbs. Carrots have moderate carbs and sugar.
- Whole fat sweetened yogurt although you may want to dilute it 50/50 with unsweetened. Stuff starts to taste pretty sweet after you drop your sugar intake (a single serving every other or every third day won’t hurt you…it has about 15-18 added grams of sugar per serving so don’t make it a habit)
- Fried potatoes, oats, beans etc (if you don’t need/want to lose weight)
- I still drink a pint of a nice strong hoppy beer occasionally
Also see this article for a week long menu suggestion.
Now it’s very important here that I don’t classify this as “going on a diet.” This, for me, has not been about “never eat carbs.” I don’t refuse a slice of pizza when I visit a Pizza joint with a friend. Instead, it’s more about thinking about fat and protein first when you’re able to. Don’t sweat a meal out, but just get a burger or steak or other meat and ask for vegetables or soup or salad instead of fries. Think about changing the ratio of fat to protein away from the skewed American diet.
Remember, you’re trying to change your diet. This is only sustainable and reasonable and beneficial if the change leaves you satisfied and not constricted. When you snack, reach for some nice oiled and salted cashews or peanuts, or enjoy an apple with several hundred lovely Calories of salty peanut butter. I usually find that this can replace a meal.
And I’m not so much implying that carbs are the devil as I’m implying that the typical US diet contains an unhealthful ratio of carbs and that reducing that ratio would be beneficial.
I’ve always felt hungry. Within an hour of a fairly large meal of carbohydrate base, I’d be hungry again. As it turns out, fat and protein are much more filling. I often find that I simply eat smaller meals because I was full, and that I stayed full for longer.
I’ve also had more energy and felt less lethargy. I’ve found it easier to stick to my regimen of daily or bi-daily workouts.
I also have a proclivity to get sugar headaches even with low quantities of sugar. I have not had a single such headache since changing my diet (except when I had cake on my birthday…go figure).
I’ve also lost fat. I don’t own a scale so I just observe my amount of belly fat instead.
More Controversial: Fasting
(if that wasn’t controversial enough) I’ve started to read up on fasting. As it turns out (or as I believe), once you’re in ketosis your body transitions to fasting much more easily than someone on a high carb diet, simply because your body is used to obtaining the majority of its energy from fat (which can come from your body) instead of relying on a fairly small reserve of simple carbohydrates stored in your bloodstream and liver as glycogen.
Some research suggests that intermediate fasting (periods of two days or less, let’s say) can be beneficial to your health. This could include something like skipping breakfast one day and beginning with lunch or maybe going a full day or two drinking only water and electrolytes. (You have to be careful to maintain your electrolyte contents during fasts, which becomes more important as the duration of the fast increases. No electrolytes = death.)
Further, fasting is not recommended as a weight loss tool but rather to rest your digestive system. If you’re not careful, your body can rob your muscles of protein for energy, weakening your heart (think Cass Eliot). The general argument in favor of fasting is that the “idea of three square meals a day is a relatively new concept” and for most of our evolutionary history we didn’t eat regularly. Controlled testing of rats, for example, shows that rats which are fed every other day live longer than rats fed every day.
I will say that it has at least held my interest and I intend to try it a bit. So far my longest fast has been Dinner through Dinner (about 24 hours).
Although you can read up on longer duration “water fasting,” the health benefits of it are less clear. With longer fasts you have to be much more careful and it’s best to complete them with medical supervision if possible. There is a paper on a 382 day medically supervised fast in the 60s… 🙂