A 2012 study found that 52% of Americans felt that doing their taxes was easier than figuring out how to eat healthy.
This begs the question: is it that hard to eat healthy? Well, the environment definitely makes it harder! Healthy food is expensive. Plus unhealthy food is ubiquitous.
It may seem that eating healthy has become a lot more confusing too. So many diets/options are available. And, seriously who would have thought that we would steal keto from the epileptic kids?! On top of that, it seems that people tend to use it to justify gorging on bacon and cheese? Science adds complexity to the definition of “healthy eating” since it is moving towards ultra individualization. (Of course fats are healthy, yes even saturated ones are okay now, oh wait, do you have the APOA2 SNP? Oopsie then better stay away from fats.)
What is extremely confusing is that it becomes more and more difficult to reconcile health with the necessity to adapt to unhealthy demands of life, especially in terms of stress. Ultra-performance is probably not “healthy” stricto sensu. And this is probably exactly where we need to draw the line if we want to make sense of health and food.
Our bodies are adaptation machines. It truly is amazing! But there are some confines within which this splendid machinery can operate. Confines established by what is likely to occur in nature. Sadly, the adaptive demands modern society place on our bodies come out of the left field! If our bodies had been designed by engineers they would be scratching their heads wondering why users totally ignored the user manual instructions.
So, can we take a few strides back and see the bigger picture here?
Let’s begin with one question: what is food?
The short answer is, real food is food that has undergone no or minimal processing. Come to think of it, real foods are going to fit on a very short list – a post-it maybe. Real foods that you find in nature are either plants or animals. Hence natural foods are a combination of:
- Carbs + fibers (fruits, veggies)
- Protein + Fat (meat, fish, eggs)
These 2 combos are abundant in nature and relatively easy to find. Another possible combination is:
- Fat + high fiber carbs (avocados, coconut, nuts.)
These are less easy to come by and require quite some work to eat. What does NOT exist is the combination of high fat + fast carbs + no fibers. There is no muffin bushes or bagel trees. So, arguably ultra processed foods should not count towards food at all.
Now, let’s take another stride back and think about function.
First, food is energy.
This one is pretty straightforward. Chemical bounds are broken and liberate energy. This energy is stored in a readily usable form ATP “the energy currency of the living.” Remember that calories are a unit of measure for energy. We need energy to move, obviously. But also to fuel all kinds of cellular processes that range from digestion to detoxification and repair. Food intake should be congruent with energy demands. Too little or too much energy can be damaging.
Second, food provides the building blocks for function.
Basic elements to maintain the body structural integrity (think conjunctive tissues) but also to produce enzymes, neurotransmitters, cell membranes etc. Lavoisier said it best “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” Food provides us with the necessary pieces, the body only reorganize these. So, we need a variety of foods to provide all necessary building blocks. Overly restrictive diets can be useful but should not (most of the time) be used for extended periods of time.
Third, food provides us with non energetic nutrients.
These are minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients & antioxidants. Think about it. Metabolic pathways transform one thing (substrate) into another (product), thanks to an enzyme. To be active and efficient, this enzyme needs co-factors (minerals or vitamins) to work properly. If the amino acids are the bricks, the enzymes are the masons. Hence it is always a good thing is to think about nutrient density rather than calories.
Fourth, food provides us with information.
One basic information necessary for proper function of a system is fuel availability. When you eat, the foods produce several chemical messengers. Those messengers send different types of feedback to the brain and inform it on fuel availability and quality. In return, the brain will modify its behavior to match this information. Issues arise with processed foods, as they disrupt this mechanism. They fail to provide the necessary cues and tend to disrupt homeostasis, satiety and digestion rather than promote it.
Fifth, food is linked to emotion.
Humans are social creatures and traditionally food is family or friends time. It is a moment to share and bond. Food acts as a social glue, hence eating in a hurry and in isolation does not make a lot of sense, from a socio-cultural point of view. Another illustration of this is eating comfort food when unpleasant feelings arise. Humans tend to associate foods with all sorts of emotions and use it as a safety blanket of sorts. This backfires when you remove human contact from the equation. In this case all you are left with is an unhealthy relationship with food.
With these facts in mind, let’s see how to make better choices.
What about carbs?
Carbs will influence blood sugar levels, which, in turn, influences insulin levels as well. Hence they can be regarded as pivotal in energy regulation processes. Our goal is to preserve insulin sensitivity since dysregulations pave the way towards metabolic mayhem. Some carbs are better than others to do that. Let’s consider our super stars first and move down to the less favorable choices.
Low Starch Vegetables
Low starch vegetables contain large quantities of fibers and nutrients. Consuming low starch vegetables will help maintain a nice and steady blood sugar as well as a good insulin sensitivity. You can consume them liberally. Be careful to rotate them regularly since they do not all provide the same nutrients.
Moderate Starch Vegetables
Moving on to moderate starch vegetables. These are your root vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato, beets, cassava. They are still excellent options but you need to begin to pay attention to the serving size. This won’t usually be a problem since they promote satiety. But be careful if you don’t have good insulin sensitivity.
Starches and gluten-free grains can be okay if your digestive system processes grains well and have good insulin sensitivity. Other than around training time, you’d be better advised to choose other carbs sources. The more processed and the more nutrient-depleted a food is, the more likely it is to mess with blood sugar and insulin sensitivity.
When it comes to fruits, moderation is on the menu. It is best to consume them in season as would be the case in a more traditional setting. Some people susceptible to hepatic issues need to be extra careful about the fructose content. But for the majority of the population, fruits are fine. Of course, the more active you are, the more leeway you have in terms of quantities. As a rule of thumb 2-3 pieces of fruit per day for an active individual is recommended. Plus, some fruit have a lower amount of fructose: berries for instance.
And finally, pure sugar is the proverbial handle with care substance. Since it enters the blood stream as glucose and fructose, it causes large spikes in blood sugar levels and insulin, and makes the liver overwork. It should be avoided. What lean individuals can do post-training is use fast digesting carbs. They can use starches powders or glucose powders such as ATP PentaCarb.
When it comes to proteins, animal food proteins have the best amino acid profile. They will also be the most conducive to muscle anabolism. Of course quality matters and consuming grass-fed and organic meat is a very good health investment. Exposure to pesticides will be significantly lower and organic meat is free of hormones and antibiotics that are found in conventionally raised animals. Also, grass fed meats have been found to provide higher levels of creatine, omega 3s, CLA, beta-carotene, carnitine and carnosine which bumps-up their nutrient-density.
Keep in mind that all cooking methods are not equal!
What about vegetarian proteins?
Most plant-based protein sources always come with an incomplete amino acid profile. Barring the use of protein powders, vegetarian proteins need to be combined to artificially create a complete amino profile. This combination sometimes have the inconvenient of coming with large quantities of carbohydrates, so check the amount of carbohydrates of the mix, as there are low carb options. So in that regard, animal proteins are more convenient.
If you are consuming vegetarian based protein sources, be aware that such products are less bioavailable. To make up for this, you might need to consume 20-30% more compared to animal based protein sources.
Getting quality protein at each meal is important to not only stay anabolic, but to supply your body with the amino acids needed to make enzymes, hormones, and structural components as we have seen earlier.
Fats can serve as energy but they most importantly provide the raw materials for all sex hormones and cell membranes. There are 3 main types of fats: saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated. Trans-fats are extremely rare in nature and are, for the most part, the result of human intervention. So they should not count count towards food and they must be avoided.
If you are on a carb restricted diet, make sure you include a decent amount of fats in it. They are going to provide the brunt of the fuel. Due to their structure, saturated fats are excellent options for energy metabolism.
Saturated fat and cholesterol help maintain integrity of the cell structure. And cholesterol is the building block of all steroid hormone production.
Poly-unsaturated fats should be handled with care, since they are sensitive to oxidation. There are two well-known types of poly-unsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6. While most omega-3 are health-promoting, the omega-6 family is more of a mixed bag. Some are good, but many are pro-inflammatory.
Avoid certain toxic omega 6 oils from commercial origins, such as corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, etc. Think if it this way: if it’s an oily food, oil is easy to extract from it. Otherwise, it will require some heavy-duty processing to get from food to oil. How easy do you think it is to make oil from corn cobs?
Since they are highly sensitive to oxidation, you should not cook with poly-unsaturated fats. Still, they are not all bad. They have specialized roles to help optimize cell function, cognitive behavior, and inflammatory modulation so don’t forgo them entirely.
- Make low starch, colorful high fiber vegetables your basis.
- Be sure to include quality proteins organic or wild.
- Add high quality fats.
- Avoid high sugar foods.
The Strength Community
Mentioned in the text:
International Food Information Council Foundation . “2012 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition and Health.” Food Insight. Accessed April 14, 2014.