Turn on the TV or open a magazine and you’re sure to be bombarded with commercials and advertisements telling you what to eat to keep energized, healthy, and avoid that mid-day slump. Most likely it’s a sugar-laden sports drink, a protein packed energy bar, or a low-fat yogurt smoothie that will meet all your body’s nutritional needs. Well, shocker! It won’t.
You’ve probably heard the term macronutrients and how they are important to consider when trying to lose or gain weight. Macros are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. You do need all of them, but it’s the balance of those three that is the key to your body being healthy on the inside and out.
Carbohydrates are broken down in the body into simple sugars which can be used for energy and the surplus is stored as fat.
Proteins are broken down into amino acids which are used to repair tissue in the body and can be used for energy when there is a shortage of fat or carbs.
Fats are broken down into fatty acids which can be used by hungry cells. Fats typically provide more than HALF of the body’s energy needs.
All those sports drinks and energy bars may have carbs, protein and some fat in them, as well as lots of added chemically processed sugar, but again, it’s the balance of those macros and the sugar that makes them a poor choice for fueling your body.
A History of Imbalance (And Misinformation)
To understand why we eat so poorly in the United States, we should look at how the food landscape has changed over the past 50 years. Back in 1977 the US government put out “Dietary goals for the US.” Here’s a synopsis of what that nutritional directive advised Americans to do:
55-60% of our daily intake should come from carbohydrates
Decrease fat to 30% with no more than 1/3 coming from saturated fats
Sugar was still to be consumed in limited quantities, however refined grains were found to be innocent of any dietary wrong-doing.
This is what spawned the ever-famous food pyramid. Before 1977, the foods we were told to avoid (bread, cereal, pasta, and starchy vegetables), we were now told to eat six or more servings a day! Yikes! So, Americans answered the call and changed their eating habits. As a result, added sugar consumption increased 30%. This number can be as high as 150 pounds of sugar per person per year or over 500 calories a day from sugar alone. We also increased our intake of refined grains by 45%. Refined grains (think white bread or white rice) have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This is done to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life, but it also removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. From 1976-1996, Americans decreased fat consumption from 45 to 35%, butter consumption dropped 38%, eating eggs dipped 18%, but the sugar and refined grains in our diet skyrocketed. It’s interesting to note that since the time the Food Pyramid made its debut, the rates of obesity (body mass >30) increased dramatically. In the 1960s, approximately 14% of the population was obese. By 2010 it was 38% of US adults aged 20-74.
You might think that the decrease in butter and eggs and overall fat is a good thing, but it’s actually a major reason why we are becoming a nation of unhealthy eaters. After the 1950s, we were told low-fat was the way to eat. The food industry responded by revising food production. Butter and lard were removed from foods and replaced with harmful trans fats and lots of sugar. Trans fats are hydrogenated vegetable oils. Thanks to an industrial process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, trans fats are solids at room temperature and don’t spoil; they have a wonderful shelf life. Many restaurants use them in their fryers because you don’t have to change the oil as often as other oils. Yum!
Here are a few other places you’ll find trans fats lurking in your pantry or refrigerator:
Baked goods. Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and crackers contain shortening, which is usually made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Ready-made frosting is another source of trans fat.
Snacks. Potato, corn, and tortilla chips often contain trans fat. Packaged or microwave popcorn use trans fat to help cook or flavor the popcorn.
Fried food. Foods that require deep frying- french fries, doughnuts, and fried chicken- can contain trans fat from the oil used in the cooking process.
Refrigerator dough. Products such as canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls often contain trans fat, as do frozen pizza crusts.
Creamer and margarine. Nondairy coffee creamer and stick margarines also may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Despite all these “helpful” dietary guidelines there has been a disturbing increase in:
Diabetes. In 1978 about 5 million Americans were diagnosed as diabetic. In 2015, according to United Health, the nation’s largest health insurer, that number was 29.1 million people with diabetes, another 8.1 million undiagnosed, and an estimated 86 million have pre-diabetes.
Obesity. In 1970 about 1 in 3 people were considered obese. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) predicts 3 out of 4 Americans will be obese by 2020.
Cancer. Obesity is a major risk factor in many cancers. Excess body weight affects the body’s metabolic and immune system function, levels of hormones like insulin, insulin resistance, cellular growth, and blood pressure among other things.
Heart Disease. This is also associated with obesity. According to Johns Hopkins University (hopkinsmedicine.org), in the US, 84 million people suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease resulting in 2,200 deaths per day.
Food for Energy
Your body uses the food you eat by breaking down nutrients into parts small enough to be used by your cells for energy, growth, and repair in the process of digestion. Hormones play a big role in digestion. Insulin, which is made in your pancreas, is one such hormone. It allows your body to use sugar from the carbohydrates you eat for energy or to store glucose for future use. When you ingest carbs and your blood sugar rises, cells in your pancreas are signaled to release insulin into your blood. Insulin acts as a “key” to unlock the cell so sugar can enter and be used for energy.
When you eat, the carbs you ingest can lead to more glucose (sugar) being available than needed, so insulin moves the glucose out of the blood into your liver (as glycogen) for storage in a process called glycogenesis. But, your liver has only so much storage space for this newly formed glycogen. Once the space in the liver is full, the excess sugar is stored as fat!
When you don’t eat or fast for a short term (like when you sleep overnight, assuming you don’t raid the fridge for a midnight snack), your body can use the glycogen stored to carry on your bodily functions. This is also true when physical activity causes a deficit in your energy supply. That stored fat is burned to release energy and sent out to the body for use. Dr. Jason Fung, in his book, The Obesity Code, makes this easy to understand with the following analogy:
“Glycogen is like your wallet. Money goes in and out constantly. The wallet is easily accessible, but can only hold a limited amount of money. Fat, however, is like money in your bank account. It is harder to access that money, but there is unlimited storage space for energy there in your account. Like the wallet, glycogen is quickly able to provide glucose to the body. However, the supply of glycogen is limited. Like the bank account, fat stores contain an unlimited amount of energy, but are harder to access.”
This explains why shedding unwanted fat is so difficult. Before you need that money (fat) stored in the bank, you spend (burn) the money (glycogen) in your wallet (liver). The body doesn’t want an empty glycogen wallet so before you even have time to access all that stored energy in your body’s bank account, you become hungry. Most likely, you grab a quick snack or meal loaded with carbohydrates, spiking your blood sugar before you even had the chance to use any of that stored fat in your body’s fat bank account.
Another problem is the sugar added to food during production is very different from sugar occurring naturally in, say, an orange. Consider an orange, a 16 oz. glass of orange juice, and a 16 oz. glass of orange soda. The sugar in the orange is naturally occurring. If you eat the orange, you ingest about 10-13g of sugar. The 16oz. glass of orange juice has about four times that amount of sugar! If you were eating the fruit, you probably won’t eat 4 oranges in a sitting. Whole fruit has fiber that fills you up and keeps you from eating too much. In addition, the sugar is contained inside the cells of the orange and your body has to work harder to break down the cell walls and release the sugar for use by your body. This allows the sugar to be absorbed in a slower, more controlled way and causes you to feel full so you don’t over eat. On the other hand, the fiber has been removed from the orange juice during production and the juices' dissolved sugars are easily absorbed by the body and enter your bloodstream quickly causing a spike in blood sugar. Although the sugar in the orange juice originally came from a natural source (the oranges), the production of the orange juice has made it a less healthy choice for your body. This is why labels about sugar can be deceiving. Hopefully, I don’t even need to explain why the orange soda is never a healthy choice.
How can you access the stored fat energy in your body more effectively? You need to change the way you eat.
Reduce sugar, and eliminate high fructose corn sugar entirely from your diet. Sugar does occur naturally in fruit or milk, so bear that in mind. Naturally occurring sugar and added sugars are very different and your body processes them very differently.
Read labels. Sugar has lots of fun names like sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose (anything with an -ose ending), corn syrup, honey, and agave nectar. The goal would be no added sugar in your diet. So, avoid foods loaded with them.
Make breakfast optional. The term breakfast literally means to “break the fast,” and most likely that toaster pastry is just dessert in disguise.
Eliminate dessert, and put away the sugar bowl.
Don’t snack. Constant snacking does NOT keep your metabolism going. It keeps your insulin levels high which over time can lead to you to developing insulin-resistance; a stepping stone to pre-diabetes and diabetes.
Drink water! Odds are that that drink, even the one labeled diet, has sugar or some chemically developed sugar substitute in it. And it’s shocking to learn that studies done on artificial sweeteners (like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose) suggest that artificial sweeteners may potentially have some of the same negative effects on insulin and weight as sugar does. That diet drink is doing nothing for you.
Reduce your intake of refined grains (white flour). Whole grain and whole wheat is marginally better, but it’s still highly processed in most baked goods, cake, pasta, donuts, muffins, bagels, and cookies.
Moderate your protein intake. Every product out there today boasts how much protein it contains. Most people need 20-30% of their calories from protein. A plain 4oz. chicken breast, which is the size of your palm, has about 200 calories and 35 grams of protein. That’s already one-third of your necessary daily amount, if you are eating about 2000 calories a day. So, that double bacon cheeseburger you just ate? The beef alone is too much of a good thing and doesn’t even consider the cheese or bacon you piled on top. Excess protein is converted by your body into sugar!
Increase fiber intake. Vegetables are a great source of fiber.
Increase consumption of natural fats. You heard correctly. Eat more natural fats. These are found in olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, avocados, and full-fat dairy.
Everyone freaks out when they hear the word fat, and with good reason as we’ve been told for decades that fat is bad. The Sugar Research Foundation, back in 1965, funded a Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) research study, the results of which were published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA). This study singled out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of CHD and significantly downplayed the role of sugar in CHD. We’ve been told all along that fat in our diets is the reason we’re dying of heart disease. That just isn’t true.
More recent studies have shown that naturally derived fats have a positive effect on satiety (feeling full) and controlling the release of hunger hormones. Fats taste great; they send a delicious and highly desired signal to the brain. They provide energy and help the body absorb vitamins. Your body needs fat to survive. It’s an integral part of EVERY cell membrane in your body. Fats help manage inflammation in your body and fats allow your body to use the protein you ingest. Those egg-white omelets are useless without the yolk.
Newsflash, folks: fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar makes you fat. You can cut out all the fat in the world from your diet, but you won’t lose weight because that low-fat dressing you dumped on your otherwise healthy salad makes up for the missing fat with sugar.
But what about cholesterol? Too much fat and I’ll develop high cholesterol and die of heart disease, right? Nope. Most of the confusion lies in the types of LDL (low density lipid) cholesterol in fat. There are small, dense LDL cholesterol and large, fluffy LDL cholesterol. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola in his book Fat for Fuel, research has confirmed that the large, fluffy LDL cholesterol do not contribute to heart disease. The small, dense particles, however, can penetrate your arterial walls and contribute to plaque buildup in your arteries. Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis- the process by which your arteries become narrow and stiff due to the buildup of plaque. Bad news: the synthetic fats you eat increase small, dense LDL. In addition, eating refined sugar and carbohydrates, like bread, bagels, and soda can increase your small, dense LDL. It seems refined sugar and carbs do more harm to your body than naturally occurring saturated fats ever will.
It’s also interesting to note, your liver also produces about 80% of your blood cholesterol, the other 20% coming from your diet. Cholesterol is used and made by every cell in the body except for the brain. So, guess what? Reduce your intake of cholesterol and your body will just make more.
Saturated fat, on the other hand, increases your large, fluffy LDL. Eating the right kind of fat can actually help reduce cholesterol. This is the naturally occurring fat you find in full fat dairy products (skim milk is useless), beef, pork, lamb, lard, coconut oil, and olive oil to name a few. The key is consuming naturally occurring saturated fats, not the chemically produced ones in processed foods. Of course, things become a little tricky when we talk about polyunsaturated fats. There are Omega-3 fatty acids which are polyunsaturated fats that have anti-inflammatory benefits. This is a good thing! You find these fats in salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flax seeds. And then there are Omega-6 fatty acids which are also polyunsaturated and highly inflammatory to your body. This is not a good thing! These are the fatty acids you find in processed vegetable oil like soybean oil (the biggest source of omega-6 fatty acids in processed foods). High amounts of omega-6 fatty acids are found in body fat stores of cardiac patients. Eating the right balance of fats can be very beneficial to your health.
My Call to Action
The last B Sports Performance blog post on commitment prompted me to write this post. I need to clarify that I am not a registered dietician or nutritionist. However, I have spent time reading and researching foods and their effect on the body. Having been diagnosed as pre-diabetic last year, I didn’t like the idea of taking medicine to control my blood sugar to prevent full blown diabetes. Everything I read indicated I should be able to control my blood sugar (A1C-a blood test that measures your blood sugar over the past three months) and insulin response with diet. After a year of cutting out sugar and eating very few carbs (less than 25g) per day, as well as monitoring my blood sugar daily, I have been retested and my A1C blood sugar has gone back to the normal range. I am no longer classified as pre-diabetic. As far as this girl is concerned, that’s some pretty convincing evidence that sugar and carbs are harmful to the body and that much can be done to treat health issues with your diet. It just takes commitment and the right information.
There is a lot of good information out there to help you make healthy choices for fueling your body. There is also a lot of misinformation. I’ve listed some healthy food options in this article, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list. Read labels. It’s rather horrifying the chemicals we unknowingly put into our bodies eating highly-processed foods. Try to purchase organic produce, as well as choose grass-fed meats and poultry. The cost of eating good quality food is expensive, but you can think of it as an investment now that will pay big dividends as you grow older. Eating well is the best health insurance out there.