QUALITY OF FOOD
For so long I thought it was just about calories. “Calories in vs. calories out! Gotta burn more than your taking in.” But the more I learn, the more I realize that the quality of your food is the most important part of a healthy diet. Someone that eats 2000 calories of healthy foods every day is going to look, and feel, a lot different than someone eating 2000 calories of Snickers bars every day. This is because the foods that we eat have a profound effect on our bodies through various hormonal pathways, particularly the insulin pathway.
Insulin is a hormone in the body that regulates whether nutrients are stored or whether they are used. Generally, when insulin levels are low, the body will use stored nutrients. When insulin levels are high, the body will store nutrients. The foods that we eat have a direct impact on our insulin levels!
To understand this concept better it is helpful to know what the foods we eat are made out of, as this will ultimately determine how the foods affect our body. All foods are made up of the macronutrients carbohydrates (carbs), fats, and proteins, as well as micronutrients.
Carbs are generally what make up most of the “plant foods” that we eat, such as fruits, veggies, and grains. Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy and are typically consumed in greater quantities than the other macronutrients. On a molecular level, carbs are made of various arrangements of sugar, and as such, have the greatest impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels. Blood sugar, refers to the amount of sugar circulating in the bloodstream, and is directly correlated with insulin. That means when blood sugar levels increase, insulin levels increase, and when blood sugar levels decrease, insulin levels decrease. Fats and proteins, although still very important, do not affect blood sugar levels nearly as much as carbs do, so blood sugar levels are primarily dependent on carbohydrate intake. The effect that a carbohydrate has on blood sugar, and therefore insulin, is dependent on the rate of digestion of that carbohydrate. The faster a carb digests, the faster those sugars are moved into the bloodstream, causing a greater increase in blood sugar levels, and greater increase in insulin production, ultimately leading to fat storage (assuming the body is at rest. I will talk about other scenarios later). This is a very powerful concept to understand and is what many popular diets such as the South Beach Diet, and The Atkins Diet are based upon.
So how do you know how fast a carb digests? Luckily the hard part has been done for us and we can just look up this information. Scientists have studied the rate of digestion of various foods and come up with the Glycemic Index(GI) as a way of evaluating rate of digestion. GI is a value assigned to a food based on its effect on blood sugar levels. In the case of carbs, the higher the GI value, the faster that carb is digested and the greater effect it has on blood sugar. For more information on the glycemic index or to look up a food in question go to http://www.glycemicindex.com/
Below is a table with some common carbohydrate sources and their associated GI values.
FOOD GI VALUE
SPAGHETTI (WHITE) 41
RICE (WHITE) 58
TABLE SUGAR 65
RICE KRISPIES 82
Carbs with low GI values are referred to as “complex carbohydrates” and carbs with high GI values are referred to as “simple carbohydrates.” Regardless of your fitness goals, but especially if you are trying to lose fat, at least %50 of your carbs should be complex carbs. This is because simple carbs dramatically increase your insulin levels, literally signaling your body to store fat (assuming the body is at rest). You are going to have a hell of a time getting lean if you are eating foods that tell your body to store fat.
Complex carbohydrate sources include - oatmeal, brown rice, vegetables (potatoes and corn are two common exceptions that are actually simple carbs), yams, beans, fruits and some pastas. You will notice that complex carbohydrates are usually very high in fiber. These foods’ fibrous nature is a main contributor to their slower rates of digestion. Simple carb sources include - breads, cereals, chips, crackers, and sweets. Even many of the “whole wheat” and “whole grain” products out there that are touted as “health foods,” are actually simple carbohydrates. They do digest a bit slower than their more refined cousins (whole wheat bread vs. white bread), but still much faster than is desirable.
Fats are very calorically dense compared to carbs and protein. This means that just a little bit of fat has a lot of calories (if you don’t know about calories yet, don’t worry. I will be covering that as well). Fats, like carbs, are primarily used by the body for energy. However, they are converted to energy much more slowly than carbohydrates, making them a less efficient fuel source. This means that fats are not the body’s preferred energy source, so getting your body to burn fat can be a bit of a challenge.
Just like carbohydrates, there are different types of fats. For simplicity’s sake, we will break them down by “good” fats and “bad” fats. "Good" fats are labeled as such because they have been shown to increase "good" cholesterol and lower "bad" cholesterol. They are also burned more readily for energy and less likely to be stored as fat than "bad" fats. Good fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s). Sources include - nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, oils, egg yolks. Bad fats are saturated fats and trans-fats. Saturated fats are “animal fats.” This is the type of fat stored on our midsections. Sources include – meats, particularly fatty meats (think bacon, sausage, processed meats, ground beef, etc.), cheese, creams, and some processed foods. Although not the healthiest source of nutrients, a little bit of saturated fat is needed in our diets, especially for men trying to build muscle. Trans-fats are the worst of the worst. “Trans” refers to the fats’ chemical geometry. It just so happens that this type of fat packs together well and is much more likely to form plaque in your blood vessels, leading to serious heart problems. Trans-fats are typically only in processed foods and rarely found in nature. Spotting trans-fat can be tricky and is covered a little bit later.
Protein is processed by the body quite a bit differently than either fat or carbohydrates. For starters, the body is relatively inefficient at converting protein into energy. This means that protein is the least likely of the three macronutrients to be stored as body fat. Carbs and fats are used by the body primarily for energy. Protein, on the other hand, can be used by the body to build and repair tissues, particularly muscle tissue. Your muscles are literally made out of protein, so it should make sense that protein is needed by the body to build and repair muscle tissue. Finally, protein can be used to slow digestion and promote satiation (feeling full). A meal consisting of protein + carbohydrate will digest more slowly, and keep you feeling fuller, longer than an equal amount of carbohydrate.
How much protein a person needs is a heavily debated subject. Experts recommend anywhere from .4 grams to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, per day. My personal opinion is that individuals engaging in exercise regularly should aim to get roughly 1 gram of protein, per pound of body weight, per day (A little less for women, a little more for men). For example, I weigh 215 pounds and should be eating roughly 215 grams of protein per day. Try to get a little bit of protein in with every meal. It will help to slow digestion and promote satiation. The most critical time for protein consumption is immediately following a workout (this is covered thoroughly in the Nutrient Timing section). Protein sources include – meats, eggs, protein shakes, milk, cottage cheese, and soy. Beans and some grains, although primarily carbohydrate sources, also have fairly high amounts of protein. That is good news for the vegetarians out there.
Micronutrients are another component of our food. Micronutrients are the non-caloric nutrients obtained through food that are required by the body for optimal function. Vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and antioxidants fall into this category. Having an excess of micronutrients in your diet will not give you any type of benefit, but being deficient can cause an array of problems, some very serious. Lucky for us, micronutrient deficiency is more of a problem in third world countries where food sources are scarce and foods are not fortified or enriched as they are here in the US. That said, it is not uncommon for people to suffer less severe forms of micronutrient deficiency. Fatigue, nervousness, irritability, mental depression, insomnia, muscle weakness and muscle cramps can all be caused by micronutrient deficiency. If you want your body feeling and functioning its absolute best, it is important to eat foods that are high in valuable micronutrients such as meats, fish, fruits, veggies, and other complex carbohydrates.
So what is the take home message from all of this? Hopefully you have learned that not all foods are created equal. Some carbs are better than other carbs because they digest more slowly and keep insulin levels low, promoting fat burning. Some fats are better than other fats because they are more likely to be used as energy and have a positive impact on health. Finally, protein and micronutrients are very important and useful nutrients that should be consumed in adequate quantities. But how does the average person know what foods are “good” and what foods are “bad?” I will give you one simple distinction between the two that will help you to make good food choices 95% of the time. Good choices are generally “whole foods.” Poor choices are generally “processed foods.”
Honestly, when I first heard this I dismissed it as hippy mumbo jumbo trying to convert me to their holistic, organic way of life. However, the more I researched the subject, the more I saw those hippies were really on to something, at least in regards to eating whole, natural foods.
Whole foods (or natural foods) are foods that have been processed as little as possible, preserving their natural state. Examples would be an apple picked from a tree, or a chicken breast cut from a chicken. Whole foods are not the same as organic foods. Organic refers to how the food was grown, produced, or raised. Foods do not have to be organic foods in order to be whole foods, so don’t think you have to “go organic” to eat healthy. Processed foods are foods that have been altered, or “processed,” into a non-natural state. Corn flakes are made by grinding corn into a powder, then shaping that powder into flakes and baking them. You can find organic corn flakes, but you would be hard pressed to find a corn flakes growing anywhere in nature.
It just so happens that most whole foods are going to have all of the good stuff we just talked about, and very little of the bad stuff, whereas processed foods are just the opposite. That means whole foods are going to be higher in complex carbohydrates, good fats, protein, and micronutrients and even lower in calories compared to processed foods. Processed foods, especially the really bad stuff like chips, candy, soda and kid’s cereals, are going to be very high in calories, simple carbs and bad fats, and very low in protein and micronutrients. Whole foods are considered “nutrient dense” where processed foods are considered “calorically dense” or “empty calories.” Essentially, with whole foods, you are getting much more bang for your caloric buck.
All of this means that you should be eating whole foods, and avoiding processed foods, as much as possible. Just this one change to your eating habits will have a profound effect on the way you look and the way you feel. In fact, many popular diets, such as the “Caveman Diet,” are based on this one concept.
Yes, it is possible to find relatively healthy processed foods in some health food stores. However, it is a much more simple and effective approach to just eliminate processed foods altogether from your normal diet. This is not an easy thing to do. Most of the foods we encounter on a day to day basis are processed foods. So even if you are trying your best to avoid these processed, they will still sneak their way into your diet from time to time. Just remember, the more you can choose whole foods over processed foods, the better your results are going to be, no matter what your fitness goals. Just because it is so important, I will say it once more: THE MORE YOU CAN CHOOSE WHOLE FOODS OVER PROCESSED FOODS, THE BETTER YOUR RESULTS ARE GOING TO BE, NO MATTER WHAT YOUR FITNESS GOALS!!!!
Below is the FORCE ONE FITNESS ULTIMATE FOOD LIST. These 25 foods were selected because they are the best of the best. They provide you with all of the right nutrients and none of the bad ones. Most are also tasty, convenient, and fairly inexpensive. If you ate only foods from this list, you would be a lean, mean, fat-burning machine in no time. A more complete list of healthy whole food options can be found at http://www.whfoods.com/foodstoc.php
As good as those foods are, there are other foods out there, I call them “fat bombs,” that are on the opposite end of the health spectrum. Fat bombs are a terrible mix of nutrition gone wrong. They are typically high in simple carbohydrates, which we have learned increase insulin levels telling the body to store fat, and also high in saturated or trans-fats, the types of fats that are easily stored. So, a fat bomb signals your body to store fat, and then provides your body with fat to store. See the problem? There are too many of these foods to list them all but a few examples are: candy bars, doughnuts, nachos, hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, cake, potato chips, and ice cream (my personal favorite). You will notice that most of these foods are considered, well, just flat out delicious. That is because the human body craves these “high energy” foods all the time. Remember, storing fat is a “good thing” from a survival perspective, but not so good in the 21st century world that we live in today.
Two other “foods” you want to look out for are high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. Luckily these are ONLY found in processed foods; so simply avoiding processed foods will keep you safe from these two monsters. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a modified form of regular corn syrup. There has been much debate about the health implications of HFCS, mostly between the corn industry and just about everybody else. The Corn industry has even started airing commercials claiming that there is no difference between HFCS and any other form of sugar. However, the most recent research is starting to show that HFCS does behave differently in the body, and not in a favorable way. One such study compared HFCS to sucrose (table sugar) in mice. The mice that received sucrose showed little change at the end of the study, but the mice that received HFCS got fat, every single one of them. Humans aren’t mice, but we are more similar than we are different. HFCS is in almost all processed foods nowadays, even condiments like ketchup and salad dressings. Check the ingredients list if you want to know whether a food has HFCS in it.
Hydrogenated oils are oils, such as vegetable oil, that have gone through a hydrogenation process, giving them a solid, creamy texture. Hydrogenated oils are also in many of the processed foods available today because they have a taste and texture that most people find pleasing and because they greatly extend the shelf life of foods. Just the fact that not even bacteria want to eat this stuff should be enough to scare you away. Hydrogenated oils are bad because they contain trans-fat, a type of fat associated with many health problems, including obesity. Many foods that say “no trans-fat” or “trans-fat free” have these hydrogenated oils in them, and thus have trans-fat. There are a variety of loop-holes in labeling regulations that allow food production companies to put these misleading labels on their products. If you really want to know what is in a food, check the ingredients list. You will be surprised at what you find.
These 3 foods, fat bombs, HFCS, and hydrogenated oils are the worst of the worst, and they should never, ever be part of your normal diet. Even small amounts of these foods will make it very difficult to lose fat. Large amounts will make it nearly impossible. Does that mean you can never again eat a burger, or a cupcake, or an ice cream sundae? NO! It just means that you should save these types of foods for special occasions, or what I like to call “cheat meals.” After a week or two of eating right (one week if looking to maintain weight or build muscle, two weeks if trying to lose fat), it is ok to treat yourself to one meal where all bets are off and you eat without restrictions and without guilt. It will be much easier to stay on track with your food choices for long periods of time if you have something like a cheat meal you can look ahead to. A cheat meal will also help to keep your body from adjusting to a decrease in caloric intake if you are restricting calories (more about calories in the QUANTITY OF FOOD section). Whenever you get those cravings just remind yourself that you can have that food later, guilt free, after you have earned it. It is very important not to let a cheat meal snowball into a cheat day, or a cheat week. It is one meal. That’s it.
Key Points from QUALITY OF FOOD:
• The more you can choose whole foods over processed foods, the better your results are going to be, no matter what your fitness goals. Whole foods are nutrient dense, providing your body everything it needs to look and feel its best. Processed foods are just the opposite. Remember that whole foods are foods that have been processed as little as possible and are still in their natural state. A simple test, ask yourself “was this food around 1,000 years ago?” If not, it is probably processed.
• The distinction between processed foods and whole foods is particularly important when it comes to carbohydrates due to their effect on insulin levels. If you are happy with your weight and just looking to improve your health and fitness, try getting at least %50 percent of your carbohydrates from whole foods. If you are trying to lose fat, avoid processed carbohydrates all together until you have reached your fat loss goals.
• Protein is an important and useful nutrient. It is required by the body to build and repair muscle tissue and also helps you feel fuller for longer. Aim to consume 1 gram of protein, per pound of body weight, per day. Also make sure to spread that out, getting a little bit of protein with every meal or snack.
• Avoid “fat bombs,” high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils at all costs. Fat bombs are foods that combine simple carbohydrates and high amounts of fat such as a fast-food, pizza, and most sweets. HFCS and hydrogenated oils are unhealthy additives found only in processed foods. You must check the ingredients list to know whether or not a food contains these additives. Eating these 3 foods makes it nearly impossible to lose fat.
• It is ok to treat yourself to a “cheat meal” every once in a while. A cheat meal is one meal where all bets are off and you eat without restrictions and without guilt. A cheat meal has to be earned. If your primary goal is to build muscle, or improve health, allow yourself one cheat meal after one solid week of healthy eating. If your primary goal is fat loss, allow yourself one cheat meal after two solid weeks of perfect eating.