I’m a personal trainer with over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry and I have to be honest and tell you that more than 75 percent of the exercise required to stay fit and firm as you age involves a fork and knife. No amount of exercise can compensate for poor dietary habits. I believe in finding a healthy eating plan that works for you, and one you can live with for the long-term.
Fad diets don’t work because they are too restrictive for most people to follow and to incorporate into their daily lives. How many times have you seen someone lose a lot of weight in a short period and heard people say, “Have you seen so-and-so, since she’s been on that new diet? She looks so good.” Then you see that person a year or later, and she is heavier than ever. That’s the typical outcome of a fad diet.
The key to eating healthy over the long-term is balance and moderation in the foods you consume daily. You can eat any food you desire as long as it is in moderation and balanced it with the rest of the foods you consume. For example, I love brownies, so when I have a brownie for dessert I only have one. I also balance the carbohydrates and sugar in the brownie by not having bread with my meal.
The first step to learning balance and moderation in your diet is knowing how to classify foods into their basic source of protein, carbohydrates, and fats as well as how they are used in your body. The second step is mastering portion size. Knowing how many calories you consume from each food source and what your serving sizes are will enable you to balance your meals. Eating this way can be easily incorporated into your lifestyle—it’s a plan you can stick with over time.
So let’s begin by seeing how foods are broken down into their basic components of protein, carbohydrates, and fats and how your body uses them.
Protein is a necessary part of every living cell in your body. Next to water, protein comprises the greatest portion of your body weight. Protein substances make up your muscles, ligaments, tendons, organs, glands, nails, hair, and many vital body fluids. It is essential for the growth, repair, and healing of your bones, tissues, and cells. In addition, the enzymes and hormones that catalyze and regulate your body processes are comprised of protein. So you see the proper amount of protein in your diet is vital for your health and well-being.
Protein is composed of building-block chemicals called amino acids. There are approximately 28 commonly known amino acids that your body uses to create all the various combinations of proteins needed for survival. These 28 commonly known amino acids are further classified as essential and nonessential amino acids. Nonessential amino acids can be produced in your body, while essential amino acids cannot be produced in your body and must be obtained from the foods you eat.
The sources of protein in your diet are classified as complete or incomplete. Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids and are mostly from animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Incomplete proteins lack one or more essential amino acids that your body cannot make itself. Incomplete proteins usually come from plant-based sources such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. You must eat incomplete sources of protein in a combination that contains all the essential amino acids in order for your body to use them.
As mentioned, you must get your essential amino acids from your diet because your body cannot make them itself. Some of the best animal sources of protein are fish, poultry, lean cuts of meat, and low-fat dairy products. Some of the best vegetable sources are beans, nuts, and whole grains.
Protein’s Effect on Aging
Getting enough protein in your diet is crucial for building and maintaining muscle mass especially as you age. As I mentioned earlier, losing muscle mass is very detrimental to your health. Age-related muscle loss known as sacopenia can begin in your thirties and accelerate with age if left unabated. Sacopenia can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, insulin resistance, body fat accumulation, injury, and many other problems we associate with aging.
Increased protein consumption, and strength training are two of the most effective ways to combat muscle loss. While 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound) has been the normal recommendation for daily protein intake, new studies show that 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.45 to 0.68 grams per pound) may be more beneficial in building, maintaining, and reducing muscle loss.
Protein quality, quantity, and timing of consumption throughout the day, in conjunction with physical activity, are all important to the building and maintenance of muscle mass. The goal of protein consumption and lean muscle mass is to optimize muscle protein synthesis (the biological process by which muscle cells are regenerated). Studies now show consuming 25 to 30 grams of high quality protein at each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is necessary to stimulate maximal protein synthesis.
Protein’s Effect on Weight Loss
Scientific research is now revealing that people who consume higher amounts of protein (20 to 30 percent of their daily caloric intake), while cutting back on their carbohydrate intake, tend to lose weight faster and stay leaner than those people on low-fat diets.
The reason higher protein, lower carbohydrates diets are more conducive to weight loss and maintenance is interesting. First, high-protein foods slow the movement of food from the stomach to the intestines, meaning you feel full longer and don’t get hungry as often. Second, protein has a leveling effect on your blood sugar which means you are less likely to get spikes in your blood sugar that lead to cravings for carbohydrates. Third, your body uses more energy to digest protein than it does to digest fat or carbohydrates.
Getting the proper amount of protein at breakfast is especially important if you are trying to lose weight. Breakfast is the first meal of the day and what you eat determines whether you start your day in fat burning or fat storage mode.
Eating a breakfast rich in carbohydrates and low in protein (the typical American breakfast) starts your day in fat storage mode. The cereal, bread, fruit, and juice you have for breakfast are all carbohydrate-based and are converted into sugar by your body, thus causing a spike in your blood sugar. Then your body produces insulin to take that blood sugar and store it in your body mostly as body fat. Soon after your blood sugar drops and you feel famished, and you crave more carbohydrate-based foods which starts a cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes and its insuring sugar cravings.
On the contrary, having a breakfast that contains the proper amount of high quality protein such as eggs, lean meat, and low fat dairy starts your day in a fat burning mode. As mentioned earlier, consuming 25 to 30 grams of protein is necessary for maximal protein synthesis. This building and repair of muscle cells is very energy intensive and it burns body fat mainly as fuel for this process. Thus, having 25 to 30 grams of protein at breakfast activates muscle cell regeneration and also alleviates blood sugar spikes which lead to cravings.
Now that you know how important protein is for you, here are some good sources of protein listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help you get the proper amount in your daily diet.
1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry equals 7 grams of protein
1 large egg equals 6 grams of protein
4 ounces milk equal 4 grams of protein
4 ounces low-fat yogurt equals 6 grams of protein
4 ounces soy milk equals 5 grams of protein
3 ounces tofu, firm equals 13 grams of protein
1 ounce cheese equals 7 grams of protein
1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese equals 14 grams of protein
1/2 cup cooked kidney beans equals 7 grams of protein
1/2 cup lentils equals 9 grams of protein
1 ounce nuts equals 7 grams of protein
2 tablespoons peanut butter equals 8 grams of protein
1/2 cup vegetables equals 2 grams of protein
1 slice bread equals 2 grams of protein
1/2 cup of most grains/pastas equals 2 grams of protein
The popularity of low-carbohydrate diets has probably led you to believe that carbohydrates are “bad” for you. Just reading the hype in the media would make you think that carbohydrates are the cause of the obesity epidemic in the United States.
It’s true: eating a lot of easily-digested carbohydrates from white bread, white rice, pastries, sugared sodas, and other highly processed foods may contribute to your weight gain and, therefore interfere with your efforts to lose weight. On the contrary, consuming whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and other intact carbohydrates promotes good health. As I mentioned before, a healthy diet is about balance and moderation. A basic knowledge of what carbohydrates are and how your body uses them is essential to understanding how to balance them in your diet.
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that are excellent sources of energy (measured as calories) for your body; they are the preferred fuel for your brain and nervous system. Carbohydrates are found in an array of foods such as bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, corn, and desserts. The most common and abundant forms are classified as sugars, fibers, and starches.
The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, a simple union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Starches and fibers forms of carbohydrates are essentially chains of sugar molecules.
As mentioned above, most carbohydrates come from plant sources and are in the form of sugars, starches, and fibers. Sugars, also called simple carbohydrates, include fruit sugar (fructose), corn or grape sugar (dextrose or glucose), and table sugar (sucrose). Starches, also known as complex carbohydrates, include everything made of three or more linked sugars. Starches include foods such as breads, cereals, grains, pasta, rice, and flour. Fibers are technically classified as a starch because they are complex carbohydrates that your body cannot break down into sugar molecules. Fibers are more abundant in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables.
Your body breaks down all carbohydrates, except for fibers, into single sugar molecules regardless of their source. These simple sugars are further converted into glucose, also known as blood sugar. Your body is designed to use blood sugar as a universal source of fuel for energy.
Fiber is the form of carbohydrate that your body cannot break down into simple sugar molecules. It passes through your body undigested. Fiber comes in two varieties: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which does not. Although neither type provides energy for your body, they both promote health in many ways. Soluble fiber binds to fatty substances in your intestines and carries them out as waste, thus lowering your low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad cholesterol). It also helps regulate your body’s use of sugars, helping you to keep your hunger and blood sugar in check. Insoluble fiber helps push food through your intestinal tract, promoting regularity and helping to prevent constipation.
Here’s what happens when you eat a food containing carbohydrates. Your digestive system breaks down the digestible ones into sugar, which then enters your blood. As your blood sugar level rises, special cells in your pancreas churn out insulin, a hormone that signals your cells to absorb the blood sugar for energy or for storage. As your cells soak up the blood sugar, its level in your bloodstream begins to fall. Now, your pancreas starts making another hormone called glucagon, which signals your liver to start releasing stored blood sugar. This interplay of insulin and glucagon ensures that cells throughout your body have a steady supply of blood sugar.
Maintaining a steady blood sugar level is a very important component of your diet. While you’ve just seen that your body breaks down all digestible carbohydrates into blood sugar, some are converted into blood sugar faster than others. Thus, some carbohydrates cause a spike in your blood sugar level causing you to feel hungry faster and to crave more sugary foods. Other carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar more slowly, leveling out your blood sugar and resulting in less hunger and food cravings.
For this reason, the Glycemic Index (GI) was developed to classify how quickly your body converts carbohydrates into blood sugar as opposed to pure glucose. Glucose has a GI of 100, and all other carbohydrate-based foods are ranked against it. Foods with a score of 70 or more are considered to have a high GI, while those with a score of 55 or less are considered low.
Eating lots of food with a high GI causes spikes in your blood sugar level, this can lead to many health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Eating low GI foods causes your blood sugar level to stay steady thus keeping your energy level balanced and causing you to feel fuller longer between meals. The following are some additional benefits of eating low GI carbohydrates.
· Helps you to lose and manage your weight
· Increases your body’s sensitivity to insulin
· Decreases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes
· Reduces your risk of heart disease
· Improves your blood cholesterol levels
· Reduces hunger and keeps you fuller longer
· Helps you prolong physical activity
· Helps you to refuel your carbohydrate stores after exercise
You can get the GI rating of hundreds of carbohydrate-based foods from the Glycemic Index Foundation, sponsored by the University of Sydney in Australia. It maintains a searchable database of more than 1600 entries at http://www.glycemicindex.com.
The GI is interesting because some of the foods you think would have a high rating actually do not. For instance, fructose, or fruit sugar has a minimal effect on blood sugar, while white bread and French-fried potatoes are converted to blood sugar nearly as fast as pure glucose. In other words, you can’t classify foods as having a high or low GI based on the sweetness of taste. Many factors affect a food’s GI such as:
· Processing: Grains that have been milled and refined have a higher GI
· Type of starch: Starches come in many different configurations. Some are easier to break into sugar molecules than others. For example, starch in potatoes is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream relatively quickly.
· Fiber content: The sugars in fiber are linked in a way that is hard for your body to break down. Thus, the more fiber a food has the less digestible carbohydrate, and consequently, the less sugar it can deliver into your blood stream.
· Fat and acid content: The more fat or acid a food contains, the slower its carbohydrates are converted to sugar and absorbed into your bloodstream.
· Physical form: Finely ground grain is more rapidly digested, and so it has a higher GI than more coarsely ground grain.
The basic technique for eating the low GI way is simply a “this-for-that” approach. In other words, swap high GI carbohydrates for low GI carbohydrates. You don’t need to count numbers or do any mental arithmetic to make sure you are eating a healthy, low GI diet. Follow these easy to implement suggestions.
· Use breakfast cereals based on oats, barley and bran
· Use breads with whole-grains, stone-ground flour, or sourdough
· Reduce the amount of potatoes you eat
· Enjoy all types of fruit and vegetables
· Use brown rice
· Enjoy whole-wheat pasta and noodles
· Eat plenty of salad vegetables with a vinaigrette dressing
As you see, it’s important to include the right kind of carbohydrates as part of your daily intake. Now you ask, how many grams of carbohydrates can I eat daily? This depends on factors such as your age, gender, body composition, physical activity level, and metabolic health. Thus, there are no one-size-fits all answers.
People who are physically active, and have more muscle mass need more carbohydrates than people who are sedentary and have less muscle mass. People who have metabolic issues such as obesity and type 2 diabetes cannot tolerate the same amount of carbohydrates as people who are in good health.
Here are some general guidelines for daily carbohydrate intake if weight loss is your goal. For moderate weight loss (around 2 lbs per week), eat 50-100 grams of low to medium glycemic carbohydrates per day. For gradual weight loss and maintenance (1-1.5 lbs per week) consume 100-150 grams of low to medium glycemic carbohydrates daily.
Because I have a lot of muscle mass and I’m also very active I generally consume about 210 grams of low to medium glycemic carbohydrates daily. I find that this amount gives me plenty of energy for all my daily activities. You’ll find that eating low to medium GI carbohydrates levels out your energy and keeps you from those high and low points throughout the day.
Fat has also taken a bad rap over the years, but it is very essential to your health and well-being. Again, balance and moderation is the key.
For decades, the mantra for healthy eating has been “eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.” Touted as a way to lose weight and prevent heart disease and other chronic conditions, millions of people have followed this advice. Seeing a tremendous marketing opportunity, food companies re-engineered thousands of foods to be low-fat or fat-free. The low-fat approach to eating may have made a difference for the occasional individual, but as a nation, it has neither helped us control our weight nor has it helped us become healthier. In the 1960s, fats and oils supplied Americans with about 45 percent of their calories. About 13 percent of the population was obese and less than one percent had type 2 diabetes. Today, Americans take in less fat, getting about 33 percent of calories from fats and oils; yet 34 percent of the population is obese, and eight percent has diabetes (mostly type 2).
Research has shown that the total amount of fat in your diet is not linked to weight or disease. What actually matters is the type of fat in your diet. Trans fats and saturated fats increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats do just the opposite. But then you ask, “What about cholesterol in food?” The answer is, for most people the mix of fats in their diets influences cholesterol in their bloodstreams far more than cholesterol in food.
Almost all foods contain some fat. Even foods like carrots and lettuce contain small amounts of fat. That’s a testament to how important fats are for your health and well-being. Fat provides a terrific source of energy for your body as well as a great depot for storing it. It is an important part of cell membranes, helping govern what gets into and out of your cells. Your body uses cholesterol as the starting point to make estrogen, testosterone, vitamin D, and other vital compounds. Fats are also biologically active molecules that can influence how your muscles respond to insulin. Also, different types of fats can fire-up or cool down inflammation in your body.
Your body packages fat and cholesterol into tiny protein-covered particles called lipoproteins in order to get them into your blood stream. Some of these lipoproteins are big and fluffy, while others are small and dense. However, the most important ones to remember for your health and well-being are low-density lipoproteins, high-density lipoproteins, and triglycerides as explained below.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol from your liver to the rest of your body. Your cells latch onto these particles and extract fat and cholesterol from them. When there is too much LDL cholesterol in your blood, these particles can form deposits in the walls of your coronary arteries and other arteries throughout your body. These deposits, called plaque can cause your arteries to narrow and limit blood flow, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. Thus, LDL cholesterol is called your bad cholesterol.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) scavenge cholesterol from your bloodstream, your LDL, and your artery walls and ferry it back to your liver for disposal. Thus, HDL cholesterol is referred to as your good cholesterol.
Triglycerides comprise most of the fat that you eat and that travels through your bloodstream. Because triglycerides are your body’s main vehicle for transporting fats to your cells, they are essential for good health. However, an excess of triglycerides can be unhealthy.
The type of fat in your diet determines to a large extent the amount of total and LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. Cholesterol in food matters too, but not nearly as much. You can basically break the fats in your diet into three categories; good, bad, and very bad.
Unsaturated fats are called good fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play a number of other beneficial roles. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in foods derived from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. They are liquid at room temperature.
Furthermore, there are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in canola, peanut, and olive oil, in avocados, nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans, and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame. Polyunsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in sunflower, corn, soybean and flaxseed oil. They also are found in foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and fish.
Research has shown that replacing carbohydrates in your diet with good fats reduces harmful levels of LDL and increases protective HDL in your bloodstream. A randomized trial called the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health showed that replacing a carbohydrate-rich diet with one rich in unsaturated fat—predominantly monounsaturated fats—lowers blood pressure, improves lipid levels, and reduces the estimated cardiovascular risk.
Saturated fats are called bad fats because they increase your total cholesterol level by elevating harmful LDL. Your body can produce all the saturated fat that it needs, so you don’t have to get any from your diet. In the U.S. and other developed countries, saturated fats come mainly from meat, seafood, poultry with skin, and whole-milk dairy products. A few plant sources, such as coconuts and coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil, also are high in saturated fats.
As a general rule, it’s good to keep your intake of saturated fats as low as possible. Saturated fats are found in many foods, including vegetable oils (that are mainly unsaturated fats), so you cannot completely eliminate them from your diet. Because red meat and dairy fat are the main sources of saturated fats for most people, minimizing them in your diet is the primary way to reduce your intake of saturated fat.
Very Bad Fats
Trans fatty acids, more commonly known as trans fats, are made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas—a process called hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil. It also converts the oil into a solid which makes transportation easier. Partially hydrogenated oils can also withstand repeated heating without breaking down, making them ideal for frying fast foods. This is the reason partially hydrogenated oils have been a mainstay in restaurants and the food industry.
Trans fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad LDL and lower good HDL. They also increase inflammation, an over-activity of the immune system that is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Even small amounts of trans fats in your diet can have harmful health effects. For every extra two percent of daily calories from trans fat (the amount in a medium order of fast food French fries) the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent. It is estimated that eliminating trans fats from the U.S. food supply would prevent between six and 19 percent of heart attacks and heart attack-related deaths (more than 200,000) each year.
Recommendations for Fat in Your Diet
Are you confused at this point about the type of fats and their varied effects on your health? If so, remember to replace the bad fats in your diet with the good fats. Here are some suggestions to help you limit the bad fats in your diet.
· Eliminate trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils. Check food labels for the presence of trans fats and avoid fried fast foods.
· Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy products. When possible replace red meat with poultry, fish, beans, and nuts. Also, try switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower-fat versions.
· Use liquid vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in place of butter in your cooking and at the table.
· Eat one or more sources of omega-3 fats every day. Good sources are fish, walnuts, canola or soybean oil, ground flax seeds and flaxseed oil.
Water constitutes the largest part of your body. Most people don’t drink enough water daily. If you are even mildly dehydrated, your metabolism may slow down. In one study, adults who drank eight or more glasses of water a day burned more calories than those who drank four. To stay hydrated, drink a glass of water or other unsweetened beverage before every meal and snack. In addition, try munching on fresh fruits and vegetables, which are full of fluid, rather than pretzels or chips. I suggest you drink at least 64 ounces of water daily.
My Typical Diet
Here’s an example of how I balance my diet. Each day, I typically consume around 2300 calories consisting of approximately 210 grams of low to medium glycemic carbohydrates, 160 grams of high quality protein, and 80 grams of fat mostly from walnuts (high in omega-3 fat). Here’s my typical day:
Breakfast: I usually have 16 ounces of water as soon as I wake up. Then, I have a protein shake (whey protein) made of frozen blueberries, ice and almond milk. I also have one cup of oatmeal.
Mid morning snack: Around 9:00, I usually have about 2 ounces of raw walnuts, and a medium sized apple.
Lunch: I typically have about six ounces of chicken, fish, or lean meat, a medium size baked sweet potato, and steamed vegetables.
Mid afternoon snack: Around 3:00, I usually have about 2 ounces of raw walnuts, and a medium sized apple.
Dinner: I typically have about 6 ounces of chicken, fish, or lean meat, a serving of a low to medium GI carbohydrate, and a garden salad.
In addition, I drink at least 64 ounce of water every day. I can’t overestimate the importance of hydration in your diet. Your body needs water to process calories. As previously mentioned, if you are even mildly dehydrated, your metabolism may slow down.
As you can see, I eat about every three hours. When you eat large meals with many hours between them, you train your metabolism to slow down. Having a small meal or snack every three to four hours keeps your metabolism cranking, so you burn more calories throughout the day. Several studies have also shown that people who snack regularly eat less at meal time.
I follow this diet Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday I enjoy a cheeseburger, desserts, or any other food that I have a taste for. It’s easy for me to stick to my diet during the week when I know that I can loosen up a bit on the weekend. This way of eating has worked well for me for more than 20 years.
Life is meant to be enjoyed. Part of the joy of living is enjoying good food. On the other hand, if you don’t have good health, how can you enjoy life? The task is creating a healthy lifestyle in which you don’t deprive yourself of the things that you love and enjoy. This is what balance and moderation is all about. With knowledge comes power, and I hope I have given you enough basic information about food for you to choose a healthy diet that you can live with for the rest of your life.