There are three things you need to know right off hand when you talk about weight loss. First of all, we are after fat loss, not just weight loss. Secondly, for a fat loss diet to be successful for any length of time, it must also be a health promoting diet. Thirdly, while eating to become lean and stay lean can be simple, the simplistic approach that all that matters is calories consumed and calories expended is not true. All three of these points converge when we adopt a diet composed of whole, unprocessed foods.
When the average person restricts their food intake to lose weight, half of what they lose is typically muscle. This is especially true when the rate of loss is more than one pound a week. Because muscle is our primary user of energy, losing muscle mass drastically slows down our metabolism. When you also consider that one of the major differences between a young person and an old person is how much muscle they have, you can see that losing muscle also accelerates aging.
The approach of simply reducing calories is also ineffective long term because our bodies adapt to the decreased calories by slowing our metabolism. Proper nutrition is necessary for ideal body composition, but so is exercise!
Most experts believe the ideal rate for permanent fat loss is two pounds a month. This may sound painfully slow until you realize that adds up to 24 pounds of fat lost in one year. Mind you, we are talking about 24 pound of fat here, not the 12 pounds of fat and 12 pounds of muscle you would have lost if you had done this in 6 weeks. Remember also that we are talking about permanent fat loss. Most people who lose 24 pounds in 6 weeks have gained it all back, and then some, by the end of a year.
Now that we understand the importance of taking the slow and steady approach to fat loss, it’s even clearer that we need to maintain a healthy diet. I’m not saying that you can’t maintain a diet of unhealthy foods long-term. The majority of Americans do just that. What’s hard is to stay on a diet where we have eliminated a macronutrient like carbohydrates or fats or when we continue to eat unhealthy foods and simply attempt to reduce the total calories.
We can’t eliminate carbohydrates because they are in fruits and vegetables. People who eat the most fruits and vegetables live the longest, have the lowest incidence of virtually every disease, and, coincidentally, are the leanest. We can’t eliminate fats because they are needed for our cell membranes, to produce hormones, and for energy. People who go on low fat diets tend to be hungry all the time because fat also serves to keep us sated.
Simply eating less, regardless of what we eat, will result in weight loss in the short term. Remember though, that we are after fat loss and that we need it to be permanent. Our bodies respond one way to a 1500 calorie a day diet made up of whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, dairy products, nuts, fish and game. They react quite differently to one with the same number of calories from refined and processed foods. The former leads to a strong, lean body with youthful hormonal levels and a healthy immune system. The latter will give you just the opposite.
If we stick to eating whole, unprocessed foods, we really don’t have to worry too much about whether we are eating “low fat”, “low carb” or whatever. However, in order to help clarify how processed foods have been changed to make them health destroying, we are going to discuss the three macronutrients.
Despite the fact that we have been told for over 30 years now to reduce our fat intake, in reality it is processed carbohydrates that are the major culprit in the obesity epidemic and its related health woes.
Like fat or protein, carbohydrates as a class of food are neither good nor bad. What matters is how much they have been processed. All carbohydrates are eventually broken down in our bodies into sugar. Whether carbohydrate foods lead to a lean, athletic physique, or obesity and type II diabetes, is largely a matter of how processed they are.
Fruits and vegetables consist mainly of carbohydrates and are unquestionably among the healthiest foods one can consume. They are high in fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. Sodas are also made up entirely of carbohydrates and they are arguable one of the most health-destroying things you can consume. Sodas have no fiber, nutrients or antioxidants.
Fruits and vegetables versus sodas is a pretty black and white example of healthy and unhealthy carbohydrate foods. Often times such a determination is not so obvious. When in doubt, it helps to look at the food and ask how much processing it has undergone. In other words, how closely does the food resemble what it looked like when it was picked or harvested?
Apples are a wonderful example of a whole food consumed just as it was grown. A couple of large, crunchy apples will leave most of us full land satisfied for quite some time. Because of their high fiber content, they take a lot of chewing and have few calories relative to their bulk. This fiber also allows the sugar in the apples to be released slowly into our blood streams.
Apple juice on the other hand, or any juice for that matter, is a great example of how processing changes how our bodies respond to a food. Because juice has little or no fiber, we can drink a large glass very quickly and the sugar is very quickly absorbed into our blood stream. Rather than feeling satisfied, we are often hungrier shortly after drinking juice.
Evaporating juice and then using it to sweeten processed foods takes things one step further and is really no different than adding any other type of sugar. In fact, it is actually worse. Our bodies thrive on the amount of fructose we can ingest eating a reasonable amount of fruit, but more concentrated amounts lead to visceral and abdominal fat storage, liver damage, and decreased insulin sensitivity. This is why high fructose corn syrup is so health destroying-regardless of public relation campaigns to convince you that it is harmless.
Similar examples can be made of grains. Unfortunately the majority of grains available to us are highly processed foods. This includes most “whole grains”. Oatmeal is a healthy food high in fiber. Pastries made of oat flour are not nearly as healthy. Wheat berries are a crunchy, satisfying food, but most foods containing wheat flour are highly processed. Brown rice is much more nutritious and filling than white rice, and rice flour is one step more processed.
Most people wishing to lose fat would do well by simply avoiding sodas, juices, breads, pastries, white rice and eating brown rice in moderation. Again, we don’t have to be perfect, but if we do want to change our bodies we have to change our behaviors. Consuming less of the above foods is a great step in the right direction.
Rather than attempting to lose weight by cutting out carbohydrates entirely, it makes a lot more sense to base our diet on fruits, vegetables and minimally processed grains. Such a diet is easy to maintain long-term for a number of reasons. Because of their high bulk there is no reason to be hungry on such a diet. You will consume an adequate amount of carbohydrates and calories to feel energetic and alert without over-consuming. Most importantly, the longer you stay on such a diet the healthier you become and the more such eating becomes a way of life.
In my last article I addressed the fact that carbohydrates, or “carbs”, were neither good nor bad. When eaten as whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits or minimally processed foods like oatmeal and brown rice, they are healthy and nutritious. It’s when we refine them into products like juice, soda, pastries, white rice, sugar and the like that they contribute towards obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Moving on to fats, you shouldn’t be too surprised to find that much the same is true of them. Fats found in whole foods are not unhealthy. Fats extracted from these foods and otherwise altered can have horrendous effects on our bodies.
In the ‘60s and 70’s researchers studying the epidemic of heart disease in Western societies noted that their diets were around 45% fat. They also noted a link between high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. Fat must be the cause of heart disease they reasoned and cholesterol fats must be the worst offenders. The solution, then, was to decrease the amount of fat in our diets and dramatically decrease the consumption of foods with cholesterol.
Unfortunately, there was, and are, several problems with this approach. The most glaring of course, is that ingesting cholesterol has very little effect on our blood levels of cholesterol. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol which is needed for a variety of proposes, not the least of these are creating hormones which control most body systems. We now know that much more important than the overall level of cholesterol is the ratio between the “good” and the “bad” cholesterols.
Another problem with simply eating a low fat diet is that they tend to be quite high in processed carbs. Processed carbs are actually a leading cause of high triglyceride and cholesterol levels and a negative balance of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Many patients whose blood lipid levels don’t improve with a low fat diet are put on Lipitor or other statin drugs when a diet of whole unprocessed foods hasn’t been tried yet. Of course, many people are not able to stay on a low fat diet for long anyway because fat is necessary for satiety.
We don’t stay full or satisfied for long after a low fat meal for a few reasons. One is that fat slows down the absorption of sugar into our blood stream and therefore keep our blood sugar levels more even. Another is that we crave fat because it’s needed for hormone production and for constructing cell membranes. That’s why folks who do manage to stay on very low fat diets often have dry skin, fragile hair, and poor immune systems.
What then constitutes a good or bad fat? Without any understanding of trans fats or omega fatty acids, we could do fairly well just by looking at how processed the fat in question is. Raw nuts, avocados, cold water fish, wild game and dairy products are pretty clear cut examples of fat-containing foods that have undergone little or no processing.
One of the greatest triumphs of marketing over science has been the outright lie that margarine is healthier than butter. Even if you knew nothing about omega 6 vs. omega 3 fatty acids, or the reasons why trans fats are so health-destroying, it’s easy to see that butter much more closely resembles milk than margarine resembles the vegetables or soy beans that the oil in it came from.
From the standpoint that the food has been refined and the calories concentrated, any oil is a processed food. Even here, though, some oils are more processed than others. Oil that is cold pressed or “extra virgin” has not been subjected to heat. This is good because it keeps the fatty acids intact. The opposite end of the spectrum is partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils which contain trans fats. When oils are hydrogenated, or “partially hydrogenated”, the chemical structure is changed and they become trans fats. Trans fats don’t occur in nature and there is no safe amount. Avoid any food that contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and look for cold processed, expeller pressed or extra virgin when purchasing oils.
Extra virgin olive oil if by far and away a much healthier choice than any vegetable oil. Another good choice is extra virgin coconut oil. Coconut oil is especially good for cooking because it has a high burn point. Again, without knowing anything about biochemistry, one can see oils that come from foods with high fat contents like olives and coconut require less processing than oil from corn and other vegetables.
While the concept of eating whole foods is simple enough, I believe it’s worth going a little deeper and understanding about omega 3’s and omega 6’s. The distorted ratio of 6’s over 3’s not only leads to obesity; it is one of the main causes of inflammation and the whole host of physical ailments it causes. Not surprisingly, this distorted ratio is a direct result of food processing, including how we raise livestock.
Prior to the 1900’s, our consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 was in a ratio of around 2:1. In the last 50 years that ratio has changed for the worse to 15:1. This is largely due to the huge amount of oils extracted from vegetables used in both cooking and in prepared foods. These oils (such as corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, soybean oil) are primarily omega-6s. Also contributing to the problem is corn being added to so many processed foods and being fed to livestock. At the same time, we have decreased our consumption of omega -3’s which are found in whole grains, beans, seeds, fish, and grass fed animals.
Gabe Mirkin, MD does a pretty good job of listing some of the problems caused by our modern diet. “Eating too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 causes clots and constricts arteries to increase risk for heart attacks, increases swelling to worsen arthritis, and aggravates a skin disease called psoriasis. It may block a person’s ability to respond to insulin, causing high insulin and blood sugar levels and obesity. It increases hormone levels of insulin like growth factor-1 that causes certain cancers.”
As strong a case as Dr. Mirkin makes against eating omega-6 rich foods, he fails to mention the connection between high 6:3 ratios and depression, dementia and other emotional, mental and cognitive dysfunctions.
Recognizing then that it is imperative to correct the 6:3 ratio in our diet, how do we go about it? The first step goes directly back to our concept of eating whole unprocessed foods. If we minimize our consumption of processed foods, we minimize our consumption of omega-6 rich polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Remember to be on the lookout for corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, soybean oil and any oil simply listed as vegetable oil. And don’t forget to particularly shun anything containing “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated “oils. When you prepare foods at home you should use extra virgin olive, walnut, flax seed or coconut oil.
Along with decreasing our omega-6 intake, we should also increase our consumption of omega-3’s. We can do this by eating oily fish, walnuts, and flax seed and by supplementing with distilled or “pharmaceutical grade” fish oil.
As I’ve mentioned, fats have gotten a pretty bad rap over the last few decades. In reality, they are as important to health as any other component of food. Eating more whole, unprocessed foods is a great start to making sure the fats you are consuming are healthy. Looking for and avoiding the unhealthy oils used in processed foods is the other part of the puzzle.
The last macronutrient to cover is protein. Like fat, protein is an essential part of our diets. Also like fat, eating too little in an attempt to lose weight is counterproductive. Adequate protein is necessary for maintaining and repairing our muscles as well as keeping our immune system healthy. A rule of thumb for athletes that I think we should all apply is one gram of protein for each pound of ideal bodyweight.
When many people think of protein, they think of meat. Fish, foul, and meats certainly have the highest percentage of protein of any food we could eat. There are, of course, plenty of non-animal sources of protein. Vegetarians point to the fact that over half the world’s population doesn’t eat meat. Beans and legumes, especially when they are combined with whole grains like brown rice or barley, are excellent sources of protein that are also high in fiber.
When we discuss whether fish, foul, and meat are healthy source of protein or not, we have to look at how these animals were raised. Just as we want to eat our fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans and legumes as closely as possible to how they were grown, we want our meats to come from animals that were raised the way they are in nature.
Fish is a great example of this. It’s easy to see that wild salmon, for instance, is a healthy food. Compare this to farmed fish which is full of toxins and has very little omega 3 fatty acids. Most of us Alaskans already know this and agree with the bumper sticker, “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish.”
Wild game is another example of a protein food raised the way nature intended. Venison is lower in fat than commercial beef, but even if it wasn’t it would still be a healthy food. This is because grass fed animals have almost as much omega 3 as salmon.
Until the last century, beef was also a healthy food. This all changed when we started feeding corn to cattle. This not only makes the beef much fatter, it makes the fat unhealthy because it has a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. You’ll remember that too much omega 6 leads to diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and a host of inflammatory conditions.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, or I guess a cow in this case, it should also be noted that eating corn, rather than the grass they eat naturally, makes cattle chronically sick. This is why they are routinely fed antibiotics. In addition to the unnatural feed and antibiotics they are given, commercially raised beef is also given growth hormones. Keeping all of this in mind, it’s pretty clear that most beef available today is not raised the way nature intended.
Eggs and dairy products are also ready sources of protein. A lot of bodybuilders I know eat just the egg whites and throw away the yolks. This is a mistake because fat is important in our diets and, again, the cholesterol in eggs does not negatively affect our blood lipids. Also, there is also a lot of protein in the yolks so you have to use twice as many eggs when you eat just the whites.
As I said in the beginning of this discussion on eating for healthy fat loss, successfully eating for fat loss cannot be separated from eating for health. Likewise, eating whole, unprocessed foods cannot be separated from either eating for health or a lean, fit body.
Eating whole foods seems like a simple enough concept, but we are so removed from the growing, raising, and manufacturing of our foods that sometimes it’s difficult for us to know what we are eating. If we base our diets on vegetables, fruits, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs, dairy products, fish, wild game, grass fed beef, and organic free range chicken, however, we can clearly see that we aren’t getting too far away from the way nature has provided our food.
One can’t go wrong simply following a diet consisting of whole foods, but germane to our topic of fat loss, I’d like to mention a few additional helpful ideas. There is no reason to be hungry or feel deprived when eating for healthy fat loss. Don’t skip meals and try to eat 3-4 times a day or every 4-5 hours. Don’t make the mistake of limiting your fat intake. Remember, healthy fats are healthy foods. And lastly, don’t drink your calories unless it is whole milk or whey protein.
I was going to end by saying that I hope this talk on nutrition answered more questions than it raised, but maybe raising questions about our eating is a good thing. A large part of our country’s collective health problem is the fact that we have been unquestioningly eating whatever our food manufacturers have produced. Remember, we don’t have to eat perfectly. If we want to improve our health, however, we do have to change our behavior in some way and awareness is the first step in this process.