Eat This, Eat That: Context Matters
Like clichés, nutritional “wisdom” is well recited.
Eat less, Exercise more.
Calories in, Calories Out.
Moderation is the key.
Eat this. Don’t eat that.
We all have heard these nutritional pearls, but what do any of these ambiguous directives actually mean? For you? For me?
I suppose on the surface, they seem reasonable to adhere to.
The problem is, most of what is preached is so subjective and tends to lead to mass confusion.
After months and months of being deep in the rabbit hole, I have come back to the surface to assess the scenery. And what have I discovered?
My biggest observation is that both the conventional and the paleo camps have valid points, but out of context they both seem to be right and wrong at the same time.
What I mean is, sure you can’t just eat unlimited calories and be thin. And conversely, [healthy] fat does not make you fat, but it can. So, what is right? What is wrong? What are we supposed to do?!
Most importantly, CONTEXT matters! Duh.
Moving forward, any time someone is speaking about nutrition, ask yourself- what context are they speaking?
What is their perspective? Even a broken clock can be right twice a day.
My issue with conventional nutritional wisdom is it seemingly ignores biological processes and puts the main focus on the person. Eat less, exercise more. How much less should I eat compared to someone who weighs more or less than me? And don’t we need to know WHAT the person is eating and what kind of exercising they are doing to make recommendations?
It matters! Because WHAT one eats, can affect how your body runs.
Every time someone says to “eat in moderation” so many of us roll our eyes in frustration; because it is said with such conviction, as if that statement is helpful or informational to someone who is looking for clarity on nutrition.
What is “moderation” to me, is most likely different for you.
Even if you only filled the tank up half way (eat less) putting diesel in an engine that runs on gasoline is not going to turn out so well.
Those who preach that fat makes you fat have some validity, because those who eat the SAD (Standard American Diet) mostly likely eats excess carbs and sugar, and in that food mix, adding fat to that diet, WILL make you fat.
All calories are not created equal, so when any nutritional wisdom is prescribed, understanding the context is crucial.
Perhaps if people understood how their bodies processed food it would make it easier to make sense of the minutia and allow for better adherence to dietary changes.
In addition to reading blogs and listening to podcasts of the likes of Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson, I read Gary Taube’s book Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. It was a great read and you should definitely consider picking up a copy (there is an audiobook available as well) especially if you want to geek out on how your body breaks down fat; you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for fat storage and how diet can influence your body composition. I can’t and don’t want to just recite his words, but I can attempt to give you a summary of the premise of the research. As well as review the research on how sugar may be the straw that broke the camels back.
I also would like to attempt to unravel some of the confusion surrounding nutrition.
Too often the latest diets focus more on WEIGHT loss, rather than FAT loss.
Or pills or gimmicks on how to lose weight; so many just want the “quick fix” and that’s why so many “diets” fail.
I would rather lose body fat than muscle and/ or lean body mass (which also may include your organs).
So how does one do the former? How can we spare muscle and lose fat?
Your body can run on glucose and and it can run on fat, but not both at the same time. Your body preferentially prefers to run on glucose, but there is research and emerging new research that reports both the brain and the heart may run better on fat.
The caveat to that is, as I hinted earlier, in the presence of excess carbs and sugar, fat can be deleterious to your health.
I heard someone describe this as a teeter totter- if you eat a lot of carbs, than fats need to be down. If you increase your fat intake, you need to reduce your carbs.
It started in the 1960’s and became rampant in the 90’s, the low fat mantra and recommendations of adhering to a low fat, low calorie diet remain pervasive.
The topic of how fat got demonized can and should be an entirely different post, but the long story short of it is “low fat” and the lipid hypothesis was based on bad science, but is still mindlessly preached.
Mark Sisson says we should strive to train our bodies to be “fat burning beasts”, but most likely a large percentage of us are “sugar burners”.
In the absent of (excess) carbs, you starve your body of glucose (carbs), but at the same time eating nutrient dense foods. So, you’re taking in calories, but confusing your body by not giving it (excess) foods that spike blood sugar, thus increasing insulin production.
When you eat, blood sugar raises. Your body (via the pancreas) produces insulin and it lowers your blood sugar.
What you eat can affect how much you spike your blood sugar, i.e glycemic index (glycemic load).
Insulin is a fat storage hormone. When insulin is high, fat cannot be released from fat cells.
Keep your blood sugar more even keel, rather than the high and low spikes that keep you tied to carbs and sugar cravings and insulin low and your body can learn to burn fat.
How? Keep carbohydrates on the lower end and fat on the higher end.
Remember, your body can only run on glucose or fat, so if you reduce carb intake, your body has no choice but to start running on fat (ketones).
Mark Sisson has a great carbohydrate curve to use as a guide.
50-100 grams/day – Primal Sweet Spot for Effortless Weight Loss
Minimizes insulin production and ramps up fat metabolism. By meeting average daily protein requirements (.7 – 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight formula), eating nutritious vegetables and fruits (easy to stay in 50-100 gram range, even with generous servings), and staying satisfied with delicious high fat foods (meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds), you can lose one to two pounds of body fat per week and then keep it off forever by eating in the maintenance range.
What? you cry- No bread? No pasta? What about quinoa? Rice? Grains? Are you willing to give up grains but in exchange you get to say goodbye to belly fat?
Gluten-free has gotten blurred by the mainstream, and is criticized for being a fad. Your love for [gluten laden] bread aside or your allegiance to the tagline that ‘whole grains are healthy’, let’s for now even forget about the deleterious effects of gluten itself, and think of gluten as a source of food that SPIKES your blood sugar. Spiking your blood sugar, spikes insulin, and spiking insulin causes fat gains (or will prevent you from losing fat).
Two pieces of whole wheat bread (that’s right, “heart healthy wheat”) raises your blood sugar more than 2 tablespoons of table sugar.
The glycemic index of whole wheat bread= 71 and Wonder bread is 73. The glycemic index of sucrose is 54.
Remember, your body prefers to use carbs as energy. So, if you eat too many carbs with protein and fat, the carbs will be used and burned off as energy and the fat you ate will be stored as fat, alongside your other fat cells. Your liver only has a small space for glycogen and once that is full, it ships everything else to be stored as triglycerides.
Triglyceride is just another name for fat; Carbohydrates that aren’t used as energy, are stored as triglycerides.
Reduced carbohydrate intake typically results in reduced triglyceride levels.
Healthy fat with lower carbs often times results in higher HDL-c and lower triglycerides; conversely, a low fat, higher carb diet results in lower HDL-c and higher triglyceride levels. Basically, everything you think you know or have been told by 90% of doctors completely goes against what actually will improve your markers.
In 2011, I was on the low calorie, low fat diet (i.e high carb diet) and my HDL-c was 57.
I just had a full lipid panel and my HDL-c is 113. Research has shown that HDL-c to Triglyceride ratio is a better indicator of cardiovascular risk. I now eat 50-60% fat and approximately 15% carbs. I think my triglycerides will be lower next time I test, as I was just easing into the lower carb arena. My insulin was 3 and my hemoglobin A1C was 5.2
And this is not to say you can never have grains or a slice of bread every now and again, if you so choose. But, until you train your body to burn fat, continually fueling the fire (your body) with glucose (carbs and sugar) you will be tied to those foods, contribute to belly fat and potentially cause decreased brain function.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”
So what about fruit and low glycemic fruits, such as agave.
Glucose and fructose are processed by the body differently. Glucose enters the blood but fructose can only be broken down by the liver. So, although agave has a lower GI, it can still wreck havoc on your waistline. The liver only has small glycogen stores, so any excess will be stored as fat.
Not to beat a dead horse, but context matters. If you are metabolically deranged, it may be a good idea to avoid and/ or eliminate fructose, including fruit, until insulin stabilizes.
This is not to say, you should never eat fruit, but if you are insulin resistant, getting it under control first seems logical before adding fuel to the fire. And not all fruits are created equally.
Blueberries and raspberries are lower on GI than bananas and dates.
An apple and a soda have approximately the same amount of fructose. Sure, an apple has additional benefits and is healthier than pop but don’t get confused and think fruit in unlimited amounts is ideal either.
Context matters: substituting fruit in place of twinkles and donuts, good idea; eating more than 2-3 servings of fruit/day, not such a great idea; initially, eliminating it altogether may be a good idea, but if that seems too extreme, limiting fruit to 1 servings/ day until you get your insulin under control and you are at a maintenance level with weight is a great start. And juicing takes the fiber out (the benefits of fruit) and you are basically drinking sugar, as most juice (even organic juice) has 20-25 grams of sugar in one serving.
Why do some swear by juicing? Most likely, they went from eating processed and/ or junk food to whole foods of fruit and some vegetables. Initially, your body will respond very well to that.
Conventional nutritional wisdom, although well-intended, perhaps has lead us astray.
So, how is eat less, exercise more working for us?
Knowing that fat and carbs need to be inversely consumed, and the current guidelines recommend 60% whole grains, it is no wonder they must stick to the low fat mantra. Unless they are willing to change the entire paradigm, low fat recommendations will prevail. I do find it interesting that people who dismiss increasing fat intake and think that 50-60% fat is crazy, are just fine with 60% carbohydrate diet. So, 60% carbs is fine but 50-60% fat not fine?
In the end, people can be lead to water, but it is your choice on which water you drink from…