In This Article
- You are what you absorb
- Defining metabolic and oxidative priority
- Metabolism myths
Getting to know yourself from the inside out
We’ve lost sight of the meaning of health. Health isn’t merely the absence of disease; it’s so much more. Our bodies are ingeniously adapted to have boundless energy, resist illness, live well into our 90s without pain or disease, and die quietly in our sleep at a ripe old age. Yet more people than ever are sick, overweight, and in pain. Health care has become little more than treating symptoms with chemistry experiments (polypharmacy) and procedures. It’s time to see the forest instead of the trees, to shift the focus to prevention instead of treatment.
Do you eat at least three times a day, every day, whether you need to or not? Most of us stay in the postprandial (fed) state from waking until going to bed. Food is the direct link from the outer environment into your body. That means you literally are what you eat. The trillions of hitchhikers in your intestinal microbiota are what you eat, too, because their waste products are dumped into your absorption organ— your gastrointestinal, or GI, tract). So more specifically, you are what you absorb, and that includes both what you eat and what the symbiotic bacteria produce as metabolic waste products. Your GI tract, therefore, plays a significant role in your immune system.
Sometimes listening to your acquired or habituated appetite isn’t the best approach to health. A sudden dietary change can often make you feel worse in the short term even though in the long term it might result in better health. We discussed this with salt and sugar and you may have witnessed this in someone who stops drinking alcohol or quits smoking. What’s equally important to note is how we feel with the sudden addition of a food or drink back into your diet. If you haven’t had broccoli or green tea for months and suddenly go on a binge, you likely won’t feel hungover the next day. Anyone who has given up meat or alcohol and then suddenly adds it back into his or her diet knows that it’s not a pleasant experience–even at levels once regularly consumed.
Our Obsession with Numbers
We’ve become obsessed with numbers. How much do you weigh? How much should you weigh? How many calories should you eat? What percentage of carbs is ideal? How many ounces should you eat? How many milligrams of calcium should you take to prevent osteoporosis? And on and on.
Ironically, it seems the more we count, the worse our health is becoming. Something’s wrong with this picture.
The thousands of diet books on bookstore shelves today promise to make you healthier, leaner, and fitter as long as you follow the directions precisely. Unfortunately, the onslaught of new formulas and prescriptions has resulted in mass confusion and nutrition information chaos—part of this is macroconfusion. But there is more to this story. As nutritionists, our job description has been redefined as “nutrition-myth debunkers.” Instead of teaching from scratch, our job has transitioned toward explaining why what’s out there is false or misleading. One day, one type of fat is good for you and another is bad. The following day, avoiding fat entirely is headline news. With all these conflicting ideas, it’s no wonder people are having such a hard time figuring it all out.
In addition to the lack of clarity regarding how best to eat, you’ll experience the other side of health care. Physicians mostly treat symptoms by prescribing medications that manage them. Managing a disease is a win-win as it allows the patient to continue what they were doing to cause the problem and it is profitable for the health-care business. This isn’t intended to cast aspersion on our health-care system, but considering the underlying economics, “sick care” is far more profitable. In medical school, students receive minimal education about nutrition; what they do learn is usually based on correcting nutrient deficiencies. If, for example, a patient comes in with a goiter, she or he has an iodine deficiency and needs a prescription for iodine. Or if a child presents signs of rickets, he or she is deficient in vitamin D and needs vitamin D supplements. Recall in our brief history review of the USDA eating guidelines that malnutrition or economically driven undernutrition was the problem that plagued society for millennia.
This is isolated, microscopic, and reductionist health care. To treat a patient, a physician needs to examine the whole person. Geoffrey Rose, an esteemed epidemiologist and promoter of preventative health care, proposed that at every office visit, there is an obligation to ask, “Why did this patient get this disease at this time?” He added, “It is an integral part of good doctoring to ask not only, what is the diagnosis, and what is the treatment, but also, why did this happen, and could it have been prevented?” Why is the patient diabetic? What is causing the hypertension? Why does the patient have high cholesterol? The source of the problem should be established and must become the focus of the treatment protocol.
When was the last time your doctor asked about your diet or exercise habits? This is rare, yet this is how health needs to be addressed to solve the health-care crisis.
The Best Nutrient Bang for Your Caloric Buck
Most of us like the process of eating. Yet the fun part is over after we swallow. Digestion is just getting started, but that is a little more like waiting around to watch the clean-up crew after the festival is over. Let’s face it, everything social seems to involve food. We like to swallow together. Then we wiggle more by exercising to make up for the excessive intake. Look around and you’ll see ample evidence that the swallow-and-wiggle approach isn’t working very well.
We discussed the three macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate, and fat—which are included in various percentages in whole foods. While alcohol isn’t one of the three macronutrients, it can be a significant source of calories. We also presented the Food Triangle that segregates animal- and plant-sourced energy at the bottom from plant food that is high in phytonutrients and fiber and low in calorie density on the top. Our daily goal is to get sufficient nutrition (vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients) with just enough energy to supply our daily activity. If you are trying to lose weight, you need to maintain a daily energy deficit as compared to activity. If you want to maintain your current weight, you need sufficient energy as compared to daily activity. If you want to gain weight, you need enough energy to support the activity and recovery involved with increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy).
We tend to flip this entire notion upside down in our world of cheap, tasty, and excessive nutrition. We start by piling on enough food to avoid deficiency, which usually leads to excessive calorie consumption. Then, activity is increased in a vain attempt to mitigate those extra calories. We wiggle more to counter the excess swallowing. It is a futile cycle. Unless given unnatural access to food, animals only eat enough to support their activity; we’re active to support more eating.
The USDA MyPlate allows up to 10 percent of calories from added sugars. Practically speaking, this would allow a maximum of 45 grams per day (a little less than 10 teaspoons) on an 1,800-calorie diet and up to 60 grams (a little more than 14 teaspoons) of added sugars per day on a moderate 2,400-calorie diet. The World Health Organization recommends even less—no more than 5 percent of total calories from “free” sugars. The average consumer eats closer to 90 grams (or more than 22 teaspoons) per day. Considering 1 teaspoon sugar equals 4 grams and 16 calories, that’s nearly 370 extra health-degrading, nutrient-devoid calories each day! Ditch the empty calories for whole-food sweetness.
Our daily goal is to get sufficient nutrition with sufficient energy. Perhaps surprisingly, achieving this goal doesn’t require that we get every nutrient every day. Our diet needs a little variation to get a wider cross section of nutrition over days, weeks, and months. We also want to be certain not to eat foods that concentrate environmental toxins, like mercury in fish or arsenic in certain rices. Finally, we don’t want to eat things that cause unnecessary hormonal activation like drinking hormonally active milk long after we would be normally weaned from our mothers.
The Fed, the Fasted, and the Starved
This idea that eating is over when we swallow couldn’t be more incorrect. Think about grabbing that next slice of pizza, another handful of popcorn, or a chip loaded with salsa. Flavor and enjoyment peaks, and then begins to fade. You may grab a soda, beer, wine, coffee, or tea to wash it down and start all over. Some food is “paired” with a specific kind of drink. All of this swallowing is for entertainment, and adequate nutrition is an afterthought, at best.
After you eat, your body needs to get to work processing. Once you swallow food, it must go somewhere. It can be stored, metabolized (burned), or excreted (waste), but it must meet one of those three fates. You are now in the postprandial (fed) state and the body must figure out what to do with what was swallowed. During the fed state, the body is essentially running on what was just ingested. In 4 to 6 hours that process has completed and you return to the fasted state where your body once again begins using nutritional reserves that are stored in various tissue and organs. Finally, if you don’t eat for a long time, your nutrition stores can be depleted and you’re on the road to starvation. Starvation is death resulting from prolonged undernutrition resulting in malnutrition.
To live we need air within minutes, water within days, and food within 30 to 40 days. Most people, even the healthiest and leanest amongst us, can survive 14 to 30 days on fat reserves. When one runs out of fat stores, muscle and organ tissue is used and that results in starvation. Similarly, after weeks, one may fall short of one or more specific essential nutrients (e.g. vitamin B12, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, etc.), and this could eventually cause death by starvation. When you’re rounding up coworkers at lunch, you’re never “starving” despite claims to the contrary. Nutrition isn’t an emergency defined in hours or even days and we get various nutrition with the wide variety of meals we eat week to week. It’s interesting to note that the longest medically supervised water fast was 382 days! The patient took a multivitamin and had 276 pounds of fat to lose, but regardless, he was healthy and happy for 382 days.
Eating and Metabolic Priority
Perhaps it is easiest to illustrate metabolic priority with alcohol. After a drink, the blood alcohol begins to rise and 4 to 6 hours later, it returns to normal again. Where does the alcohol go? It’s not stored as fat. It’s not eliminated. The body shifts over its focus to alcohol and it is immediately metabolized. During the time it takes to eliminate the alcohol from the system, fat and glucose metabolism are diminished. In fact, one clinical trial demonstrated that alcohol alone suppressed fat utilization by 87 percent. When glucose was added (on top of the alcohol), fat utilization dropped to nearly zero for 90 mins and averaged 79 percent suppression over 4 hours. Scientists call this phenomenon oxidative priority. Here, oxidation refers to burning or metabolizing the substance to extract energy.
Similarly, there’s only very limited blood plasma and cellular storage for free amino acids released by protein metabolism. Want to know why you get the metabolism spike after the high-protein meal all the fad diets recommend? You guessed it—to burn the amino acids you can’t store. Yet, that protein-induced metabolic boost does little to liberate stored fat.
It only takes the energy equivalent of an extra 168 calories of fat per week to gain 50 pounds over a 20-year period. That’s equivalent to a little less than 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil per week. It is impossible to manage calories down to this level.
Let’s move onto dietary sources of glucose: starches and sugars. We can store a combined about 1500 to 2000 calories as glycogen in liver and muscle tissues. Contrary to popular opinion, high glucose meals aren’t stored as fat to any significant degree in humans. Once your glycogen stores are topped off, the rest is liberated through a similar shift to glucose and a rise in metabolism as we saw with the alcohol example. Dietary carbohydrate comes in as number three on our oxidative priority behind alcohol and amino acids. In each case, we see a rise in metabolism to burn what we can’t store in the 4 to 6 hours following ingestion.
What about fat? It comes in last place, because you can basically store an unlimited amount of fat relative to any one meal. We can literally carry around hundreds of thousands of extra calories stored in the adipose tissue. Fat—unlike alcohol, protein (amino acids), and carbohydrate (glucose)—does not cause a great rise in metabolism after the meal nor does it shift priority significantly toward burning more fat. That happens only in the complete absence of dietary starches, sugars, proteins, and alcohol. In each case metabolic priority is given to the fuel that is the most difficult to store. Fat, of course, is our primary energy storage organ and so it’s always lowest priority during the clearing of each meal.
Let’s bring this back to plant-based, practical eating. You’re at a party consuming a glass of fine red wine and a plate of hot, fresh gluten-free bread with black-truffle olive oil. Almost immediately upon ingestion, the wine (alcohol) becomes the top priority and combined with the glucose rise from the flour in the bread, your fat metabolism plummets. The fat in the olive oil rushes through your blood plasma to be stored away for later. Not only did you just add to your fat storage, you also suppressed the fat you would have been burning had you not eaten at all. It’s a double whammy.
Rethinking Refined Food
Now you might start to better understand the reasons whole-plant foods are your best friends when it comes to nutrition. It stands to reason that refined foods, the polar opposite of whole-plant foods, need to be left by the wayside. Besides being nutritionally devoid of calories that lack fiber or micronutrients, refined alcohol, sugar, flour, and fat can result in overall metabolic dysfunction and suppress stored fat utilization.
The composition of refined foods can provide a possible explanation for overeating. These products have high concentrations of sugar and other refined sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, fat, salt, and caffeine—all substances that become habituated and shift the palate away from the flavor profiles of whole food. Many people can’t regulate their consumption of such foods or the resulting appetite for more. This loss of control could account for the global epidemic of obesity and other metabolic disorders. Habituation to refined foods conforms to the diagnostic criteria for substance-use disorders. By redirecting your plate from refined foods to whole foods on the right side of the Food Triangle and shifting away from “bottom feeding,” you can acquire a new, healthy appetite in a very short time. Sweet, oily, and salty will be redefined and you’ll lose the need to adulterate every meal with highly processed additives.
Foods that can be considered refined include the majority (or totality) of what can be bought at a fast-food restaurant; foods that come packaged with ingredients you don’t recognize or with more than three unrecognizable ingredients; fried foods; frozen meals; foods that appear oily, salty, or sugary; most foods from a vending machine; packaged cookies, cakes, crackers, and candies; and foods such as flour, sugar, oil, margarine, and soda.
In addition to the saturated and hydrogenated fat, sodium, and sugar or artificial sweeteners, you may find plenty of other not-so-goodies in your refined or processed foods. These include but are not limited to preservatives, artificial flavors, thickeners, shelf stabilizers, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar alcohols, nitrites and nitrates, and butylated hydroxyanisole.
Refined foods are stripped of their intact parts, as when whole grains have their bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. (Think white flour and white rice.) Refined products can also be called polished or processed. Processed foods can technically be anything that originally comes from nature but is then manipulated via cooking, cutting, juicing, blending, or any other physical maneuver that changes its form or exposes it to oxygen or other elements. The term is typically used interchangeably with refined foods; however, healthy foods can be processed—green smoothies, for instance. So processed doesn’t always mean harmful.
You can avoid the harmful effects of these unnatural and health-demising chemicals by sticking to a whole food, plant-based diet. A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it! And if you can’t find it living freely in nature, avoid it! Natural isn’t always good (e.g. poison ivy and hemlock tea), but for the most part, we do much better with whole-plant–sourced food than any other. So long as the processing of that food doesn’t remove a large part of what it is found with at the starting point, it remains a healthy choice.
Metabolism 101: You’re Not Broken
Through our never-ending drive to “increase our metabolism,” it is interesting how few people can actually describe what metabolism is, and even fewer have ever measured one. Nearly every cell in your body has tiny cellular power plants called mitochondria. These generate the energy cells need for all functions. Your metabolism is the sum of this cellular activity. Scientists use an indirect calorimeter to measure metabolism. Interestingly, metabolism scales with weight. The more you weigh, the greater your metabolism. Thinking critically, this shouldn’t be a big surprise. If you are suddenly handed 25, 50, or 100 pounds of steel to lug around all day long, wouldn’t you expect your metabolism to rise to accomplish this task? It doesn’t matter if that weight is made of fat or steel.
An indirect calorimeter is used by scientists to monitor metabolism. When fat is metabolized it’s transformed to energy, water, and carbon dioxide (CO2), a colorless gas that’s exhaled. Using sensors on a face mask or within a sealed room, the oxygen consumed on each breath and the carbon dioxide created are carefully recorded. Scientists can not only calculate your metabolism on a breath-by-breath basis, but they can also determine the fat or carbohydrate fuel mixture. Since every pound of fat you lose exits via breathing, that technically means that your lungs are the primary weight-loss organ. Get breathing!
What’s equally puzzling is how often we are diagnosed with a “slow metabolism” in gyms and office visits alike, yet in none of these cases did anyone measure our metabolism. Imagine similar diagnoses for hypertension based on the idea that you just look like someone with high blood pressure without any measurement at all. Measuring a metabolism takes about 15 minutes and normally is done first thing in the morning in the fasted and rested state.
Another idea that seems to permeate the gym is that “muscle burns more energy than fat,” and this is translated to mean that you can’t lose fat without gaining muscle or that it’s somehow easier to lose fat if one first gains muscle. It turns out adding a pound of lean muscle gives a metabolic advantage of less than 10 calories a day—a little more than a stalk of celery. Of course, we know this isn’t the main driver of weight loss or gain. Otherwise, how do former bodybuilders or football players ever become overweight? Certainly they begin with more muscle mass than most people. Here’s how: they eat too often, too much, and too calorically dense.
Skinny isn’t the opposite of fat, as the former is insufficient muscle mass and the latter is excess adipose tissue. The physiology of the two isn’t even related; one is solved by anabolism (growth) in response to tissue stress (exercise), and the other by catabolism (breakdown) of energy stores in times of deficit. We don’t turn muscle into fat or vice versa. It’s also important to note that most explosive moves—from weight-lifting to busting out an aerobic dance—are mostly fueled with glucose. The best exercise is to clench one’s mouth tightly in the presence of fattening foods.
Living Longer with Less Food
A common practice fitness and health professionals teach is to eat frequently throughout the day to boost metabolism. This method is based on the idea that keeping your body digesting is a way to prevent overeating and maintain energy, making you lean and healthy. But what if we told you this thinking may put you at a disadvantage?
Since the 1930s, scientific experiments have confirmed that organisms live longer when put on a calorie-restricted diet. The research has also consistently shown that slimmer people tend to be healthier overall. What can we extrapolate from these data? While it was once hypothesized that lower calories resulted in lower metabolism and a longer life, we now know that this “rate of living” theory works in some organisms such as fruit flies, but not in all organisms. One explanation for why calorie restriction works seems to be related to the restriction of certain nutrients in the diet. This dietary restriction is the antithesis of the world trend towards chronic over nutrition with diets of excess. For example, plant-sourced proteins are often labeled as inferior, because they don’t have the same distribution and concentration of amino acids that we find in animal proteins. It turns out reduced levels of certain essential amino acids like methionine, lysine, and leucine may be responsible for dietary restriction advantage. A whole food, plant-based diet naturally restricts the nutrients that should be restricted and at the same time boosts the fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Additionally, you must eat only as much as necessary. That means eating only when hungry and stopping before feeling overfull. You might benefit from eating at an early hour each night. Then you complete digestion before sleep, which gives your body the whole night to heal, recover, and fight disease processes.
Also, instead of eating just because it’s time—breakfast, lunch, or dinner … or because others are eating—wait until your body truly feels hunger. Then provide nutritious, whole-plant foods to your prepared digestive system.
How to Hear Hunger
Inner mechanisms for regulating eating are long lost in most people and need to be relearned. Abandon any pre-existing rules you’ve set in your mind.
Are any of these commonly touted ideas part of your mind-set?
- Eat breakfast as soon as possible, even if you’re not hungry.
- Eat every 3 or 4 hours to prevent hunger from kicking in.
- Eat three square meals and two snacks each day.
- Finish your meal before you have dessert.
- Eat 4 ounces protein, 1 cup starch, and 1 cup vegetables at every meal.
For every pound of your ideal body weight, eat 10 calories per day.
What all these rules have in common is their disconnect from your body’s needs. Your nutrient requirements are impacted by your daily life. When you’re sick or fighting illness, your body needs to focus on immune function. Anyone with pets or observing animals in nature quickly realizes animals stop eating when they are sick. We force-feed the sick. Digestion and absorption will divert energy away from your immune system, so eating less may be beneficial. Plus, you’re probably naturally less hungry when you’re under the weather, so listen to your body.
Conversely, a great workout causes your body to send larger, louder hunger signals. Your body needs to replenish energy stores and to rebuild and repair the microdamage to the muscles and bones during your workout. Your body wants permission to ignore the rules.
You can gauge your hunger on a scale from 0 to 10: 0 means you’re starving and 10 means Thanksgiving-full. Optimally, you should eat starting at 1 or 2 and stop at about 6 or 7. Eat only when you feel true hunger—but not at the point that you feel weak, shaky, headache-y, or ill—and stop when you feel comfortably satiated.
If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not really hungry.
Like anything, practice makes perfect. If you tune in, your body’s natural signals will get louder and brighter and, ultimately, impossible to miss. Start every day with an open mind, and allow your body to become hungry before that first meal. Then indulge your hunger with a colorful, phytochemical festivity to make your cells sing blissfully. Eat until you feel good and then move along with the next part of your day. You may not feel hungry again for several hours, depending on how much exercise and daily activity you engage in, how much your individual body needs to stay at its current weight, and how much you slept the night before.
Because we are creatures of habit and so many variables come into play, you can see why it’s senseless to follow arbitrary rules designed around historic agricultural, work, and school schedules. Bask in your uniqueness. Honor it, and respect your individuality. Your body will thank you by maintaining superlative weight and health.
Quality Over Quantity
Quality of food needs to dominate over quantity. Clearly, counting and quantifying is ineffective. Choosing from whole-plant foods every time your body tells you it’s hungry nourishes your cells, provides satiety, and sustains your disease-fighting mechanisms. You literally empower your immune system to fight off foreign invaders, slow the aging process, and maintain a lean physique by choosing nutrient-dense sources of fuel. It really is that simple.
The Least You Need to Know
- Nutrition is not an emergency. Staying in the chronically fed (postprandial) state likely leads to poor health and excess weight.
- The body prioritizes which fuels are burned by the storage availability. Oxidative priority dictates that order from first to last as alcohol, protein, carbohydrate and fat.
- Maximize your health by selecting whole, nutrient-dense plant foods that remain as close to nature as possible.
- Your body knows what it needs if you’ve been eating healthfully. Otherwise it may be simply reminding you of acquired bad habits.