Monday, February 4, 2013

Our Healthy Transformation (part 4) - Choosing a Nutrition Plan

Welcome back to the final installment of Our Healthy Transformation series.  When I first set out to write these, my driving goal was to share our story and get people thinking about what they could do to change their own bodies and lives.  I mean, if we can do it, then anybody can.  

As Michelle and I were discussing how to wrap up the series, it felt important to give you the details and tools we used to develop our own approach to nutrition and training.  Because, at the end of the day, it has to be yours if you're going to own it, nurture it, make it grow and improve over time.  If you're just following someone else's plan then there's no accountability and no permission.  If it doesn't work, then you can safely blame the source for "giving you a crappy plan."  Worse, if it "almost" works, you don't feel empowered to make the tweaks to make it really sing for you.  

So - the blame is officially on you from this point out.  Just kidding... sort of.

Our grocery store assault plan - work the perimeter!

Major Nutritional Plans:

Now let's get something out right up front.  We didn't even bother with the "Flat belly in 5 days" or "Burn your buns off" so-called diet plans out there - and I don't think you should either.  These things are fad and fluff and if there is anything in one of them that happens to be right-minded, well, even a broken clock is right twice a day.  

We also don't much care for the word "diet".  Though technically correct, it still has been sufficiently corrupted by the commercial fit/fad industry to sour about any meaningful conversation on the subject.  We have nutritional goals to support, sustain, and strengthen our bodies.  We meet those goals with a nutrition plan that gives us the ground rules to fill our fridge and our ever-hungry bellies.  

Standard American Diet (S.A.D): According to an article published in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice"on any given day, Americans consume an average of 265 g of carbohydrate (50% of total calories), 78.3 g of total fat (33% of total calories), and 78.1 g of protein (15% of total calories)."  This is your typical: boxed cereal for breakfast, sandwiches on processed white breads for lunch, and refined white carbohydrates as a side item with practically every meal.  Its also nominally aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The article sums it up this way: "Americans consume far more total grains (including those from refined sources) and fewer whole grains than currently recommended."
     Our take on it: This is the nutrition plan that caused us, along with much of America, to gain weight. It is predicated on the assertion of one Ancel Keys et. al. that meats and the saturated fats that come with them are the primary contributors to heart disease in western nations. In recommending a reduction of fat consumption, something had to replace the calories. The (according to Keys) obvious choice was to increase the intake of (in their opinion, benign) carbohydrates, such as wheat-based products to prevent caloric malnutrition. When coupled with the American predilection for processed, packaged, and fast foods, this is a formula for a lot of low-nutrient, empty calories that attack your metabolism in progressively more vicious ways.

Portion/calorie control (e.g. Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem): These diets are based on a couple fundamental premises: (1) that weight loss is a matter of managing calories in vs calories out; and (2) that weight loss itself is simply a matter of pounds coming off. Essentially, these programs are telling you that you're fat because you're a glutton. These dietary plans also follow the Dietary Guidelines, as much to avoid liability as any particular nutritional belief system.
     Our take on it: These diets oversimplify the real mechanisms for weight loss and operate on the assumption that your body functions EXACTLY like everyone else's. Furthermore, they take the responsibility for understanding and defining how you fuel your body off your shoulders, and, in my opinion, you should NEVER let that happen to you.

Low Carb (e.g. Atkins, Beach Body): These diets are based on the concept that flour-based products (refined carbohydrates) are an unnecessary component of a person's diet and that weight loss results from a severe restriction of any of these in your nutrition plan.
     Our take on it: While we are on board with the concept that refined carbohydrates are unnecessary and potentially even harmful when consumed at the levels of the average American, the diet plan is still essentially a calorie restriction plan through the elimination (mostly) of a single macro nutrient. Also, the mindset up front is "you can't eat this," which is all-too-often doomed to failure. And, if you're pushing your body through physical training, you're going to need some carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen levels after a session.

Paleo/Primal: These nutrition plans are based on the idea that our bodies evolved to eat and move in a certain way and that we have strayed far from that, which is making us fat and sick. These are more than just "diets"; they are a lifestyle that propose a simpler, cleaner, more fundamental approach to life as a whole. The nutritional emphasis is on those things that anthropologists believe comprised the "hunter-gatherer" diet. Mark's Daily Apple is a great example of the paleo/primal lifestyle.
     Our take on it: There's a lot to like about the paleo approach. Foods that are based on natural, whole ingredients are more nutritionally dense, and the recipes are truly tasty. Nobody is advocating chewing tree bark. But, like I said, it's a lifestyle, and therefore driven as much by values as nutrition. It's not for everybody. And, as with most good ideas, it has been commoditized and commercialized in many forums to the point where the original principles are all but lost.

Organic: Proponents of organic diets will often (but not always) claim that organic food is inherently better for your body, due to the absence of hormones, chemicals, pesticides, and genetic modifications. Usually these claims are coupled with the idea that organic farming is "better for the environment". For the most part, there is little nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown/raised foods. Like paleo/primal, the decision to go organic is more one of personal values rather than strictly a dietary choice.
     Our take on it: Absent compelling science that differentiates organic foods from conventional in a nutritional sense, we are content being in the middle on this issue. Environmentally, "better" is subject to interpretation, as conventional farmers work extremely hard to make their operation as efficient and productive as possible. But, it is important to note that organic does not equal healthy. An all-organic meal can be just as nutritionally devoid as one made with similar conventional ingredients. And - for the increased cost associated with organic foods - you might get more bang for your buck in a traditional produce aisle.

Carb cycling: Carb cycling is favored by many weightlifters and body builders. It is a planned placement and portioning of carbohydrates (clean, whole, complex carbs, principally) in conjunction with your workout load. Heavy lifting/full body days are planned with more carbs following training, tapering down to low/no carbs on rest days. This type of cycling is used by those that are simultaneously trying to gain muscle and either lose or maintain fat levels without depleting muscular energy for training.
     Our take on it: We have implemented some "informal" carb cycling in our nutrition plan, specifically planning healthy whole carbohydrates (steel cut oats are a staple in our house) following heavy lifting days. Our diet is generally low-carb overall, especially in comparison to the S.A.D., so further restriction was neither necessary nor pleasant for us. It is a very useful exercise to plan the placement of your macro nutrients where you need them most and to be more aware of what your body needs to get through your day.

Intermittent Fasting: IF has become increasingly popular of late and has spawned a lot of variations. The idea behind it is to intentionally create a period (which varies a lot depending on your approach) where you don't eat. This allows your body to process any excess nutrients in your system, transfer over to a mode of body fat consumption, and essentially "clear up" any metabolic effects of your diet, such as insulin levels. It's difficult to point to a single authoritative reference, but Mark's Daily Apple has a good entry-level overview.
     Our take on it:  We work out six days a week.  On those days, we have a pre-workout shake in the morning and a post-workout meal as soon as we get back from the gym.  Saturday is our rest day.  We didn't set out do intentionally include IF, but, as it turns out, we have about a 15-hour fast between Friday dinner and Saturday breakfast.  Its just a natural rhythm that we have gotten into.  We both like this "unofficial" IF, because we aren't clock-watching for the moment we can eat again.  It just works for us.

Ketogenic: Your body can pull and produce sugar to use for energy in brain and muscle tissue four different ways. If you take low-carb to its ultimate extreme, the body transitions over to a mode called ketosis. Ketones are your body's ultimate survival mechanism during lean times. In order to make sure you keep your caloric intake high enough, practitioners of ketosis increase fat and protein consumption dramatically. Dr. Peter Attia is a highly reputable advocate for and practitioner of a Ketogenic diet.
     Our take on it: Putting and keeping yourself in ketosis is a dramatic change to what most are accustomed to. A person should make sure that he/she is otherwise healthy, especially in a metabolic sense (blood sugar, cholesterol) prior to considering this approach. It also involves some pretty meticulous attention to everything you eat. For people who are engaged in strength training, the lack of readily available carbohydrates is going to be an issue. Still, there's a very strong case for people who are ready to make the commitment to this lifestyle for long-term fat loss.

Macro-nutrient Portioning (the Zone Diet): Focusing on the relative proportions of calories consumed in terms of macro nutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates) in your diet is another common practice of weight lifters and body builders. You'll note in the description of the S.A.D., the macro nutrient breakdown was 50% carb (mostly the empty, refined kind), 33% fats, and 15% protein. Commonly, trainers recommend 40/30/30 split in different combinations, depending on needs and goals. Okay - stay with me here; there's math involved.

  • A gram of proteins or carbs has 4 calories. Fats have 9 calories per gram
  • Someone looking to gain muscle consumes (rule of thumb) about one to 1 1/2 grams per day of their target weight.
  • I'm looking for 160 lbs, so that's 640-960 calories daily from protein.
  • If that's my 40%, then I should be looking for 480 calories each for my fats and carbohydrates, for a total of 1600-1920 calories daily.
  • To round it out, that's 53 grams daily of fats and 120 grams of carbohydrates.

Or, we could make it simpler and say: compose your meal plate with principally protein, followed by fats and lastly carbohydrates in roughly 40/30/30 proportions.

     Our take on it: Your body is a machine. It needs different components supplied to different systems in order to function effectively. You wouldn't put engine oil in your gas tank would you? Why not? Petroleum products are petroleum products, right? Of course not, that's ridiculous! So why on earth would anyone assume that all calories are created equal? They aren't. Everyone should be cognizant and planful about the macro nutrient composition of their diet.

Also - pure calorie counting is technically impossible, since there are so many variations in what you eat (differences in water content in vegetables, for example, changes the weight, but doesn't impact the caloric content). And your body is wondrously adaptable, so don't count on your daily caloric burn, even with complex calculations, to be precise. So, count calories to get a directional indication of your consumption level. but if you want proof - trust your waistband above all else.

Clean eating: This is an "oldie but a goodie" in not just weight lifting, but pretty much all athletic circles. It has been refreshed by fitness coach Tosca Reno.  The clean eating principle is pretty simple: choose foods that are as close to their original, recognizable form as possible. Fresh meats and fish, fresh produce, eggs, and fresh dairy are your staples. You eliminate pretty much everything from your diet that comes out of a box or plastic bag. Anything that is packaged is in its least processed possible form (steel cut oats instead of rolled or instant, for example).
     Our take on it: We adhere to this principle as much as possible. The beauty of clean eating is that you know exactly what ingredients are in your food. Every choice you have is nutrient-dense and valuable to your body. No dimethyl sodium phosphate or other similarly unpronounceable un-food ingredients. In fact, if you eat clean, you may find that you have to be creative to reach your caloric goal, rather than struggling to find ways to reduce your intake. It makes any other dietary approach simpler, because you're in control.

How does this all add up for us?

We've tried to become informed about as many reputable nutritional approaches as possible. From them, we have made our own decisions and choices that work best for our bodies and our lifestyle. It's a combination of the best ideas from many schools of thought.

I sum it up this way: We eat with purpose. We removed just about all refined sugar, flour, and rice from our diet.  We use fresh ingredients to prepare simple and healthy food that meets our bodies' needs for training and for life. We emphasize protein with every meal (meat, cheese, eggs), get as many servings of vegetables as possible (veggies are carbohydrates - isn't that great?), use fruit sparingly, focusing on berries, and get enough additional fresh, whole grain carbohydrates to keep us going. We eat five meals a day, including a morning protein shake before workouts and a mid-afternoon snack. Nothing we eat is low-fat or non-fat, because our bodies need a certain amount of that essential macro nutrient. Some of it is organic, some of our recipes are paleo, but all of it supports the body machine and our goals.

What does it mean for YOU?

We have found our winning combination. Eating this way, we have cut each of our body fat percentages in half from a starting point just six months ago. Will our approach be exactly the same as yours? Probably not. In fact, I hope not. Finding your own answers and building your own plan will make it yours. And, when you own it, you will guard it, defend it, and make it better. That's what we all want, isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Wow! There is so much good stuff here that I booked marked to read again. It's hard for me to absorb when it's almost bedtime. :-)

    I'm reading up on intuitive eating right now which can be hard if you don't read your body well but I think that's where I'm leaning,


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