Monday, January 19, 2015

Is This Food Healthy?

One of the most-often asked questions from people who are trying to manage their weight is "what should I eat?"  I've spent a long time on the fence about whether to EVER write a post like this.  But, since the question will never, ever go away entirely, I'm going to do my best to give readers a simple set of guidelines to evaluate their food choices.  Because, if you go based on the banner labels splashed across practically every box, can, or jar in the grocery store, it's ALL good, baby!

Attention Monkey Island:  Let me say right up front that I KNOW that there are plenty of holes you can poke and stones you can throw.  I'm not setting a "good food/bad food" standard here.  I'm just trying to give people a tool to help them evaluate their food choices.  That  said, load up; I love an energetic debate.

First, we have to set some ground rules.  With very few exceptions, we don't believe in classifying food as "good or bad".  We're more likely to classify something as "barely food" based on its ingredients and nutritional content, but that doesn't make it "bad".  Second, a lot of what makes a particular food a "good or bad" choice has to do with your overall nutrition plan and how it fits with your training plan.  While I'm not exactly an "if it fits your macros (IIFYM)" guy, there's more than a grain of truth to it.  And finally, we are not calorie counters (and I don't think you need to be either).  So this guide isn't going to help you hit a "magic number" on a reduced-calorie nutrition plan.  

What we DO believe in is putting quality food in your body.  So, as we attempt to answer the age-old question "is this food healthy," that is my foundation.  

Breaking the pattern.  
This "healthy" choice (just look at the yellow
banner) gets over 60% of its calories from sugar!
You might as well pop Jolly Ranchers.
If you're like most people, then you'll choose a "healthy" food based on a carefully laid out pattern.  You'll read the banners (high fiber! low fat! gluten free!), then you'll head to the label and look at the calorie count (which is per serving, so has little bearing on how much you will actually consume).  Then, because fat is bad, you'll swing down to the fat grams and gasp!  Finally, you'll scan the vitamins/minerals section.  Then, with those four data points, you'll make your calculation.  Something like, "hmm, low(ish) calories, low fat, and lots of vitamins; this is good for me." Oh boy!  Here's the pattern I recommend.

Go straight for the sugar content.
It's a sub-section under the carbohydrate part of the nutrition label.  I'm reluctant to give a hard-and-fast rule on this, but let's just say that if 15% or more of the calories per serving are coming from sugar, that's a red flag.  Also look at the ratio of sugars to total carbohydrates (in grams).  You want more complex carbs and fiber content.  So the higher the proportion of sugars to total carbohydrate, that's another red flag. 

Second, head to the ingredients section.
We've got a few things to do here.  Start by looking at the number of ingredients as a whole.  The longer the list, the more you have to consider this might not be the best option for you.  

I can feel Monkey Island loading up their slings, so let me explain why.  Your body is designed to absorb macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) through digestive enzymes that promote absorbtion into the body.  There are all kinds of things you can eat that aren't toxic, but aren't part of your digestive design either.  

Sure, you can eat 'em.  That doesn't make them food!
Your body has to figure out what to do with those things (think about all those laxative commercials you see).  Also, an awful lot of foods that have reduced fat or sugar content have to rely on a host of other additives to make up for the taste, texture, consistency, and cooking behaviors that fat and sugar would normally provide.  This effectively transforms what you traditionally think of as the nutritional profile of a food into something else entirely.  So - I say the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

While you're looking at the ingredients, look for "partially hydrogenated" anything.  At this point, I'd just put it back on the shelf.  These are the kinds of highly processed fats and oils that make a food last a really long time on the shelf, but they're particularly nasty when it comes to producing the LDL cholesterol that is so damaging.  

Third, look at the proportions of protein:fat:carbohydrate.
Go back to the nutrition label and compare the grams for each of the macronutrients.  If you've already put down the sugar-heavy stuff from step one, then just understanding whether this food is primarily a source of protein, fat, or complex carbs is important.  Which one is best?  It honestly depends on the rest of your nutrition plan.  My goal is to get one gram of protein per pound of lean body weight, so I try and prioritize that first.  But you know which piece fits your plan.

TIP:  Apps like Foodle will help you learn the macro content of fresh whole foods (as well as a number of processed options).  Getting a good basis in what the fresh stuff offers will help you compare the quality of similar pre-packaged options.  And Fooducate will give you a letter grade for an item just by scanning the bar code.

Fourth, go to the expiration date.  
Fresh meats last 4-7 days.  Fresh produce: a week or so.  Fresh bread: 3-5 days.  If the expiration date seems excessively long (months, years???), then it's loaded with preservatives or so hyper-processed that it's nutritional frankenstein, and I'd steer away from it for a fresher choice.  Canned goods are an obvious exception.

So that's it: my formula for determining whether a food item goes in the cart or back on the shelf.  The fact is that the majority of what we eat doesn't come with a nutrition label, because we tend to operate mostly in the fresh produce and meats section of the store.  But we're not fanatics about it. And, sometimes, convenience foods offer something you need to fit in your lifestyle.  With these tips in mind, make your next trip to the grocery store one where you can take your time and make some comparisons.  I'd love to hear what you find. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Four Frustrating Fiber Fallacies

As we depart the over-indulgence that, for many, marks the Holiday Season, the media barrage turns to the next stage in the pop-culture cycle: sudden weight loss.  And, with it, a barrage of ads extolling the near-miraculous benefits of FIBER.  I truly hate this time of year, simply because of this commercial assault on well-intentioned (if mis-informed) consumers.

We've written before about spotting scams, but this one is a special case.  The fiber-pushers have just enough good information tangled up with their junk claims to really confuse the issue.  Having sufficient levels of dietary fiber in you diet is important.  But the idea that you should buy somebody's proprietary product to solve all your woes just - well - it pisses me off, frankly.  

So let's try and separate the myth from fact:

Fiber Fallacy 1:  Grain

The term "Whole Grain" has been so effectively co-opted by marketers that Westerners are fairly convinced that the best place to find fiber is in the bottom of a cereal box.  This is a manipulation of the truth.  Grains that are, in fact, "whole", not processed down to flours are a great source of fiber.  But - in most products you buy at the store, the trade off between the ACTUAL amount of fiber you're getting and the simple carbohydrates and sugars put them in a losing category nutritionally.

The truth: Veggies!  Fiber (technically, non-digestable fiber) is one of the categories of carbohydrate: simple, complex, and non-digestible fiber.  Among simple carbs are your sugars.  Ounce for ounce, your best source for complex carbs and dietary fiber are fresh vegetables, especially when you factor in the low sugar content.  So skip the "whole-ish" wheat bread and head for the produce aisle!

Fiber Fallacy 2: It helps you "go"
Yep, Steve, you got that about right.
As a (nearly) lifelong consumer (you can read a little of our back-story here) of the Standard American Diet, I had all the fun side effects that go with it.  And I'm not ashamed to say that I, quite literally, "bought in" to the fiber supplement message to generate some - well - movement - on the issue.  And - like most of you I'm sure - I was disappointed in the results.  That's because, yet again, the marketers only share the part of their message that helps sell you products.  Dropping a couple spoonfuls of powdered goop on top of the mess in your gut is like blowing on a house fire: pointless.

The truth: Read the ENTIRE message.  Nutrition plans that include daily servings of high-fiber food (like veggies) are a good thing for your gut health.  But, like anything, you need to look at your complete nutritional picture.  The idea would be that a healthy nutrition plan was high in fiber and complex carbs because it was lower in the gut-jamming simple carb junk foods our lives tend to revolve around.  Plus, and I can't say this strongly enough - drink MORE WATER!  If you're jammed up, hydration is your friend, not powders.

Fiber Fallacy 3: Fiber for weight loss
This follows along with the reasoning listed in #2.  A nutrition plan for weight loss should absolutely include regular servings of high-fiber foods (did I mention how awesome veggies are?)  As a non-digestible nutrient, fiber is calorie-free.  And foods that naturally have a lot of it are loaded with all kinds of other goodness.  But chomping down on a fiber bar after your fast-food jumbo meal with extra fries is NOT some kind of magical fat-melting concoction.  These are just calories on top of other calories and money wasted on a crutch. 

The truth: Eating more good foods in exchange for eating less junk-empty-calorie-laden foods will give you the fiber you SHOULD have and support weight loss goals.

Fiber Fallacy 4: Heart-healthy
Again - you have to look at your WHOLE nutritional picture.  If the rest of your diet is junk, than no bowl of toasty-o's or powdered supplement is going to overcome the damage you are steadily doing to yourself.  It's not a cure: it's a PART of an overall health-focused nutrition plan.  There is nothing magical about the fiber molecule that will seek out and obliterate blood cholesterol.  In fact, your blood will NEVER meet Mister Fiber, because, that's right, he's non-digestible. 

So - I'll say it again: fiber is GREAT!  Go have foods that have lots of it.  But now you're better armed to separate what is nutritionally meaningful from the marketing hype.  Eat simple, whole foods in proportion to the nutrients you require and you'll be well ahead of the game.