“My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.” - Orson Welles
What you eat or don't eat is what your body will become over time. It is that simple. Every meal is a choice that you make that will bring you closer to health or disease. Unfortunately, dietary habits are one of the hardest behaviors to change for many people. This is partly because of our emotional connection to food and the role that food plays in our respective cultures. However, you do have a choice. You can continue to be the victim of your culture and socialized patterns of eating, or you can take control of your life and make deliberate choices about what you put into your body.
This post will focus on some basic principles of a healthy diet, will describe a process to reset your diet and will cover the right way to approach supplementation. I strongly recommend that you read my first post in this series, “Health & Wellness Series Part 1: Assessing Your Health” before implementing anything in this post.
What You Need to Eat
There are some basic categories of food that you need to consume in order for your body to continue to function properly:
- WATER is the first and most important component of a healthy diet. Unless you have a medical condition that restricts water intake, you should drink enough water to produce urine that is almost colorless. Urine color can be a very good proxy for hydration. If you observe your urine becoming yellow to dark yellow, you should drink more water. If your urine is completely colorless, and your urinary frequency increases, you should cut down on water consumption. You should not drink more than 750 ml of water in one hour (about 3 cups or 24 oz) as this can create electrolyte disturbances in your blood.
- FATS (lipids) are the second most important component of a healthy diet. Fats are a very good source of energy and keep you satiated for a longer period of time, decreasing your urge to eat more. On a per calorie basis, fats generate twice the energy (ATP) as compared to proteins and carbohydrates. Some fats are healthier than others. In general, you should consume plant fats over animal fats. Think avocado rather than bacon. I strongly discourage low-fat anything because low-fat usually means high sugar and excessive consumption of refined sugars is what leads to obesity and disease.
- PROTEINS are the third most important component of a healthy diet. Proteins are important because they provide your body with essential amino acids. Amino acids are used by your body to build new structural and functional proteins. There are nine essential amino acids that your body can't produce and that must be consumed from food. A healthy diet requires the consumption of both plant and animal proteins.
- SUGARS (carbohydrates) are the fourth and least important component of a healthy diet. Simple and processed carbohydrates should be avoided. This category includes simple sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose) and processed/bleached wheat and rice products (bagels, white breads, pastas, rice, etc). Although our brains require a continuous stream of glucose (simple sugar) to function properly, our bodies can make the required glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Even complex carbohydrates, like whole-wheat breads and pastas, should be consumed in limited quantities. If you're trying to lose fat, you should also avoid eating more than one serving of fruit per day. Fruit can have the equivalent sugar content of a candy bar or a cup of soda.
- VITAMINS & MINERALS are essential to a healthy diet but are included in ample quantities in most of the foods that we eat. There are well established ranges for most vitamins and minerals and as with many things, consuming too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. For example, iron is an essential mineral that is required for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the blood. But and overconsumption of iron produces iron toxicity, which can lead to health complications and death. If you are concerned that you have a deficiency of a particular vitamin or mineral, get your blood levels tested to establish that this is actually the case. There's no need to supplement something that is within the normal range.
Companies want to sell us supplements that will magically make us stronger, healthier, faster and smarter. But the reality is that most supplements are unnecessary and lack scientific evidence to back their beneficial claims. Furthermore, there is no reason to supplement something that is not deficient. Here is how the process of supplementation should work:
- Establish current levels of specific vitamins or minerals in the blood with a blood test
- Take prescribed or store-bought supplement for the deficient vitamins or minerals
- Re-test blood within 2-4 weeks to make sure the dosage you're taking has normalized your levels
The key thing to remember is that supplementation should be done with a specific goal in mind. For example, if you want to replace one of your meals per day so you take in less calories per day, you can supplement a meal with a vegetable or protein shake. But you have to make sure that the shake has less calories than the meal you're replacing, otherwise, theres no point in the meal replacement. As another example, if your Vitamin B12 is low, you can either increase the consumption of animal-based proteins that are rich in Vitamin B12 or take a supplement. However, you need to reassess your Vitamin B12 levels after the dietary change or supplementation to make sure it is working.
Resetting Your Diet
A good way to change dietary habits is to reset your diet and observe how your body responds to specific foods that you eat. This process involves some self-discipline, but this is true of anything that's worth doing and that has a beneficial outcome. Resetting your diet not only breaks your current eating habits but can help you get deeper insight into your body. For example, you might find that you have a mild lactose intolerance and that you should avoid dairy products or you might find that you have a sugar addiction and need to ween yourself off of sugary treats.
The first step to resetting your diet is to select one non-processed food item that you will be able to eat for 2-3 days and that has a broad nutritional profile. I recommend avocados, walnuts or chickpeas as they have a good amount of fat content that will keep you satiated. For the first 2-3 days, your job is to consume water plus the one food item of your choice. You can eat as much of this food item as you want. I recommend keeping a journal to keep track of changes in your physical and psychological state. You should track subjective energy levels, hunger levels, cognitive acuity, overall sense of health and well being.
Step two is to begin to introduce other food items, one at a time, into your diet. So on day four, you might add carrots and observe what type of response they produce. On day five, you might add milk and observe what type of response that produces. It's not important what food item you add as long as the food is in its simple form. For example, you wouldn't want to add Chicken Parmesan as that would include bread crumbs, eggs, parmesan cheese, butter, tomato sauce and chicken all at once. You should keep a journal as you add in each new food.
As you go through this process, you will find that some foods might give you gastrointestinal problems or reduce your cognitive acuity or make you feel lethargic. Once you identify which foods make you feel good or bad, you can optimize your diet to include the former and exclude the latter. The problem with fixed diet plans is that they aren't designed with the individual in mind and the same diet plan might be beneficial for one person and detrimental to someone else. If you're lactose intolerant, you shouldn't consume dairy. If you have celiac disease or IBS, you shouldn't consume gluten.
I highly recommend intermittent fasting for all relatively healthy individuals. Intermittent fasting is a daily routine where you eliminate calorie intake during a prescribed window of time. This is best done overnight and should last for a period of at least 12 hours. I highly recommend not eating at least 2-4 hours before bed to start your intermittent fast. For example, if you're going to bed at 10pm, don't eat anything after 8pm and don't eat anything before 8am. The longer your fast, the better your results will be. Intermittent fasting has been shown to increase weight (fat) loss, increase insulin sensitivity and increase cognitive acuity. Intermittent fasting will not work if you decide to consume a stack of twelve pancakes and a two-liter bottle of soda for breakfast.
General Dietary Suggestions
It's difficult to give general dietary recommendations but there are some concepts that apply to everyone. If you're gaining weight, it is because you are absorbing more calories than you are burning. If your weight is relatively stable, you are absorbing and burning a similar amount of calories. If you're losing weight, you are absorbing less calories than you're burning. This is simple physics.
What you have to understand is that 100 calories of soda is not equal to 100 calories of almonds. Your body will extract almost all of the calories from soda and expend very little energy in doing so, while your body might only extract 60 out of 100 calories from the almonds and expend some calories for this digestive process. This is because soda is carbohydrates in a very simple form and requires almost no digestion. On the other hand, almonds are a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and non-dietary fiber that must be broken down via digestion.
Your diet should reflect your goals. Do you want to lose fat? Do you want to build muscle mass? You first need to decide on the goal and then plan accordingly. Most people that look to change their diet do so in order to lose fat. Here is my recommendation for losing fat: drastically reduce your intake of simple and complex carbohydrates. That is it! No donuts, no bagels, no breads, no pastas, no rice, no added sugar, no more than one serving of fruit per day, no juices, no pancakes, etc. You get the point! There's no magic here folks. It's just a matter of your self-discipline and adherence to the diet.
I hope this post has been informative and provided you with actionable information. If you would like a personalized health and wellness plan, contact me for details.
I would love to hear your feedback regarding this post. Please feel free to comment below.