Updated: Feb 17
If you look back and examine the trends of health-conscious eating in the past 30 years, you will see that experts have changed their minds more than we care to keep track of on the topic of what we “should” be eating. We have been told to focus on healthy grains, to avoid fat, to focus on high protein, to eat like a caveman, and the list goes on. Add this to the multitude of “experts” who stand behind specific philosophies like the Zone or the Ornish diet, it’s no wonder people have NO CLUE what to do or even where to start when it comes to optimizing their diet. The question becomes what really constitutes an optimal diet and what kind of system can we create to design a frame-work of decision making?
Fundamentally speaking, food is energy and we use the calories in food in conjunction with vitamins and minerals as the co-factors. This balance must be maintained in the context of need, the more calories you consume, the more nutrients you need to help run the energy conversion process. Every cell in the body requires energy to power specific tasks such as detoxification, hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis, regeneration and repair, even digestion and waste removal all require energy to power their actions. This is why when it comes to sitting down to a meal, thinking about what you’re eating is such a profound aspect of your decision making process. To tailor a diet to each person’s individual need would take a consultation with a professional, and that’s also not the point of this article. Rather, I want to give you a guideline of how to best make decisions that optimize your health when it comes to deciding on what you should eat:
What will it do to my blood sugar? I think this is a fundamental and priority-based decision, as most of the western world is slowly becoming a walking symbol for insulin resistance. You know my philosophy on carbohydrates when it comes to not only earning them, but also genetic and activity considerations. ANY carbohydrate will raise blood sugar and as a result insulin levels. The challenge is determining which ones make the most impact. Sugar is the biggest offender especially if it enters the blood stream as glucose which doesn’t need to be broken down by enzymes, so it’s absorbed immediately. Post training this is so not as issue for muscular individual, but if you are carrying a spare tire of any magnitude there is no physiological need for a blood sugar spike, its harming you under the surface! Starch can be in the same boat when it comes to offending blood sugar, sometimes worse if it’s in the form of gluten-containing, nutrient-depleted grains. Where does this leave us? The best choices are always based upon the following criteria:
Low starch vegetables has a high ratio of fiber and nutrients compared to the content of carbs present. Moderate starch vegetables like sweet potato, beets, or carrot are still reasonable but you have to watch the serving size. Low-sugar/low-fructose fruits have their place in a seasonal context. Avoiding fructose all together is likely a safe bet for most people. Lastly SOME gluten-free grains might be accepted for some people who have the genetic ability to process carbs, but grains often irritate the digestive system and piss off blood sugar control mechanisms. Other than around your training, it’s better to pick other options.
Does it contain quality protein? Many foods from both animal and plant origin contain protein, but not all protein is created equally. Protein from high quality animal food contains a better amino acid profile for building muscle as well as influencing nitrogen retention (maintaining an anabolic state) on account of the higher biological value of the protein. This is an area where meat consumption is superior as most forms of vegetable proteins are either accompanied with large quantities of carbohydrate or come in powder form if you want them isolated from what is in the rest of the food. Getting quality protein at each meal is important to not only stay anabolic, but to supply your body the amino acids needed to make enzymes, hormones, and structural components.
What kind of dietary fat does it supply? This point warrants a post in and of itself because fat has made a comeback in the health food sector, but it’s still by far the MOST misunderstood aspect of optimizing your diet. To give you the basics, there are 3 types of fats you should include in your diet; saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated. Under all circumstances, avoid trans-fats! The ratios have been long debated as to how much of each you should consume, and there is probably not one absolute answer so here’s my take. If you are on a carb restricted diet make sure you include a decent amount of saturated and mono-unsaturated as they are good for energy metabolism, and saturated fat and cholesterol help maintain rigidity with cell structure. Poly-unsaturated should be included at lower quantities as they are sensitive to oxidation, but these have specialized roles to help optimize cell function, cognitive behavior, and inflammatory modulation. Avoid toxic omega 6 oils from commercial use and NEVER cook with poly-unsaturated fats. Fats are the best source of energy for human metabolism, help provide the raw materials for all sex hormones, and don’t influence blood sugar. It’s important to note that eating high carb and high fat at the same meal is not a good idea as insulin promotes fat storage in the wrong environment.
What is the nutritional status? With this description I am not referring to calories or macronutrient breakdown, I am referring to vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. These are the specific nutrients that run the machine tha is our body. All chemical reactions that take place in our bodies require vitamin co-factors, minerals are building blocks for structural components in our bodies, antioxidants and phytonutrients influence genetic expression while protecting us from excessive damage potential free radicals might create. They also have specific benefits under circumstantial conditions. For example, brassica vegetables help hormone metabolism in the body, turmeric and ginger help modulate inflammation processes, and specific bitter foods help optimize digestion processes. Look at a food with colourful pigment that was grow in mineral rich soil is always a great place to start.
So where does all this leave us? It’s actually a simple criteria :
Start with a foundation of low starch, high fiber vegetables with different colours
Add in quality proteins from wild or properly raised conditions
Utilize high quality fats as a primary energy source and as a way to enhance nutrient absorption from other foods in the form of good oils
Avoid any high starch or high sugar foods when not eating to fuel exercise
Consistency is key with diet, and the more time you take to research and consider your options, the better your decision making criteria will be. We are the sum of our choices up to this moment in our lives, so my question is how do you want your body to operate given what you feed it?