Forget What You’ve Been Told
You hear it from the time you’re in diapers. There are healthy and non-healthy foods. Soda and ice cream are always bad, while chicken and broccoli and always good. This is perpetuated so frequently that they become accepted truths and dangerously no one questions them. That’s about to change.
What is a healthy or better yet “clean” food? Is it whole grain? Is it organic? Is it green? Here in lies the problem with the over simplistic notion of inherently good and bad foods. There are as many definitions as there are food choices.
Your body doesn’t respond to marketing claims or subjective ratings of food, all it sees is nutrients. Primarily fat, carbohydrates and protein (Note that micronutrients are extremely important for basic processes in the body as well) and these are referred to as macronutrients. These are broken down into the body as fatty acids, glucose and amino acids. This means that your body doesn’t see broccoli and say “Oh good, build muscle, lose fat” instead it sees the carbohydrate, fiber and micronutrients found in broccoli, this is no different than any other food. Knowing this little fact, that our body sees nutrients and nothing else is the first step to understanding flexible dieting.
One example of this comes from research varying the sources of carbohydrates. Sugar is bad and turns straight into fat right? Numerous studies have shown that when both subjects are in hypocaloric conditions (eating less calories than burning) and macronutrients are matched between groups that a high sugar diet vs. a low sugar diet shows no differences on weight loss or metabolism. So whether your carbs are coming from sweet potatoes or Sweet Baby Ray BBQ sauce your body see’s the amount of carbohydrates coming from each one. Obviously, these two foods differ in there other nutrients. Sweet potatoes having more potassium and fiber to name a few, but the body sees 50 grams of carbs from sweet potatoes just like it see’s 50 grams of carbs from BBQ sauce. I would never advocate someone getting all of their carbs from BBQ sauce, but this does prove a point.
The same could be said about protein. Your body does not see steak and say “let’s get fat” or see chicken and say “let’s get lean” it’s all a matter of the quantity that you consume them in. Do red meat, fish and chicken all different in their micronutrient intake? Of course, but again, your body will see 50 grams of protein from fish just as it will see 50 grams of protein from chicken. (Note: there are such things as complete and incomplete proteins, as a beginner I recommend not concerning yourself with that and instead hitting an overall protein goal. It’s pretty difficult to eat a high protein diet without majority of it coming from complete protein sources.) Similar to the carbohydrate example, the overall number of grams of protein at the end of the day is what matters most.
Lastly, there is fat. Although fat does different as being saturated and unsaturated. The scare behind saturated fat is largely overblown, especially considering other healthy lifestyle decisions and I won’t get into specifics in this article. If you’ve understood the last two paragraphs this should be easy. 30 grams of fat from olive oil = 30 grams of fat from peanut butter.
It’s All About Context
Labeling foods as inherently good or bad is dumb. That is the equivalent of saying that 50 cups of broccoli a day is good, just because it’s broccoli. In contrast, 1 oz of chocolate is bad, just because it’s chocolate. When you put foods into context you really start to understand.
Micronutrients and fiber are very important, this is why I recommend getting at least 80% of your nutrients from lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But what about the other 20%? Well if you’d like they can be more of the same, but note, regardless of what the calorie source is if you’re in a caloric surplus you will gain weight and if you’re in a caloric deficit you’ll lose weight. I touched on the energy balance topic here. This 20% can also come from the forbidden foods most people will tell you to avoid if your serious about your health. These are pop tarts, ice cream, Oreos, cheesecake, oatmeal cream pies and more. This concept is also known as discretionary calories, which even the USDA recommends. Discretionary calories is a way of saying once your basic nutrient needs are met, the additional calories can come from wherever you’d like, assuming you stay within your daily allotment.
If you’re counting your macronutrients or even calories this becomes incredibly easy. Many of the problems that many see arise tend to sort themselves out with time. If an individual is eating 2,500 calories and it’s all coming from processed food they will not be getting enough protein, not enough fiber and not obeying the 80-20 rule, therefor not doing what I would call flexible dieting. Instead they would will up their day with plenty of whole foods and use roughly 500 calories however they choose.
You Can Do This “Diet” For Life
Hopefully this article is a helpful introduction to what I like to call flexible dieting. The problem I have with most diets are the restrictions. Sure, a person may lose some weight with wacky diets and food avoidance, but the problem as most everyone knows is long term adherence to the diet. With flexible dieting no foods are off limits, this helps you better adhere for a lifetime knowing that you can have a slice of pie and be just fine. This is something you “try” for 2 months, this is just basic nutrition and physiology that can help you become healthier and improve your fitness goals. This is a much easier type of eating psychologically as well. You can forget all the fad diets. Forget having to pack your meals and eat separately from your family. Learn the content of foods. Which have fat, carbs and protein and learn to adjust them to your needs. The diet should fit your life, not the other way around.
Simple Rules of Flexible Dieting
1. Stay within your macronutrient or calorie numbers
2. Use the 80-20 rule
3. Consume at least 20-30 grams of fiber/day
4. Consume at least 1 serving of fruit/day
5. Consume at least 2 servings of vegetables/day