The American Diet’s Broken…Rebuild a Better Diet From the Ground Up
The three charts below are extremely scary…read them, absorb them, synthesize everything. It’s a big fat W-T-F (no pun intended)…
Although you’d have to be living in a deep state of ignorant bliss not to be aware that obesity is a ginormous problem in the US, the fact that obesity rates have risen continuously for nearly 50 years—and continue to grow—indicates that there’s a major, major problem. I’d call it a crisis.
That leads me to believe that at the core, something has to be fundamentally wrong with either: a) diet & nutrition in the US, b) fitness & exercise habits in the US, or c) some combo of both factors. I’m going to focus on diet and nutrition, because personally, I’m a firm believer that that’s where the fix for the obesity conundrum lies—it’s not within the realm of fitness & exercise (move around more and you’ll lose weight…it’s a simple, cut-and-dry concept, plus participation in fitness/exercise has increased over time).
It’s time to turn the American diet inside-out.
A Bit of History.
18 years. Eighteen.
The food pyramid above was conceived in 1992 and served as the backbone of American dietary education all the way up until 2010, when it was finally revamped to resemble the “plate” below. It showed up effortlessly on the back of cereal boxes, was taught in health class, and you probably even saw it at some point on Nick Jr. (if you were of the ’90s generation). I absolutely HATE that pyramid with a passion. That god forsaken pyramid has served as the bane of the US’ dietary & nutritional existence for 18 painful years, and now it’s finally gone…**sighs of relief**
So what’s so flippin’ bad about the pyramid anyway!? Visually, the pyramid conveys a number of nutritional no-nos. At the most basic level, the pyramid preaches that breads/cereals/grains/pasta (A.K.A. carbs) should serve as the foundation of the diet. Wrong!…no wonder why we’re so fat. To take that even further, the food pyramid suggests eating ~4x as many carbs as protein & dairy, and ~3x as many carbs as fruits & veggies (not to mention that it doesn’t distinguish between refined/complex carbs). To put it lightly, that’s just WAY too many carbs and far too little protein & vegetables in the diet if you want any shot at all of leading a lean, healthy lifestyle.
The pyramid also essentially recommends cutting out all fats, irrespective of type. Healthy fats (mono/polyunsaturated) are one of the most important contributors to heart health and should 100% be included in the diet. So many people are still stuck in the ’80′s and ’90′s mindset that fats are the enemy…they’re not, they’re one of your best allies.
My conclusion: The pyramid’s straight up not specific enough. It’s ambiguous. It’s flat-out wrong. It’s a virus plaguing the nutritional center of the American mind. If I had one of those nifty Men In Black mind erasers I’d zap it from your memory…forget it ever existed and take a leap of faith with me into an uncharted new nutritional world.
Revamping the American Diet.
I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago and he brought up a really interesting and strikingly true point about dietary and nutrition education today. The overwhelming majority of the content we browse online, read in fitness mags like Men’s/Women’s Health, and see flooding Twitter provides advice and info about how to fix and improve our diets. I’ll admit it…I’m guilty of this as well (sorry guys). I’m not implying that these fixes don’t have value and aren’t useful—they’re incredibly valuable and do help, or I wouldn’t suggest them myself—but thinking about it honestly, why the hell is all of our time and effort dedicated to trying to fix something that’s inherently broken. The American diet’s a big beast, but so was the Titanic…and there was obviously no saving that. It’s time to let the dietary principles of old go—the American diet’s been bleeding out slowly for decades, it’s time to take it off of life support and take a leap into a new dietary saga.
The following rules & principles will be your guide—learn ‘em, live by ‘em, and watch ‘em work their magical, health-inducing, fat-incinerating magic.
1. Calories are important…but they’re not THAT important.
At some point, the little idea of “calories in vs. calories out” spread like wildfire and became the main focus of weight loss efforts. In fact, it became the only focus for those desperate to burn off a little excess blubber. I’m going to turn your reality upside down…when it comes to losing weight—specifically body fat—calories in vs. calories out only hits the tip of the dietary iceberg.
Knowing approximately how many calories your body needs to eat to maintain its weight should serve as a point of reference…as a starting point and as the backbone of your diet. The quality of those calories and the way in which you consume them is ultimately what’s going to determine how your body looks—it’s not even close to being isolated to an elementary caloric equation. Think of it as a rendezvous through Europe. It’s critical to know which countries you want to visit on your trip—aka the number of calories you need to maintain your weight/lose weight—but what you do and where you go inside of those countries is ultimately what’s going to define your trip as being epic, or as an epic fail.
With that said, you 100% need to begin your dietary revamp by becoming familiar with your body’s caloric requirements. If you eat 1000 donuts or 1000 pieces of chicken you’re gonna gain weight, I don’t care how healthy the food is that you’re eating. To figure out how many calories you need to gain, lose, or maintain your weight use the free Lean It UP calorie calculator.
2. Get out of the “breakfast-lunch-dinner” mentality.
The whole “lets eat 3 big, fat meals 5 hours apart” mentality has to go. Sure eating 3 beefy, 1000 calorie meals totals the same amount of calories as 6, small 500 calories meals, but the way your body handles the intake of those calories couldn’t be more different.
When you shove monstrous meals down your esophagus it wreaks havoc twofold. First, your body can only use so many calories at one time, which is predominantly determined by your activity level; that’s where the concept of “eat for what your body’s doing” came from. That’s why it’s ideal to eat a larger meal right after a skin-tearing, leg-pumping, intense workout—your body physically needs those calories to recover; when you’re sitting on your ass playing Call of Duty, well it doesn’t.
For most of the time during a normal day your body only needs ~300-500 calories to support the typical energy demands of living (e.g. walking, breathing, digesting, mental function, controlling the body’s temperature, etc.). Once you start dumping Quadruple Whoppers, Triple Baconators, and other caloric catastrophes into your stomach, your body automatically stuffs those excess calories into the body’s fat cells. It has no need for those calories…they just sit in your body…and sit there…until they convert into fat.
Second, large meals tend to cause a dramatic surge in blood sugar levels. Not only is this one of major causes of diabetes, but the rapid rise in blood sugar triggers the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for reducing high blood sugar levels by accelerating the rate at which calories are stuffed away in the fat cells. Insulin makes you fatter faster if you have no use for the calories it’s stuffing away (after an intense workout your muscle glycogen stores—the carbs stored in muscle cells—are depleted, so increasing insulin is a good way of kicking muscle recovery into high gear).
Get in the habit of eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day; ideally 5, 6, or 7 meals, 2.5—3 hours apart. To summarize, smaller meals are extremely beneficial for a variety of reasons, including:
- They control blood sugar levels, which prevents the development of diabetes and drastically reduces fat storage
- They provide the body with a constant, manageable flow of calories—very little of it is ever converted into fat
- Because you’re eating so frequently, your body is continuously digesting small amounts of food. Digestion physically burns calories and keeps your metabolism boosted…that’s some fat burning power
- You’ll stay full throughout the day and avoid snacking on crap foods
- Your energy levels will remain constantly high throughout the day, as opposed to spiking and crashing after a large meal (this is directly related to blood sugar and insulin)
Mastering Protein, Fat, and Carbs.
3. Protein MUST be a staple in the diet–even if you’re not trying to build muscle.
A lot of people feel that there’s no real reason to eat protein if you’re not trying to build new slabs of muscle. That’s a horrible misconception. Besides boosting muscle growth (which is beneficial in-and-of itself because muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does), protein is responsible for a variety of the body’s essential functions, including: enzyme/hormone/immune system function, muscle contraction, skin/hair/nail health, and tissue growth & repair. When speaking in terms of losing body fat and getting ripped, protein’s the best tool in your fat-incinerating toolbox. Protein is “thermogenicThermogenesis or the thermic effect of food (TEF) describes the energy used by the body to consume (bite, chew, swallow) and process (digest, transport, metabolize, store, etc.) food.
Energy used = calories burned.
Processing protein requires the greatest energy expenditure, with estimates reaching as high as 30%.,” which means that it requires a lot of energy to metabolize and digest. Every time you eat protein it physically burns calories; in fact, protein burns approximately 1/3 of its calories through digestion. On top of burning calories, protein also helps keep blood sugar levels controlled and minimizes spikes in insulin. THAT’s the definition of a fat-blasting nutrient.
For the best results shoot for approximately 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day, spread throughout your 5, 6, 7 meals. Providing your body with protein all day, every day, guarantees that you’ll constantly burn calories, shred fat, and preserve your hard-earned muscle mass. As a Lean It UP! rule of thumb, always eat at least 15 grams of protein at every single meal.
Here’s a list of protein sources that’ll give you the best bang for your calorie (and vegetarian sources as well!):
4. Fats don’t make you fat—just make sure to eat the right types.
There are three main kinds of fats that you need to be familiar with:
- Trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils), which simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lower HDL cholesterol (the good kind), clog arteries, and cause heart disease—you never ever want to eat these.
- Saturated fats, which raise LDL cholesterol, but are also essential for hormone production—these should be eaten in careful moderation.
- Mono/polyunsaturated fats, which include omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids and tend to promote heart health, unclog arteries, reduce inflammation, and lower cholesterol levels.
Mono/polyunsaturated fats are a miracle nutrient…they’re your key to spectacular longevity. Not only do they promote heart and circulatory health, but they’re also essential for healthy skin and hair (healthy fats help produce well hydrated, glowing, blemish free skin!) and help control hunger levels.
Try to eat a few servings of healthy fats per day, upwards of ~20% of your calories. Fantastic sources include: fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), flax seeds, nuts & nut butters, avocado, olive oil/sunflower oil/coconut oil (a healthy saturated fat), hummus, and even a bit of cheese/dairy for saturated fat.
5. Carbs are the key to the whole weight loss puzzle.
Diets like Atkins, which basically recommend cutting out all carbs from the diet, are ridiculous, impractical, and down right unnecessary. Sure you’ll lose a ton of weight if you follow a no-carb approach—I’m not debating that—but that’s the overly simplified, easy-to-follow approach to dieting. Carbs are the single most complicated aspect of nutrition, which is why a diet that has 1 primary rule—cut out all of the carbs from your life—is so attractive to the masses…it has zero learning curve. Personally, I loveeeeeeee carbs and couldn’t live without them. They’re one of the best tasting parts of life and they provide the body with energy, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and antioxidants…a few things that are just straight up too valuable to give up.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you can achieve a ripped-up, lean physique without excommunicating carbs from the nutrition kingdom. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be on your way to fat-free carb consumption:
- Like I mentioned before, controlling blood sugar levels/insulin is probably the single most important factor when it comes to fat control. All carbs are metabolized into blood sugar in the body, albeit at various rates. The slower that carbs are digested, the smaller impact they’ll have on blood sugar and ultimately fat storage. The Glycemic Index, or GI for short, measures just that. Always aim for low GI foods such as whole grain bread, brown rice, and oatmeal. White bread, white rice, cereal, etc. will transform your body into an absolute fat storing machine.
- To keep this simple, foods that are high in sugar digest at an extremely fast rate and convert into fat effortlessly. They also cause diabetes. Limit sugary foods as much as possible…they’ll make you FAT FAT FAT FAT.
- Although fruit contains a lot of sugar, it’s primary made up of fructose—a type of sugar that’s slower digesting. It also provides a ton of valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Regardless, I wouldn’t suggest pounding 36 bananas per day (it’ll literally kill you from too much potassium)—limit fruit to ~2-3 pieces per day. Eating fruit is a great way to quench even the worst sweet tooth in a healthy way.
- Never, ever eat carbs by themselves. Eating a big bowl of fettuccine alfredo by itself, besides having a bazillion calories, will convert into fat faster than Mike Vick runs in the open field. Always eat carbs with protein, fat, or ideally a combo of both.
- Limit carbs at the end of the day. Any carbs stuck in your stomach when you go to sleep will just end up being converted into fat. All of which leads me to…
6. Follow the 50C/30P/20F rule.
50% of your calories should be coming from healthy, slow digesting carbs; 30% of your calories should be coming from protein; and 20% of your calories should be coming from healthy mono & polyunsaturated fats. I have no problem if you want to make it 40/40/20, but don’t drop carbs below 40% of your calories.
The Best of the Rest…
7. Go beyond the nutrition label.
Most—but not all—nutrition labels limit the vitamins and minerals they list to calcium, iron, and vitamins A & C (as shown by the label on the right, the one on the left is more detailed)…that’s simply not enough information qualified by labels. Things like omega-3′s and omega-6′s, lycopene (a stupidly powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes), and vitamin K are all vital to health, yet you’d never have any visible evidence to show which foods actually contain those supernutrients. Get in the habit of looking up the foods that you eat on Nutrition Data and discovering what kind of nutritional value they add. That brings me to…
8. Maximize nutritional density.
Foods with high “nutritional density” are jam-packed with supernutrients—protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. Spend your calories like you would money…on the things that give you the most value. Proverbial “empty calories” have low, or even negative nutritional density. Sugary foods and those with high amounts of trans/saturated fats are all negative in my book.
9. Minimize liquid calories.
Liquids always digest faster than their solidified counterparts. They also don’t do anywhere near as good of a job at smashing hunger cravings, which is primarily attributed to their lack of fiber. Dairy, protein shakes, water, sugar-free tea, coffee (no Starbucks Mocha Frappucino BS), and the occasional natural fruit juice are the only acceptable liquids in my book, everything else is either filled with calories, sugar, or artificial crap. Things like Gatorade, Powerade, and Vitamin Water should be saved for use during sports/workouts…they’re not designed to be anytime-of-the-day drinks.
10. Au na-tur-al is your path to lifelong longevity.
This one’s really simple…avoid processed foods as much as you can. Whatever happened to eating naturally? Processed foods are absolutely loaded with sodium, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and quite frankly a lot of crap. Go with fresh, cooked foods over the packaged variants as often as humanly possible. With that in mind, you should…
11. Get cooking!
If you learn how to cook—and I’m talking about legitimate cooking, not adding so much spice to food that you drown out your culinary ineptitude (**wink wink, my roommates, wink wink**)—and add a few solid recipes to your arsenal, you can physically control everything that goes into your body. Plus it’s a great way to become aware of how certain foods are prepared, and ultimately what’s healthy and what’s not. Everyone loves a good cook, and it’s a great activity to relax and reduce stress.
Last but not least…
12. Eat breakfast.
Your body is EXTREMELY depleted after pulling a nutritional devoid all-nighter. Wake up to a breakfast jam-packed with protein, healthy carbs, healthy fats, and preferably some fruit. All of it will help kick-start your metabolism, get your muscles out of muscle-burning mode, and provide your body and mind with the much-needed energy to take on the day.
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