Monday, November 26, 2012

What should you eat?

What to eat seems to be the most difficult concept for most people to grasp when it comes to health and wellness, and for good reason.  If you were to ask 10 people that simple question you would probably get 10 different answers and every day it seems a new study comes out refuting the last study you read.  One of the primary issues with just regurgitating what a study says is that in a lot of instances, what a study shows is not what you think or are being told.  Towards the end of this blog we will go over that, but first, what to eat?

In my opinion, the healthiest way to figure out what you should be eating is to follow an elimination Paleo Diet for 4 weeks and then add in things to see how you tolerate them.  The Paleo Diet includes fruits, vegetables, meats, and nuts and removes grains, legumes and dairy.  Processed foods or foods with added sugars shouldn’t be eaten at all.  The reason you are removing grains, legumes, and dairy is that these foods contain proteins that are hard for us to digest.  Not everyone has a problem with these foods, but to determine if you are one of them you need to completely remove them for 4 weeks and add foods that contain them 1 at a time after that.  What you are looking for is changes in energy levels, headaches, skin irritation, or anything out of the ordinary.  If a food gives you a reaction, you know that food isn’t right for you.

You may be thinking, “I have always heard that whole grains are a healthy part of a diet, what gives?”  The evidence that this pseudo-fact is based on is very shaky.  The studies showing whole grains to be healthy don’t actually show this, they show them to be healthier than consuming refined grains such as white bread, which we know to be unhealthy.  Using the same logic, we could assume that either crack or heroin is healthy because one is healthier than the other.  Not buying that?  Neither am I.

So what about carbs, protein, and fat?  For the most part, the number of carbs you eat is in relation to the amount of intense physical activity you get and how lean you are.  If you strength train, play sports, or work a labor intensive job your carbohydrate needs will be greater than someone who sits at a desk all day.  In addition, a low carbohydrate diet is very effective for losing weight if you are large, but as you become leaner you will need to add in more carbohydrates, especially if you fit in to the labor intensive group above.  Just realize that if you do cut your carbohydrate intake you need to increase your fat intake.  Fat and carbohydrates are your fuel choices, protein is only used as fuel if it is converted to carbohydrate first.  The easiest way to remember which you should be eating more of is that fat functions more as diesel fuel while carbohydrates are jet fuel.  Your lifestyle dictates which is most appropriate for you.

Outside of avoiding trans-fatty acids or seed oils (Canola oil or most vegetable oils except for olive) you don’t really need to worry about your fat intake.  This means that you don’t need to worry about saturated fats as much as you have in the past.  This is primarily due to recent studies which have shown no relationship between saturated fat intake and health outcomes.  How do you decide which study to believe and which to ignore? 

First off, you have to realize that most of these studies they use to tell you what to eat are not capable of doing that.  These studies are called epidemiological studies and involve questionnaires given to people asking them what they have eaten/done over the past 6 months, year, or multiple years.  As you could imagine, it’s pretty difficult to recall what you’ve eaten over the last couple of weeks accurately, let alone months or years.  Furthermore, if you tell people that eating saturated fat is unhealthy, healthy people are going to avoid it.  These people are also more likely to exercise, not smoke, moderate their drinking, and follow other healthy lifestyle factors that will skew the data in that direction.  Because these studies lack the control or statistical power of better studies, they can’t tell you A causes B, just that there is some sort of relationship between the 2.  That relationship may be direct or indirect such as the relationship between ice cream consumption and drowning deaths.  This relationship is strong, but is indirect in that both increase during the summer, not because one causes the other.

Another sort of fact check I like to use is to think of the study in relation to what evolutionary science shows.  For example, we know that cancer, diabetes, and heart disease was relatively rare up until the agricultural revolution.  We also know that hunter-gatherer societies that are still around today have little to no cancer, diabetes, or heart disease unless they adopt a western diet.  They don’t consume seed oils because they don’t have the technology to extract oil from seeds, but they do have the technology to obtain animal fat, which was certainly not thrown away as it is a good source of calories and they aren’t getting their food from the local Pizza Hut.

Finally, your protein needs will be dictated by your muscle mass and whether you are trying to add muscle mass through strength training.  You will want to eat more protein if you are strength training or doing labor intensive work because protein is used to make muscle.  Even if you are not actively trying to increase muscle mass, you still need a baseline level of protein to maintain your current muscle mass as well as making enzymes your body needs to function properly.  If you are sticking to a Paleo diet and consuming animal protein regularly you probably don’t need to focus on protein intake unless you are trying to add bulk.

As you could probably tell by this post, the proper diet is really dependent on a number of factors and there really is no single “Best Diet”.  This is because we are all different genetically and choose to do different things with our lives.  At this point I am certain that the foods contained within the Paleo Diet should be what most people eat most of the time.  You may stray from time to time to kick up your heels and that’s fine.  What you don’t want to do is base your diet around the garbage that most people eat, and I will be using this blog to tell you why.