04 Feb The Non-Diet, Diet: Getting to the Bottom of Real Nutrition – By Matthew Custer
*Note: I am not a Registered Dietician. Please consult your physician or RD before making any major dietary changes.
What sort of things do we think about when we hear the word “diet?” It’s usually associated with the idea of weight-loss and health, but many of us also think about the negative connotations surrounding it. Often, diets are synonymous with a short-duration eating plan that is all about restriction, whether it is calories, carbohydrates, or substances such as gluten. In addition, many diets seem to be fads that come and go. Unfortunately, we tend to find dieting both unsatisfying and ineffective. Why is this the case? The short answer is that diets don’t work and are often unhealthy.
To illustrate this point, let’s dive into some specific physiological (of or relating to the body and its processes) and psychological effects of unhealthy dieting. First, consider the notion of calorie restriction. Yes, the idea of “calories in, calories out” does have some validity in regards to your body’s metabolism in a diet and exercise regimen, but it is often too simplistic when we account for the complexity of bodily processes and also one of the more important tenants of modern nutrition—that a calorie is not a calorie. Your body uses energy in food from three different macronutrient (properties of food we require in relatively large, “macro,” amounts) sources, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. It would make sense that since there are three distinct categories of macronutrients, each of these sources would be processed differently in our bodies. This is indeed the case. Without going into the specific digestive and metabolic pathways in which these macronutrients are broken down into useable energy, there are often significant differences between how your body receives energy from even different kinds of carbohydrates, fats, and protein, let alone among the main categories themselves.
Take, for instance, the difference between how your body reacts to ingesting a piece of candy and broccoli. Many candies contain dextrose (also known as glucose, a simple sugar that is what the body breaks macronutrients down into for energy), that can be almost instantaneously be absorbed into the bloodstream for use as energy. In fact, your mouth has the ability to absorb a certain amount dextrose directly without having to travel through your digestive tract. While this fact is a wonderful thing for endurance athletes, who often require fast sources of energy during training and competition, this is not such a great thing when we have no immediate use for the energy. As we might already know, any unused energy will either be stored in the liver or muscles for future use or as fat, the later of which is generally unwanted, especially for those who wish to lose weight. Before we start chastising our bodies for these functions, we should know that such processes are essential for our survival. Our body doesn’t “know” that we have a pantry well-stocked with food and restaurants as far as the eye can see. It considers the nutrients we give it as a life-or-death scenario, making sure that every molecule of energy it received is used either for vital bodily processes or for storage so we don’t starve in a time of famine. So in a sense, your body isn’t self-conscious that the candy you ate went straight to your thighs; it’s actually just making sure you survive.
Now let’s explore what your body does with a piece of broccoli. Broccoli contains complex carbohydrates and fiber which both slow down your body’s ability to extract energy from it. For someone who doesn’t need a quick spike of energy, slow is the way to go. In addition, your body uses more calories to digest the broccoli. The process requires extensive chewing, use of digestive enzymes, and time for the body to break down the food into absorbable units. The overall result of broccoli digestion is a steady stream of energy which will be less likely be converted into fat for storage because the body doesn’t have to race against the clock to expend the energy unlike the candy. A calorie is definitely not a calorie in this case. Ten calories of pure sugar versus a fibrous vegetable are just not comparable. This is all to say that calorie quality matters even more than the amount of calories eaten.
The candy versus broccoli example brings about another dieting blunder. Many people assume that you have to eat less food to lose weight, which results in chronic hunger pangs. This notion alone can cause an unfortunate cycle of starvation, bingeing, and regret. There is clearly a better way and we can see it when comparing just how much food ten calories of candy and broccoli really is. One half of one piece of peppermint candy contains 10 calories yet the same amount of calories are in about 1/3 cup or 30 grams of broccoli 1.That is a considerable difference in the volume of two sources of food with equal caloric value. When we scale our example up to the amount of food we eat in one day, we are able to realize that our food choices really do matter. In the picture below, each spread of food contains the same amount of calories, but the healthier alternative actually contains more food.
Before moving onto food and some of their psychological effects, let’s address the pitfalls of specific diets. Let me be totally clear: I do not mean to denigrate or discourage people who have tried, succeeded, or failed on the following diets. I only mean to observe the nutritional deficiencies represented in each. With that in mind, let’s start off with a diet fad that strangely enough many people, even celebrities, swear by—juice cleansing. Popular claims of juice cleansing include its ability to cleanse and detoxify your body, as if these specific products are the quintessential source of these benefits, as well as balancing your blood pH level to its natural alkaline (not acidic/basic) state. Frankly, these health claims are both unsubstantiated by scientific evidence and are just plain misleading2. Your body, specifically your liver and kidneys, are your cleansing and detoxifying powerhouses. A week of juice cleansing is not going to undo years of poor nutrition and whatever toxins that have built up in your system. Depriving yourself of proper amounts of nutrient rich, healthy food for any length of time compared to a cleanse isn’t a very good trade-off even though there are honestly healthy ingredients in many juice cleanse products. These products claim the benefits of a digestive “break,” but eating well most of the time is far better for you and your digestive system than cycles of a poor diet followed by a cleanse. Why not eat the healthy foods in the cleanse in their whole forms year-round? Finally, let’s address the claim about restoring proper blood pH. First off, if your blood pH is indeed off by any significant amount you need to consult your physician right away, not a bottle of juice. Acidosis and alkalosis are serious health conditions that juice cleansing won’t solve. The vast majority of us do not have to worry about these conditions because our blood contains a pH buffer system, carbonic acid/bicarbonate, that keeps our blood pH in a healthy narrow range3. The green leafy vegetables, which are indeed alkaline, are not present in nearly enough quantities in juice cleanses to significantly change blood pH. In summary, juice cleanses have limited benefit if any compared to a well-rounded nutrition plan. If you use it to “take a break” from toxins like consuming too much coffee, alcohol, and processed foods, that’s fine, but know that whatever long-term effects of your diet remain, especially if you hop right back into the foods that created the need for the cleanse in the first place.
The second fad to investigate is going to be lumped into one big category, that is, diets that restrict entire food groups. This includes any kind of vegetarianism, veganism, paleo diets, gluten-free diets, and anything of the like. Again, I’m just pointing out the nutritional deficiencies and refraining from value statements of the people who practice these diets. Also, any persons with food allergies and/or sensitivities clearly need to, and in some cases, abstain from large groups of food. I don’t mean to misrepresent or undermine these conditions or the people who live with them. Within that framework, let’s explore meatless diets. The obvious hurdle to jump over in these diets is the need to find replacement protein sources 4. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy are unquestionably superior in their ability to provide protein for the body in forms the body finds to be the most useful5. Nutritionists call this ability a food source’s bioavailability. What this means in practical terms is that a strict vegan will need more grams of protein from their available sources than someone who eats meat to receive the same benefit because less protein from non-meat sources is available for the body to break down and use. In addition, most non-animal product foods lack the complete amino acid profile in their protein needed for our health which requires pairing of foods that together provide the entire complement of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential. This notion of bioavailability is the cornerstone criticism of all diets that restrict food groups. The fact is that some foods specifically provide us with macronutrients and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in a form that is much easier for the body to take in. Let’s illustrate this notion with a unique quality of meat, fish, and poultry—iron. Iron is chiefly needed by red blood cells to properly function. These protein sources provide us with a specific form of iron, heme iron, found only in these animal products. This form of iron is more easily available (thus a higher bioavailability) for use in our bodies than non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based iron sources like spinach. Therefore you will need to consume a higher amount of iron in spinach than in beef to receive the same benefit. This might be all the proof you need to have a diversified diet, but some will argue that these biological inefficiencies are small potatoes compared to the ethics of a diet.
So let’s talk about the social and psychological aspects of food. To be honest, on the issue of ethics it’s actually quite difficult to justify the eating of meat with regard to the rampant inhumane treatment of animals in so-called “factory farms.” I personally don’t support that aspect of meat eating whatsoever; I find it pretty much indefensible. Overall, if you have some ethical component to your nutrition, I find it to be commendable just as long as you are able to get the nutrients you need. This line of thinking leads to a main aspect that is a challenge to healthy eating: convenience. Let’s face it, it’s easier to eat poorly than to eat healthy. It requires a vast amount of knowledge in nutrition to navigate a world in which food companies devote massive amounts of time and money to sell you fast and cheap food. Such companies are literally hacking your brain in order for you to become addicted to their product. It’s an empowering feeling knowing how the cards are stacked against you yet you’re able rise above the noise and get back to the basics of what healthy, quality food really is. Not only are food companies pressuring you to eat unhealthy, society, even your friends and family are as well. It’s hard to make good choices if you’re around people who don’t. Also, if you still depend on your family for food, it’s harder still to convince them to provide healthy choices. These factors alone make nutrition a daunting task that is difficult to start even though we all know about the horrible health epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions that are becoming more prevalent year after year. We know this and we still can’t break free, like a slow-motion car crash. And this difficulty is not our fault; this is not a product of our moral failings or a lack of will-power. If everything in your outside world is bombarding you with misinformation, specifically calculated to serve company profits and not your best interests, it is easy to sympathize with people who’ve tried every diet in the book and just cannot lose weight or become a healthy person. Even health professionals can be overweight and/or unhealthy, obviously not due to a lack of information.
Before I discuss what I foods I recommended, I’d like to address the pitfalls of attaching morality to food. Yes, foods can be better or worse for your mental and physical health, BUT this is not the same as saying that you ARE a better or worse person for eating such foods. Attaching a statement of morality to nutrition is a potentially dangerous endeavor. This is about self-care, not necessarily about virtue or piety (unless that it’s something you can bring onboard mentally in a healthy way). Food is something to be celebrated, something to be used for energy, optimal athletic performance, even as medicine. As the old adage goes, you either pay your grocer or your doctor.
All hope is not lost, fortunately. If you can avoid the distractions of mass marketing and society, there are actually some very simple guidelines you can follow to truly eat well. The first guideline is to avoid processed foods and eat whole foods instead. If you can actually recognize that the food looks like a plant or animal product, odds are it’s good for you. That means you should generally be wary of anything in elaborate packaging. Also, if the food doesn’t spoil in a reasonable amount of time, there’s probably something in the product that isn’t really food. You can usually find these better foods on the outer edge of a grocery store. The middle of the store is mostly reserved for processed foods. Second, consider the option of buying organic and possibly even non-GMO. This is not to say all non-organic and GMO food is bad, but anything that is added to food that is toxic to bugs and insects should leave you wondering how it might affect us6. The general scientific consensus seems to favor some aspects of organic agriculture while being largely in support of GMOs. Third, when buying animal products, buy non-CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, aka factory farms), pasture-raised versions. The animals are healthier and happier and you will be too. These products are more nutrient dense because the animals are able to roam and eat grass, bugs, and whatever they naturally eat instead of chemical-laden feed. If you follow these simple guidelines as well as making sure you eat a large variety of foods regularly, for the most part there will be no need to count calories or worry about getting enough nutrients. The one drawback is that these foods tend to be more expensive. Personally, I see it as a small price to pay for the knowledge that I’m fueling my body in a way that it wants and the physiological and psychological benefits are too numerous to count. But, if you have a tight budget, I’d still try to make as many smart choices as you can afford. For example, you can use the annual “dirty dozen” list to see which organic produce you should consider as your top choices7.
Finally, I’d like to consider the idea that this kind of diet I recommend is restrictive. When you think about it, the restrictive diet is actually the one with fast food and processed food. If you take a look at the calorie density food comparison above, which diet seems more “restrictive” to you? Clearly the diet on the right has far more variety, while the one on the left looks monotone and homogenous in comparison. This doesn’t mean that if you really want ice cream, you can’t have it. Go ahead and indulge every once in awhile. It can actually be beneficial for your mental health if you feel you have constant cravings for something decadent. The idea about nutrition is that it should be enjoyable. It’s very possible to be unhealthily obsessed with “clean eating.”8 I’m clearly not calling for a strict nutritional regimen; quality and variety matter much more. Plus there are more important things in life than to constantly obsess over what to eat. Many people don’t want live to eat, they want to eat to live. It’s time to bring piece of mind back to food.
1Self Nutrition Data, “Nutrition Facts and Analysis for Broccoli, Raw,”
http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2356/2 (accessed November 9, 2014).
2Katy Waldman, “Stop Juicing: It’s Not Healthy, It’s Not Virtuous, and it Makes You Seem Like a Jerk,” http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/11/juice_cleanses_not_healthy_not_virtuous_just_expensive.html (accessed October 28, 2014).
3 Harper College, “The Carbonic Acid/Bicarbonate Buffer,” http://www.harpercollege.edu/tm-ps/chm/100/dgodambe/thedisk/bloodbuf/zback2.htm (accessed November 9, 2014).
4 Live Science, “Reality Check: 5 Risks of Raw Vegan Diet,” http://www.livescience.com/26278-risks-raw-vegan-diet.html (accessed October 28, 2014).
5 EUFIC, “Nutrient Bioavailability: Getting the Most Out of Food,” http://www.eufic.org/article/en/artid/nutrient-bioavailability-food/ (accessed November 9, 2014)..
6TPenelope R. Whitehorn, Stephanie O’Connor, Felix R. Wackers, and David Goulson, “Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production,”Science 20 (2012): 351–52.
8Nationa Eating Disorders Association, “Orthorexia Nervosa,” “https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa (accessed October 28, 2014).