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Nutrition 911, Part Five
The What, Why, and When About What Goes into
Your Mouth

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What To Eat

Welcome to Part V of our oh-so-basic nutrition class designed to give you an overview of basic nutrition and make healthy eating much simpler. In Part I, we addressed the terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised. Part II analyzed the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans. In Part III, we took the Cliffs Notes approach to reading food labels. Part IV tackled dessert.

Now that you've been armed with the basic info to navigate your grocery store in style, lets discuss, simply, what you should eat. You've all heard of protein, fat, and carbs. Here's the what, why, and when about what goes into your mouth.

Fresh FruitsEating options: protein, fats, carbs, and . . . ?

People often ask me—and I'm not kidding—why they need to eat protein, or carbs, or fat. I had one person submit a scathing letter saying something along the lines of "no professional" would ever recommend more than such and such amount of protein, fat, and carbs. The reason I bring this up is that the percentages she claimed "no professional" would ever exceed totaled 70%. The problem with her logic was that proteins, fats, and carbs are—basically—your only choices. They have to equal 100% of your diet.

Well, actually, they don't have to be; certainly they ought to. Let's look at a few other things that can make up part of your 100%. Mainly it's just alcohol. At seven calories per gram, alcohol is loaded with calories and can, especially during the holiday season, make up a fairly high percentage of your diet. However, I'm not aware of any nutritionist that would recommend it be much more than a trace percentage, given alcohol has no nutrient value. Other things you can eat are pesticides, heavy metals in your water, dust, dirt, toys, etc. Most of these things don't have calories but, even if they did, I think we can conclude that they should not make up a percentage of your daily diet, at least not purposely. Therefore, the percentage of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in your diet should equal 100% or, ya know, 95% on girls' night out or during Super Bowl weekend.

What are they, what do they do, and how much of them should you eat?

ProteinProtein. Protein is essential as it serves as building blocks for your body tissues. You need it to grow and repair your muscles, and pretty much everything else. It's found in animal products and to a lesser degree in plants, making getting enough protein difficult for vegetarians, especially those who avoid dairy products.

What it doesn't do is give you energy. It's material, not fuel. A diet with too much protein does not function well. Too little protein, however, and you won't recover from the energy you burn.

It's found in abundance not only in all animal products but also in grains, like rice, and legumes, like beans. This is why beans, rice, and soy products are so popular in cultures that tend to be vegetarian.

FatFat. Dietary fat, the kind you eat, should not be confused with body fat, the stuff that causes you to ask your husband, "Do I look fat in this dress?" That type of fat comes from an improper diet or lack of exercise, but usually both. The fat you eat is very important for many day-to-day functions:

  • Fuels the body, and is especially useful for long-term aerobic exercise.

  • Aids digestion of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and promotes a feeling of fullness after eating.

  • Helps regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting, and the nervous system.

  • Provides essential fatty acids, in particular omega-3, which help us with brain development, nervous system function, and eyesight. Many experts also believe they reduce the risk of arthritis, some cancers, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

But before you rush out to stock your fridge with butter and cheese, be aware that, one, there are good fats and bad fats and, two, you don't need too much of it to satisfy the above list.

Bad fats include animal and trans fats, which should be severely restricted in your diet. Animal fats are pretty easy to avoid, since they are obvious. Trans fats are a man-made variety and tend to show up in processed junk foods in things like cookies, cakes, chips, and stuff that may sit on a shelf for months or years.

AvocadoGood fats come from plant sources, like olives, avocados, nuts, seeds, and so on.

You may have noticed a pattern: all the foods mentioned above tend to be filling. That's because they are what's termed "nutrient dense." Fat has more than twice the calories per gram than those from carbs and protein. You don't need much in their natural state. Condensed fats, like oils and butter, should be used sparingly.

Carbohydrates. Maligned and misunderstood, carbs are probably the simplest foods to understand. They are fuel for your body, plain and simple. Carbs help you do stuff, as in be active. The more stuff you do, the more carbs you need to eat. Conversely, the lazier you are, the less you need to eat.

CarbohydratesCarbs basically break down into glycogen—blood sugar—in your body, which provides energy for both your muscles and your brain. Unlike fats, there aren't really good and bad carbs. Different types suit you better at different times, depending on—you guessed it—what sort of stuff you happen to be doing.

Carbs come from plant, not animal, sources. In nature, plants have something called fiber, which is the part of the plant we can't digest. The rest of the plant will become glycogen—fuel—in our body while the fiber will help regulate how we use it. Fiber is important stuff. It not only helps us digest nutrients, it cleanses our digestive tract and soaks up excess cholesterol.

The "bad carb" moniker comes from those carbs without fiber—things like simple sugars (candy)—and carbs that have been stripped of their fiber—things like white rice, some cereals, fruit juices, pastas, etc., etc. These foods aren't really bad, per se; they are just bad most of the time because they speed into your system and cause an insulin spike, or sugar rush. But there are times when a sugar rush is advantageous, like during or immediately after sports. At these times, you want an insulin spike because it will help you recover faster. This is why "sports foods" tend to be sugary, and why Gatorade should not be a regular part of your diet.

FiberBut at all other times, you should opt for the natural version of carbs, complete with fiber, like whole fruits, fresh veggies, whole grains, legumes, sweet potatoes, etc. This will not only keep your energy level more consistent, but will also keep you from craving more sugar. While you need carbohydrates, you only need enough to keep your blood sugar levels stocked up. Your body can't store extra carbs, so it stores them as fat. And not good dietary fat, but in adipose tissue, which is the kind of fat that might cause your husband to lie to you about that new dress.

How much of each do you need? The one key piece of advice to take from this article is this: You should eat for what you do each day. Let me use a kind of simple analogy. How much fuel do you put in your car when you don't drive it? How much when you do?

How much of each do you needThis doesn't exactly equate. You are not a machine, plus you're always on. But the fuel example is relevant. When you are active, you burn more glycogen and, hence, need to eat more carbs. Carbs should be the most variable item in your diet. If you've been hiking through the Grand Canyon, you may eat double, or even triple, the amounts of carbs than during a day at the office. Your other nutrients don't change as much. You need more protein if you are causing more muscle breakdown, but only so much. Carbs are literally burned off.

How much is quite variable. An athlete will burn more fuel at rest than someone who is out of shape. With my clients, I think to start them at 40% carbs, 30% protein and fat, and then adjust as necessary. But this ratio seems like the best average place to start.

You must always keep in mind that as you change, so does your nutrient requirement. People often ask me, "Can't you just tell me exactly what I should eat every day?" My answer is "No."

BrocolliHere are simple guidelines that might help you out. Of course, results will vary. In the end, no one will be better able to tell you what you need than you will. You have to learn to listen to your body's signals and adjust.

  • Overweight and out of shape. This is the only time I recommend a "low-carb" diet. A transitional diet of 40% - 50% protein, 30% fat, and 20% - 30% carbs can be effective in early stages.

  • Overweight and in decent shape or not-too overweight in bad shape. A more standard 40% carbs, and 30% protein and fat.

  • Ideal weight and fit. 50% carbs, and 25% protein and fat. This is probably what I average, but consider that my diet varies wildly. On days like today, where I sit in front of this computer for hours on end, carbs might be only 30% - 40% of my diet. On a day I'm riding my bike for six hours, they might make up 70%. My protein and fat won't change too much. My calories might go from 2,000 to 6,000, with the majority of this difference being carbs.

I probably kept you a little long today. Hopefully, it was worth it. Since I touched on calories, that's where we'll begin next time. Until then, eat smart and keep moving!

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