With the proliferation of extreme, fad diet and nutrition programs, I thought it would be helpful to shed a little light on the subject. I try not to take sides on such topics because people are not only different, but they are also free to have different experiences. On the topic of macronutrients, micronutrients, calories and lifestyle, it is my responsibility, given my work, to give a simple interpretation of the facts, especially with a warning that extreme programs may not lead to good results. With faddish, extreme diets, such as macronutrient-based nutrition, a significant number of people may be negatively affected.1,2,3 Such programs only work for a specific few individuals.
In the USA, a great number of people are fighting weight gain and associated emotional and social issues, related to diet and body appearance, with an array of related chronic health issues. The constant bombardment of extreme nutrition programs negatively affects people who are not looking for a perfect physique or to be a part of the latest fitness trend. In fact, this group of people is often simply looking to improve their lives, such as regaining health after pregnancy or trying to become more alert and energetic while holding down a demanding job. Some may be simply trying to lose some weight to help manage diabetes or hypertension.
Why do I feel so strongly about the subject? Well, the goal should be to promote positive feelings toward the word “healthy” or “fit.” A healthy balance between work and the maintenance of fitness is important, especially because a better level of fitness in the population will lead to better work productivity, less stress and more happiness. If a large part of the workforce is having a harder time fitting in or being productive at work, they are more likely to develop negative views towards exercise and to food items that are related to the word “healthy” or “fit.” Parents are especially important, as they raise the next generation.4,5 Finally, fitness in the USA affects not only us but the rest of the world. As the world population increases, the use of limited resources, particularly food, is an important factor. In conclusion, a realistic, positive outlook about food and fitness, extends far beyond the gym,6 affecting how we parent, work and socialize and impacting our future and future generations.
The plan I present here is a practical approach to body composition improvement and a starting point for a “Fit for life” lifestyle. The plan has a simple approach, yet it still requires responsibility on your part. Once you can establish a reasonable system with parameters instead of trying to stay “in shape,” it will become more of a way of life.
First, the calorie debate. Yes, it is simple math, if you burn more calories than you consume you will lose weight. But losing or gaining weight does not mean that your body composition is improving or that your health is improving. Not all calories are created equal. The quality of what you eat is as important, if not more important as how much you eat. Foods that have low nutritional value don’t support a healthy body composition, mood or athletic performance. While you may be able to diet yourself down to a desired number on the scale by using caloric intake as your only guideline, without attention to food quality or protein/carb/fat ratios, your body will lose muscle, resulting in a smaller, yet flabbier you.
A good diet should be based mainly on natural, unprocessed foods, organic if possible. Your list of food items should mainly include, chicken, turkey, lean cuts of red meat, fish, eggs, fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts (in moderation), and natural, whole grains and starches such as brown rice, quinoa (especially vegans and vegetarians), oats, and potatoes. Aim for this group to account for 75-85% or more of your weekly food consumption. Of course, smaller, limited amounts of cheese, bread and baked goods, pasta, cereal, wine and other alcoholic beverages, chocolate and dessert like items, are a regular part of a fun, social environment in life. This latter group though should be kept to 15-25% or less of your weekly consumption.
Second, the ratio of foods. Eating just healthy food items is a great start and you will in a better place than most, but the ratio of foods we consume is important in optimizing fat loss, muscle gain, body composition, sports performance and short- and long-term health benefits. For example, we need protein for tissue repair. Important to note is that macronutrients provide micronutrients, such as vitamins, necessary for specific functions in the body. Although these micronutrients are only required in tiny amounts in the diet, they are, nevertheless, key dietary components. The processes of growth, energy production, metabolism regulation and many other normal functions would not occur without them.15
Health is related to an optimum supply of both macronutrients and micronutrients.15, 16 Insufficient or excess intake of either can lead to an array of health problems. In today’s world the main nutritional issues are primarily related to excess intake of macronutrients, and, to a lesser extend, to insufficient intake of micronutrients. These excesses or insufficiencies can affect your personal and professional life, including the ability to think clearly (the brain works primarily on glycogen), your energy level (B vitamins are essential in energy metabolism), or mood (good fats help the brain produce feel good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine7). As a warning, if you embark on a diet that leans heavily on restrictions or excesses, you will not be nutritionally sound and the effects can be significant.
Third, confusing information. Most of the research related to exercise and nutrition leaves you with more questions. 12, 13, 14. Many of the so-called “clinical studies” are done on behalf of a company or product, and these are poor studies which are not applicable to you or to most of the population. Government data (i.e. USDA, HHS and FDA) is often outdated and in contradiction to the so-called “latest findings”. Government data accounts for a broad, varied demographic (geographical, socioeconomic, age, current health and fitness, etc.) with a goal of improving the health of the overall population, so this information is often not useful to you as an individual. If you exercise regularly and eat consciously, as described above, the latest health information and government data likely does not apply to you.
By embarking on a reasonable program of conscious food choices from a wide variety of healthy food sources and exercise, you will likely fall somewhere in the middle between the “latest findings” and governmental health recommendations. As noted above, the first thing to do is to replace processed, non-natural and low nutritional value food items with more wholesome, natural choices. It is a simple adjustment that will immediately provide great benefits. As you begin to consume more complex carbs and less simple ones, you will also consume less saturated fat. As you consume leaner, more complete proteins, you will also meet some of your micronutrient intake, even though you are consuming lower quantities of food. And last but not least, you will see a drop in caloric intake while findings that wholesome, natural foods are more filling and satisfying.
I recommend consuming more protein and fewer carbohydrates than government regulations,9, 10, 11 since breakdown of muscle happens when you exercise and it must be repaired. So, my recommendation is an intake of 40-50% carbohydrate, 25-40% protein, 20-30% fat, while consuming the same caloric intake as before. Generally, carbohydrate and fat intake will need to be adjusted downward as you begin. Of course, you must individualize the program depending on your current state of fitness and health, current eating habits and caloric intake, and health and fitness goals.8
In conclusion, if you feel lost when it comes to your nutritional necessities now that you are exercising, try my simple approach. Replace most processed, non-natural and low nutritional value food items, with more wholesome and natural choices, and adjust for the increase in the need for protein for tissue repair. I find that this approach is not only a great place to start a program, but more often than not this approach becomes a successful way of life, simple and sustainable.
Medical references, studies and related articles:
What happens to your body when you go on an extreme diet (US News)
Fad Diets (University of Pittsburg Medical Center)
The dangers of fad diets (Indiana University Health)
Psychologic and Physiologic effects of dieting in adolescents (Medscape)
Obese grandparents pass on their susceptibility to junk food (New Scientist)
How exercise shapes far beyond the gym (Science of Us)
Omega-3 fatty acids (University of Maryland Medical Center)
The secret food of athletes, inside the Olympic Training Center’s Nutrition Lab (Outside)
Estimated calorie needs, per day, by age, sex, and physical activity level (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 level (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Macronutrients in health and disease (Nutrition MD)
Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in men and women (New England Journal of Medicine)
Comparison of weight loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein and carbohydrates (New England Journal of Medicine)
Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish and LEARN diets (The Journal of the American Medical Association)
Effects of nutrients (in food) in the structure and function of the nervous system: Update for dietary requirements for the brain. Part 1: Micronutrients (The Journal of nutrition, health and aging)
Effects of nutrients (in food) in the structure and function of the nervous system: Update for dietary requirements for the brain. Part 2: Macronutrients (The Journal of nutrition, health and aging)