Written by: Jason Yule
Since you are reading this, I am going to assume you are interested in learning about nutrition. This is part one of what will be a three part series on how you can improve and fully optimize your diet. Part one will be about understanding how food works as fuel for our bodies, part two will be about figuring out how much fuel your body needs, and part three will about making your diet work for you. Let’s begin with part one – understanding that food is fuel.
The best way to understand this is through the following analogy: imagine a new law was passed that said the car you currently own is the only one you’ll be allowed to drive for the rest of your life. No selling it, no trading it in, no ditching it for a new one. If it dies you’re out of luck. What would you do if this law passed? You’d probably start treating your car a little better, right? You’d stop skipping your routine check-ups and I’m guessing you’d probably start treating it to a little better fuel. If I had to make my car last the rest of my life you better believe it’s getting top of the line premium fuel.
But this is just a hypothetical situation, right? We choose bottom grade fuel because we know we’ll be getting a new car in a couple years anyways. Why spend money on top grade when we’ll have a different car soon anyways? Well here’s the thing – you only have one body. You’ll never be able to replace it, the one you have now is the one you’ll always have. So now do you see why it’s so important to give your body top of the line fuel? If you want your body to last for a long time, it needs premium fuel. Let’s dig in to the fuel sources.
Macronutrients and Micronutrients
All food is broken in to two main types of nutrients, Macronutrients and Micronutrients. When we eat food, our body uses these two types of nutrients differently.
Macronutrients (or macros for short) are used like a car uses gasoline. The macros are what give our body the fuel to perform any task we choose to do and our body also uses macronutrients to perform all the functions it does on a daily basis. Our body literally runs off of macronutrients.
There are 3 main macronutrients – Fat, Carbohydrates, and Protein. When you look at a nutrition label, the macronutrients are listed at the top and are what the total calories are based off of. For now, don’t worry about how the calories are calculated, we’ll get into that next week.
Micronutrients refer the minerals and vitamins that are in food. These don’t factor into the total calories of the food, but are super important to make sure our body is healthy and functioning properly. Think of micronutrients as the grade of gasoline – the more micronutrients a food has, the better grade. If you look at the nutritional label, you’ll see these toward the bottom. Micronutrients include things like all of the various Vitamins, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, etc. As a general rule of thumb, if a food has a lot of micronutrients, it is most likely a real, whole food source. If it doesn’t have many, it is most likely fake, processed food. Remember, we want premium fuel, which means more micronutrients.
When it comes to optimizing our diet the first concern is the macronutrients. Let’s start by understanding what each Macro is. The first macro listed on the food label is Carbohydrate and they come in a bunch of different food sources. Things like veggies, fruits, potatoes, rice, bread, wheat and grains are all carbs. The second macro listed is fat, and it is important to remember that fat is not bad! Modern society has a stigma against fat, but it is vitally important for a healthy diet. Fats are found in seeds and nuts, oils and butters, dairy, and some fruits like avocados. Of course, there are more healthy options than others. Finally, the third macro is Protein which is primarily found in meats, and again there are better options and worse options. Let’s dig into each macro.
Carbohydrate is a sticky subject because there is a lot of negative press about carbs in modern society. Low carb diets are very popular because they appear to work. However, there are two main reasons why we need to eat carbs. First, carbohydrates play a critical role in moderating our body’s hormones. When we eat carbs our body releases a hormone called insulin and when we eat protein our body releases a hormone called glycogon. If we eat protein but no carbs, our body will be overflowing with glycogon. Glycogon’s primary role is to tell the body to break down cells, and unfortunately the body decides that muscle cells are the first to go. So while these low carb diets do show fast results, realize that you are losing muscle and not fat. Back to our car analogy, this would be like having an engine that burns oil, not efficient and definitely not good for the longevity of the car. The second reason we need to eat carbs is because carbs are our primary fuel for MOST exercise. Anything that is high intensity (and gives you results) will use carbs as fuel. No matter how fast your car is, you can’t win a race if you don’t have enough fuel to finish.
Now, the key to carbs is not to eat TOO MUCH. Looking back at the hormonal response of eating carbs, you’ll recall that the body releases insulin. Insulin’s main job is to tell the cells of the body to grow. So if we eat too many carbs, then our body will constantly be in a growth mindset, and you’ll most likely be adding blubber. If your goal is to add healthy muscle, then talk with someone who can help you do it properly! You can definitely gain muscle without gaining blubber with it!
So what are good carbs to eat? Basically any and all veggies are good, and you can’t really eat too many. Try to eat as many different colors as you can and eat as much as you can, the more colors means the more micronutrients (and better grade of fuel) you’ll be putting in your body. You can eat fruit but don’t eat too much. Fruit breaks down into the sugar fructose, which our bodies don’t handle well when consumed in large quantities. The benefit of fruit is that it is packed with micronutrients, so if you limit your consumption to one serving of fruit a day you’ll be in a good spot. Starches should really be kept for active individuals only as they are very potent. A little starch packs a lot of calories and a lot of carbohydrates, but very little micronutrients, so they aren’t the most optimal fuel to use unless you are very active and burning a lot of calories on a daily basis.
Unfortunately modern society has blacklisted the word fat from ever being positive, but it actually is. Let me make a critical distinction here: Fat on your body is bad. Fat being eaten as food is good. These two types of fat are not the same thing! Just like a whole is not the same as a hole. Everyone needs to stop calling fat on your body fat and start calling it blubber. Blubber is bad. Fat is not. For some reason, modern media has painted this picture that consuming fat makes you grow blubber. However, that isn’t the case. As we just learned, you grow blubber when you over-consume carbohydrates. Consuming fat in our diet is actually vitally important to ensure our bodies are functioning optimally. Fat is important for brain function, for lubricating joints, and for regulating internal inflammation. Without the consumption of fat our body would be at a severe disadvantage. Now, with that being said, don’t go thinking you can eat all the fat in the world, eat what your body needs and not more.
There are three main types of fats that we want: Monounsaturated fat, Polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fat. Without getting into the chemical makeup of each type, understand that each kind is structurally different so our body uses each kind differently. This means we want to be consuming all 3 of these types of fats so that are body is getting a good variety of each. Meat products will typically give you saturated fats while oils will give you unsaturated fats. Trans fats should be avoided as they are totally processed and not found in naturally occurring foods.
When it comes to the types of fats to eat, stick to animal fats, nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconut or olive oils. Stay away from vegetable oils because they are packed with the same type of unsaturated fat that you will consume in most other foods, resulting in over-consumption of unsaturated fat. Fish oils are generally good to supplement with because they will provide healthy omega 3 fatty acids that most typical modern diets are missing. Dairy should be limited and avoided if you have intolerance.
The final Macronutrient is protein. Protein is the building block for all cells in your body, so it is obviously very important. It’s like the oil in our car; you can put the best fuel in it, but without oil the car won’t run. Without protein, our bodies can’t grow, develop or repair. With that being said, most people over do it when it comes to protein consumption. Our body can only use a certain amount of protein each day to restore and build. Anything more than that will be stored as blubber just like over-consumption of carbs would. When it comes to protein, there are a few things to keep in mind. First is the source of protein and second is the quality.
When it comes to the source of protein, realize that some meats will be more fatty than others. Beef and fish, for example, will have a lot of fat in each serving. Turkey and chicken are much more lean. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it is important to have a good idea of the total amount of fat you are consuming on a daily basis. If you eat a lot of fat in oils, nuts and seeds, then it might be smarter to eat lean meat. If you don’t eat much fat during your day, then fatty meat is fine. The second thing to keep in mind is the quality of meat – Grass fed and pasture raised animals will tend to have a better quality of meat than meat that is traditionally raised.
When it comes to where you get your protein from, it should be a living animal. Processed meats like deli meats, salamis and sausages are typically a bunch of waste products mixed together, so steer clear of those. I prefer lean meats such as turkey, chicken and pork tenderloin, but that doesn’t mean they are better than fattier sources such as eggs, fish and beef. Just understand that each effect the overall composition of your diet differently.
How Much to Eat
We’ve broken down Micro and Macronutrients and understand where each comes from. But that leaves one big question left – how much of each should we actually eat? How much fuel do we need? Well, the most general answer is to eat exactly enough to support your activity level, no more and no less. Yes that seems very general, but essentially what it is saying is you need to figure out how many calories your body needs on a given day and then eat that much.
Obviously that can get complicated. Your gender, height, weight, type of occupation and exercise habits all factor into this determination and then your daily calorie number is figured out. Stay tuned next week and I’ll help break down the formula to figure out your optimal fuel level. Until then, identify which of your current food sources are low grade and which ones are top grade. Once you’ve identified the low grade sources, try to replace them with better options. See you next week for part 2.