“I am building a fire and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.” —Mia Hamm
Year after year, I see hundreds of patients who think they’ve been “fed” the right information about their health.
Eat a few leafy greens every once in a while… but hit the gym as MUCH as humanly possible. These patients work themselves to exhaustion, but don’t see long-lasting results.
They’ve put the cart before the horse, sabotaging their health from the get-go!
You’d never win the Indy 500 with bad fuel—no matter how jacked up the exterior of your car.
Even with a great paint job, if your car isn’t fueled well, it won’t run at peak performance.
Back to Basics
I’m not a big fan of grouping foods into “good” and “bad” categories. Your perfect diet all depends on your unique environment and habits.
It’s kind-of like house hunting.
A home with six bedrooms seems over-the-top for a newlywed couple, but just right for a family of 7. One person may bike to work from his apartment, another needs a full-size garage for the family van.
The right diet can actually be understood in a similar way.
But there are food facts that just don’t change—no matter what.
That’s why I find it helpful to think about nutrients on levels of usefulness to your body. Understanding this is part of a long-term weight management program.
- Essential: Essential foods are those your body can’t produce on its own, but are absolutely needed for survival. These would be like the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom of the house. Without them… things will get uncomfortable quickly.
- Examples include proteins, as well as certain amino acids found in proteins. Some fatty acids are in this group also. Essential nutrients must be a regular and consistent part of your diet.
- Semi-Essential: Like extra bedrooms, office space, or that two-car garage, semi-essential foods may be needed under certain conditions/circumstances.
- Examples of these foods include certain ‘non-essential’ amino acids that become essential due to heavy exercise. Carbohydrates fall into this category.
- Non-Essential Nutrients: Now we come to the perks. The game room, the indoor pool, the 6,000 channel satellite dish. Non-essentials are fun, but the body can survive without them. (And going overboard with these extras can put a health strain on your body—or wallet.) In non-exercising, non-active individuals, with or without metabolic challenges, carbohydrates meet this requirement.
- Keep in mind: non-essential nutrients do not have to be avoided, just controlled.
Clued in on Carbs
Carbohydrates contain approximately 4 calories per gram, so if you eat 10 grams of a simple carbohydrate, you get 40 calories.
Carbs play a vital role in the body’s ability to increase lean mass and fuel the body.
This is one of the primary reasons I talk about no-carb diets (ketogenic diets or Keto Runs) being short-term for most people. Carbohydrates keep your brain and body fed so it does not order biceps for breakfast.
I fully address this topic in my book, The Z-Diet, where I define carbohydrates as two primary types: Active and Free
- Active Carbs
These have a powerful effect on the hormonal and biochemical systems of the body; Active carbohydrates cause a rise in blood sugar and a rise in insulin.
I consider these active because they have a direct influence on your energy, thought processes, cravings, emotions, and body in terms of lean and fat mass. They’re not “bad,” nor should they be avoided— just regulated, particularly in the metabolically challenged.
- Free Carbohydrates
Free carbohydrates—also called fibrous carbohydrates, non-active carbohydrates, low glycemic carbohydrates, and non-impact carbs— don’t have the dramatic effect on blood sugar and insulin that active carbohydrates do.
They are water- and air-filled, full of fiber and (except for a few) vitamin-packed. They add bulk to your diet as well as a variety of tastes and textures. You can eat free carbs as often as you need them!
Simply put, they are good for you!
In fact, a few body tissues rely solely on glucose for energy including the brain, a portion of the kidney, red blood cells, white blood cells, and peripheral nerves.
The word protein is derived from the Greek word meaning of prime importance. Proteins are an essential food, in every sense of the word.
Proteins contain approximately 4 calories per gram, comprised of building blocks called amino acids, which also divide into levels of usefulness and necessity to the body.
- Essential amino acids—your body can’t make them on its own. So you need to eat them!
- Non-essential amino acids— (the word does not indicate that they are less important), means the body can synthesize them from compounds ordinarily already found in the body at a rate needed to maintain function.
- Semi-essential amino acids— The body can make, but extra may be needed from the outside, depending on the activities and needs of the individual.
Proteins are present in all cells of the body and make up important structures such as the cell membrane and intracellular material.
They are essential for
- Muscle contraction and movement
- Formation of regulatory hormones
- Activation of select vitamins
- Boosting metabolism
- Regulating blood sugar when consumed with carbohydrates,
And are also deeply involved in the regulatory, metabolic, and physiologic actions the body.
Befriend your Fats
In the average American diet, visible fat constitutes about 30 percent of total fat intake. This includes butter, lard, cooking oils, mayonnaise, etc. The remaining 70 percent comes from invisible fat found in meats, dairy products, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, etc.
It can be classified into four groups:
- Saturated fats: found almost exclusively in animal products. Usually solid at room temperature.
- Unsaturated fats: found a number of places including meat and eggs. They are usually liquid at room temperature.
- Polyunsaturated fats: Polyunsaturated fats are found in plants and include the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids you hear so much about.
- Trans fatty acid: more commonly found in man-made products, but do occur in nature on occasion.
Fat tends to receive a lot of blame but just like its lauded nutritional sibling, protein, you won’t survive without it.
Healthy fats are such an important element of diet that I devoted an entire post to the health myths you may be believing about them—and how to enjoy fats guilt-free. Learn more here!
Understand the building blocks of your diet puts you a step ahead of many.
Professionals on both sides of the dietary debate will argue until they are blue in the face that calories are all that matter—or they don’t matter at all.
Like every argument out there, there are extremes, but the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. That is why I came up with The Willey Principle.
It is simply a solution that lies in the middle of the “calories are all that matter” and “calories have nothing to do with it” argument.
The Willey Principle: Dependency on caloric load is greater the leaner one gets.
As a diet writer, health coach, and doctor, the worst thing I can do is torture my patients. I’d much rather educate and empower. 🙂
Direct caloric restriction and food restriction (types of foods) in general are torture, especially for long-term weight loss maintenance. It is one of the primary reasons for dietary failures.
That’s why I hope you can be set free from food shame, and instead, understand the fuel you’re putting into the amazing feat of machinery that is your body.