' No food is an island, entire of itself".
Yeah I substituted food for "man" and the last half of the poem references death so my reference falls apart......still, keep reading.
Of all the deceptively simple and boring advice we’ve gotten over the years in regards to nutrition I think of how my grandparents ate. For them, it was all about fiber, everything in moderation and eating your vegetables. They lived and died by those tenets, probably passed down from their family physician who mentioned those three things to them in the 1960s and they based their whole concept of nutrition on it.
It used to drive me crazy, my grandmother pushing the last few slices of tomato on my plate, balking if I didn’t eat at least a “taste” of everything and pushing prune juice. I secretly felt sorry for them for having such an ignorant view of nutrition and limiting themselves to such simple rules. My mistake.
What I think my grandparents and that generation as a whole did right was eat meals. Sure, there were snacks like cookies and ice cream available but I NEVER saw cereal bars, protein powders, boxed macaroni products or anything else like that in their kitchen. They may have snacked on fruit here and there or had half a sandwich between meals along the way but most often they ate their foods in whole form, with meals of varying components and ate until satisfied.
Even at breakfast when they had their bran cereal, it always had fresh fruit on it, sandwiches were always eaten with a salad on the side (or sometimes they would just eat a whole tomato) or they were complete sit-down meals with an animal protein, fibrous carbohydrates and vegetables. You know why that generation doesn’t have the food issues we do? Because if every meal adequately controls blood sugar, is filled with vegetables, meets your protein needs and leaves you full there is no real need to obsess over the details. Funny, I never heard my grandfather talk about abs or how "swole" his delts were(unless I blocked it out), but for general health and body composition, they were doing really well.
Some research even points to less frequent but larger meals being better for fat loss because individuals leave each meal satisfied. It makes total sense, 6 tiny meals a day is always leaving you wanting a little more. And what’s a little more? Another low-cal yogurt, a couple pretzels or a Starbuck’s coffee-milkshake contraption. You don’t need to bring your Tupperware with you everywhere, just pack a lunch for work and maybe a piece of fruit as a snack and eat your other two meals at home. I see plenty of people trying to lose bodyfat with their calorie intake hovering near 2000. When was the last time you had three 650 calorie meals in one day? 6oz of pork loin, half a sweet potato, broccoli, spinach and olive oil. Three meals of food like that wouldn’t feel very much like a diet.
How did we lose sight of this?
What I failed to realize is that those rules have gotten lost in this generation. People don’t “like” vegetables anymore. Seriously? This isn’t Facebook, you don’t need to like or unlike something, you just shut up and eat it because it was grown in your garden, is good for you and because eating your vegetables meant you could have dessert, at least in my house..
Hence the equation: Vegetables = Dessert.
My father and his mother came from Poland; I grew up eating cabbage, beets, pickles, sour cream, cold fish and grandma-style tea. Grandma style tea is really old tea brewed really strong served in World War II glassware. I didn’t like it at first but I HAD to eat it and eventually I grew to love it. People are willing to make themselves smoke cigarettes until they can’t live without them but refuse to touch tomatoes?
I think we’ve overlooked the fact that vegetables play major roles in providing us with macro and micro-nutrients, flavonoids, enzymes and water which have huge implications on our health. You don’t have to eat a farmer’s market worth of vegetables daily, but adding some greens and spinach to meals, making salads with onions, pepper, tomatoes, cucumbers and then having some root vegetables at dinner is going to fill you up and prevent over-eating of other foods, hydrate you and provide you with a wealth of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Fiber is not just for old people
Secondly, our modern diet is perilously low in fiber. Fiber reduces serum cholesterol, protects against heart disease, reduces the insulin and glycemic response to meals, aids in prevention of Type-II diabetes and colon cancer, promotes healthy gut bacteria, produces short-chain fatty acids in the colon and reduces the risk of stroke and hypertension. One of the major determinants of overall health and blood glucose control is dietary fiber intake.
The average American gets less than half the recommended servings of fiber per day. Scientists from the Nutrition Review recommend 14g fiber per 1000 calories daily. The food guide pyramid recommends at least 25g per day and major benefits are seen with 30-40g per day. People who complain of blood sugar issues and poor insulin management often eat fiber-less carbohydrates like white bread, rice, cheap cereals, gluten-free substitute snacks and fake health cereal and protein bars.
Whenever someone shows me their food journal, at least 3 out of 4 don’t eat nearly enough fiber(read: vegetables) and that is being generous. An athlete or individual who consumes much greater calories than the average person can get away with less fibrous options because the sheer volume of their food most likely covers the recommended amount. But someone eating 1500 calories a day should not be consuming sub-10 g of fiber per day.
How do you get fiber? Vegetables! Vegetables don’t mean zero-carbohydrates. If you eat sweet potatoes, beets, zucchini, butternut squash, carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables, you will get plenty of carbohydrates even on a fat loss diet, but you’ll be doing yourself major favors for drastically increasing fiber and controlling blood sugar. Some fruit in moderation is great as is added flax seeds to yogurt or protein shakes, as well as moderate amounts of nuts and seeds.
No foods in isolation
What I think everything in moderation should mean is encouraging people to eat complete and mixed meals. Is a piece of bread with peanut butter a complete meal? A fat free blueberry yogurt? A handful of chips? Two eggs with nothing on the side? Even a (gasp) Larabar?
For most of us, none of those serve as great meal options. Again, someone trying to gain weight or an individual who has their nutrition more dialed-in can make those calls and eat less-complete meal options if they know how it counts toward their daily total. But if you are interested in fat loss, you really have no business eating cereal bars, fat-free sweetened yogurt or just an apple and peanut butter for the simple fact that most people tend to lean towards the exclusion of one major nutrient. For some it’s carbohydrates, for some it’s fat but most of the time it’s protein.
What’s the difference? The difference is that inclusion of protein, fibrous carbohydrates and healthy fats with most meals drastically cuts down the blood sugar and insulin response when that food is eaten alone. It is more satiating and mentally satisfying to eat a complete meal and consuming adequate protein helps with thermogenesis and stimulating the metabolism through increased digestive processes.
These three really go hand in hand. Consuming vegetables and/or fruit (in moderation) at each meal automatically ensures the ingestion of adequate fiber. Now you feel fuller and have better blood sugar control, ingested some additional water and nutrients and probably spent quality time making the food rather than eating it on the run. Next, making sure each meal contains protein and some healthy fats improves upon that blood sugar response, controls portion size, increases satiety and helps ensure adequate nutrients for cell and hormone health.
What does this do for me?
Our current food choices make it way too easy to eat foods in isolation. Eating a complete protein, vegetables, fibrous carbohydrates and healthy fats at each meal means you can do a few things:
- Not worry about glycemic load, index etc. Mixed meals make this largely null and void
- Feel satisfied after each meal, leading to less bingeing or snacking on junkier foods
- Know you’ll maintain muscle mass while losing fat
- Not worry about whether you are eating white rice vs brown, white potatoes vs yams etc.
I think the last point is the most freeing. I don’t encourage people to eat white rice over brown or white potatoes over yams but if you’re eating a chicken breast, spinach, zucchini and olive oil with dinner, a ½ cup of either brown or white rice won’t make a difference. You’ve got your protein covered, your vegetables and fiber which means you can worry a little less about the nitty gritty. Your blood sugar will be the same, you’ll feel just as full and satisfied and total calories will be similar.
If you’ve been floundering with your health and fat loss or just can’t seem to find a good starting point to work off of, I encourage you to eat three or four meals a day that look like these:
Hint: It’s so crazy it just might work.