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INTRODUCTION: Sustainable vs Optimal
Full disclosure: I am not a dietitian, or a nutritionist and hold no degrees in this area. What follows is what I will call my informed opinions after years of extensive reading, and personal experience. Dietary guidelines are controversial to say the least. The reader should choose to implement none, some or all of below based on his or her own conclusions about what is best for them. My goal is not to “prove” anything. What I am attempting to provide are strategies that balance results with the ability to actually sustain (live with) over a lifetime. Put another way, I’m not claiming this is the “best medicine”, but it is my perception that even the “best medicine” is only helpful if you actually take it and continue to do so over time.
Below are various steps, strategies and insights, that pertain to losing fat, gaining muscle and optimizing health. Note that I refer to losing “fat” rather than losing “weight” per se. The number on the bathroom scale is not nearly as important as improving body composition is.
Since increasing or maintaining muscle mass is included as well as losing fat, for some reading this, the goal will be to actually put on weight. While it is possible to be under fat, most people who could benefit from gaining weight are more likely to be under muscled.
Muscle is being increasingly recognized as a very active organ that helps optimize hormonal factors that have a dramatic effect on a multitude of health components. Having said that, while there is documented evidence that one can build muscle while restricting calories, caloric restriction will make muscle growth more challenging. Ideally, one would lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously, however if, at the very least one can lose “weight” and have most of the loss come from fat rather than muscle, then body composition will improve. Proper strength training will send the signal to your body that lean tissue is critically needed and that fat stores should be released first. Once having reached a target level of leanness, calories can be increased, and this, in conjunction with the more ideal hormonal environment that comes from being lean will facilitate muscle gain.
EASY DOES IT: Balance: Do “pretty good”, “most” of the time.
Just as one of the foundational principles of our exercise program is that it be “Sustainable” over time, by not demanding an unreasonable time commitment or subjecting you to unacceptable safety compromises, diet modifications are more “Sustainable” if they do not demand too many drastic changes.
In this revision of my original “dietary guidelines” post, I am in fact suggesting that you begin to implement a few basic principles initially which I have come to believe are likely to be the most critical, and also, that can be adapted to almost all of the various dietary approaches.
One may be zealous in wanting to make many changes immediately, which, while commendable, can backfire as a person can become overwhelmed after an initial “honeymoon” period. Celebrate small victories and don’t beat yourself up too much for setbacks. Falling down will happen; just keep getting back up. Your goal is to slowly build new habits that you can maintain over a lifetime. In the end if you do “pretty good”, “most” of the time, you will likely find a good balance between achieving positive results and still maintaining a balance that is “Sustainable”.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: Know what you’re up against AND be kind to yourself!
Start by accepting the fact that this will be a lifelong battle. There is no finish line. While I strongly encourage short term goals, because deadlines significantly add to your probability of success, each goal reached is simply a milepost on a lifelong journey. Consider as well that all “diets” are “yo-yo” diets, meaning that setbacks are extremely likely. The trick is to make the string on your yo-yo as short as possible. In other words, we all fall off the wagon now and again, but don’t wait till you’ve gained significant weight before getting back on that wagon. A saying that illustrates this principle is, “The problem is not what you eat between Christmas and New Year’s Day but rather what you eat between New Year’s Day and Christmas.” This is not an excuse to binge, but the pleasure of consuming good food, especially when shared with loved ones adds to quality of life. A constant feeling of deprivation is not conducive to long term success. As you apply the principles in this article, you will naturally find overeating, or eating too much of certain foods less appealing because your satiety will improve and certain foods in excess will actually make you feel “not well”.
Do not underestimate the challenge. Statistically, the vast majority of people regain all of their lost weight and then some. This is a statistic often cited to invalidate various dietary approaches, but it is in fact true of all approaches to the best of my knowledge. In my opinion, this should simply be a reminder of the fact that there is no finish line and it is about forming better habits that you can actually sustain for life. Set short term goals i.e. a desired weight or fat % goal, but think long term… “will I still be there in 5 years or more?” I will go on to suggest, that while all approaches, can be successful, all of them, also have shortcomings that lead to plateaus or regaining fat/weight.
SLEEP: Proper rest likely MORE important than diet OR exercise.
While this may not seem to be a nutritional guideline, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of adequate sleep. In fact, if you were to ask me to choose which of either sleep, exercise or nutrition is most important, I would actually choose sleep. This is an oversimplification as, in fact, diet and exercise may have an effect on proper sleep, and vice versa but, if you are sleep deprived, you will find yourself very hungry… much if not all of the time. If you exercise intensely, and your sleep is inadequate, you will find that you either do not have the energy to work intensely enough and/or cannot recover properly, and your exercise program may actually wind up being detrimental. Sleep before midnight appears to be more valuable than after midnight. There are a number of strategies, that can help with sleep hygiene. I’m including the following link. as well as this great article by Drew Baye. I would also add that getting outside in sunlight as soon as you can after waking resets your circadian clock and you are more likely to get tired at the proper time in the evening. I use Isagenix Sleep Spray regularly and find it very helpful and after several months, it does not seem to be habit forming, as I fall asleep without it frequently
A FEW BASIC PRINCIPLES THAT ARE THE UNDERLYING REASON WHY ANY DIET IS EFFECTIVE (IF IT IS). with credit to Ted Naiman P:E Diet
(note: if you only read or implement one section of this article, this is the one)
1. Emphasize Protein: All macronutrients, protein, fat and carbohydrates play a role in proper nutrition, but modern processing has caused many people to consume too much “energy” (fat and/or carbs) and not enough protein. Bringing this into better balance (one part protein to one part of your combined carbs and fat, or even higher protein ratio) will in itself cause greater satiety, almost inevitably creating a decrease in calories. For very active individuals or once someone has reached an ideal body fat percentage, the percentage of “energy” (fat and carbs) in diet can be increased.
2. Decrease Carbohydrate Frequency: Our bodies are like an amazing car that can switch from burning different types of fuel when needed. As an analogy, think of fat as diesel oil and carbs as gasoline. Our bodies have the potential to switch back and forth with ease. This amazing “car” also has an elastic fuel tank that allows us to store energy for future use in almost unlimited amounts. However, there is a principle of “use it or lose it” that comes into play. Historically, we were forced to switch back and forth between using our “diesel/fat” and “gasoline/carb” engines. During periods of abundance (late summer where we gorged to fatten up) we used our “gasoline/carb” engine primarily, and over the long winter that often included food scarcity, we switched to our “diesel/fat” engine. However, for much of the world today, due to modern technology and greater prosperity, we have an “endless summer” when it comes to food availability. As a result, our “gasoline/carb” engine works great, but our “diesel/fat” engine, rarely used or needed, has fallen into various states of disrepair for many of us. Simply consuming carbs during a limited period during the day, (I suggest evening), will encourage our bodies to use its fat burning engine more. Even if you consumed the same amount of carbs, decreasing the frequency would make a significant difference. In actual practice, restricting carbohydrate consumption to a 4 to 6 hour window will almost always result in a reduction in the amount of carbs consumed. Intermittent fasting (more on this later) is great, but if you do get hungry, reach for protein or higher fibre vegetables.
3, Beware of Foods That Are High in Both Carbs and Fat, Are Calorie Dense, and Have Little or NO Protein: Processed food is often disparaged, being considered inferior to “real food”. While much of this criticism is based on alleged negative effects of so called “artificial” additives, this may likely not be the main issue. All energy in food first comes from the sun, as plants are able to store this energy, and all protein in food first comes from the ground, as plants are able to use nitrogen and minerals to transform into protein. Of course, herbivores and omnivores eat plants, and absorb both energy and protein as a result. Carnivores and omnivores eat animals and also absorb both energy and protein as a result. In varying ratios, food in its natural state will almost always contain protein as well as energy, be it primarily carbodydrates in the case of most plant sources, or primarily fat in the case of most animal sources. The main issue with modern food processing, is that by totally separating energy from protein (sugar, flour, vegetable oils) we have created “pure energy” foods. Then, we came up with recipes that combined “fat and carbs” together (a combination almost never found in nature) with little or no protein. These foods tend to work on the pleasure centres of the brain in much the same way as a narcotic. They are also very inexpensive to produce compared to protein. For profits of the food industry, this is a great combination: cheap to produce and highly addictive. My advice for these foods is to treat them as you would alcohol or any other drug: if you choose to consume, do so responsibly. They should actually not be a daily occurrence, but reserved for special occasions. For some, as with alcohol or drugs, abstinence may actually be a better route, especially during a period where focus is on fat loss.
WHEN YOU EAT (AND NOT EAT) MATTERS: A great modern first world problem!
We live in a time of unprecedented food abundance. This is something to be very grateful for. However, everything has its pros and cons. Try the best you can to give your body an absolute minimum of 10, and on some days when you feel extra motivated, as much as 18 hours or more without ingesting anything but pure water, or at most coffee or tea. This has come under many names, but you have likely heard of “intermittent fasting” or “time restricted eating”. Long before these trendy labels came to be, your mother probably told you not to eat after dinner. Strive to stick to this at least 5 or 6 days per week. Here’s why and more details on “intermittent fasting. At first you may find it difficult, but it actually doesn’t take that long to get used to it, and, as per the previous section, at least restricting your carbohydrate consumption to a certain window may be a great first strep or transition strategy.
EAT DELIBERATELY: Develop the habit of considering your choices.
Be conscious of WHAT you eat. (We tend to grab what’s close or convenient when we’re hungry or eat to pass time at night while watching television without thinking whether we’re actually hungry). As mentioned earlier, we are more prone to do so when we have not slept well. Journals work, or phone apps, such as Lose It! or Fitness Pal . Recently, I’ve discovered. Cronometer which I prefer because the database is more reliable. Other apps allow users to input their own foods but this leads to inaccurate nutrient/calories tracking. Some have suggested that Cronometer’s database is not as large, but what is there is more accurate. Think about making better choices; you don’t need a degree in nutrition to know that a steak, some chicken and/or high fibre fruits or vegetables are better choices than a donut, candy or a bag of chips. These phone apps can help you track your protein to energy ratio which is likely more important than tracking calories per se.
HIGH OR LOW FAT? HIGH OR LOW CARBS?: What is best for you?
Many claims have been made and challenged about benefits of higher fat and lower carbs, by people on both sides with significant qualifications to do so. I have however come to believe that too much of either is detrimental as they are both energy, and as previously stated, it is the protein to energy ratio that matters most, in my opinion. When either approach works, it is because by decreasing either fat or carbs, overall energy is decreased, creating a higher protein to energy ratio. When either approach reaches a plateau is is because the low carb eater believes he or she can eat unlimited amounts of fat, or the low fat proponent, turns to foods that are “fat free” but have replaced that fat with starches or sugar, increasing carbs to unacceptable amounts.
Ultimately, the law of thermodynamics is absolute (calories in, calories out) but that advice alone has a bad success rate, because it fails to consider satiety, and our need for protein and minerals. We tend to eat until we get enough of the nutrients we need (protein and minerals, primarily) and if the food we eat is low in those, we will not be satisfied until we eat enough food to get what we need. Whereas, if we consume foods that are more nutrient dense, we will feel satisfied sooner.
It has been estimated that in actual weight of food consumed, (credit here to P:E Diet by Ted Naiman and William Shewfelt), most of us consume between 3 or 4 pounds of food each day. So here are two scenarios.
- A pound of boiled potatoes, a pound of smoked salmon, a pound of lean steak and a 9 egg omelette (about a pound) total 1600 calories. Unless you are extremely sedentary, you will lose fat on 1600 calories a day.
- Four pounds of potato chips is about 7000 calories. Unless you’re Michael Phelps, you will gain significant fat on 7000 calories per day
What about the other macronutrient protein: A good guideline is 1 gram of protein for your target lean weight as a minimum. At 6 feet tall, a “lean and mean” weight for me is about 170 lbs, so about 170 grams of protein.
ACTIVITY: Train hard briefly and infrequently; do light activity throughout each day!
Clients of Sustainable Success know that I recommend relatively infrequent, brief and very intense strength training. This does not mean I don’t recognize the importance of being active between strength training sessions. I am not referring to extended steady state activities such as running or swimming (unless this is something you truly enjoy or compete in) and I believe doing too much of these activities can actually be detrimental to fat loss. What you do want to avoid is spending too much time sitting at a desk or on your couch being immobile. Walking regularly is good, and it actually appears that getting up once an hour and walking around for 3-5 minutes is actually more beneficial than sitting all day and then having a 40-minute walk as your only daily activity. An activity “snack” just before or after meals can help as well, and this can just be walking around the house a bit and doing some arm circles or even some calisthenics. This is not about burning significant calories, because the amount you burn will actually be less than what you might think even if you are extremely active. Excessive activity will likely backfire two ways: first, you will interfere with the recovery from your strength training sessions, and secondly, you will build up a ravenous appetite. However, regular activity has been shown to send a signal to your body that all is well, and that it is okay to release fat stores.
As mentioned at the beginning, two benefits of high intensity strength training are that
1. It sends a signal to your body to preserve lean tissue and prioritize the loss of fat tissue.
2. It depletes glycogen from the liver and muscles which greatly benefits your ability to utilize the carbohydrates you do consume as well as help with your overall metabolism.
SUPERHYDRATION AND THERMOGENESIS: Water and cold are very helpful!
Drinking plentiful water (preferably ice-cold) is healthy and aids fat loss. There is a caloric cost to having your body “heat up” the cold water (it comes out warm). It also helps to flush out waste products and makes you feel full. The best way to accomplish this is to carry around a water bottle and sip on it throughout the day. Aim for a bare minimum of 2 litres daily. As an aside, by the time you actually feel thirst, you probably are already slightly dehydrated, so drinking before we feel thirsty is wise. We often mistake thirst for hunger, so for a craving, perhaps try drinking a glass of water and see if your craving goes away, or at least help you hold off for a little while. Cold baths and showers or ice on neck in evening also burn calories. Sleeping in a cool room and keeping the thermostat lower are all helpful. And going back to the Activity heading just above, if you drink this much water, you will likely be getting up and moving around once an hour or so! Try to get most if not all of your water in before 5 pm, so that you don’t have too many nighttime bathroom trips.
GUT HEALTH AND MICROBIOME: Mind/Body/Health connection.
Recently, there has been a lot of media coverage concerning “gut health” and how the state of the bacteria in our digestive system, can have profound effects on not only our physical health but our mental health as well. While it was once thought that worrying contributed to stomach ulcers, recent evidence suggests that perhaps it may be the other way around. (maybe a chicken and egg thing) As a result of media exposure, there is now a preponderance of products that purport to help with this. I am not knowledgeable enough to weigh in with any authority, but my general recommendation would be to be aware of this and explore further while being weary of unscrupulous attempts to sell you various products that may or may not have tangible benefits. This article is very well balanced, in my opinion. Here is another link that offers additional perspectives. Keep in mind that science is always evolving and any links may be more or less relevant as time goes by.
ALCOHOL AND OTHER DRUGS: Making informed choices.
We know that excessive alcohol, is detrimental, and perhaps moderate consumption may actually have health benefits, but either way, alcohol provides calories with almost no nutritional value. Consuming alcohol while attempting to create a caloric deficit will make it more challenging. Total lifelong abstinence is a choice that is still rare in our current society, but in an initial 30 day “quick start” period, or perhaps for a future “reboot”, abstaining or at least severely limiting, will definitely make things easier. For every alcohol calorie we consume, we have to eat less of other foods.
Marijuana is a very popular drug, and while once demonized, it now seems that the pendulum may have swung too far over, as the many potential benefits are now flooding the media. Marijuana may well have benefits, but it is a habit-forming drug, that if used at all, should be treated with extreme care and responsibility. From a diet perspective, it has long been known to trigger the “munchies” which is highly unlikely to be helpful. For chronic heavy users, a link has been suggested to lower testosterone which would impede muscle growth or libido. Interestingly this article suggests that casual users (two joints a week) may increase sperm count. (one study only). Perhaps as with alcohol, there may be some benefits to moderate use which disappear when used to excess.
CONTROVERSIAL FOODS: Different strokes for different folks: foods to avoid (or substitute)
General: Some foods should be minimized or eliminated by everyone. Other foods are not well tolerated by some. In other cases, individuals may choose to avoid certain foods due to their current view of developing research findings, ethical reasons, or because they simply find certain foods unappealing. If you do choose to avoid or eat very rarely of any one food or food type, consider whether you need to compensate by including another food that can provide nutrients found in the foods you’re avoiding.
Dairy: Some individuals do not tolerate lactose well, while others believe that humans should not be consuming dairy at all. It is however a nutrient dense food and a good source of protein. Modern dairy is pasteurized and homogenized, and as such, is a highly processed food, plus it may come from animals that have been given hormones and/or antibiotics. Many people feel that raw milk from a reliable source is more nutritious, however, at the time of this writing, this is not legal in Canada. Increasingly, dairy from grass fed cows, without homogenization and certified not to have had hormones or antibiotics added is available, so if you tolerate dairy well, and are not concerned about saturated fat or other issues, it is a good source of protein and many other nutrients, not to mention quite tasty (in my opinion). Of course, too much dairy fat (or any fat) can throw off your protein/energy ratio, so I’ve become quite fond of fat free plain greek yogurt, and fat free cottage cheese, as well as some ultra filtered milk that has much higher protein and less carbs, or with the skim variety less fat. Some may feel the latter is an over processed food. I have not investigated thoroughly.
Vegetable Oils and Other Fats: For years, we were told to avoid saturated (animal) fat, due to supposed links to heart disease and to instead consume vegetable oils and margarine. More recently, the processing and creation of “trans-fats” has called into question whether that advice in fact did far more harm than good. While the reader is encouraged to do their own homework, I personally feel that olive oil, coconut oil and animal fats, particularly from grass fed animals, or fish from reliable sources represent better choices and traditional oils from soy, corn, canola etc. should be minimized or avoided. The latter are abundant in processed foods. I’m including two articles with different views: A and B with the former advising more moderate consumption of saturated fats. The reader should seek to make their own informed choices.
Eggs, Red Meat and Organ Meats: As per above, pertaining to vegetable oil, etc., saturated fat was demonized as either increasing cholesterol and/or contributing to heart disease or even cancer. It seems that the recommendations for and against these foods are in a state of constant flux. Epidemiological studies (studies of large populations) will sometimes show links, but this does not prove cause and effect. It is entirely possible that people who consume large amounts of red meat, are also more likely to consume more food in total, and or, exercise less, smoke or consume more alcohol. Further blurring the issue, is that with greater affluence, we tend to consume only the muscle portion of animals, whereas traditionally, we ate more organ meats as well as most other parts of the animal, and this changes the context. Regardless, animal products are extremely nutrient dense, and buying unprocessed fresh meat and eggs from reliable sources as well as consuming organ meats regularly undoubtedly provide many benefits. More and more scientists are questioning the link between saturated fat and heart disease, but again, clients should do their own homework and think for themselves. Here is why context is so important.
Plant Based, Carnivore or Omnivore?: Some people have very strong opinions (pro and con) about veganism (no animal products), variations on vegetarianism (where some will allow dairy and/or eggs and/or fish) for either ethical reasons or concerns about alleged effects on the environment. I know of others who advocate carnivore diets where only animal sources are consumed. You will find evidence for pros and cons for each approach. Beware that “evidence” can consist of anecdotes, epidemiological studies and research that may or not be well designed, have very small samplings or where the funding source may imply potential bias. My opinion (for what it’s worth) is that no one knows for sure plus it may vary from individual to individual. The fact that we have survived as a species, shows that we are extremely adaptable to various diets. Eating a wide variety of good food still seems to be sensible advice (omnivore). Again, giving your body a break (when to eat) and simply not overconsuming may be the common thread that accounts for varying effectiveness of any of these approaches.
Sugar, Flour and or High Fructose Corn Syrup: While the saturated fat theory of heart disease has dominated for decades, more and more research suggests a link between heart disease, cancer and inflammation. It is thought that over consumption of refined carbohydrates, often in the form of refined sugar, flour and other refined carbs, contributes to this. These foods do add to palatability of many recipes, and while avoiding altogether may not be necessary, moderation seems wise, and as we use less, we often find that a little sweetness goes a long way. As with vegetable oil, these foods also alter our protein to energy ratio, which may actually be the real issue.
Grains: Yet another food source that has become controversial are grains in the form of bread and cereals. For individuals who have confirmed diagnoses of celiac disease, this is obvious, however it has been suggested that everyone should avoid grains and the gluten that is the issue with celiac disease. While I don’t feel it is necessary to avoid grains altogether for most people, and that there are valuable nutrients found in these foods, better choices may be “sprouted” breads or fermented (if it is true sourdough) breads. I do think that you should vary your carb sources so that the majority of whatever quantity of carbs you choose to consume does not come from grains. I would suggest that higher fibre vegetables and fruit comprise that majority. Individuals can assess how well they do with varying quantities of these foods in their diet.
Supplements: Vitamins, minerals, protein powders, just to name a few, are either heralded as necessary for optimum health or alternatively, are criticized as a fraudulent waste of money or even worse to cause actual harm. People have become more health conscious and some would say, obsessed with health and/or fear of death, and this does create a market for unscrupulous manufacturers to peddle their wares with unsubstantiated claims. This does not however mean that all supplements are bad. It is beyond the scope of this article to make ta comprehensive assessment. Many advocate the consumption of “real food” over either “processed food” or popping vitamin pills. However, these trendy labels are overly general. While many processed foods do lack nutrients and or contain additives that may not be optimal, and have a very sub optimal protein to energy ratio, it doesn’t follow that they all do, nor does consuming so called “real food” necessarily guarantee nutritional superiority. This article from the Mayo clinic provides (in my view) a fairly balanced analysis. If you note all the various situations where it is conceded in this article that supplementation may be helpful, you will see that is a fairly long list. In the end, I do believe supplements are helpful but be weary of extravagant claims.
STAYING THE COURSE (where the rubber hits the long-term road)
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a lot of debate exists on which is the “best” diet, and frankly some good arguments are made by many sides, but I have to go back to “the best medicine only works if you actually take it over time”. Above is meant to be a collection of strategies, that most people should be able to live with for life.
As stated above, food should be one of the pleasures in your life and plays an important role in relationships. The aroma of Mother’s recipe can be part of a legacy that helps you remember loved ones even after they’re gone and sharing good food at special occasions is important. I hope this article has provided you with valuable and usable information.
Further disclosure and disclaimer: Note that inclusion of links in this article does not imply either affiliation with, endorsement of, or verification of accuracy or scientific validation. They are provided to give the reader additional information with which to make their own decisions.