Why Do We Villainize Carbs Today?: The Intersection of Food Industrialization & Fad Diets

When I mention carbs, fats, and proteins what comes to your mind? Carbs are bad for you, fat is good for you, and protein helps build muscle, right?  

With today’s popularity of low carb or no carb diets, carbs have become villainized while fats are lionized.  Open up your social media and it won’t take you long to discover that carbs cause inflammation, make you fat, and lead to diabetes.  The social media “influencers” will have you believe that human beings were never intended to be eating carbohydrates and that carbs have been thrust into our food supply by big agriculture and other dark interests. It wasn’t that long ago that fat was the villain and carbs were the hero but what changed?

Figure 1 : An Overview of America’s Food Supply & Fad Diets in the 21st Century.

Figure 1: An Overview of America’s Food Supply & Fad Diets in the 21st Century.

To better understand why carbs were once the hero but now play the role of the villain I took a look into the evolution of food industrialization, fad diets, and their intersection to help us understand why carbs are being unjustly blamed for many of today’s health problems. The role of carbohydrates in our health is an extremely complex and nuanced topic, so I’m not going to be able to cover everything but I’ll do my best to distill down the history of food production and fad diets into a few highlights and seminal events to help you understand how and why carbohydrates came to be demonized and why our wrath may not be placed in the proper place.

 

The Evolution of Food Industrialization

Homo-sapiens as we know them today are ~315,000 years old, and have been hunting and gathering since the dawn of our existence. When we were hunter gatherers, calories were needed to survive, regardless of where they came from.  At this time, food choices were made based on availability, not preference.  A look at figure 2 below illustrates the diets of hunter gatherers from various regions.

How Hunter-Gatherer Diets Vary by Geography

Figure 2:  Geography & Availability have Determined What We have Historically Ate  (source: Scientific American).

Figure 2: Geography & Availability have Determined What We have Historically Ate (source: Scientific American).

The transition from hunting to settling into communities and farming started some 10,000 years ago, and by 400 BC the vast majority of us had fully settled as farmers, and the diet consisted mostly of vegetarian food with the occasional meat.

Fast forward to the industrial age in America (1850-1900) where the advancement in machinery and increase in people living in urban areas transitioned the practice of local small-scale farming to large commercialized farms. During this time, westward expansion was occurring, which allowed the country to create large farms in the Midwest and transport food via the railroads throughout the country. The advances in machinery made it streamlined to produce and harvest corn, wheat, and soy efficiently and the production and transport of these items quadrupled during this time. Along with a surplus of grains came grocery stores. Now people could go to a store to get their food as opposed to relying on a local harvest. A paradigm shift in America had occurred; for the first time, people had quick access to a variety of food. 

With this industrial age, the diet moved away from regionally cultivated produce and livestock to more grain-based. Grain foods such as cereal, pasta, and rice were readily consumed (these foods contain much more carbohydrates than fruits and vegetables). By the mid-1940s, food manufacturers had figured out a way to freeze and can food. These items were marketed as luxury products, and only the wealthy could afford them.  Between 1948-1958, the number of supermarkets and suburban communities doubled. The 50s were a prosperous time in America, and the price of processed foods decreased. These foods were now marketed towards women as a quick and easy way to make a tasty meal for the entire family. 

It should also be noted that during this time a link between saturated fat and heart disease was becoming apparent, so the American Heart Association (AHA) began placing an emphasis on decreasing fat and cholesterol consumption.  This meant that high saturated fat and/or cholesterol containing foods such as red meat, cheese, and eggs were to be limited and more emphasis was placed on consuming carbohydrate rich foods as opposed to eating high fat foods.  Food marketers advertised these convenience items as healthier, lower fat, and higher quality than whole foods. However, these low-fat products inevitably had more carbohydrates in them.  None the less, the marketing instilled in Americans that buying them demonstrated your family was living a healthy prosperous lifestyle.

In the 1960s consumers were now being marketed to eat out at restaurants and fast food stores and McDonald's started to gain traction across the country. The number of Americans preparing food at home began to decrease as the number of Americans eating out started to increase. Major processed foods and beverages such as Tab, Diet Pepsi, Pringles, and Gatorade began gaining popularity.  This decade marked another paradigm shift in American's eating habits from preparing and eating in the home to eating out or grabbing prepackaged food from stores. The graph below, compiled from the USDA’s food trends report data, demonstrates the trend towards eating out versus in the home between 1954-2014.

 
Figure 3:  More of Our Meals are Eaten Outside of the Home than Ever Before. Some Estimates Suggest that We Now Eat >50% of Our Meals Outside of the Home.

Figure 3: More of Our Meals are Eaten Outside of the Home than Ever Before. Some Estimates Suggest that We Now Eat >50% of Our Meals Outside of the Home.

 

This trend and focus on convenience and prepackaged foods only continued to pick up speed in the 1970s. Now, boxed dinners from hamburger helper and Betty Crocker made home-cooked meals quicker. Also, high fructose corn syrup was now being regularly added to beverages and processed foods.  Food advertisers focused their efforts on processed and unhealthy foods. 

As we move into the 1980s and 1990s, it almost seems like whole foods are a thing of the past. The microwave has become a household staple and ketchup is now considered a vegetable within the school lunch program. On top of that the first genetically modified crop was developed in the 80s and genetically modified foods were put on the shelves in the 90s.  The country was starting to experience the onset of the obesity epidemic and low-fat foods like Lean Cuisine and chips containing olestra were brought to the masses. Although the low-fat movement in processed foods started in the 1950s, the advancement in food chemistry, additives, and technology allowed for an abundance and variety of prepackaged low or non-fat foods in the 1980s and 1990s.  In an effort to maintain flavor but reduce fat, refined grains and sugar were added to these products. 

The pinnacle of food industrialization and evolution appears to be evident by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s.  Much of the population live in urban or suburban areas with easy access to grocery and convenient stores.  Americans now have an abundance of ready-made pre-packaged food at their fingertips. Food industrialization changed the landscape on choices and preparation.  Americans don’t have to worry about tending to a garden or making time to cook dinner, meals can simply be bought at the grocery store and heated up in the microwave within minutes or easily obtained through a fast food drive through.

 

Fad Diets Throughout American History

Fad diets have been around for 100s of years.  The number of diets that people have tried throughout the decades are countless, so I am going to go over the ones that appear to be most popular throughout the decades in industrialized America.

The 1900s through the 1930s saw a range of diets aimed mostly towards women.  In the 1900s Horace Fletcher started the Fletcherism diet. This purpose of this diet was weight loss by eating as much as you would like as long as you took about 100 bites of each mouthful of food.  Then, in the 1920s the article “Diet and Health With Key to the Calories” introduced the concept of calorie counting to people.  This article became mainstream.  Following that, in the mid 1920s Lucky Strike Cigarette created a campaign focused towards women urging them to reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet. The major diet of the 1930s was the Grapefruit diet and was a low-calorie plan that called for eating a grapefruit with each meal in effort to lose weight. 

The 1950s through the 1970s brought on more diets and was the introduction of the one diet that is still mainstream today, the low-carb diet. In 1953, Doctor Pennington introduced one of the first carbohydrate-controlled diets that allowed for only a small portion of potatoes.  Also, in the 1950s the cabbage soup diet was widely used. This diet promised people they could lose 10-15 pounds by restricting food intake and eating mostly cabbage soup. In the 1960s Weight Watchers was first introduced and gained traction.  This diet is still popular today and teaches people to focus on counting calories (points) as an eating management strategy.  Following that, the 1970s decade started with the cookie fad diet. This was a cookie made by a doctor that had a secret blend of amino acids and promised to help control hunger and enable people to stick to a low-calorie diet.  Elvis then popularized the sleeping beauty diet in the mid-1970s. This diet put emphasis on sleeping to control hunger and lose weight.  The 70s concluded with the introduction of slim fast shakes as meal replacements helping to keep you fuller longer, reduce calories, and lose weight.  

The 1980s and 1990s saw the onset of diets and convenience foods marketed as healthy to try to undo the increase in obesity that was on the rise. In the mid-80s, the "Fit for Life" diet prohibited complex carbohydrates and protein from being eaten in the same meal, here the emphasis was not about what you eat as opposed to when you eat it.  Then, in 1985 the Paleolithic nutrition book was published, which called for avoiding processed foods, grains, and dairy.  Controlling when to consume carbohydrates along with staying away from processed foods and grains, both which contain carbohydrates, help set the tone around carbohydrates for the 1990s. 

The 1990s was the era of low fat and low carb. During the 90s the Atkins diet gained popularity, this way of eating adhered to low carbohydrate high protein food. Then the book "Eat More Weight Less" became a commercial success. Here, the focus was on a plant-based diet involving mostly whole foods. Later on, in the 90s, the Zone Diet became mainstream and this diet consisted of having each meal with 40% carbohydrates or less plus an emphasis on lean meats and unprocessed foods.  Some physicians and then the public during this era had started to go against the low-fat diet suggestions from the AHA in the 50s.  The 90s were a turning point for how carbs would be viewed years to come. America had a supply of grains from large industrial farms and just too many calories in abundance per person. In effort to simplify dietary advice for the masses, key health leaders took a 180 degree approach and went anti-carb. Just like the carbohydrate-controlled diets of the 80s, the low carbohydrate diets of the 90s mainly had a focus on whole foods with minimal prepackaged or convenience foods.  

The popular diets of the 2000s to present like South Beach and Keto, include low carbohydrate, plant-based, whole foods, or a combination of all three.  This decade brought back the diet of our ancestors with whole foods and plant based but did so in a somewhat misguided fashion. 

 

Overlap in Fad Diets and Food Industrialization

It appears that there is a correlation between the industrialization of food and the evolution of fad diets, particularly carb-controlled diets.  The 1950s saw the advent of processed, low fat foods where carbs where added, and convenience foods were equated to health. The decade’s diets were focused on restricting food intake and low carb.  This makes sense since low fat foods contain additional refined grains and Americans had more food available to them at grocery stores than they ever did in the previous decades.

The 1960s saw the increase of eating meals outside the home.  Fast food restaurants started to pop up throughout the country.  Now Weight Watchers was introduced as a program that taught people how to manage food intake.  This program can be seen as a reaction to help consumers learn how to eat when they are outside of the home and have plentiful options.

Following that, the 1970s saw a trend where boxed dinners became the norm, the per person daily calorie intake was increasing and the amount of food available per person was the most it had ever been.  Food companies tried to help Americans by offering lighter versions of their favorite foods. Popular diets at the time were low calorie or foods or methods to help a person stay away from eating or feel fuller longer to reduce the amount they ate.  

The 1980s and 1990s was the introduction of the household microwave, ketchup as a vegetable, genetically modified foods, and low-fat packaged food.  This is when the availability of processed, convenience foods appeared to be at its peak and obesity was starting to be seen as an epidemic. As mentioned before, these types of foods are high in added sugar and refined carbs.  During this time many carb-controlled diets became popular as were diets that focused on eating more whole foods and plant based.  

Throughout history it seems like these fad diets have come to popularization in an effort to help people try to manage the newest advances in food composition and abundance.  From the 2000s to now the focus is on low carb and plant based.   It seems as though we are now trying to eat a diet rich in whole foods and go back to having an eating pattern similar to that of our ancestors. The whole foods dietary patterns makes sense as now America has an understanding of what consistent consumption of prepackaged convenience foods does to their long term health. 

 

Conclusion

In reviewing how America became concerned with how many carbohydrates they consume, it can be inferred that this concern stemmed due to the rise, affordability, and accessibility of prepackaged and convenience foods. Prepackaged and convenience foods are ultra-processed and highly palatable. The more palatable a food is, the more of it you are likely going to consume. In fact, this was exemplified in a study published this year by Kevin Hall in Cell Press showing that when macronutrient (carbs, fats, proteins) percentages are identical between ultra-processed and unprocessed diets for 14 days and people are allowed to eat as much as they want per meal, those on the ultra-processed diet ate an average of 500 calories more per day than the unprocessed diet.  Figure 4 below shows the results from this study. 

Figure 4:  When Macronutrients are Matched (same ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins) People will Eat Nearly 500 Calories/Day more when Offered Highly Processed compared to Minimally Processed Food.

Figure 4: When Macronutrients are Matched (same ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins) People will Eat Nearly 500 Calories/Day more when Offered Highly Processed compared to Minimally Processed Food.

Now, the question is, do you know what is a processed food? Where does your food come from? How it was made?  I know with the abundance of food options, food manufacturers, diets, and messages on social media platforms it can feel really overwhelming and confusing to sort this all out.  This is why registered dietitians (RDs) exist.  It takes time, energy, and effort to accumulate the knowledge and skills to sort through the science and evidence-based research to figure this all out. 

So, if you are seeking individualized answers on how to craft a balanced diet that’s suitable to your lifestyle reach out to an RD.  

In the meantime, try to keep in mind that the total number of calories in our food supply has led to obesity, not carbs per se.  Carbohydrates are a macronutrient; they provide us with energy, help our central nervous system and muscles function, and aid in fat metabolism among many other roles they play in our bodies.  If you are concerned about eating “too many” carbs try to shift that focus to being concerned about eating too much processed foods. When you look at how many calories there are in our food system both carbs AND fats are to blame (Figure 5).

 
Figure 5:  Carbohydrates AND Fats have Increased in Our Food Supply. They are BOTH to Blame.

Figure 5: Carbohydrates AND Fats have Increased in Our Food Supply. They are BOTH to Blame.

 

We have been eating carbohydrates in some way, shape, or form for 315,000 years and counting. Now that food is convenient, prepackaged, and plentiful we are saying carbohydrates are bad. Carbohydrates are not the villain; the villain may be the readily available empty calories from highly refined foods. From here on out let's focus our creating a future where the emphasis is on the types of foods we consume as opposed to drastically reducing or cutting out an entire nutrient group! 

Julie Kent (MS, RD, December 2019)

References:

1. Rafferty JP. Just How Old Is Homo sapiens? Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/just-how-old-is-homo-sapiens. Accessed July 30, 2019.

2. HUNTER-GATHERERS TO FARMERS. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab63. Accessed July 30, 2019.

3. Big Business: Shopping an AAS Online Exhibition. https://www.americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Food/shopping.htm. Accessed July 30, 2019.

4. How Highly Processed Foods Liberated 1950s Housewives. National Women's History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/how-highly-processed-foods-liberated-1950s-housewives. Accessed July 30, 2019.

5. Smith LP, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965-1966 to 2007-2008. Nutrition journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3639863/. Published April 11, 2013. Accessed July 30, 2019.

6. Processed Foods History: 1960s to Today. Modern Pioneer Mom. https://modernpioneermom.com/2012/07/05/processed-foods-history-1960s-to-today-2/.Published July 5, 2012. Accessed July 31, 2019.

7. Gina. America's Food Evolution; The Past 40 Years. America's Food Evolution; The Past 40 Years |. https://candidrd.com/2011/03/americas-food-evolution-the-past-40-years.html. Published March 31, 2011. Accessed July 31, 2019.

8. Diets Through History: The Good, Bad, and Scary. Health.com. https://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20653382,00.html?slide=135630#135630. Accessed August 1, 2019.

9. Harper. A Look Back at Fad Diets People Have Tried Over the Years. Harper's BAZAAR. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/diet-fitness/g15893190/popular-diet-the-year-you-were-born/?slide=30. Published November 13, 2018. Accessed August 1, 2019.

10. Blackmore W. The Diet of the 1980s May Be Why Americans Are So Fat Today. TakePart. http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/01/04/obesity-retro-report. Published January 4, 2016. Accessed August 13, 2019.

11. Hall KD. Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: A one-month inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. 2019. doi:10.31232/osf.io/w3zh2

12. Hall KD. Did the Food Environment Cause the Obesity Epidemic? Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5769871/. Published January 2018. Accessed August 22, 2019.

13. Bentley J. U.S. Trends in Food Availability and a Dietary Assessment of Loss-Adjusted Food Availability, 1970-2014. USDA ERS. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=82219. Accessed August 22, 2019.

Counting Calories: A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem

Can you count calories for the rest of your life?  Of course not, that’s madness.  Yet, that is exactly what many weight management programs are based upon.  I was recently told that “counting calories works, period!” and while I 100% agree that counting calories works in the short-term, it is not a long-term solution.

When I first graduated with my PhD in 2013, I was obsessed with energy balance and its role in weight management (hence the name Energy Balance Nutrition Consulting).  I’ve since realized that, although energy balance is important, it’s not very humanistic and doesn’t even begin to touch upon WHY we make the food decisions that we make in the first place. 

So why are people (including myself at one time) so obsessed with estimating metabolic rate, food logging, and counting calories?  Because quantifying these things gives people a sense of control and the illusion that they are taking care of their problem.  But before we get into why I don’t think food logging and counting calories is the most effective use of your time, let’s for a second, stop and think about why we are counting calories in the first place by walking through an all too common scenario.

You’re overweight, not feeling the greatest about your body, and recognize that you need to make a change but you’re not sure what to do about it or how to do it.  You’ve investigated a number of diets on the internet but many of them offer conflicting information and you’re locked into paralysis by analysis.  You decide that you need to talk to someone so you set up an appointment to meet with a personal trainer or a nutritionist.

The personal trainer or nutritionist will tell you that the reason you’re overweight is because you’re consuming more calories than you’re burning (a positive energy balance) and that you need to flip that equation into burning more calories than you’re consuming

Figure 1. A Negative Energy Balance (more calories burned than taken in) is the key to weight loss.

Figure 1. A Negative Energy Balance (more calories burned than taken in) is the key to weight loss.

Burning more calories through exercise is great but you’ll also need to eat fewer calories.  The burning question in your mind is

 

 

How many calories should I be eating to lose weight?

 

 

The trainer or nutritionist will tell you that it depends on how much weight you want to lose, how fast you want to lose it, AND that it depends on your resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn at rest to stay alive).  The trainer will go on to tell you that you could use an equation where you put in your height, weight, and age to estimate your metabolic rate but there is going to be some error in that measurement.  If you really want to know what YOUR specific resting metabolic rate (RMR) is, you should pony up the money to do an RMR test (click here to read why I don’t believe this test is worth it and click here if you are interested in using an equation, which I believe is good enough to get you into the ballpark of what you need).

You agree to do the RMR test and find your RMR. But your RMR only accounts for the calories you burn at rest. Your trainer will now have to either multiply your RMR by an activity factor or estimate the number of calories you will burn during a workout and add those calories to your RMR to get your total daily energy expenditure (TEE). After obtaining your TEE, the trainer will subtract a number of calories from your TEE to help you create a negative energy balance (more calories out than in) to help you lose weight. The size of the prescribed negative energy balance will be based upon how much weight you have to lose and how quickly you want to lose it.

Figure 2. Total Energy Expenditure is made up of how many calories you burn during physical activity (TEA), how many calories you burn digesting and absorbing food (TEF), and how many calories your major body organs burn to keep you alive (RMR).

Figure 2. Total Energy Expenditure is made up of how many calories you burn during physical activity (TEA), how many calories you burn digesting and absorbing food (TEF), and how many calories your major body organs burn to keep you alive (RMR).

For example, let’s say that you want to lose two pounds/week.  The trainer will then ask you to reduce your calorie intake by 1,000 calories below your estimated TEE.  Let’s say that your TEE was estimated to be 2400 calories/day, this now means that you’ll be eating 1400 calories/day to lose 2 pounds/week.  The trainer used the standard, yet false and inadequate conversion of 3500 calories = 1 pound of weight loss.  Therefore, if you reduced your calories by 1000 calories/day, for 7 days you would lose 2 pounds (1000 x 7 = 7000; take 7000/3500 = 2 pounds).  Why 3500 calories does not equal 1 pound of weight loss is a discussion for another day but bear with me.

Now that you’ve been prescribed a calorie goal, you begin religiously counting your calories to stay within the 1400 calorie mark.  But my question still stands.  How long are you going to be able to do this for?

The weight loss literature pretty clearly shows that if you’re like most people you’ll be able to keep this up for two to three months before the voracity with which you track your intake starts to wane and when you stop tracking, guess what happens, you stop losing weight and you’ll more than likely start gaining some of the weight back that you worked so hard to lose.  Case in point, if you look at the average amount of weight lost on the publicly traded, Oprah backed, Weight Watchers, it’s around an abysmal five to ten pounds.  I will bet you $100,000,000 and a lifetime of servitude that no one is happy with five pounds of weight loss after one year.

At this point you should be saying, “okay Mr. Smarty-pants, do you have a better solution?”  Yes I do. 

 

 

Meal plan, meal plan, and meal plan.

 

 

Here’s why.  People don’t do well with uncertainty.  No one does, humans are programmed to inherently dislike uncertainty.  To relieve some of the stress that comes with uncertainty, trainers and other health & wellness professionals have fallen into the calorie counting trap and it totally makes sense why.  If you can measure someone’s metabolic rate and prescribe what you estimate to be the appropriate number of calories, you can quantify how much someone needs to eat.  What was once some unknown, abstract solution is now spelled out crystal clear and you have a roadmap for success.  But very few people can follow that roadmap, why?

It’s because we’ve been instructed to place our focus in the wrong spot.   Being overweight isn’t a math problem, it’s a socioeconomic, emotional, physiological, behavioral, psychological, human problem and all the complexities that come with being human.  You can’t reduce food decisions down to a simple number.  We are not machines.  If you’ve been really good about counting calories and logging all of your food, you might one day say, you know what, I deserve to eat something that’s “bad” for me today.  You’re going to treat that as an isolated incident.  It’s just a one-time thing.  You tell yourself that you don’t always do that.  But this is the beginning of the end for you.  This is the proverbial “slide” back into your old habits and routines. 

If you log your food, how often do you go back and look at your old records?  You don’t, looking at them is boring, I know I’m a dietitian that’s looked at hundreds and thousands of food logs, I’d rather watch paint dry.  Furthermore, if you have a bad day, you’ll be likely to chalk it up to a bad day and move on to the next. 

Food logging and calorie counting is an “of the present moment” type of activity but as the name suggests “Meal Planning” is something you plan well before the time that you complete the activity, in this case eating the food.  Logging food is all about what you did and DOES NOT predict what you are going to do.  Sure, if you know that you have to write it down you might not eat those potato chips or you might must omit it from your food log or lie about the quantity.  As Chelsea Torres has pointed out, you’re not fooling your body, you’re only fooling yourself.  Your body still knows how many calories you’re eating no matter what you tell yourself.

Meal planning MUST come before food logging and calorie counting.  If weight management were as easy as calories in/calories out, focusing on counting calories rather than meal planning still violates our “order of operations”.  For example,  when we are solving algebraic fractions the “order of operations” dictates that you have to multiple and divide before you add and subtract.  If you add or subtract before multiplying or dividing you will never get the right answer.  Counting calories and food logging is only appropriate AFTER you have already extensively meal planned.  Without proper meal planning you will find yourself in far too many tempting situations to be successful.  Who cares how good you are about tracking if you’re not adequately planning.

If you don’t control your environment and your temptations, making food decisions so late in the game is going to have disastrous consequences.  Your focus should be first and foremost on meal planning, if you want to count calories after that, then that is a secondary objective.

I’m not anti-counting calories ever.  I just think there is a time and a place for them, namely:

  1. Counting calories increases your general knowledge of how many calories are in foods: you should have a general idea of whether a food is low, medium or high calorie but you don’t have to know the exact numbers.  Knowing exact numbers is nothing more than micromanaging your diet.

  2. Counting calories may be necessary at the beginning of a diet: to get a feel for portion sizes and calorie content before finding your groove, counting calories may be warranted.

  3. If you’ve fallen off the wagon: if you find that your weight loss has stalled or if you’re gaining weight, counting calories may be warranted.

 

Counting calories provides a false sense of control and belief that you’re doing your part.  After all, counting calories is a huge pain in the ass, so it must be working right?  I think that most of us have a general sense that if something is high effort that it must also be of high reward.

While this may be true in the short term, counting calories is never a long-term solution.  We act like counting calories is THE TOOL, when in reality it is one of many tools.  A far more powerful tool is meal planning.  Admittedly, meal planning is a lot of work up front but not really any more than food logging and counting calories is and the work that you put in upfront is an investment because eventually your meal planning will morph into a long-term solution.  Counting calories is an “in the present” activity and as soon as you stop doing it, it is gone.  There’s nothing to fall back on and there is no return on your investment.

Figure 3. Meal Planning is the Long-Term Solution to Healthy Eating. Counting Calories is only a temporary solution that leaves you back a square one.

Figure 3. Meal Planning is the Long-Term Solution to Healthy Eating. Counting Calories is only a temporary solution that leaves you back a square one.

Meal planning helps control your food environment and therefore limits your temptations and food decision making.  You know what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it and will be far more effective long-term than counting calories.  Some people complain that they don’t like how restrictive meal planning is, that they can’t be spontaneous but the thing is, you don’t have to follow it to an absolute “T”, it’s okay to deviate when you feel like it.  If you’re after weight loss and want to alleviate the uncertainty that comes with dieting, there’s nothing better than meal planning.

Todd M. Weber PhD, RD

How to eat healthy when your day throws you a curveball

Question: what do you do when something unexpected comes up and you have to change your lunch plans at the last second?  If you’re like most people you probably a) don’t eat anything or b) eat a convenience food or meal that is high in calories and lacks nutrients.

For those of you who don’t know me, my husband is a Marine and I am also a former member of the Military.  As much as we love(d) our jobs in the service they are anything but predictable. Needless to say, we’ve had a lot of practice in dealing with unpredictable schedules.

When unexpected circumstances meet us in our day to day lives, we are forced to reorient our time and energy to focus on the emergency in front of us. We already have too much on our plates so we have to quickly shift gears and re-prioritize our finite resources. Something has to give and for most people diet and nutrition are among the first things that go.

My husband and I usually eat pretty healthy and with me being a “soon to be dietitian”, we have several built in advantages: I love to cook and make healthy meals, we don't have unhealthy snacks in the house, and we pack our lunches everyday. But when something comes up that we aren’t prepared for, we struggle.

The Marines do not work a normal 9-5 day. Sometimes my husband gets stuck at work without dinner until 10 PM. My heart aches for him when I get the “I am sooooo hungry” text. This a a screenshot of my husband, Isaac, pleading for dinner on one of his unexpected 24-hour duty days. When I’m not able to bring him something, those nights turn into vending machine dinners.

hungry text.PNG

It’s not just in the Military, everybody has work schedule changes, gets stuck at the office, or has unexpected deadlines. At those times, you don't think about cooking a healthy dinner. You’ve got more pressing issues to take care of and fires to put out.

And sometimes the circumstance isn't unexpected, but you just forget to fit food into the picture because you had so many other things to think about. These are the times when you get a pit in your stomach as you realize you left your lunch on the counter, you get back from a vacation to find a bare fridge, or your last three eggs you planned to make for dinner mysteriously ended up on your roommate’s plate...again.

We can't always anticipate when these circumstances will happen. But, they DO happen. And for some of us, they happen more often than we’d like. Since we know from past experience that our daily routines will be shook up from time to time, there are some things you can do to ensure that you’re not stuck eating out of a vending machine or being tempted to eat out and in the process make a poor food decision.

Your diet doesn't have to be be compromised. The key is to make a conscious effort to prepare--make the healthy choice the easy choice. Here are some strategies that have worked for me (also check out the table below for more specific ideas):

  1. Have back-up meals that are ready to throw together when you don’t have time to cook or go shopping. We have a few options that we fall back on, depending on how hangry I am. For days when no prep time is available, we have leftover MREs (Military issue camping food) or we pick up a rotisserie chicken from Walmart and microwave frozen broccoli. When, we can last ten minutes without eating, I always have a store of eggs and vegetables to make breakfast-for-dinner or precooked chicken and whole wheat bread for paninis. Alternatively, you could make your own freezer meals from leftovers, get grocery store meal kits, or even drink a meal replacement shake. I remember that my mom used to make huge batches of homemade sandwich pockets that we would take out of the freezer to eat for lunches or the occasional dinner when mom wasn’t around.

  2. Keep healthy snacks stashed in case you get stuck out longer than you plan. Anyone who hangs out with me knows that I am the snack lady. I’ve even been busted several times at sports games and theaters for sneaking snacks in where I’m not supposed to. I always stick an apple, cheerios, or protein bar in my purse before leaving the house.

  3. Fast food does not have to be unhealthy. Search the menus of places that you like for lower calorie options. All chain restaurants are required to have the nutrition information posted, and many have easy-to-use apps. My go-to item is the chili at Wendy’s. To make your trips to fast food places a little healthier, you could eat off the kids menu, just get the entree instead of the whole meal, or choose the grilled instead of fried options.

Here is a table with some additional ideas that you might want to print off and stick to the side of your fridge as a friendly reminder of some of the things you can do to prevent a diet meltdown.

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Now, with all that being said, there is no way to anticipate all of the scenarios that life will throw at you, but what I have learned is that being prepared to expect the unexpected and having contingency plans helps me minimize the stress when things do happen.

As I dietitian, I am not going to tell you that having a healthy diet is the #1 priority. I'm going to tell you it is important. There are things that are more important in life. The best thing you can do is be as prepared as you can. If you have to make compromises sometimes, that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up for it. I've learned that being okay with those compromises is the only way to stay sane. You can’t let the times you do have to make an allowance derail the good habits that you've already established.


Chelsea Torres




How I got into Dietetics and Why It isn’t what I Thought It Would Be

Hi, my name is Chelsea Torres and I’d like to tell you how I got into dietetics and why it isn’t quite what I thought it would be. I first became interested in nutrition my senior year in high school when I started training for a marathon.  My goal was pretty simple, all I wanted to do was finish the race, but as my training schedule picked up speed, I felt that my weight and stereotypical “high schooler diet” was slowing me down.

I thought,

“There must be a dieting secret that will fix all my problems.”

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I was desperate to find the truth, but I had no idea where to turn or who to ask. I experimented with advice from some trusted individuals, but their recommendations only made me feel worse. One well-intentioned recommendation from my personal trainer led me to nearly pass out in the middle of a 10-mile trail run.

Long story short, I never found that secret nutrition solution. I was frustrated because I felt like there was something that I should have known but no one was telling me. This frustration led me to pursue a degree in dietetics.

That was in 2012.

Fast forward 7 years and I am about to graduate with my Master’s in Nutrition. I’ve been thinking about the “high school me” and what I would have told her as she struggled to discover THE nutrition secret, not just for running but for a healthy life.

“Eat your fruits and vegetables.”

“Eat reasonable portion sizes.”

“Stop eating when you are full.”

Aren’t those things that I already knew? What more was I looking for? Did I really learn anything in the past 7 years?

Most people generally know what a healthy diet looks like. But, if it is so simple, why is there so much diet confusion? What I’ve learned during the past seven years studying nutrition is that there is simply too much information out there. Too much information that (a) is not true (b) doesn’t really matter or (c) has no clear application or plan of execution.

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a. It is nearly impossible to know who is right and who is wrong. Any person can publish books, blogs, or podcasts promoting their personal philosophy on nutrition. No degree, credentials or formal training is required and the information isn’t vetted for accuracy. On the flip side, so many “credible” sources (degrees, credentials and training) also publish contradictory information. Who is the public supposed to believe?

b. So much nutrition research focuses on minute details that probably would not affect the average person. In isolation, would we really expect there to be a difference in your health when drinking 1% versus 2% milk or eating 50 grams of carbs versus 100 grams?  No disrespect to nutrition research but I think we’re all getting too caught up in the trees and missing the forest.

c. Finally, no one clearly tells you how these minute details translate into an actual diet plan. Each research study that dramatizes a single nutrient(s) shows that you need to eat more of that thing. I remember asking myself a long string of questions:

How do I get more of that thing that is so important?
How do I avoid those things that they say are so bad for me?
What about all the other things that people are saying are so important? How do I get those things too?

It is not practical or feasible to keep all these tiny details straight in your head let alone incorporate them into your everyday diet. How many people really have the time or patience for that?

Before I started studying nutrition I thought that I was setting out to unweave the tangle of information I was confronted with and expose the secrets to diet success. I believe that I did learn those secrets, but not in the way I expected.

I learned that the only supplement I needed to take was a giant chill-pill. It does no good to get stressed out about whether you are doing exactly the “right” thing. A healthy diet is about choosing foods that make you feel good, improve your health in the long term, and power the activities you do that make your life worth living.

Dietetics isn’t what I thought it would be when I chose to go into this field but I’m still really happy I chose this profession.  I’ve learned so much over the past seven years and will continue learning for years to come. I want to conclude my story by telling you that now it is my turn to be that trusted representative of sound nutrition information (for real though) for those who are searching for answers, just like I was seven years ago.  I’ll be your guide to decipher what information is right and wrong, help you focus on the forest rather than the trees, and help you execute a sound nutrition plan. I’ve found out that the perfect diet doesn’t exist but that doesn’t mean that I can’t help you find the best diet there is for you. I’m so excited to be your dietitian.  

Chelsea Torres





Killing Them With Kindness: Why You Might Be Ruining Your Friends' Diets

Who doesn’t love free food? I mean, honestly, a box of donuts in the break room may be the only thing that keeps you from going crazy on a Tuesday morning that really feels like it should be a Friday afternoon. But a little donut in the breakroom plus a pecan cluster that

“you just have to try”

Or a “thank you” cookie

for helping out with a project last week can all add up to another diet that goes plummeting down the drain.  

If this sounds like you, don’t worry, you’re not alone.  A recent survey found that food obtained at work:

“averaged 1277 kcal per person per week….and free food accounted for 71% of all calories acquired. The leading food types obtained include foods typically high in solid fat, added sugars, or sodium such as pizza, soft drinks, cookies/brownies, cakes and pies, and candy.”

It’s not just the office break room that is the problem. Potlucks, birthdays, holidays, thank yous, welcomes, goodbyes, get well soons, “I dropped in to say hi and felt like I had to bring something”, are also common culprits. There is no end to the occasions where we feel the need to share high calorie, low nutrient food.

Sharing food helps us feel connected. It brings a sense of community, shows affection, and occasionally shows off our master cooking skills. We like to give food that tastes good, so we often give unhealthy food. It can be easy to make and obtain, and is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

This topic is particularly near and dear to my heart because I am guilty party #1.  I love to cook to show people that I appreciate them.

This topic is particularly near and dear to my heart because I am guilty party #1. I love to cook and one way I show people I love and appreciate them is by making them food. Boy am I a great cook and I know how to make things that people like: Banana foster cake for my husband, caramel popcorn balls for my mom, monkey bread for our game night group, and peanut butter cupcakes for my puppy Darla.

But I have to ask you this question.  Are we really helping anyone when we show affection through treats? While my husband tries so hard to stay healthy, lean, and fit for his career in the Marine Corp, I make him an entire banana foster cake to eat by himself.  I am essentially sabotaging his career--the person I love more than anybody in the world!

This is most likely the case with many people that we befriend with food. Considering that 45 million people go on a diet every year and 70% of adults are overweight, chances are that one of the people you smother with free food is trying their best to avoid such food.  Not only do they really want to accept your gift (because they want to eat it), but they will feel guilty for refusing. Essentially, we set our dieting friends up for failure.

Considering that 45 million people go on a diet every year and 70% of adults are overweight, chances are that one of the people you smother with free food is trying their best to avoid such food.

I am challenging myself to be more cognizant of the needs and long term goals of people I love. I challenge you to think more about the consequences of your well intentioned generosity too. Here are some tips to stop being the problem and start being part of the solution:

  • At work, parties, and potlucks, there is no shame in being the person who brought the veggie or fruit tray. Every party needs that person. Personally, I really appreciate that person, and I am sure other people do too.

  • If it kills you to “just” bring a veggie or fruit tray, use your creativity to make it a really beautiful display of fruits and veggies. Cut them in fancy shapes, make towers, use garnishes, whatever you can dream up. You can still impress the party.

  • Food is a quick, easy, and fool-proof gift. But, if you really want to show how much you care, take the time to think of something else they will really appreciate. Write a heartfelt note or spend quality time with the person.

  • If there is no way around giving food as a gift, choose healthier options. I think it is fun to give specialty items that are in flavors that you wouldn’t expect. I can spend hours at places like Trader Joe’s checking out the unique flavors of regular food items. A grapple (apple and grape hybrid), can of seasonal butternut squash soup, or buffalo flavored popcorn can be a healthy, and fun alternative.

  • If you must give unhealthy foods, give in reasonable portions. Rather than an entire plate of cookies, try wrapping a single cookie in a seasonal bag.

  • Finally, I think the most important thing to have is open communication with those that you are close with. Recently, my husband and I had a talk about how often treat gifts are acceptable. I know what his diet goals are and we are working together to achieve them. It can be difficult for me when I so badly want to spoil him with a surprise. But, it is important to both of us that we reach his long term goals rather than satisfying our impulsive cravings.

The world we live in is built for diet failure. Rather than complaining about it, it is time to become part of the solution. Hopefully our efforts to help other people achieve their diet goals will come full circle and we can develop a community that supports our healthy lifestyle as well.

Chelsea Torres

The Best Detox of All Time, Rejuvenza.

So, I was out sick with the flu all last week and in-between my 3:00am Siberian freezing sessions and daytime shirtless Sahara sweating sessions, I was too incapacitated to do any real work.  But I did do a lot of thinking.  And one of the random thoughts that popped into my mind that I thought I’d share with you is this: do you know what the best detox diet is of all time?

 

The Stomach Flu

  

I know, I know, let the hate mail and comments section below fill up with verbal abuse, but hear me out.  When you think about it, outside of the jokes that health professionals like to make about how you have a liver and two kidneys to detoxify your body, there is no other programmed bodily response/mechanism that will clean out your body any better.

There is no other programmed bodily response/mechanism that will clean your body out any better than its response to the stomach flu

All flus are bad but the people that get the worst of the flu are those that vomit AND have diarrhea, the proverbial, “it’s coming out of both ends”.  Vomiting cleans out the stomach and proximal (first) part of the small intestine, while diarrhea will help clean out the remainder of the small intestine, large intestine, and rectum.

At the same time, you’re not going to consume any food or drink for at least 24 - 36 hours and when you do start back, it’s usually a very elemental, chicken soup type diet.  Furthermore, there’s likely never a time where your body and its appetite feel more “reset”.  You really do feel like you’re starting over with eating.

Now, with all that being said, no one in their right state of mind would ever consider voluntarily giving themselves the flu!  Not even Dr. Oz and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovechild would consider doing something so radical.......or would they (cough, clear throat, ah hum... placenta eating).

In our extremist health and wellness culture it is fascinating to think about where the lines are drawn for being extreme and then being too extreme.  Eating your placenta, oh yeah, that’s cool don’t worry about it, but giving yourself the stomach flu?  Are you crazy, who in their right mind would do such a thing?

And yet, I don’t really see that much difference between these two examples.  If I had millions of marketing dollars and celebrity status I bet I could convince more than a few nit wits out there to voluntarily give themselves the stomach flu.  Only we couldn’t call it the stomach flu, we’d have to rebrand it, giving it some special name like REJUVENZA (rejuvenate and influenza).

Rejuvena, a great way to detoxify, reset, and rejuvenate your body and mind.

Rejuvena, a great way to detoxify, reset, and rejuvenate your body and mind.

Once a year, and maybe more often (if you’re hardcore) you schedule some time to “detoxify, reset, and rejuvenate your body and mind with rejuvenza”.........only this will never happen.  People will do all kinds of crazy things, THAT ARE EASY, and because many (but not all) of them don’t necessarily do any good but they also don’t do any harm or cause any pain.

For me, I guess the bottom line is this, for anyone wanting to “detox” their bodies, do your best to shift your dietary patterns towards a whole foods, plant based diet and try to get 30 - 60 minutes of exercise each day. If you work towards these two things, you’ll never need a detox.  If, on the other hand, you’d like to follow the foolish advice of some celebrity profiting off your foolishness, then forget the cayenne pepper and lemon juice, man up and go to the best detox there is, the stomach flu.

  

Todd M. Weber PhD, RD

Intermittent Fasting, the Next in a Long List of Fads or Actually Useful?

Article Highlights:

  • Recent interest in the Paleo diet has sparked public interest in eating based upon hunter-gatherer evolution.
  • Interest in the Paleo diet has led to the adoption of the more extreme, Ketogenic Diet.
  • In turn, the Ketogenic diet renewed the public’s interest in fasting (intermittent fasting, alternate-day fasting, and time restricted feeding).
  • We encourage some (but not all) principles of the Paleo diet, some forms of intermittent fasting, and time-restricted feeding be adopted by modern day man.
  • In our opinion, the Ketogenic diet and Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) have no place in public health; we believe these diets are passing fads.
  • In this review we address the things you should consider before trying intermittent fasting (IF) or time-restricted feeding (TRF).
  • We explain why, more than ever, there is a need for the modern-day consumer to create his/her own “Nutrition Rules” to build sustainable dietary patterns.

Introduction: Fasting, defined as prolonged periods of abstaining from eating or drinking anything containing calories has been practiced for millennia to cleanse the mind, body, and spirit.  Therapeutic fasting for weeks and months at a time became a popular treatment of obesity in the 1950’s and 60’s before falling out of favor.  In recent years, fasting has regained public interest in the form of intermittent fasting (IF) and time-restricted feeding (TRF).  Fasting comes in many forms (see Table 1) but one of the more popular modern-day applications of it is alternate-day fasting (ADF).

Table 1. Definitions of Different Types of Eating Patterns .  Reference: Anton, SD; 2018 Obesity

Table 1. Definitions of Different Types of Eating Patterns.  Reference: Anton, SD; 2018 Obesity

In ADF, one alternates between eating one day and fasting the next, thereby eating 2 days-worth of calories in one day and eating zero calories the other.  In time-restricted feeding, one consumes all of his/her calories within a pre-determined time period.  For example, in 10-hour TRF if your first meal comes at 8am, you are allowed to eat what you want, when you want until a set time point, let’s say 6pm.  Thereafter, you’re not allowed to eat or drink anything containing calories.  There may be some health benefits to IF and TRF; however, before we get into those we would like to explain how IF and TRF entered the mainstream as a way of eating.  In short, IF and TRF didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.  In our opinion, they are the offspring of the Paleo diet. 

The Rise of the Paleo Diet: Unless you’ve been living under a rock (pardon our pun), you’ve likely heard something about the Paleo diet.  The Paleo diet first entered the medical literature in 1985 as part of Eaton & Konner’s New England Journal of Medicine article, Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications.  The Paleo diet laid dormant in the medical field for ~15 years until the early 2000s when Colorado State professor, Loren Cordain published a series of articles on the Paleolithic way of eating.  It wasn’t until recently (the past five years or so) that the Paleo diet truly entered mainstream America.

In short, the Paleo diet is based upon what our ancestors during the Paleolithic era (2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago) had access to.  This time period was long before farming, agriculture, or caring for livestock.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild game and scavenged for berries, nuts, and seeds.  There was no industrialized food production or dairy products and there certainly weren’t any (farmed) grains. 

The modern-day Paleo diet and its advocates do a fantastic job of pointing out how crazy, how insane, our food environment has become.  The amount of ultra-processed, refined carbohydrate in today’s food environment is just staggering and one of the Paleo diet’s principles is to cut these out completely.  This, for the most part, is a good thing. 

However, with that being said, we are not fans of the Paleo diet as it tends to be overly restrictive.  Reducing carbohydrate consumption in our modern-day world is probably a good thing for most people (more on this later) but completely cutting out all whole grain products, beans, and dairy is, pardon us, but just plain stupid.  For this reason, we love, love, love, when people say that they eat based on Paleo principles or Paleo(ish) indicating that they reserve the right to some flexibility in their diets but in general follow the Paleo principles.

Finally, it must be noted that a) eating for health and b) eating for weight loss aren’t necessarily the same thing.  When one becomes so wrapped up into thinking about what our Paleolithic ancestors used to eat, we lose sight of what, for many is our primary goal: to lose weight.  Weight loss is about energy balance.  Less calories in than calories out = weight loss.  Although nice, it is not absolutely necessary to eat healthy to lose weight.  No matter how much window dressing you put on a diet, the reason it works is because it helps you induce a negative energy balance (see Table 2). 

Table 2. How Named Diets Work for Weight Loss.  Despite their differences in name and appearance, any weight loss diet that actually works does so by creating a caloric deficit (negative energy balance).

Table 2. How Named Diets Work for Weight Loss. Despite their differences in name and appearance, any weight loss diet that actually works does so by creating a caloric deficit (negative energy balance).

Paleo’s Not Extreme Enough: Ketogenic Here We Come: As crazy as it is to hear, for many people the Paleo diet just wasn’t extreme enough…so they moved on to the ketogenic diet.  In layman’s terms, the ketogenic diet is like the most extreme version of the Atkins diet on steroids (high fat, near zero carbs).  The ketogenic diet doesn’t just restrict carbohydrate (again, the grain haters), it eliminates them!  A true ketogenic diet also greatly reduces protein intake because protein (gluconeogenic amino acids) can be broken down to produce glucose, which the ketogenic diet seeks to severely limit through eliminating dietary carbohydrates (side note of importance: even if you haven’t eaten food containing calories for several weeks, your body will fight to maintain blood glucose; without blood glucose, you will die). 

Table 3. There are Two Ways of Achieving Ketosis: eliminating carbohydrate from the diet or fasting .  Each takes between 12-36 hours depending on your previous day’s diet and exercise.

Table 3. There are Two Ways of Achieving Ketosis: eliminating carbohydrate from the diet or fasting.  Each takes between 12-36 hours depending on your previous day’s diet and exercise.

By eliminating carbohydrates and/or fasting for prolonged periods of time, the body can enter a state of ketosis.  Ketones (ketone bodies) are produced when there isn’t sufficient carbohydrate available to help the body burn fat.  You can think of ketosis as

Excessive_Fat_Breakdown_2.png

Evolutionary Underpinnings of the Hunter-Gatherer Diet: So why in the world would someone look to eliminate carbohydrate from their diets?  Answer: in an attempt to mimic hunter-gatherer metabolism of the past.  If we go back to the story of the hunter-gatherer, most people know that there were times of feasting when food was plentiful and fasting when food was scarce.  Alternating between feasting (the fed condition) and fasting (fasting condition) leads the body’s metabolism to switch between glucose metabolism in the fed condition and fat metabolism in the fasted condition.  Throughout our evolutionary past it was highly likely that our body’s metabolism had to remain highly flexible, that is, our metabolisms switched back and forth between glucose as our preferred fuel and fat as our preferred fuel, multiple times/day and hundreds, if not thousands of times per year. 

Figure 1. Metabolic Flexibility.  The body’s normal metabolism is highly flexible and responsive to carbohydrate intake. For the first two to three hours immediately after consuming carbohydrate, the body primarily burns glucose as a fuel. Thereafter the body switches to its backup fuel, fat, until another meal containing carbohydrate is consumed.  Your body’s metabolism switches/flexes over to carbohydrate/glucose once again as carbs/glucose become the preferred fuel source. Only in starvation (2+ days without eating or total carbohydrate restriction (Table 3) does the body enter ketosis.

Figure 1. Metabolic Flexibility. The body’s normal metabolism is highly flexible and responsive to carbohydrate intake. For the first two to three hours immediately after consuming carbohydrate, the body primarily burns glucose as a fuel. Thereafter the body switches to its backup fuel, fat, until another meal containing carbohydrate is consumed.  Your body’s metabolism switches/flexes over to carbohydrate/glucose once again as carbs/glucose become the preferred fuel source. Only in starvation (2+ days without eating or total carbohydrate restriction (Table 3) does the body enter ketosis.

On the other hand, modern man never stops eating, therefore, modern day man never switches between glucose as a preferred fuel source or fat as a preferred fuel source (Figure 1).  Forcing the body to switch between fuel sources seems to be good for metabolic health.  Allowing the body to predominately use glucose and never have to switch between fuel sources is bad for metabolic health (heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.).

As typical in our modern society of extremes, knowing that eating too many carbohydrates and/or eating too often can lead to energy excess and metabolic disease, people have swung the pendulum to the complete other side of the equation.  This is completely unnecessary and carries no special “metabolic” benefit, but hey, that’s our society.

Before we move on, and in the interest of being balanced we would also like to state that it is possible to burn predominately carbohydrate (>70% calories) or predominately fat (>70% of calories) with limited metabolic switching and remain healthy.  In his 2002, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition paper, Loren Cordain points out that our hunter-gather ancestors' diets were quite diverse depending upon geographic region and food availability.  For example, in Table 3 you can see that the aboriginal Nunamiut of Alaska consume 99% of their calories from animal sources (protein and fat) compared to the Gwi of Africa, who consume upwards of 74% of their calories from plant sources (mostly carbohydrate).  With all that being said, with the exception of the Nunamiut of Alaska and the Eskimos of Greenland, who live in far northern, short summer climates, the remainder of the aboriginal tribes likely exhibit metabolic flexibility as indicated by their diets.

Table 3. Proportions of Plant and Animal Food in Hunter-Gatherer Diets.

Table 3. Proportions of Plant and Animal Food in Hunter-Gatherer Diets.

What Effect Does the Hunter-Gatherer Type Way of Eating Have on Modern Man? Unless you are eating every 3-4 hours, your body is going to alternate between glucose (fed condition) and fat (fasted condition) multiple times/day (Figure 1).  If, on the other hand, someone is eating every 3-4 hours, it’s true, the body will never be forced to alternate between fuels (Figure 1. This is bad).  Alternate-day fasting and time-restricted eating are just slightly greater extremes of what we already do (Figure 2, Normal Meal Pattern).

Alternate-day fasting and time restricted eating do make more sense than a ketogenic diet.  In a ketogenic diet, your body is in a constant state of ketosis (Figure 1).  In evolutionary parlance we have a term for this, it is called starvation.  No ancestor in their right state of mind would voluntarily a) chose to go ketogenic and b) remain ketogenic when a food supply (carbohydrate) is available.  People wishing to go ketogenic should stop messing around and go full on ketogenic like our ancestors during winter months when food is scarce and then eat normal during the spring, summer, and fall months.  That would make much more evolutionary sense, but we digress.

We’ve Seen the Manipulation of Meal Timing Before: Intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding feel very much like a recent dietary fad manipulating the variable of meal timing and frequency.  Do you all remember the advice to eat 5-6 small meals a day to keep your metabolism high?  Well, there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence indicating 5-6 meals/day actually helps you lose weight over the long term.  It feels to us that the health & wellness pendulum overshot eating at normal meal times (2-3 meals/day) and swung to the other extreme, eat 1-2 meals/day or zero meals on one day and an unspecified number the other day.  This is really an individualized timing preference.  If you are hungry eat just enough to appease your hunger and if you are not hungry then don’t eat.  For the most part, it really is that simple. The trick again is more about calories in and calories out than timing or the number of meals per day.

Figure 2. The Effect of Feeding Patterns on the Number of Hours Spent Fasting During a 24-Hour Period.  Prototypical eating patterns. The red bar represents frequent eating occasions (5-6/day) and 0 day-time fasting, the green bar represents a normal overnight fasting period of 12 hours and several day time fasting periods between meals (3) allowing for metabolic flexibility to occur, and the yellow bar represents time-restricted feeding and likely limited fasts during the day.

Figure 2. The Effect of Feeding Patterns on the Number of Hours Spent Fasting During a 24-Hour Period. Prototypical eating patterns. The red bar represents frequent eating occasions (5-6/day) and 0 day-time fasting, the green bar represents a normal overnight fasting period of 12 hours and several day time fasting periods between meals (3) allowing for metabolic flexibility to occur, and the yellow bar represents time-restricted feeding and likely limited fasts during the day.

Energy Needs and Distribution are far Different in Modern Man versus Paleolithic Man: The IF and TRF dietary approaches don’t take into account the type of work many of us do, that is, intellectual deep thinking and critical analysis.  This type of thinking takes a great deal of brain power and is exhaustive. The brain prefers to run on glucose so in a (prolonged) fasted state your brain may not be running on all cylinders (your brain can adapt to using ketones as its primary fuel but this takes time, during which you may be a little groggy).  Although neither of us have tried these dietary approaches (for more than a day or two) and anecdotally, we’re positive that you can find people who swear that their energy doesn’t vary throughout the day or between fed and fasted days, this type of eating just doesn’t seem compatible with the type of work we do these days.  Not to say that physical labor isn’t difficult.  It sure as hell is difficult but it’s just different.  You’re active, you’re doing.  You have less time to think about how hungry you are or how you can’t concentrate.  Our ancestors likely didn’t utilize the type of brain power we do on a daily basis and they certainly moved around a lot more than we do now as part of their hunting and gathering.

We Understand the Allure of Intermittent Fasting: We know that IF is lucrative because it contains only one set of rules.  Time governs eating, nothing else.  IF and TRF minimizes planning and the amount of time that you must dedicate to meal planning.  You either eat or you don’t.  This binary approach is very similar to other fad diets that eliminate or limit fat or carbohydrate by removing grains, gluten, beans, fruits, starchy vegetables, fatty meats, processed carbohydrates, and so on.  These approaches are easy because they are so black and white, so simple.  Yet, what do they all have in common?  1) They typically induce a negative energy balance, which leads to weight loss (Table 2) and 2) they typically fail after a few months. It is difficult to build consistency around black and white rules.  Eating healthy is more nuanced than this.  We have traveling, work lunches, happy hours, etc.  These restrictive diets don’t allow for eating in all situations in life.

What should you do instead?  We’re not going to give you the same old dietitian/health coach talking points of

  • Drink eight, 8-ounce glasses of water/day
  • Eat 5 fruits and veggies/day
  • Eat 6-10 servings of whole grains
  • Eat lean meats, mostly fish
  • Eat nuts and legumes

Well, yes, we see the importance of these recommendations but we also recommend you

  1. Establish your own set of nutrition rules (however arbitrary they may seem)
  2. Take the time to find out what works for you by food logging/journaling. 
  3. Build meals out of individual taste (and timing) preferences.
  4. Identify your obstacles to healthy eating and generate solutions to overcome them. 

No one can tell you the answers to these questions but a health coach or dietitian can help guide you towards discovering these answers.  Unfortunately, there is no healthy eating template.  That’s what makes healthy eating so damn hard.  If you don’t know where to start, start by logging your meals.  You’ll quickly see what is and is not healthy.  Then determine strategies to keep the healthy parts and improve the unhealthy parts.  Nutrition is the easiest and the most complicated thing at the same time.

Who Shouldn’t do IF or TRF or Keto diets? We want to point out that a select group should not try these diets. If you have Type 1 or 2 Diabetes we would strongly discourage you from trying these diets (unless you are already well managed).  Your goal is to maintain the balance between eating (glucose) and the insulin your body produces/you inject.  Also some medications work best when taken with food.  There are also a small set of studies that have looked at people with Thyroid issues.  They too should be careful when on these diets as the main hormone, TSH requires glucose to be generated by the body.  Without glucose available TSH is not made and therefore your metabolism will slow down causing further weight gain.  People who are pregnant and children should probably also avoid these dietary practices.  The best advice, if you have a pre-existing condition, please check with your Doctor or RD before making dietary changes.

Practical Implications: Like other dieting strategies, Intermittent Fasting (IF) and Time Restricted Feeding (TRF) are methods to induce a negative energy balance to lose weight.  In our opinion these strategies represent extremes that are not feasible for the vast majority of individuals looking to either eat healthier or lose weight.  However, less extreme versions of IF and TRF should be utilized to minimize unnecessary eating occasions.  The practical implications of these interventions would include

  • Eliminating Night Time Snacking
  • Eliminating/Reducing Day Time Snacking
  • Compressing Eating Hours to reduce calorie intake

Each of these strategies represent an opportunity to 1) reduce total caloric intake, 2) more fully establish your body’s natural rhythms that more closely represent our ancestral past, and 3) induce metabolic flexibility. Together, this represents metabolic health at its finest.

 

Todd Weber PhD, RD

Janel Schrader MS, MCHES

Anything the Fitness Nut Tries Will Work for Him/Her, But Will It Work for You?

Fitness Nut swears that his/her program is the bee’s knees, the be all end all, greatest program that you need to be on to get fit.  Truth is you don’t have to follow Fitness Nut’s program because there are one million different ways to become fit…

walking, running, bike commuting, road cycling, mountain biking, various team sports, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, mountain climbing, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, weight lifting, CrossFit, circuit training, Pilates, yoga, barre, swimming, body weight workouts, TRX, resistance bands, machines, free weights, plyometrics, surfing, kickboxing, spin class, hip hop dancing, karate/martial arts, high intensity interval training, gymnastics, lightning tag, capture the flag, obstacle course races, parkour, skateboarding, roller blading, tennis, squash, badminton, paintball, you name it.

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Well, maybe there aren’t one million ways to become fit but there are hundreds of combinations.  Add in the nearly unlimited types of diets you can go on…

good calories/bad calories, paleo/primal diets, detox, brain food, raw foods, juicing, metabolism boosting foods, food for your body type, anti-sugar, blood sugar/glycemic, anti-grain, anti-fat, anti-dairy, optimal macronutrient blends, calorie counting, fighting food addiction, pH-based diets, fasting/alternative day fasting, time restricted eating, superfoods, meal replacement, small frequent meals, plant-based, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Mediterranean, Ketogenic, Zone, South Beach, Whole 30, Beach Body, and on and on...

and voila, you’ve got a nearly unlimited number of ways to meet your diet and exercise needs.  What I just listed is a tiny fraction of the most popular diets/dietary habits of the past several years.  If you chose one way to become fit and one way to eat from these lists, you would have 1,320 options available to choose from!  It can be extremely confusing trying to figure out what exercise routine and diet type are right for you. 

If you talk to a personal trainer, nutritionist or Instagram celebrity you may be lead to believe that -insert diet and exercise routine here- is the best program.  The Instagram pictures/profiles/stories are pretty compelling.  I mean, have you seen some of these people?!  Many of them have a particular diet or exercise routine that they absolutely swear by.  They got that way by ‘such and such’ diet.  They are now the product they are selling.  But, the thing of it is…

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Why do I say this?  Because I know that the Instagram Fitness Nut has two things going for him that you may or may not have:

1) Strict adherence: It doesn’t matter how extreme, how crazy, mundane or otherwise difficult, Fitness Nut is going to be able to adhere to that program.  That program is (likely) their life, their number one priority.  You don’t just get that way by accident.  It is the adherence and not the routine itself that is of critical importance.  In fact, he could probably use completely opposing diet regimens such as the very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet OR the low fat high-carbohydrate diet to get to that coveted six pack.

The program that Fitness Nut follows is his hobby, his job, his livelihood, his passion, his everything.  He has dedicated hours upon hours to his program.  He’s constantly thinking about it, planning out meals and workouts, fantasizing/dreaming about getting even bigger and better, gaining more fame and grabbing more “likes” and views. He became famous due to the adoption of his program and trying to convince others that this particular program is your golden ticket, your path to success.  Fame is a powerful tool.  Fitness Nut has thousands and most likely hundreds of thousands of followers.  He can’t disappoint them by “falling off the wagon”.  You’re watching him and keeping him honest.

2) Genetics: there is also a very good chance that Fitness Nut is genetically gifted.  He is likely in the top percentile in terms of response to exercise.  We know that people’s response to exercise differs dramatically due to unknown genetic factors. See figure 1 for an example of this.

Figure 1. Individual Changes in Muscle Strength (a) and Muscle Size (b) due to a 20-24-week resistance training program.  Black bars represent males and grey bars, females. In response to training, strength changes vary between -6% to +60% for the same training. Reference: Ahtianen, JP, 2016, AGE.

Figure 1. Individual Changes in Muscle Strength (a) and Muscle Size (b) due to a 20-24-week resistance training program. Black bars represent males and grey bars, females. In response to training, strength changes vary between -6% to +60% for the same training. Reference: Ahtianen, JP, 2016, AGE.

When I first saw this data, I thought what you are probably thinking. 

“The people that didn’t respond as well to exercise probably didn’t exercise as intensely.”

Nope, exercise sessions were monitored closely.  Non-responders (i.e., those that did not exhibit an increase in muscle strength/size) exercised at the same intensity as the responders.

“Well, they must not have attended as many exercise sessions”

Nope, wrong again.  They exercised as many days as the high responders.

It turns out that some people simply have a more robust response to exercise than others.  Now, what if you happen to be one of those individuals that just doesn’t seem to respond to exercise?  Are you a hopeless cause?  Nope, but you might have to exercise harder or longer to achieve the response you are aiming for.

Figure 2. Individuals Labeled “Non-Responders” by a Lack of a Training Response to 6 Weeks of Moderate Intensity Aerobic Training, underwent an Additional 6 Weeks of Training Sessions (and Responded Robustly).   The shaded purple area represents a “non-response” to the first 6 weeks of training.  Individuals that responded to the initial 6 weeks of exercise training are excluded from this graph.  There were 3 groups that did not respond to the first 6-week training session.  Groups 1, 2, and 3 exercised for 1, 2 or 3 sixty-minute exercise sessions/week, totaling 60, 120, or 180 total minutes of exercise each week.  In the second, six-week training session (weeks 7-12), each group increased their weekly exercise time by 2 exercise sessions (1 + 2, 2 + 2, and 3 + 2 respectively).  X-axis = training sessions per week, Y-axis = % change in power increase expressed in Watts; this measurement represents their increase in aerobic capacity and fitness. Reference: Montero & Lundby, 2017, J PHYSIOL.

Figure 2. Individuals Labeled “Non-Responders” by a Lack of a Training Response to 6 Weeks of Moderate Intensity Aerobic Training, underwent an Additional 6 Weeks of Training Sessions (and Responded Robustly).  The shaded purple area represents a “non-response” to the first 6 weeks of training.  Individuals that responded to the initial 6 weeks of exercise training are excluded from this graph.  There were 3 groups that did not respond to the first 6-week training session.  Groups 1, 2, and 3 exercised for 1, 2 or 3 sixty-minute exercise sessions/week, totaling 60, 120, or 180 total minutes of exercise each week.  In the second, six-week training session (weeks 7-12), each group increased their weekly exercise time by 2 exercise sessions (1 + 2, 2 + 2, and 3 + 2 respectively).  X-axis = training sessions per week, Y-axis = % change in power increase expressed in Watts; this measurement represents their increase in aerobic capacity and fitness. Reference: Montero & Lundby, 2017, J PHYSIOL.

To demonstrate this point, please take a look at figure 2.  I know this graph is a little difficult to interpret but please try to stick with me as this is very important.  This graph only includes “non-responders” to a 6-week aerobic exercise training program. The participants who responded to the 6-week program with an increase in aerobic fitness (i.e., “responders”) were excluded from further study.

There were three separate training regimens used in the first 6 weeks of the study (all at a moderate intensity):

  • Group 1 exercised for 60 minutes 1x/week (60 min total)
  • Group 2 exercised for 60 minutes 2x/week (120 min total)
  • Group 3 exercised for 60 minutes 3x/week (180 min total)

The open circles (group 1), squares (group 2), and triangles (group 3) show the individual responses people had to the initial 6 weeks of training. The shaded purple area represents their “non-response” to the first 6 weeks of training. 

The “non-responders” were then asked to complete a second, 6-week training session (weeks 7-12).  In weeks 7-12 each group increased their weekly exercise time by 2 exercise sessions/week:

  • Group 1 (1 + 2) exercised for 60 minutes 3x/week (180 min total)
  • Group 2 (2 + 2) exercised for 60 minutes 4x/week (240 min total)
  • Group 3 (3 + 2) exercised for 60 minutes 5x/week (300 min total)

The results from weeks 7-12 (represented by shaded circles, squares, and triangles), show that each group responded like “responders”, increasing their aerobic fitness!!  In summary: Exercise works, some people just need a little more stimulus to adapt.

The Bottom Line: The bottom line is, there are one million different ways to be fit and healthy.  Your mission is to find the one that is right for you.  The program that you like and can stick to.  For the majority of the general population, there is no “right” or “wrong” way, provided you aren’t doing something extreme, you’re unlikely to hurt yourself.  Find the combination that works for you.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  And stop being so concerned about what “the best” diet or exercise plan is and just do it.

Remember, consistency is king!!!!!  Whatever it is that you choose to do, do it consistently for at least 4-6 weeks.  Log your workouts and if necessary, log your food intake as well.  Be honest with yourself.  If you’ve been consistent with your new routine and haven’t seen the results you want to see, one of three things are going on:

  1. your expectations are too high.
  2. you are a low to moderate responder.
  3. you need to increase the amount of effort you are putting into your diet and exercise routine.

So, the next time an Instagram Fitness Nut (or your co-worker for that matter) tells you that diet and exercise plan “xyz” is just the greatest.  Shake your head up and down in agreement and say, “oh yeah, that’s great Bob, I’ll have to try that sometime," while knowing that any diet and exercise plan can work, you just need to find the one that is right for you.

 

Todd Weber PhD, RD