Existential Fitness Part 4
In my last post, I wrote about the need for protein and determining the amount based on your lean body weight. So having done this, we need to address the other two macronutrients in your diet, fats and carbohydrates.
Both of these have been sufficiently demonized in the press to make a discussion of how much you need difficult, and what seems truly lost in the conversation is the fact that there are only three macronutrients. What I mean by that is, if you take a product and advertise it as being low fat, well that means that it has to be high in either protein or carbohydrate or both. Rather than demonize them, let’s take a look at the other two macronutrients and see how they function in the body and make an educated decision about how much of each to consume.
We already stated that proteins are the building blocks for muscle and other lean body tissue, and that we don’t actually use the proteins we eat for this, but break them down into their amino acid groups and then reassemble them into our own proteins. I bring this up because the idea that “you are what you eat” is good for a general slogan about eating well to be healthy, it is not literally true. And this misunderstanding of how food affects us is most profound with our perceptions of fat. Eating fat does not make one fat. Let me repeat this- eating fat does not make one fat. One becomes fat because one consumes more calories (energy) than one uses, and the excess energy (calories) is stored in the body as fat. If those excessive calories are fat, it is the calories and not the fat that makes you fat.
The fact is you need some dietary fat, no matter how overweight you are. The body requires some essential fatty acids and fats are also important for the transport of several required vitamins, and if it were possible to completely eliminate all fat from your diet, you would probably be dead within six weeks. So, you need some fat in your diet, but you need the right amount, and more importantly, you need the right kinds of fat. Fats are broken down into three categories, saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats are associated with higher levels of cholesterol in the blood, and most of the guidance I have read suggests that less than 10% of your caloric intake should be saturated fats. This kind of fat is found in butter, cream, lard, sour cream, cream cheese and butter substitutes. About 10% of the caloric intake should be polyunsaturated fats found in things like safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil and fish oils, and the last 10-15% should be monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil and things like avocados.
Fat serves other purposes, which make it an important part of your diet. It usually provides flavor to foods that makes them more enjoyable, and despite what many would have you believe, there is nothing wrong with enjoying your food. It also produces a feeling of satiety, that is to say, a feeling of being full. And the addition of fat can slow the insulin response to carbohydrates, which we will get to shortly. So, do not be too quick to get rid of something in your diet because it contains fat, as some fat is very good for your health and will actually help you to lose body fat. But some fats are just bad news, and should be avoided as much as possible, and by this I am talking about the so-called trans fats which the food industry adds hydrogen to fats to stabilize them and increase their shelf life. While it is probably impossible to cut them out of your diet entirely, you should strive to limit them to trace amounts.
Now we move to carbohydrates, the third of the macronutrients. The biggest part of most people’s diets. And unlike proteins and fats, pretty much unessential for the human body. Yes, that’s right, of all the established essential human nutrients, no specific carbohydrates made the list. True, energy is a requirement, but as we have already pointed out, both fat and proteins can be broken down to release energy. Carbohydrates are great at providing energy to the body, energy that is most efficiently used during heavy exertions and has the least metabolic byproducts for the body to handle. But it is that same abundance of energy that causes weight gain when it is not being used for, say exertion. If you look at the diet of a competitive cyclist who is training at moderate intensity, and compare it to his diet during a long stage race like the Tour de France, you will find a huge jump in calories, and the vast majority of that increase will be in carbohydrates, providing the energy for long term exertion. He needs the carbohydrates for the energy, because if the body does not get enough from the diet, it will start consuming both fat and lean tissue from the athlete. But the person wanting to lose weight is a completely different situation, and would benefit from fewer carbohydrates, forcing the body to use more of its own energy (fat) resources. And yes, there could be some loss of muscle and other lean tissue, but we have dealt with that by increasing the amount of protein that we have in the diet during weight loss periods.
Now, I have had clients who learn about this and decide if lower carbs are better, not taking in any carbs will be better still. But a zero carbohydrate diet will result in symptomatic ketosis, and that is really not something that I would advise anyone to strive for. It does burn fat, but its side effects of bad breath, headaches, nausea, possible organ failure just don’t seem like the ticket for better health. But a diet that is lower in carbohydrates would seem to be the right call for someone who is trying to lose body fat. And symptomatic ketosis can be prevented by a minimum carbohydrate consumption of 150-grams/ day. But it is important to know that with many of our carbohydrates, we are getting other things that are essential to the body such as vitamins, fiber, minerals and water. It is right there in the word, carbohydrate, and one of the pitfalls of a very low carbohydrate diet is dehydration, so it follows that you should drink more water when you are consuming less carbs.
And what kind carbs should you be eating? Well, if you are interested in losing weight, you should avoid large amounts of the simple starches found in things like potatoes, rice, breads and pastas. Here is a big no-no: energy drinks that you see your favorite athlete gulping down on television. They need the carbs to keep the body they have, you need to avoid them to get the body you want! If you need electrolytes, you can get them from several non-caloric supplements added to your drinking water. If you stick mostly to eating your vegetables and some fruits, they will give you the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need for health, as well as enough carbohydrates to stave off ketosis.
In the next post, I will discuss how you can get a little bit more of the food you want and still lose the weight, but for now, take a look at how much you are eating, and how it breaks down along the lines of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Tim Beauchamp, CSCS, is a trainer and fitness consultant in Seattle.