Do you feel confused when the government revises their nutritional guidelines every five years? Are you unsure whether you should eat three meals a day, or continually graze? Should breakfast be the biggest meal of the day, or should dinner? Are low-fat foods the way to go, or is low-carb?
If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, than this blog post is for you. We’re going to tackle two big questions: WHEN should I eat? and WHAT should I eat?
When Should You Eat?
One of the best ways to keep your body happy and healthy is to eat four to five small meals a day. This should be done in three to four hour increments. Why? Because your body is in constant need of calories and nutrients, and when you don’t feed it for five or more hours, it goes into a resting digestive state. Then, the next time you eat your meal, your blood sugar spikes from the large amount of food, causing your insulin levels to raise, in turn making your body store more fat than it would have originally. By eating your meals closer together, your body is able keep your blood sugar steady and needs less insulin to digest. This allows for less fat storage and less insulin resistance over time, making you less likely to develop diabetes.
Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of your day and should never be skipped. You’ll want to eat within a half hour of waking in order to start your metabolism for the day. This allows more calories to be burned throughout the day, as well as keeping your energy levels elevated. Skipping breakfast over time slows the metabolism and makes weight loss extremely difficult.
The size of your breakfast is dependent on your taste. While we do need more calories earlier in the day for energy purposes, it is okay to start with a small breakfast, especially if you don’t like eating early in the morning, as long as you follow up with a snack about two to three hours afterward that is more substantial.
The only other meals that are time dependent are your pre and post-workout snacks. Try to eat something about two hours before a workout so that you have plenty of energy, and get your post workout snack in within an hour of completing exercise to help rebuild glycogen and muscle stores.
My eating schedule typically looks like this:
- Wake Up: 8:30
- Breakfast: 9:00
- Lunch 12:00
- Snack: 3:00
- Dinner: 6:00
- Snack 9:00
- Bed: 12:00
Obviously, everyone’s schedule is different, but mine should give you an idea on how to arrange yours.
What Should You Eat?
Unfortunately, the same people who make our country’s nutrition guidelines are often paid or sponsored by companies like Kraft, Tyson, and Dannon. By putting money in their pockets, they can effectively influence what does and doesn’t make the cut, and big business agriculture can continue to make exorbitant money off beef, wheat, and milk.
So we are going to make our own food pyramid today, starting at the bottom, the most plentiful thing: vegetables.
Vegetables are really the most important item in your diet. Not only are they low in caloric value, they are extremely nutritionally dense. They have an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. You want to eat as many vegetables as you can in a day, preferably with a wide array of colors, as the colors often symbolize the vitamin the vegetable has (orange = beta carotene).
Next in the pyramid are proteins. There are two different kinds: animal and plant proteins. While most of Americans think of meat and other animal products when they think of protein, the more beneficial kind are plant proteins.
Animals proteins can be detrimental to health in large amounts for two reasons. The first is that they contain saturated fat, an unhealthy fat that is linked to heart disease, obesity, and cancer. The second is one of the proteins in animal products: casein.
In one study, when feeding one group of rats a diet in 5% casein and another group in 25%, the group with 25% developed cancerous tumors when exposed to a carcinogen, while the rats with 5% did not. When the diets were switched, the rats with the new 25% diet grew tumors, and the rats with the new 5% diet had their tumors shrink. Thus, animal proteins can act as a growth accelerator for cancer.
That is not to say that you should never eat animal proteins. The important thing is moderation and that the majority of your protein comes from plants (beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, soy products, broccoli, spinach, etc). I personally only eat animal products about once a week and view them as a cheat meal (there are other reasons I choose not to eat many animal products, and I will cover those in a separate post, but I certainly don’t expect everyone to do that).
The two most important times to get protein are in the morning after fasting awhile asleep and after your workout to help with muscle growth and maintenance. Proteins are the building blocks of the body.
Next in the pyramid are fats. These are very important in your diet, as long as you are getting the right kind. They help facilitate vitamin storage, provide our body with insulation, and help produce hormones. In the past, fat has gotten a bad rep because people automatically assume that dietary fat becomes fat in the body, and this isn’t necessarily true. Many people choose to buy low-fat products, but often the flavor that is lost by taking away the fat is replaced by sugar, making it equally unhealthy, if not more so. So instead, choose products based on the whole of their ingredients, not just if it is marketed as low in fat. Here’s what you need to know:
Stay away from trans fats. That is the worst kind of fat, and it is highly connected with heart disease. That’s because it’s not a naturally occurring fat. It was developed so that infusing products with it would cause them to stay shelf stable for longer. The unfortunate part is that it also stays in your arteries longer too. Having as little as 3% of your daily calories from trans fats can increase your risk of heart disease by 50%. That’s a single order of fast food fries!
Trans fats raise your LDL, lower HDL, and raise triglycerides. It also increases your risk of cancer and diabetes. Trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oil) are mainly found in fast foods, commercially baked goods, margarine, and some junk foods. Luckily, most companies have removed it from their products after consumer kickback, but it still pays to read ingredient labels!
Next, is saturated fat, which we have already talked about in the protein section. Be sure that you are getting a limited amount in your diet. It mainly comes from animal products, but it is also found in coconut and palm products.
Finally, we have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are the good guys, and we want a solid amount in our diet. These fats actually help to protect our heart, reduce cholesterol, and counter the effects of the unhealthy fats. They are also high in Vitamin E, which helps to maintain cell health and keeps your skin looking clear. These fats are typically found in nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, and fish.
Next in the pyramid is fruits. Just like vegetables, fruits contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, but unlike vegetables, they do contain sugar. However, these are natural sugars that will help boost your energy throughout the day. Also, when they are paired with the fibrous meat of the fruit, the fiber helps to slow down the body’s digestion of the sugar, making your body use less insulin and not store it as fat. That being said, fruit juice does not contain fiber, and your body treats it the exact same as sugar and is often stored as excess calories.
Next in the pyramid are grains. Much like fat, grain has gotten a bad rep lately. That’s mainly because much of the grain we eat in the US is heavily processed. White breads, rices, and pastas certainly are not healthy and should be eaten sparingly. However, grains like quinoa, brown rice, millet, rye, and whole oats are great sources of nutrients. The major key to choosing a healthy grain is looking at the ingredient label. If it says “refined flour” or “enriched flour”, the bran (the healthy part of the grain) has been stripped away. Make sure your product clearly states that it is “whole grain”.
Finally, we have dairy. For years it has been widely touted by the dairy industry as nature’s perfect food, from the Got Milk commercials to the endless amount of yogurt ads. And the thing is, dairy is great when you are a newborn and you are consuming it from the same species as yourself. Our mother’s milk is designed to help a baby grow and thrive. A cow’s milk is designed to do the same thing for calves. So imagine what drinking cow’s milk does to an adult human. It can trigger unwanted hormone responses and accelerate tumor growth.
But milk is good for calcium the dairy industry screams! Well, unfortunately studies have shown that milk products cause metabolic acidosis when digested, meaning that the stomach looks for a base to neutralize the acid before continuing the digestion process. The most abundant base in our bodies is calcium, and so it takes it from the bones for the digestive process, and while some of that calcium goes back into the bones, it was never quite as much as what was originally there. Over time, this can lead to osteoporosis.
Thus, I recommend switching to non-dairy products, such as nut-milks, yogurts, and cheeses (I know it’s hard. I LOVE cheese). I personally feel that soy milk tastes bad and there have been some studies that have shown a correlation between high soy intake and elevated estrogen levels (however, the health of the Japanese culture, who eat a lot of soy, would argue against this). And coconut milk contains a lot of saturated fat. Thus, almond milk products are my go-to.
So there you go. That’s the reformulated pyramid. I know it’s a lot to focus on and think about, but you’re so worth it.