By now we should recognize that for some reason or another the topic of “diet” brings with it the emotional rage and fence-sitting comparable to some holy wars. In my first installment we established our first point in reigning in control over our nutrition and its effects by using calories-in as the guide, we can now move on to one of the more complicated concepts. If by any chance you are still stuck on the overall amount being the biggest influence of gain or loss, then come back when you read all 147 published references backing my position.
There is no such thing as a “bad” macro.
The macronutrients: Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates (CHO) are what classify the next most influential category to which we modify body composition, increase performance, or influence hormonal fluctuations. It is important to note that all of these have at one time or another, been the scapegoat of obesity and deteriorating health. With the access to easy information also comes the risk of bad information, the result of dogmatic belief and evangelical fervor will most likely appear in the comments that follow this article.
Low-fat, low-carb, paleo, vegan and vegetarian practices have all relied on the villainy of one of these fundamental nutritional properties. Yet results have come from each and every camp claiming the “secret” to nutritional wisdom. The exalting of one does not repudiate the other, if in fact a result can be summoned in the exact opposite fashion. From here on out there is no such thing as a “bad”, or “unhealthy” macronutrient, only the most efficient for the task required and its lesser varieties.
Against my better judgment and at the risk of feeding the trolls, I will at least preempt the argument for (fill in the blank) diet; because inevitably someone will comment - even if only to themselves - “what worked for them” or will brag about their “3.5% body fat” without the use of calorie counting. Point isn't to take away form what people have accomplished, but to discover the real reason that they had success.
Case in point: Vegetarianism
Forty years ago vegetarianism hit a high note as a fad, separating it from its rare cultural practice that has been around for a thousand + years. Whether out of an ethical calling or some kook-chiropractor selling yeast (candida albicans) as a disease, it saw some success in the realm of weight-loss. The practice and results increased in popularity on the advice to rid oneself of all meat. Theories claiming we have an inability to digest meat nearly halved the amount of calories ingested with those that took the recommendation from practitioners of “alternative medicine”.
It didn’t hurt that the waste product of soy-based paints (soy protein) through the conglomerate Glidden Paints was now a sellable food item (tofu). Soy protein was also the most profitable division of the international company. After being lobbied and subsidized, it grew exponentially, which appealed to its target customer: The Vegetarian, A.K.A. your older sister or brother, who would wear nothing but old Joy Division shirts, and act exasperated in the presence of a T-bone steak.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, the explosion of Veganism, Adkins, South Beach, Mediterranean diets (the list goes on) saw remarkable results, although very few had lasting affects (less than 4% success rate), the best of these actually being Weight Watchers, showing that support from community has a factor in longevity. This success of an in-group was shared with the Vegan approach, as it melted its practice into punk rock, hardcore, political activism, and eventually related itself to the small group of teens and mid-twenty something’s that identify as Straight Edge, a group dedicated to the abstinence of poisons in the form of drugs and alcohol. If you missed that boat you might have surely caught the fad as Hollywood actresses took up the charge based on ethics, an outcry for post-modern attention whoring, and a small waist, as a result of miniscule calories.
At the implementation of a fad diet, availability is limited. In the case of being Vegan, 15 years ago eating out at restaurants and staying true to the restrictions was nearly impossible - perhaps grain or legumes with a side salad, void of most dressings, I remember a vegan friend of mine in the late 90’s, ordering a cheeseburger from Wendy’s removing the burger, the cheese, and the mayonnaise, tossing them from the window of the car as we drove back to our high school from lunch break. I laughed but also understood that the PETA propaganda videos were powerful, and made our generation feel like they were part of their very own revolution; I just couldn’t convince him that his new car with leather seats seemed somewhat hypocritical. Then markets like Wholefoods hit their prime, offering the ethically-conscious consumer any variety of vegan cookies, ice creams, and other baked goods.
Copy and paste this effect and just fill in the blank with the title of the fad diet book.
The problem with making a villain out of anything that we ingest on a normal basis is first and foremost a black and white answer to our grey world, which polarizes a subject not fully understood. This happens most often by those taking a side, usually out of personal bias or influence from an in-group (something about CrossFit and Paleo could go here) . The macronutrients are synergistic, and work very well for an omnivorously evolved system. Humans have survived on some, none, or all macronutrients in varying civilizations throughout our known history, any question to this and we can analyze the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 and compare it to the potato’s near damnation in the mid to late 90s on behalf of the Adkins diet movement - something about the obesity rate at the turn of the millennium makes me think that the Irish might object to Adkin's assertion of the potato being the downfall of the human race.
How could it possibly be that something so bad for our health (the white potato) could have saved the lives of approximately 1-million people if it was so deadly? On this note realize that there is not one food product that is constant throughout our short history, and not one food gives us everything we need, which means it is a combination of foods that our lives and health are dependent, so it becomes our responsibility to understand what the best mixture of them is for our personal context.
One current scapegoat for obesity is sugar, as it likely carries with its abuse some very misunderstood abnormalities in the body, due in part because of how much stress this causes our pancreas and the result of insulin resistance. This does not in turn make sugar and its relatives (fructose, glucose, sucrose) evil, or villainous. Analogous to this is exercise, a little, or even a lot can in fact improve your health when dosed appropriately, but over-done and we soon see the deleterious effects and negative hormonal repercussions, not to mention the acute or even chronic over-use that can affect functional movement.
Ironic as it seems, this state of over-training has been treated with none other than sugar, or other forms of simple CHO. That is because glucose is very efficient at promoting protein synthesis, positive neuro-transmitter enhancement (serotonin, and dopamine), and also hydration. Sugar then, no matter what the First Lady’s indignation of it is, should not be categorized by emotion or with religious zeal, as it is a tool that can actually be used to improve fitness and consequently health.
Many groups will advise based on what is “natural” to our species, usually making generalizations regarding our evolution. This might purport that we have for millennia survived off of large quantities of fat and very little CHO (referring to one civilization: the Inuit). They are right, that has happened, but to quantify anything as “natural” being homologous with good doesn’t take into consideration just how “unnatural” medicine is, or the use of the internet for that matter, and because of these 2 technological advancements (medicine, communication) we have far exceeded life expectations compared to our “natural” ancestors.
We should at this point agree that a blend of all three macronutrients that maximize micronutrient density, all within the boundaries of a controlled total amount is the best start to any nutritional program no matter the context of the goal.
How to mix and match is particular to the individual as there also is no magical ratio. It is adjusted based off of an almost infinite list of factors, some more important than others. This means personal experimentation and most of all the consistent time dedicated to figuring it out.
- Carbohydrates: will fuel activity and recovery from it, because it has been proven to be most efficient for doing so, but is not a savior and answer to our lack of vital energy like some ultra-endurance junkies will have you believe.
- Protein will remain the building block, and provide the necessary amino acids for tissue repair among many other things, but does not need to be over-emphasized like in the past with bodybuilding trends recommending as high as 2g per pound of body weight.
- Fat is responsible for the functioning of multiple systems, and should not be habitually avoided. Hormonally it signals a host of processes vital for satiety and sex-hormone production. But we don’t need to over-compensate for our past avoidance of it by guzzling bacon fat, as the ketogenic crowd might have you believe,
Find the best approach, as an individual not a group.
It is without a doubt intelligent to seek out the highest quality of food available, this being said, no person that I know or have worked with is devoid of taste buds, and anyone that purports that they in fact ONLY eat high quality food is either lying, a martyr, or consumes beef liver, and other highly nutritious organ meats with every meal. There is also a point where certain goals like lean-mass gain, or elite performance in sports are deterred on high quality food alone, as the gut has to accommodate the added stress of assimilation of micronutrients and fiber, which it cannot do during intense exercise, or when attempting to consume more than needed (which is required to gain mass). Hence the fuel of choice for most athletes during effort, and post is a combination of simple CHO: glucose, fructose, or in some cases non-sugar: simple CHO such as fractionated barely extract, or waxy maze.
An easy way to contend with controlling quality other than some esoteric arbitrary rule such as “organic”, or “local” (which in reality do not improve the nutritional density) is to get some accurate data, like personal blood work. Seeing deficiencies first hand will aim you in the right direction, and give you an exact amount with which to guide your food choice or to supplement with, as opposed to the shotgun approach of massively over dosing multivitamins and minerals. The rule of thumb should be to get micronutrient density as much from food as possible, this makes your choices of macronutrients pretty clear. It also does not mean that low-quality food is off the table, if you can hit well within your targets and have room, the added enjoyment of “empty calories” will help sustain the effort.
With the combination of caloric control, and macronutrient partitioning, we might find enough control to attain our goals, and the body composition that we have dreamed about, but there is one more constituent that has great affect over our success in controlling nutrition. In part 3 we uncover what could possibly lead to most dieting failures: Temperament.