Fear no more. Once you really understand what food actually is and how it functions, you can put it to work for you to meet your goals.
Having a healthy relationship with food doesn’t come easily for the majority the patients I see. Lots of emotions come into play with food and weight issues but one of the most common is fear.
Fear is all about not knowing. You're scared of something because you don't know how it's going to affect you or what it's going to make you do. You worry that food has power over you rather than vice versa. Sadly, there are lot of misconceptions around food that continually hurt us. But if you end up understanding how food affects you, not only physiologically, but also behaviorally and psychologically, it's freeing. When you understand and you know something, you're no longer afraid of it. For me, that’s major.
When you use food correctly, you appreciate it as an ally or something that allows you to keep going, not something that you're fighting against.
The foods we eat are either from a food group (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) or chemicals. These make up our diet. We also know that as a dangerous non-food group, chemicals in the guise of processed foods are bad for the body. Let’s start with the bad and work our way to the good.
Price of processing
If it’s packaged, there’s a good chance that it’s processed. Next time you buy something packaged make sure to read the nutritional information and the ingredients on the back.
Laden with chemicals, a processed food is made when a whole food is taken in its untouched natural form as either protein, carbohydrates or fat (or a combination) and then manufactured with chemicals to produce a longer shelf life, enhanced taste, more appealing color, or a more pleasing texture.
Chemical modifications make it very easy to overindulge in processed foods. By calculation, their enhanced taste and texture make these foods more palatable, increasing your cravings for more and more.
Plus, for the manufacturer, grocer and freight companies, processing makes foods more cost effective because they last longer.
While they may improve shelf life and enhance taste, the chemicals in processed foods are also more damaging to our bodies. The truth is that food in the United States is much more processed than in other countries, which is why obesity and chronic disease is much more prevalent in the US than in other countries.
For example, (and spoiler alert, this may change how you feel about some food), deli slices can sit in a display case for weeks because of added nitrites which prevent bacterial growth in the meat. Nitrites, unfortunately, are known carcinogens and are linked with cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. Baked goods also have added preservatives in the form of propionic acid to slow the rate of mold development and to prevent bacterial overgrowth.\
The worst preservatives of all are the artificial trans fats (as hydrogenated oils) that are added to foods that add taste and texture to potato chips, baked goods, pizza, popcorn, crackers and fast foods. Hydrogenated oils are associated with heart disease, inflammation and high cholesterol.
It’s safe to say that you are one huge step closer to optimizing your health simply by knowing what foods are processed and avoiding them.
Natural next step
With this, we are left with food in its natural, untouched form. Each bite is made up of some combination of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. So how can we combine these ingredients to give our body the fuel it needs to thrive AND optimize our nutrition while eating a diet we enjoy?
Whether you consider yourself a vegetarian, vegan or have decided to be on a paleo or keto diet, protein plays an essential role and contributes to your satiety, getting you full and keeping you full, while providing the necessary building blocks that make your body what it is. In other words… you really are what you eat.
Fats also contribute to satiety. It is fat that contains the flavors of the food, making your meal desirable. Our body does not need much fat to thrive though it does need some. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetables while saturated fats and trans fats are found in animal products. Natural trans fats may be found in some dairy products as they are naturally formed by the bacteria in the stomach of cattle, sheep and goats.
It's the artificial trans fats in processed foods that are known as being unhealthy and should be avoided. These are made by food companies to enhance the texture and taste of their foods. In 2018, the FDA actually banned the use of artificial trans fats in food, however these unhealthy fats may still be available throughout the rest of the year as they were manufactured prior to the new law. Unfortunately, these foods can last for years.
Carbohydrates in the form of fiber, an essential part of our diet, is found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts.
So what gives carbohydrates such a bad reputation? Well, it has to do with how the lack of fiber in refined carbohydrates affect the hormones of our body. When we eat refined carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, sugar and potatoes, they all break down in the body to the simplest form, sugar. This then results in a spike in blood sugar, which is controlled by an increase in the hormone Insulin. Insulin tells the body to store the excess sugar as fat.
The American diet features more refined carbohydrates than any other country, leading to more insulin production and a greater incidence in chronic disease and obesity. So, carbohydrates in and of themselves aren’t “bad”, but actually a necessary piece of the puzzle as they provide fiber to maintain our gut health. BUT, when a diet is predominately made of refined carbohydrates, the body will have elevated insulin levels which results in weight gain and food cravings.
When you pair refined carbohydrates with saturated and trans fat you get a really unhealthy combination, in the form of donuts, cookies, fried foods and processed snacks.
Ideal eating ratio
So, when you put this all together, the ideal meal to feel and stay satiated is one that has a healthy amount of protein, small amount of fat for added flavor, and a significant amount of fiber-rich carbohydrates.
An easy way to ballpark portions is by making sure that you have a portion of protein that equals the size of your entire hand in thickness and in length. The rest of the plate can be filled with vegetables and fats can be added as garnish and dressing to enhance the flavor of the food while delivering the essentials your body needs.
Healthiest meal strategy
The healthiest diet plan I advocate is usually composed of three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Not only is the quality of your food important, so is the timing. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, not because it's eaten in the morning, but because it is the first food we give our body after an overnight fast. This sets the tone for the rest of the day.
When starting your day with a muffin, dessert or cereal, you are simply having refined sugars in combination with saturated and trans fats, which causes inflammation and a spike in sugar and insulin.
In contrast, starting your day with a protein shake or eggs and vegetables, you are giving yourself essential amino acids in combination with healthy fats and fiber.
Lunch and dinner follow, spaced three to four hours apart.
Eating this way should minimize the need for snacks as the foods are portioned to include satiating proteins, fats and fiber. By paying attention to these factors, you may notice that your cravings decrease and your desire for healthier “feel good” foods will increase. With this plan, you will deliver nutrition that optimizes your metabolism, gut health, hormones and vitamin levels in your body.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.