The Fundamentals of Nutrition
As we move to reclaim our lives, a lot of us are finding ‘things’ have moved when we finally start putting the stretchy pants away.
If you're reading this you might be a rookie new to dieting, or maybe you're a veteran having tried everything. Maybe you’ve read the latest books, followed a few new gurus, or even tried the diet-du-jour and had some success - for a while. But then the results always fade and things go back to where they were. Except you’re more confused than before about what’s good, what’s bad and if anything will ever really work. I’m here to tell you:
- there are sound physiological reasons for weight gain–it’s not your fault
- there is a solution – completely attainable and 100% sustainable
Why diets fail
The major reasons why most weight loss diets fail is because a) the restrictive nature of a “diet” is unsustainable and b) any given cookie-cutter diet is not necessarily the right approach for every individual.
Restrictive ‘crash’ diets never work in the long term because they fight the way the human body utilizes nutrition and reacts to restriction. Our bodies have evolved over a very long time with the goal to survive. When we deprive our body through long term calorie restriction, our body simply makes due with less. It rapidly adjusts the rate in which we burn calories, by sacrificing less important systems to make sure it keeps going. If you’ve ever suffered from hair loss during rapid weight loss, this is your body's way of showing that you’re not getting the right nutrition. And then once the restriction stops, it pops right back to where it started.
The other reason most diets fail is that they do not take you into consideration. Your physiology, psychology, metabolism, genetic profile, background, lifestyle, and environment are different and therefore how your body is going to respond to a given food or diet is different too. Maybe you work in tech and sit at a desk all day, or maybe you are a nurse and walk 10,000 steps. When I’m guiding a patient through their weight loss journey, these are all factors taken into consideration. In other words, I organize their plan around their natures, not somebody else’s.
How are you going to figure this out for yourself?
Well, like everything else you want to learn, we're going to start with the basics. My goal here is to give you foundational knowledge so that when we start talking in-depth about nutrition, hormone function, and gut health, we are speaking the same language.
The multiple facets of diet
Commonly, the word "diet" is used to describe a short-term restricted nutrition plan we commit to in order to reach a certain goal i.e. The South Beach Diet or the Keto Diet. Usually, this goal is weight loss.
Technically however, the true definition of "diet" is a description of the foods we eat regularly which is what I’m going to discuss with you here. Regardless, our daily nutrition (aka the food we eat) breaks down to include one of three basic food groups: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Contrary to a lot of what you may have heard, none of them are ‘bad’ in and of themselves but necessary components for the human body to survive.
Proteins - I think of proteins as the building blocks that make us who we are. Without protein, we would waste away. Not only are we made of protein, but the hormones that allow different parts of our body to communicate with one another are proteins as well. Proteins are composed of a combination of amino acids, which support our muscle mass and perform essential roles in our health and metabolism. Proteins are predominantly found in meats, poultry, eggs, fish, and many plants. Beans, nuts, and grains also provide plant-based protein to our diet. Some amino acids are essential, meaning that our bodies need to get them from food as versus those that the body is able to make itself.
Fats - Think of fat as an insulator that helps keep our body warm. Fats are composed of fatty acids which the body needs to support the nervous system and the tiny cells that make up our body. Fats are described as either saturated or unsaturated. Most fats come from animal products, such as meat, dairy, and eggs. However, the healthier unsaturated fats come from plants, such as olives, nuts, and avocados.
Carbohydrates - If you're eating something and you know is not a protein or fat, that means it's a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates provide many of the vitamins and minerals our body needs to work optimally. Carbs often get a bad rap, as they are often the cause of weight gain when eaten in excess. However–and this is important–not all carbs are created equally!
Carbohydrates can be divided into fiber, sugar or starch.
Found in fresh produce and whole grains, fiber is an essential part of our diet that helps our digestive tract and balances our cholesterol and blood sugar levels. On the negative end of the health spectrum, sugars like fructose (found in fruit and corn) and glucose (white table sugar refined from cane or beets) stimulate the hormone insulin which tells the body to store fat. Likewise, starches found in bread and potatoes are easily broken down by the body into their simplest form, glucose.
The carb to fiber dynamic
A healthy, balanced diet cannot and should not be devoid of carbohydrates as long as they are rich in fiber.
For example, an orange and a comparable glass of orange juice are both composed of carbs and contain approximately the same number of calories. Let's break it down.
Juice - The juice contains only the fructose of the fruit, as the healthy fiber component has been removed in the juicing process. When drinking juice we are allowing our body to easily absorb fructose in its simplest form, which in turn triggers an insulin spike.
Whole fruit - The untouched orange is a combination of both fructose and the fiber of the fruit. The fiber of the fruit would delay the absorption of the sugar in the fruit, making it less impactful on our metabolism. In other words, the fiber balances the fructose.
Starches–foods that are easily broken down into their simplest form, sugar–are similar to fruit juice as they do not have much fiber and can be easily digested and absorbed. Starchy foods also lead to a spike in your blood sugar. Fiber is the carbohydrate that helps prevent this.
Quickly absorbing carbohydrates with little to no fiber, such as sugar, fruit juices, and starches have the greatest impact on our metabolism because they do not have fiber. So, the best carbs are the ones that are composed mostly of fiber. Vegetables are a great source of fiber making them the ideal carbohydrate.
Based on what I have learned, I believe a significant amount of our daily food intake is not protein, fat, or carbs, but CHEMICALS. But chemicals are not a food group because they are not food.
These chemicals–in the form of preservatives and unnatural ingredients–are found in processed foods to provide artificial taste, flavor, mouthfeel and crunch. Look at the nutritional label of any processed food; the chemicals are usually the ingredients that you can't pronounce or understand. By design, these are the added ingredients that make it so hard to just have one potato chip.
Chemicals are the ingredients in many of the foods consumed by Americans which are not only devoid of nutrition, but actually cause damage to our systems. Eating foods with such chemicals in them is like putting diesel gas in a Porsche. It will fill up the tank, but it will damage the engine. These chemicals cause many illnesses related to "unhealthy diets" because they negatively impact the digestive tract and hormones which control our weight, mood, and emotions.
Food purpose and profile
It is important to understand WHAT you are eating because food provides more than just fuel for our bodies. It affects our gut health, determining the microbiome that thrive there. It affects the hormones our body produces, impacting our mood, energy, metabolism, fertility, and well-being. The foods we eat determine how we feel immediately, and even days, after we have consumed a meal. Food is about so much more than eating food and getting full; it's our conduit to health and our ability to live a long life.
Learning about food means learning about oneself. As we move on, we will understand how our lifestyles affect the foods we eat and how the foods we eat affects our ability to live life to the fullest. Embarking on your own personal journey, you will understand how to use your food choices to live your best self.
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.