In this multi-part post, I’m going to cover absolutely positively *every*last*single*thing* you will ever possibly need to know about dieting, diet programs, and general nutrition. By the time you’re done reading, you will finally understand how dieting works on a fundamental level.
Some crazy insane things we’ll cover:
◘ Why McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut can not only be good for you, but can be included as part of a balanced diet.
◘ What a “balanced diet” really means. And it has nothing to do with “food groups”.
◘ How sugar works. All carbs (carbohydrates) are sugars, and there are supposedly “good carbs” and “bad carbs” (there aren’t), yet sugar (which are carbs) have been blamed for everything from diabetes to cancer (it causes neither). We’ll straighten this out.
◘ Why nearly all diets work, but they don’t work for you. And it has nothing to do with your blood type. Or acidity vs alkaline. Or mixing the wrong foods together.
◘ Why there is no such thing as “junk food”. Only bad food choices. And no, that’s not just another way of saying “junk food”; broccoli and carrot sticks can be bad food choices.
So in other words, forget everything you know about dieting. Find that “diet folder” in your brain, and click “delete”. I’ve taught classes on this material before, and it frequently resulted in exasperated students with jaws dropped in utter disbelief in what they were hearing, along with amazement and joy that they can now create their own diet plans and decide what they eat, and when they eat it!
In the fitness and nutrition industry, there are strong profit motives to mislead customers and no incentives to educate them. “Health food” sales increase as long as you believe there’s such a thing as “junk food”. Putting “fat free” or “cholesterol free” on a package increases the sales of that package as long as you believe fat and cholesterol are bad for you.
I want to help shed some light on all this, so I’ve decided to post the results of over 10 years of science and research here, and make it available to everyone. I’m not sure if I’ll make a dent in the country’s obesity epidemic, but at least I can try.
First let’s cover “calories”. What is a calorie? A calorie is a measure of energy, the way an inch is a measure of distance. Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 liter of water by 1 degree Celsius. When you eat, you consume calories form carbohydrates, proteins, fats, or alcohols. It’s these 4 things that contain calories, or usable energy. Normally, that energy gets either used in daily activity, or stored. And how does it get stored? As fat! So you either burn those calories or they become fat.
It’s really that simple. In fact we could probably end there!… but you’re probably still curious about all those things I built up in the introduction to convince you to keep reading. So we’ll continue.
Calories are burned through every day activity, but are burned up much faster by exercise. Having greater muscle mass can increase the number of calories you burn at rest or during exercise, and that’s why muscle building is a good strategy to include in any fat loss routine. If you don’t consume enough calories to supply the body’s energy demands, the body will simply use some of its stored calories to supply the energy needed. That, in a nutshell, is how body fat comes off. It is The Only Way fat will ever come off, short of surgical procedures. That’s real important to understand, because this one central concept will explain dozens of things later on.
So you can lose fat (stored calories) in 1 of 2 ways:
1. Burn more calories through activity
2. Eat fewer calories in your diet.
It’s usually a combination of these that makes a winning fat loss strategy. There are hundreds of ways you can design a diet around this very simple concept, which is why there are hundreds of diets on the market today. Most follow this basic principle. If you’re on a diet, you’re eating more calories than you need, and you’re not trying to build muscle, the diet will fail. That’s it – hands down, no further questions – the diet fails and you get fatter.
You can eat cookies, ice cream, and cakes, and it won’t matter so long as you’re getting fewer calories than you need. If you eat 400 calories worth of ice cream, then jog for an hour and burn 500 calories, well congratulations! You just ate a bowl of ice cream and still lost fat! That’s how it works.
You need 2,000 calories a day (for sake of example).
You eat 1,500 calories.
You lost 500 calories that day.
It takes around 3,500 calories to make a pound of fat.
Lose 500 calories Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and you’ve effectively lost 3,500 calories. You’ve lost 1 pound of pure fat in 1 week (1 kg in just over 2 weeks).
It’s that simple.
So what’s the point of “eating healthy” (as in carrots, spinach, celery, etc)? Well besides having dozens of vitamins and minerals (which don’t impact fat loss nearly as much as long as there’s no deficiencies – it’s the calories you’re concerned with here) fruits and veggies tend to have far fewer calories per volume. A large apple and a cheese burger may be almost the same amount of food… but the apple has only 120 calories, while the cheese burger may have upwards of 300 calories. A bowl of celery and carrots may have 50 calories total, while a large fries can have up to 500, even though they’re the same “amount” of food. You can still eat large fries from McDonalds and lose body fat! You’re just going to have to burn those 500 calories somehow, because if you don’t, they get stored as body fat and your diet fails.
(It should be noted that for the purposes of this course, we’re assuming that you’re getting plenty of vitamins and minerals already. Although you’re probably not. For more on that, click here and here.)
So again, calories only come from:
1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram protein = 4 calories
1 gram fat = 9 calories
1 gram alcohol = 7 calories (should not be included in your diet, but who are we kidding. Some are going to include it anyway).
The above 4 are called macro-nutrients, and they provide calories. Vitamins and minerals are called micro-nutrients, and they do not provide calories. When speaking of “nutrition”, we could be referring to either one or both.
“Empty calories” are those which do not have corresponding micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). For example, a slice of white bread has around 70 calories, but almost no vitamins or minerals, and a can of Coke has only sugar with absolutely no vitamins or minerals at all. A small bowl of spinach, on the other and, gives you less than 100 calories, and yet also provides nearly the entire spectrum of vitamins and minerals you need in a day. Spinach would be called a “nutrient dense” food, whereas the white bread and Coke would be examples of “empty calories”. Foods that are filled with empty calories have traditionally been called “junk food“, and “eating clean” refers to a diet with mostly nutrient dense foods (no junk food). However, there is no such thing as junk food and health food. We’ll explain why later.
Simple Facts about Calories
Drinking cold water will not help burn more calories. The idea is that drinking enough cold water makes the body lose heat, so it must work harder to re-heat itself. However, drinking an entire gallon of cold water may result in only 1 calorie being burned. Research demonstrating the use of this technique uses different methods to measure the calories burned. In reality, while drinking water is good for you, it’s not going to assist very much with fat loss.
Some foods have ‘negative calories’, which means you burn more calories eating them than you get from them. The only food that really fits this description is celery, which does indeed burn a few more calories than you get from it. Most vegetables, especially when eaten raw and without any dressing, require calories to digest that leaves them almost being negative calorie foods. However, you can’t just eat celery and lose weight. Strategies like this must be used as part of a larger diet and lifestyle plan.
Some products show “Kcal” on the label, while others just show “Cal”. Which is which? They’re the same. Kcal means “kilo calorie”, but that’s essentially what we mean anytime we say “calorie”.
So now you know you need fewer calories than you burn. And to find out how many calories something has, you can always look on the back at the health label. If a health label isn’t available, the website www.nutritiondata.com is a great place to figure out how many calories you’re getting.
Now that we covered some basics about calories, you need to know how many calories you burn each day. This can vary wildly based on body weight, body fat percentage, and activity level. A professional athlete on a hard training cycle will of course burn far more calories than Mrs Smith (Your average everyday woman). Because of the complex calculations needed to gain an accurate measure of your caloric needs, its best to consult a qualified trainer who is skilled at using hand held fat calipers. I’m not fond of bio-electric impedance (a machine you normally stand on barefoot which measures body fat), as in my experience, these tend to be far less accurate.
Simple Facts about Nutrition in General
Your BMI does not tell you how much you should weigh. BMI, or body mass index, should not be used as part of your health assessment or body fat analysis. The BMI simply divides your weight by your height and comes out with an “optimal weight” which tells absolutely nothing about your actual condition. A professional body builder would appear grotesquely overweight on the BMI scale because it does not calculate how much of that weight is muscle or body fat. BMI cannot be used to accurately assess any health conditions, and was never designed for this purpose. It was originally developed in the mid 1800’s, long before we knew much about health and fitness as we do today, and was used to study populations, not individuals.
So how much should you weigh?
Take off your shirt, and look in the mirror. If you like what you see, you’re good to go.
The RDA tells us how many vitamins and minerals we need, but is not for athletes. It’s common for people to refer to the RDA, or Recommended Daily Allowances, in reference to their nutritional needs. The RDA’s are only estimates for what the average person needs. Athletes, or those engaged in heavy training, may require far more vitamins and minerals than the average person. If you train only on the weekends or are engaged in something less demanding, like yoga, then the RDA’s are probably still an accurate estimate for you. But if you engage in heavy weight lifting 3 or more times per week, it’s suggested you aim much higher for many of your nutritional needs.
The Food Pyramid and the “4 basic food groups” is another source of misinformation to dispose with. This concept was developed in the US to help Americans deal with food shortages during World War II. This was a time far different than modern day world, and certainly did not have modern fitness in mind. It’s not the food that matters – its what’s in the food. Would you rather have an orange that provides more calories, or an orange that provides more vitamins? Bread and white rice have very few vitamins or minerals, and easily turn to fat. Why on earth would you need a whopping 6 to 11 servings as recommended by the food pyramid? Ironically the same advocates who recommend you stay away from empty calories like bread and rice often advise you follow the food pyramid, which recommends… bread and rice.
Next we’ll cover some very basic facts about the 3 things that make up all foods: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All food in the world is made up of a combination of these 3.
Don’t worry about how accurate the numbers are. Just understand the concept; the more you move and the harder you work, the more calories you burn. Burn more than you eat, and you’ll lose fat.
Carbohydrates, or “carbs” for short, are sugars. All carbohydrates that can be digested will eventually break down into simple sugars in the body, if they’re not already simple sugars when you eat them (important concept – keep it in mind!) A carb can be simple or complex in structure. They provide very little function other than energy, though some are needed for regular brain metabolism and internal organ maintenance. It is theoretically possible to survive without carbs, since proteins can be converted to carbs (gluconeogensis) if a deficiency exists.
Of carbohydrates, there are 3 main kinds. This gets a little complicated so hang on.
monosaccharides = “mono” meaning 1. “Saccharides” meaning “sugar”. Basically this is a simple sugar. Examples include candy, sodas, and honey.
disaccharides = “di” meaning 2. This is 2 sugars combined together. After you eat this, it will break down into monosaccharides, or simple sugars. Examples include milk, table sugar, and maple syrup.
(Speaking of milk, people who are lactose intolerant simply lack the enzyme needed to break apart lactose in the stomach for digestion. The lactose passes to the lower intestines where it is digested by bacteria. The bacteria produce by-products from digesting the milk, which results in diarrhea. The more you know!)
polysaccharides = “poly” meaning “many”. So basically its many sugars linked together. These are sometimes called “starches”. Again, once you eat them, they break down and eventually become monosaccharides. Examples include rice, cornmeal, spaghetti, bread.
Some starches cannot be digested by the human stomach, and these are called “fiber”. Fiber helps the intestinal tract to function and can help lower cholesterol. It also slows down digestion, can help you feel more satisfied with your meal, and makes you fuller for longer. Fibers do not provide calories.
It does not matter how complex a carbohydrate is! This is very important to understand! The complexity of a carb has absolutely nothing to do with how healthy it is or how good it is for you or how much of it you should have! Complex carbs do not necessarily stabilize blood sugar, or provide fiber, or provide vitamins, or have any health benefits whatsoever. It is a complete myth that you should stick to “complex carbs” and avoid simple sugars. Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is a simple sugar… yet the same people who tell you to avoid simple sugars will tell you to eat more fruits.
Speaking of fructose, always eat fruits, and carbohydrates from fruit sources, before you workout, never after. Fruit sugars cannot “re-energize the body” after a hard workout, because the body’s muscles cannot use fructose for recovery. Fructose is a great source of energy, however, if taken before your workout.
Good carbs vs Bad carbs
You may have heard of good and bad carbs, when in reality no carb is inherently good or bad. The “glycemic index” divides the two, with high glycemic carbs traditionally being called bad, with low glycemic carbs being called good.
The glycemic index is how much a carbohydrate impacts your insulin levels. To measure a food’s glycemic index, or GI rating, test subjects are given a glass of pure glucose to drink. Since nothing can absorb faster or have a higher impact on insulin levels than liquid glucose, the effect this has on insulin is taken as a ‘bench mark’. Any other food the subject consumes results in a blood insulin level that is measured against the glucose drink. From this, we have GI ratings for all the various foods.
Pure glucose is given a GI of 100. White bread then has a GI of around 76. From this we know that white bread absorbs very fast from the stomach and into the blood, causing blood insulin levels to rise very quickly. Kidney beans, on the other hand, have a GI of around 29. This means it absorbs very slowly into the blood and has a much lower impact on your blood insulin levels.
White rice and bread are both considered complex carbs, and yet both have a GI of around 76. A simple sugar like that found in apples has a GI of only around 36. So here we can see that complex carbs affect insulin levels much more than simple carbs. Again, the complexity of a carb has absolutely nothing to do with how “healthy” it is, or whether it’s “good” or “bad”.
The glycemic index does not take into account the amount of carbs you’ve eaten. A banana may have a GI of around 65… but surely eating 2 whole bananas will not be the same as taking only 1 bite. To adjust for the amount of carbs eaten, the Glycemic Load scale was developed.
To find the Glycemic Load, use the following formula:
GI/100 x Net Carbs – dietary fiber
Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated! It simply means take the GI, divide it by 100, then multiply it by the total number of carbs. That’s all.
So if a plate of white rice has 50 carbs… and we know the GI is 76…
76 divided by 100 = .76, times 50 carbs, = 38. And that’s the GL. A GL of 20 or over is usually considered “high”. It’s perfectly ok to have a GL of 40 or higher, however, as sometimes this really can’t be avoided.
Kidney beans have a GI of 29. But if I’m getting ready for a heavy leg workout, I may need upwards of 100 carbs. Using the GL formula, 29 divided by 100 = .29, times 100 carbs, = 29. Even some of the lowest GI food in the world results in a high GL if you eat enough of it. That’s fine. Just keep in mind the point is to have longer lasting energy that’s more stable that can get you through your workout, and low GI foods tend to do this better than high GI foods in your pre-workout meal. After your workout, you want more sugar and more insulin, because getting this can make muscles grow a lot more after a bodybuilding workout than if you didn’t have them. So high GI foods are best after you workout.
Now if you’re not working out and don’t exercise, your diet should consist mostly of low GI carbs. High GI carbs have been shown to increase hunger. Not a good idea unless you want to make yourself more hungry.
So in summary:
Low GI carbs before your workout.
High GI carbs after your workout.
Low GI carbs if you’re not working out. You’ll be hungry less often.
Some examples of low GI foods include yogurt, milk, beans, oats, pasta, most citrus fruits, nuts and lentils. Some examples of high GI foods include rice, most breads, bananas, soda drinks, French fries, potatoes, and prunes. For a very complete list of foods and where they rank (high, medium, or low) please see http://gilisting.com/easy-gi-diet/
Some athletes may benefit greatly from a technique known as carb loading. Carb loading is normally accomplished by slowly reducing carbs in the diet over the course of several days, dropping total carb intake by 20% each day, until almost no carbs are consumed by day 4 or 5. In response to the decreased intake of carbs, the muscle cells in the body become extra sensitive to any incoming carbs. On the 6th day, the athlete will finish a hard workout, then consume a gargantuan amount of carbs, which will be taken up by the now-extra-sensitive muscle cells rather than the fat cells. Jelly donuts and chocolate cake (normally called “junk food”) are a good food choice at this point! You want extra sugary foods to spike the insulin as much as possible, since the muscle cells are extra sensitive and are ready to use all those carbs for growth! When the muscles are filled with sugar, they become bigger, stronger, and generally perform better. Along with a sudden intake of sugar, the muscles also draw in water that’s stored beneath the skin. This provides lots of definition along with the added muscle mass.
So there you have it. Eating junk = ripped, cut, and defined muscles with less fat!!
Carb loading is most typically done by bodybuilders and long distance runners, but the average person can also take advantage of this technique to make themselves look and perform better.
And yes, cookies count.
It is a well established physiological fact that the body will adapt to any stress it is exposed to for a prolonged period of time. This includes a diet plan. If you’ve been on a fat-loss diet for an extended period of time, the body will try to adapt to the lowered food intake and will stop responding to your dieting efforts. The body’s hormones and metabolic rate will begin adjusting to the decreased intake of food.
To combat this, you should deliberately try to gain weight (preferably in muscle) 2 days per week, while losing fat the other 5 days per week. The gaining days readjust your metabolic rate upwards, and puts back muscle you lost on the fat burning days, both of which make fat burning more effective. If you’re a woman, don’t worry – you cannot and will not turn into the incredible hulk from trying to gain muscle just 2 days a week. The muscle you gain will be lean and slender, and will probably be lost by the next 5 days of weight loss anyway.
To gain muscle, you generally need more carbs in your diet for energy, and more calories than you burned.
But to lose fat, you need fewer carbs and fewer calories than you burned.
It’s difficult to burn fat AND build muscle on the same day, so it makes much more sense to pick one or the other. Either lose fat today (called a “losing day”) by going low carb and low calorie, or gain muscle today (called a “gaining day”) by going high carb and high calorie. Just make sure your “gaining” days are also the days you train super extremely hard! Eating lots of food on a day you don’t work out is a bad idea.
Finally, zig zagging gives you a mental break from dieting every day. It’s cool to hang out with your friends and eat all your favorite foods. You just have to plan for it. Hanging out with your friends on Super Bowl Sunday next weekend? Wake up extra early that day and slam that training routine HARD in the morning. Train as hard as you can with as few carbs as possible, then show up and eat all the junk you want. Most of it’s going to muscle recovery and strength / stamina building, rather than as fat.
Similarly you may gain muscle 5 days a week just to be sure you’ve restarted your metabolic rate upwards and regained some muscle mass that will help you burn more fat. This means 5 days of eating a lot more than you normally would – but this also means 5 days of hard training. Time it properly!
Carb Timing and Balance
How do you time your carb intake properly? You’re going to do 2 things.
1. Give yourself a 3 hour time limit in which you’ll have to eat again. If you eat at 9 AM, the latest you can go is 12 PM before you need to have something else to eat. If you eat at 12 PM, you have until 3 PM to eat again – but if you eat early, say around 2:30 PM, well the 3 hour time limit starts over and you have until 5:30 PM for your next meal.
This is one of the cardinal rules of dieting that we’ll cover again later on.
2. You’re going to ask yourself, each time you’re about to eat, “what will I be doing for the next 3 hours?”
You need protein in nearly every meal. At least a little bit. Fats can generally be taken “whenever”, but a little in each meal wont hurt (though fish oils are best before you workout – discussed later). What you’re adjusting up and down for the most part is the carbs.
◘ If you’re sitting in front of the TV for the next 3 hours, you don’t need any carbs.
◘ If you’re teaching a class for the next 3 hours, a few low GI carbs might help.
◘ If you’re running a marathon, you’re going to need truck loads of low GI carbs!
◘ If you’re doing powerlifting, you’re going to need a moderate amount of low GI carbs before, and a small amount of high GI carbs after.
◘ If you’re doing bodybuilding, you’re going to need lots of low GI carbs before the workout followed by lots high GI carbs after the workout.
◘ If you’re working construction, scaffolding, or some other manual labour job and you’re trying to reduce body fat, you’ll aim for only a few low GI carbs.
◘ If you’re working construction, scaffolding, or some other manual labour job and you’ve got a deadline to meet and the boss is breathing down your neck, you need a lot more GI carbs for the energy to get as much done as you can as quickly as possible.
Remember that proteins and fats stay pretty consistent. For muscle building you need around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight – or 2.2 grams per kg of body weight. So a 150 pound (70 kg) person will need around 150 grams of protein. You need about half that in fats, so around 70 grams of fat in your day. The amount of carbs you need is based largely on what you’re going to do, so it’s unnecessary to follow a “40% carbs, 30% proteins, 30% fats” plan (which we’ll cover later too).
If you’re a regular person, not exercising or building muscle, then the protein requirements are effectively cut in half, and so are the fat requirements. A 150 pound person would need around 75 grams of protein, and 35 or so grams of fat in a day. Again, carbs go up or down based on the demand.
Simple Facts about Carbs
Eating sugary foods cannot and does not cause diabetes. It is a myth that too many sugary foods can influence the development of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder that normally occurs at birth, when the pancreas does not produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes is a disorder wherein the body’s cells stop responding to insulin. The cause of type II diabetes remains unknown, but it appears to be linked to a sedentary life style, bad food choices, and poor nutrition. Simply eating refined sugar, by itself, does very little to contribute to the disease.
It is true that eating high GI carbs will cause an insulin spike followed by an insulin crash. Besides making the person hungrier more often, this is harmless.
Eating carbs before bed – it’s your call. First, remember what we talked about when it came to calories. If you don’t burn the calories they tend to get stored. A bowl full of carbs just bed is a bowl full of calories you’re not going to burn. A chicken salad may be a better choice than a stack of Oreos.
However, carbs also change the brain chemistry just before bedtime, helping your body to slow down and making your brain want to sleep. If you worked out hard that day, the carbs are also likely to be used restoring some muscle and fitness levels.
If you’re on a stringent fat loss cycle, it’s best to avoid carbs whenever you can, since you’re also keeping yourself sensitive to insulin this way for your zig-zagging. But if you’re not on a cycle, it’s your call.
A typical diet strategy.
Would zig zagging and meal timing help?