The first dietary principle is broad, but its full understanding and implementation is absolutely necessary for adequate health and performance. A healthy body composition, freedom from chronic disease, and a high level of human performance is commonly associated with good genetics. This is an unfortunate conclusion given that many of our ancestors appreciated good health without much effort. The good news is that we all have the opportunity to enjoy a life free from disease with some simple lifestyle modifications that generally deviate from the misleading recommendations of mainstream health agencies. The main reason why most have been led astray in regards to nutrition is due to the professional misunderstanding or ignorance of the body's hormonal response to various foods as well as a lack of knowledge on the differences between the micronutrient absorption of various food groups. This article will provide an introduction to why numerous mainstream principles are not scientifically-justified and how to increase overall human performance with proper nourishment.
The Calorie, A Nutritional Falsehood
Counting calories is not so much an evidence-based practice as it is a cultural phenomenon. It is common for individuals to analyze the caloric content on a package label and associate that number with a certain amount of exercise, or for some to desperately starve themselves of nourishing foods to lose weight. As someone who is guilty of loyally inputting my calories into a fitness app in the past, I understand this state of mind because I once lived it. However, I found throughout my education of the properties of food and human metabolism that the notion of 'calories-in-calories-out' is a little more complicated than one might think.
Let's dive into a very brief history lesson. The word calorie was originally defined in the mid-1800s as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0°C to 1°C. This concept was predominately used in the field of engineering. Just a few decades later, the word calorie was being used as a unit of measure for food energy. Because of this, the 1900s was the starting point of a calorie being immersed in American pop culture and nutrition.1 However, we never quite figured out how this applies to how the human body uses the energy once it is consumed, and how different types of energy may affect its usage. Nevertheless, the concept of a calorie still became an important area of study for many because it enabled people to have a tangible idea of the amount of food necessary to function. This became particularly important during World War I when food rations were being encouraged, and overconsumption of food was viewed as gross negligence to the war efforts. Shortly after the war, food rations quickly became less about patriotism and more about the ideal body type—a thin physique. Since then, the concept of restricting calories for weight loss has stuck with the American public, despite scientific literature proving its ineffectiveness.2
So, if caloric restriction does not result in maintaining a healthy weight, then what does?
The short answer: Carbohydrates—particularly in the processed form— as well as most vegetable-based oils cause weight gain and abnormal endocrine function, which creates a hormonal imbalance. The replacement of carbohydrates and vegetable oils with healthy fats, particularly animal fats, generally results in sustained weight loss.
Let's dive into the long answer. First and foremost, we must address how carbohydrates are digested by the human body and how they interact with the endocrine system. Below is a brief breakdown of how the body reacts to carbohydrates:
PHASE I: The first step of digestion starts with taste. Tasting sweet foods has been shown to elicit a slight insulin response. There are also enzymes in saliva that help break down carbohydrates into simple sugars, making them more easily digestible.
PHASE II: The carbohydrates then reach the stomach and are turned into a substance called chyme, which is a mixture of stomach acids and partially digested foods. The chyme is then transported to the small intestine.
PHASE III: The small intestine has transport proteins, which allows end-products of the carbohydrates (glucose, fructose, galactose) to be distributed to the rest of the body. The liver is one of the first organs to receive these nutrients, and it breaks down the fructose into smaller particles, converts galactose to glucose, and determines whether the total glucose is absorbed by cells or transferred back to the bloodstream.
PHASE IV: Upon the arrival of glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin in order to regulate the blood-glucose levels. This is an example of how carbohydrate consumption interacts with the endocrine system
High carbohydrate consumption has been shown to stress the insulin response, leading to excess blood-glucose levels. This is associated with a host of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and more.
Despite the links between high carbohydrate intake and chronic disease, the U.S. population is still encouraged to eat 6-11 servings per day, based on the FDA's guidelines. Additionally, a multitude of scientific studies as well as prominent voices within the scientific community suggest that vegetable oils are extremely toxic and linked to a host of chronic diseases, yet the FDA continuously promotes vegetable oil consumption over animal fat consumption. Even worse, many of the scientific studies today are cherry-picking causative variables without taking other factors into account. For example, if a group of 10 individuals ate a meal of hamburgers every day for 2 years and were diagnosed with coronary heart disease, one might conclude that the saturated fat caused the disease. However, does this take into account the bread, sides, drinks, other meals, smoking, exercise, stress, and more? This is incredibly common in the scientific community, and the reason for this manipulation of results is almost certainly due to funding concerns.
With this nutritional paradigm that we are facing today, it is important to note that our ancestors ate copious amounts of animal foods and some plant foods. The population groups that suffered from the least amount of chronic and degenerative diseases generally ate more animal-based foods. Plant foods can play a role in the diet, but animal foods should be much more prominent, based on the current and historical evidence.
High plant food consumption, primarily from processed carbohydrates and vegetable oils, is a relatively new factor in our modern diets. Unfortunately, these foods are generally less nourishing than animal foods, especially since the bioavailability of the nutrients in plant foods is less than optimal when compared to animal foods. Below are three examples of the bioavailability of nutrients in animal foods when compared to plant foods.
Vitamin A The nutrient Vitamin A is found in copious amounts in beef liver, cod liver, eggs, and high-quality butter. Vitamin A is not found in plant foods, but it's precursor, beta-carotene, is found in plants. The body has to convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A for absorption, and some population groups—such as infants and diabetics—cannot make this conversion. A deficiency in Vitamin A could lead to vision and reproductive problems as well as immune deficiencies. For pregnant women, Vitamin A is especially important for fetal development; however, high levels of synthetic Vitamin A can be toxic.3
Vitamin D There are two forms of Vitamin D: Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3. Vitamin D2, which is found only in plant products, has been shown to have low bioavailability and actually increase Vitamin D requirements. On the other hand, Vitamin D3, which is found solely in animal products and ultraviolet light, is easily absorbed by the body. Low levels of Vitamin D can cause brittle bones and impair immune system function.4
Vitamin B12 The only form of bioavailable Vitamin B12 is in animal products. There are trace amounts of Vitamin B12 in beans, and there are many plant based foods fortified with synthetic Vitamin B12. However, these forms of Vitamin B12 are not easily absorbed by the body. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can lead to anemia and neurological ailments.
These examples are just scratching the surface regarding the host of issues of a diet lacking in animal products can cause, but it brings up a crucial point. Western societies tend to focus on macronutrients and calories versus eating nourishing foods. The reason for this is partly due to the availability of supplements to ensure adequate micronutrient intake. As briefly mentioned earlier, synthetic and processed forms of most nutrients are limited in bioavailability. Another reason is due to the current nutritional guidelines established by our governmental agencies, which will be covered in a later post. Regardless, the most effective way to seamlessly take in the proper amount of macronutrients is to focus more on the micronutrients. In other words consume foods that nourish the body, consume them to complete fulfillment, and all will be well in the body. Proper nourishment does not need to be complicated.
Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist commonly known as the "Isaac Newton of Nutrition," found that the healthiest populations on the globe consumed a diet high in animal foods such as eggs, beef, fish, pork, raw dairy, and organ meats. These populations were virtually free from all chronic ailments that affect Americans today, including respiratory diseases. Furthermore, he was able to document the impact that modern processed foods—particularly refined grains and sugars—had on these previously healthy people. The populations that Dr. Price observed did not count calories or macronutrients, yet they were free from obesity and other chronic ailments until they were afflicted with modern foods.5
Just with the information above, you are likely starting to realize how this can impact human performance. The foods of the modern diet are highly inflammatory, low in bioavailable nutrients, and commonly lead to chronic disease. With that said, the fitness industry is still plagued with high-inflammatory diets that inhibit performance, such as If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM), and other diets that simply focus on macronutrient and caloric consumption. Unfortunately, these types of diets are typical among fitness advocates who have a poor understanding of nutrition. It is almost certainly the case that the high frequency of injuries and slow recovery time within the fitness industry is due to a lack of nourishing sources of foods, simply because the wrong diets are promoted to individuals attempting to make health conscious choices. In order to increase recovery and performance, adequate sources of nutrients must be a priority.
After spending years diet hopping in an attempt to find the diet that 'worked for me,' I found something completely different than what I expected. Collectively, humans are designed to eat certain foods. Diets change with location and climate, but the food groups found in the healthiest populations on earth have remained similar. Amongst our ancestors, there were no diets, there was just food. They ate nourishing foods to thrive, and they had the wisdom to know the foods that provided nourishment and the foods that inflicted damage. Given the current chronic disease epidemic we are facing, I believe we have much more to learn from our ancestors than we realize. Once you understand the foods that we—as a species—are supposed to eat based on simple biological and physiological factors, everything will become simple. Carb-cravings will wither away, hangriness will be a thing of the past, and you will wonder why you haven't been doing this your whole life.
Make the necessary changes, and your body, mind, and soul will thank you, and your increased physical performance will just be the cherry on top of the mound of benefits you will reap from this way of eating.
Stay tuned as we continue to dive into the remaining GRO nutrition principles so that you can find optimal performance and live a vibrant life.
1. James L. Hargrove, History of the Calorie in Nutrition, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, Issue 12, December 2006, Pages 2957–2961, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.12.2957
2. Aphramor, L. Validity of claims made in weight management research: a narrative review of dietetic articles. Nutr J 9, 30 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-30
3. Houghton LA, Vieth R. The case against ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) as a vitamin supplement. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Oct;84(4):694-7. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/84.4.694. PMID: 17023693.
4. Solomons NW, Bulux J. Plant sources of provitamin A and human nutriture. Nutr Rev. 1993 Jul;51(7):199-204. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.1993.tb03103.x. PMID: 8414223.
5. Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, San Diego, CA.
Tori is the founder and CEO of Gym Rats Only LLC. She is an expert in holistic nutrition and has a passion for helping others achieve their physical fitness and nutrition goals.
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