In the next few postings, I will break my nutritional recommendations down into a few simple steps.
First, it is important to understand that there are only 3 actual food groups. These are the macronutrients. The 3 macronutrients are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Each can provide our body with energy. In addition to potentially supplying energy, protein also provides the building blocks that make up the structure of our body. Technically, our body can also obtain energy when it metabolizes alcohol, but this should not make up a significant part of a healthy diet so we will exclude it for now.
Carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fiber. Fiber is the undigestible part of plants and grains and does not provide energy to your body. Whether consumed in the form of sugar or starch, carbohydrates are all broken down, or digested, into sugars. This happens very rapidly in your gastrointestinal tract. Starch is just a long chain of sugar molecules linked together. This linkage is rapidly broken. You can test this by chewing a saltine cracker and not swallowing it. After a few minutes in your mouth the enzyme in your saliva (salivary amylase) begins breaking the starch down into sugar. This is why the chewed cracker begins tasting sweet when held in your mouth.
As far as your body is concerned, all absorbed carbohydrates are sugar.
When sugar is absorbed, your blood sugar level rises. Although some glucose (sugar) in you blood is necessary, too much is toxic. Your body responds by secreting insulin from the pancreas. This drives the sugar into your cells to provide energy. When your cells have enough supply of sugar, the excess can be stored as glycogen. Glycogen is primarily stored in the liver and muscles. We can only store about a days worth of energy in this form. When glycogen levels are adequate, excess blood sugar is then stored as body fat.
The modern diet tends to be rich in carbohydrates, especially processed, refined carbohydrates. As a result of constant exposure to incoming sugars, our body responds by increasing (up-regulating) the carbohydrate metabolizing system. Studies have suggested many people have fasting hyperinsulinemia (abnormally elevated insulin levels beyond what is needed to deal with a recent meal). This can result in 2 major issues: 1- extreme hunger, 2- inability to mobilize body fat for energy.
Since insulin lowers blood sugar, when your pancreas, in anticipation of the next carbohydrate rich meal, secretes more insulin than you require, your blood sugar will drop. This can lead to light-headedness, headaches, irritability, and extreme hunger. This leads you to seek out a carbohydrate rich meal, drink, or snack. Although the crisis is temporarily averted and you feel better, the cycle of blood sugar instability and increased resting insulin levels has been reinforced.
Assuming you are able to reduce your caloric intake to a level below what you expend in a given day, you would expect to lose weight. As I discussed previously, it is not quite that simple. Elevated insulin inactivates the enzyme necessary to mobilize stored body fat to use it for energy. So even when you eat smaller meals, or even skip meals, if your body is so used to eating a steady supply of carbohydrates and has elevated insulin levels as a result, you will not be able to burn your body fat for energy.
Although we have been led to believe that whole grains are healthy, the statistics show the opposite. We have seen constantly increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia as people have been encouraged to consume more grains.
Lets keep step one simple. Refined carbohydrates dump a huge amount of sugar into your body. Your body responds by burning some as energy, storing the excess as fat. Continuing this process makes burning body fat for energy very difficult.
Unfortunately it is not just candy and desserts I am referring to. Bread, cereal, pasta, low-fat sweetened yogurt, rice, soy milk, fruit, and potatoes are all carbohydrates.
To initiate weight-loss we need to change our biochemistry. Our body will respond to the fuel we supply it. If we constantly supply it with carbohydrates, it will respond as I outlined above, leaving you hungry, and making sustained weight-loss nearly impossible.
I recommend eliminating all carbohydrates except those found in non-starchy vegetables as the first step to sustainable weight-loss. This will provide the added benefits I discussed previously including: no cravings, better mood, improved mental alertness, and improved physical stamina. There are a variety of potential longer-term benefits I plan on discussing in the future as well.
A few important points:
1- When beginning a low-carbohydrate diet, your body will excrete water and salt. Please drink plenty of water, and feel free to add additional salt to your meals, especially if you feel a bit light-headed. This issue generally resolves within a few weeks.
2- You may find yourself eating because it is time to eat, rather than because you are hungry. This happened to me very quickly. It is ok to skip a meal if you are not hungry. Listen to your body, it is amazing how quickly your physiology will adapt to your new diet.
3- If you become hungry, or experience cravings for carbohydrates, eat. But do not eat carbohydrates. Eat fat. Add butter to your vegetables, use heavy cream in your coffee, eat bacon, but do not eat sugar or starches. You are teaching your body to burn fat. So you need to supply it with fat to burn. You may be surprised how quickly the carbohydrate cravings stop.
4- Do not count calories or restrict portion sizes. Just skip the carbohydrates and listen to your body.
5- Eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables and high-quality meats.
Stay tuned for the next posting where I will discuss appropriate protein levels.