All the wealth in the world pales in comparison with the glory of good health and loving relationships in your life. This oft-recited piece of wisdom might sound like a cliché, but it’s really a useful reminder for many of us who might sometimes focus too much on the former at the expense of the latter. Especially in regard to very basic nutritional health, I have come across a few situations over the past few weeks, which urge me to share some elemental and purely scientific knowledge.
I know, I’m (once again) stepping out of my professional “comfort zone” here. However, I feel obliged to share some very basic knowledge that helps me and my family stay active and healthy. Without these fundamental principles, you run the risk of falling prey to the numerous charlatans and quacks of the “diet industry” and to ideological, pseudoscientific and dogmatic nonsense, of the kind that appears to be prevalent today across the board, from gender politics to climate change or even investing.
Why am I talking about this?
One incident that quite frankly upset me was an encounter I had with a family that, whilst leading a fairly comfortable and financially stable life, are raising two little (and potentially beautiful and healthy) kids that are both unbelievably overweight. The parents too are obese. When my wife and I had dinner with them, I couldn’t help but start a discussion on a healthy diet, although I soon came to regret it...
Another occasion that caused me to think about this issue was when my youngest daughter brought home a friend, a wonderful young lady, who has weight problems. She has tried all kinds of diets and is understandably frustrated with the situation. She was surprisingly open about it. She has apparently sought advice from various doctors and dieticians. Yet, she admitted that no one has been able to really get her on a firm path.
Finally, a dear friend of mine, who has been suffering from obesity for some time now, recently suffered a heart attack. He’s just over 50 years old, my age. I was finally able to have an open discussion with him, during which I became aware of how completely ignorant he was of the basic ways our body converts food into energy.
One thing has become clear to me: There’s a lot of unsound ideas, dogmatic nonsense and junk science out there when it comes to nutrition.
I would like to clarify at this point that I don’t believe in any one specific diet. I personally eat everything. I’m not a vegetarian, a vegan or a pure carnivore. I am also not arguing that there is a magic bullet or a one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy diet. I think we’re all built a little different and should therefore find our own path to health.
However, in doing so, we should first learn a few basic facts of how our body works. So, I suggest you do some research and based on solid scientific facts -- not on semi-factual opinions or assumptions – make adjustments to your diet that will help you attain and maintain a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
Metabolism basics – the three energy sources and processes our body employs
Let’s first take a look at the three basic energy sources that our metabolism works with, i.e. the processes that our body employs to extract energy from the food we consume.
The term “metabolism” describes the chemical processes and reactions our body uses to generate, store and consume energy. These fueling processes can be complex, but, basically, the primary objective is to produce a central energy “agent” called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Our body breaks down ATP to release energy, which is used to perform the functions of all the different systems, i.e. cells growing and dividing, muscles extending and contracting, etc.
Three basic nutritional sources are used toward this end: Carbohydrates, lipids (fat) and proteins. However, there are significant differences in the processes through which each of these energy sources are converted to ATP. Fat, in particular, is processed completely differently.
While carbohydrates (from sugar-rich beverages and food like bread, cereal, pasta or fruit) and proteins (albeit with a slightly different and slower process than carbohydrates) are processed and delivered to our cells (mostly our liver and muscles) with the help of insulin, lipids employ a process called ketosis, with the help of ketones.
Understanding these three basic processes and the different ways in which they affect our body and health is at the core of adjusting and improving your diet. You need to take the time to learn about these differences and bear them in mind when adapting your nutritional plan.
While carbohydrates are clearly an important source of energy, most people consume far too many of them, while shunning fats. One basic adjustment toward a healthier diet simply lies in shifting from a high-carb intake toward a higher intake of fat. I guess the key message here is that, despite what you’ve probably repeatedly heard and read, FAT IS NOT UNHEALTHY!
I know, we’ve all grown up with the idea that carbs should be the basic and primary energy source in our diet. Fat, on the other hand, has been demonized and we’ve all been warned to avoid it. A stroll through the aisles of any supermarket and the countless “low-fat” labels on all kinds of products, will suffice to highlight this point. That is a terrible misconception and, in my view, one of the primary causes of a lot of the modern-day illnesses. Too much sugar and too much insulin is NOT good for your health – anyone who tells you otherwise, is not giving you good advice.
Decades of scientific research and mounds of evidence clearly show that it is the overconsumption of carbs that is the real villain. This staggering imbalance in our modern dietary habits is behind all kinds of life-shortening and widespread maladies, from the epidemic of childhood obesity, to the spread of type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
Thus, shifting away from carbohydrates and instead increasing your intake of fat can result in a huge improvement in your well-being, and in your weight management. You can start by simply lowering your intake of bread, pasta, cake and, most importantly, of sugary drinks. Drink water! It’s that simple! And instead of reaching for all those carb-rich snacks, eat some of those wonderfully delicious fats - cheese, butter, bacon, avocados or oily salad dressings.
In order to not fall into a state of hunger – which will ultimately always produce the famous “yoyo” effect, increase your intake of greens, vegetables and, YES, fat. As your body gets into a state of improved ketosis (more ketones in the blood), you start to burn fat more efficiently and create energy in a way that is “insulin-free”.
Conclusion – Understand the basics and find what works for you
I understand, this a very superficial and basic summary of nutritional principles. And I also understand that I don’t have the credentials to advise on this topic. At best, my qualifications may lie in the fact that I have invested a fair amount of time to educate and inform myself and, at 53 years of age and working many hours at the office, I am still lean and feel energized. I can say the same thing for my wife and our three grown children.
However, as mentioned above, when I look around, it’s easy to see that others are not so fortunate. And, frankly, I don’t think the solution lies in blaming the food industry, the government, stress levels, or possibly our upbringing and our parents.
Each and every one of us has the capacity to learn and to adjust. What I find somewhat surprising though, is that most people, even those with higher education, don’t know these basic principles of how our body works. As a result, even when they try to manage their weight, they follow unsound advice or fall victim to the nonsense of the various “diet gurus” and whatever brand of junk science they’re peddling at the time. Such diets are not just ineffective but can also be gravely dangerous.
To reiterate, I am not propagating one type of diet for all. To the contrary, I believe it’s essential that you adjust your nutrition to your distinct needs. For example, my wife is by nature very slim and experiences the benefits (and drawbacks) of a fast metabolism. Most people are different and may struggle more to lose or remain at certain weight in a healthy and sustainable fashion. However, even for my wife, her “lucky” genes don’t mean she gets to eat fries, cookies and pasta every single day. A balanced diet is critical for her to remain in a good physical condition, as merely being slim is not the same as being healthy.
It’s really worth taking the time to learn some of the basics and try a different approach and I’m not talking about any of those pricy and wide-spread dietary programs, nor any of those extreme and restrictive trendy diets. I’m talking about educating yourself and taking measured, step-by-step actions toward solid, sustainable improvement.
Here are two websites with lots of information and also great recipes. Have a look. I’m hopeful that this will get you off to a good start.
Diet Doctor, by Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD www.dietdoctor.com
Keto Nutrition, by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino www.ketonutrition.org
Wishing you all a healthier and more active life!