Hello best life seekers!
Are you dreading the Thanksgiving gauntlet of food, food and more food? Worried you’ll go up 3 sizes and bust your diet or ruin the progress you’ve made toward eating healthy? The good news is that on average people only gain an extra pound between November and January, not the 5 pounds commonly assumed. However, we don’t tend to lose that pound so they begin to add up as the years pass.
About 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, putting us at risk for diabetes and other diet-related bad outcomes. In a 2016 study, researchers found that if a person today exercised and ate the same amount as a person in 1988, they’d still be heavier. They don’t know why but suspect several factors like pesticides, pollutants, medications, erratic eating schedules and changes in the gut microbiome.
Forgive me while I roll my eyes and point out the obvious change since 1988 – we eat mostly processed food these days. Around 68% of our diet is processed “food” which really is another name for processed junk with little in the way of nutrition. Over half our “food” can be bought at 7/11. Isn’t 7/11 a gas station, not a super market? Another 26% of our diet is meat grom franken-bred livestock grown on grain and weight-inducing antibiotics. Today’s livestock doesn’t eat its natural diet and lacks the nutrition of its predecessors (for a wake up call on the modern state of food, read The Dorito Effect). A paltry 6% of our diet is fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. But hold on, half of that consists of french fries.
Hello, earth to researchers! I think we’ve found the problem.
A Calorie is Less Important Than You Think
If we’re eating junk, then it’s going to impact us. Eating the “same amount” of food measured in calories is total misdirection. That’s equating a calorie of junk food to a calorie of vegetable stir fry. A calorie measures energy only, not the chemical reactions the food produces in your body. Eat 1000 calories of donuts versus 1000 calories of vetable stir fry versus 1000 calories of refined carbohydrates like pasta and you will have different weight loss and gain results because these foods impact our metabolic chemistry differently. You’ll also have different health outcomes.
A calorie is measured by how much energy is produced when you burn a food. That’s it. It tells us nothing about what that food does on its journey through our body, like upping our insulin, killing or encouraging helpful gut bacteria, causing inflammation, or interacting with neural signals to increase or decrease serotonin or tryptophan levels, let alone other impacts on things such as our metabolic regulators and immune system.
If you were to start thinking of food as a drug, you would be on the right path to understanding how food works on us. Food is chemistry, not just energy. And that chemistry impacts our thyroid, adrenals and other glands that regulate appetite, metabolism, our immune systems and a host of neural signals. And that’s just scratching the surface.
We are literally what we eat, drink and breathe. Why? Because we’re made up of molecules constantly interacting with each other. Food is nothing but molecules coming into our system and interacting with our already existing molecules. That’s why that snack pack of 100 calorie Oreos chemically impacts your body differently than that 100 calorie bunch of grapes. Different chemicals, different results, including how that excess energy will or won’t be stored and released in your body, i.e. how you will gain or lose weight.
The One-Two Punch
So here’s the score: We eat foods to fuel us and repair and maintain our bodies. We need certain chemicals to function well. That’s why if you only live on Doritos, you’ll get sick really quickly even though you’re meeting your daily caloric requirements. This also explains why calories are the least helpful item on the food label. We need nutrients. Vitamins. Minerals. Dietary fiber. Water. Enzymes. And others. Our bodies crave these things because we need them in order to function well.
If you eat mostly refined carbohydrates – think flour-based meals and sugary things – you may get calories but you’re not going to satisfy your bodily cravings for real nutrition. You’re still probably going to be hungry because you need those vitamins, minerals, etc. for a healthy body. That means you may keep eating and eating and eating. Haven’t gotten those nutrients yet? You’ll stay hungry and keep eating (for an eye-opener on this phenomenon, read Peter Staubs research-based Why We Get Fat).
But that’s not all. Eat that sort of crap food and you will actively damage your metabolic system. You’ll compromise your pituitary gland which regulates appetite. Diabetes, a diet-linked disease, is another bad result of the standard American diet. You can’t regulate your insulin and your body can’t effectively regulate fat storage any more, among other things being damaged and broken in the system. Kidney disease is a similar result of the system being abused by bad food and breaking down because we have given the wrong chemicals to it and withheld needed ones. It’s a one-two punch and it’s making us sick.
How can I be so sure? I’m not a doctor but I’ve traveled all over the world and read nutrition studies for fun. What’s the most shocking and revealing to me about nutrition is how other countries who eat differently than us have different health outcomes. Go to Japan, which has a diet that centers primarily around whole foods and seafood, and you will not see widespread the chronic diseases in the West like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune problems, kidney disease and cancer. They have these problems but in much lower rates. Interestingly those rates are increasing as the countries start eating like us.
But wait, there’s more! As if the one-two punch wasn’t hard enough, the food industry has tied our shoe-laces together so that we can’t avoid the beating. It does this by adding in addicting ingredients like sugar and high fructose corn syrup (among others), false flavors that trick our brain into thinking we’re eating something nutritious, and lacing it with palatant. What’s palatant? It’s a substance developed to increase the food intake of livestock to fatten them. It has been put into certain baby formula to help underweight children eat more. And it goes into our processed food. When this substance is added, we typically eat 20% or more than if it wasn’t included (again, read The Dorito Effect). That rings up awesome sales figures at the fiscal year-end for food companies. And adds tons of unnecessary weight onto us, along with a harmful bombardment of molecules known as processed food and junk food. Remember, food is chemistry.
So let’s go back to the original conundrum: Eat and exercise the same amount as 1988 but gain more weight? It’s the one-two punch of ingesting chemicals that disrupt our body and withholding chemicals our body needs for good functioning.
The Way Back to Health
Health shouldn’t be rocket science. All other species on the planet don’t have our problem of figuring out what to eat in order to survive. We have to read books and blogs and attend health seminars.
Or do we?
Step back a second. Were you or anyone you know born with a stove or microwave attached to their belly? Think about that a minute and think about how we eat today versus in the beginning. I’m not saying go raw but it’s food for thought. Nature provides us everything we need to survive. We’ve taken those ingredients and turned them into unrecognizable junk that is literally killing us.
Once you start thinking about food as chemistry and the purpose of food as providing our bodies with the chemicals it needs to repair and maintain itself, you’ll start looking for ways to give your body what it needs. But don’t think you can give it a miracle pill of zinc, vitamin A, folate, etc. That’s not how the body works. The nutrition of a real tomato or orange, with their complexity of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, water content, and so much more far surpasses anything you can get in a pill. It’s called chemical complexity and it’s why we need to eat whole foods, not processed ones.
That’s the way out.
It’s actually very simple. Unfortunately we want short-cuts. We need our convenience foods, our steam in a bag and serve, our drive-thru orders, and our meal kits. These things won’t give us health. They will instead give us the one-two punch of ingesting bad chemicals and withholding the good chemicals we need. We fortify otherwise nutritionally deficient flour with riboflavin and folate but with a resulting increase in colorectal cancer. Instead, we should drop the flour and sugar products and eat life-nurturing fruits and vegetables.
Other cultures eat a more balanced diet than we do. Blue zones are known for producing people who regularly live into their 90s in good health. These places have diets that center around – big shock – whole foods. Blue zone cultures eat things like fresh vegetables and fruits, legumes, pulses and seeds. They basically invert the standard American diet food pyramid and they have wonderful health to match.
If we want good health, we should do what the healthy do. That means changing our eating habits to match theirs. That’s the way forward and it’s awesomely delicious.
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