Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Healthy food - what is it?

This time of year makes me cross. No, I don't mean the long-awaited but quite extreme heat wave that we're finally getting here in Melbourne. I mean the explosion of New Year misguided, dangerous or just plain wrong nutrition advice in my social media news feeds. Not to mention in newspapers, magazines and as a topic of conversation in offices everywhere.

Yes, it's January and you know what that means: everybody and their dog is On A Diet. *sigh*

OK, so you need to lose some Christmas kilos. Here's what NOT to do.

DON'T waste your money on pills or potions that promise fast fat loss. They're a scam.
DON'T jump back into that old program that you've used umpteen times in the past, because clearly it ain't working.
DON'T take advice from your mum's next-door-neighbour's cousin who had great success with the Fast Weight Loss for People With More Money Than Sense program.
DON'T follow any program that: excludes food groups; uses "learn about the FIVE FOODS YOU SHOULD NOT EAT to lose weight!" as a marketing ploy; that involves compulsory purchase of expensive "super foods" or supplements; that involves skipping meals or replacing them with liquid "meals" or that declares that one food (sugar/wheat/meat/whatever) is the cause of the world obesity epidemic.

I'm sick and tired and frankly saddened by the number of people I talk to who have jumped from one diet to another over the years and are now battling body image issues, an eating disorder or physical health problems as a result.

Most of the claims made by various nutrition (self-appointed) gurus have zero scientific basis to back them up. Some of them are just plain stupid. Witness these gems:

Gluten is a type of glue. Um... actually, I'm pretty sure it's a protein.
Lettuce is high in sugar. No. So much stupid in one person. Ugh.
You need to eat only low-carb fruits. All fruits are predominantly carbs. They also pack a vitamin, mineral and fibre punch, so yay, fruits!
You won't lose weight unless you cut out fat/carbs/sugar/wheat/whatever. Fat loss is a result of caloric deficit. You can eat any types of foods and still lose weight if your total food intake is less calories than your energy output.
Just eat clean. What even IS that? As Liz pointed out the other day, it means different things to different people. It might be sensible... or it might not, depending on your interpretation. Please stop saying it, you sound like one of the crazy diet ninnies.
Wheat will make you senile. Sugar causes cancer. Blah, blah, blah. Aargh. AARGH!

Here's what I've learned, from actual science and actual experience:

You could lose weight eating McDonalds, so the weight loss link to any one food or food group is spurious (Just so we're clear, I'm not recommending you do that, OK?). If you reduce calories to below the amount you actually require, you will lose weight. If you eat more calories than you need, you will gain weight. It's simple maths.

We need a variety of foods for optimum health. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, grains, fats*... If you regularly only consume the same few veggies and fruit, you're doing yourself no favours. If you avoid grains and starches, you're doing so unnecessarily.

No "superfoods" will provide you with all the nutrients you need. Yes, things like chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa contain some important nutrients, but so do other, much cheaper foods. Like broccoli. Or blueberries. Or salmon, steak and potatoes.

Chocolate, cake and wine are a few of life's great pleasures. You absolutely CAN continue to eat those things and lose weight, get stronger and fitter, improve your health or whatever your goals may be. In my brief foray into figure bodybuilding competing, I feasted on pizza, scarfed down M & Ms and sipped a glass or two of wine on a regular basis. No, not daily... but every single week I worked in a treat or two. And our home-cooked Indian and Thai meals, plus potatoes, bread and whatever fruit I wanted were just part of my normal meals. Not to mention chocolate souffle omelettes. I got stupidly lean eating the same foods I normally eat, just in smaller amounts.

52kg, full of energy and fuelled by chocolate souffles.

So, what's my definition of healthy food? A wide variety of foods, in quantities that meet your personal nutrition goals, support your lifestyle, taste great and provide you with enjoyment. If you're struggling to stick to your current eating plan, feel as though you can't eat out at a restaurant or cafe, or find yourself harbouring feelings of resentment and deprivation, you need to take a long, hard look at what you're doing.

What works for you? And is it backed by real science?

*Obviously the exact foods you eat will depend on allergies, intolerances, whether you're vegetarian, personal likes and dislikes and so on.

For more sane advice on nutrition, check out these articles I came across recently:

Evidence Magazine: Why "Clean Eating" is a Myth.
The Atlantic: This is Your brain on Gluten - Warning: this is a bit of a long read, but worth it.
Foodwatch: Why Quitting Sugar Guarantees You'll Lose Weight



Unknown said...

Thank you! It is such a shame that balance and moderation isn't very 'sexy' and sell books.

Kek said...

Feel free to share this around, Mich. Many people won't take notice, but if the seed is planted, when they eventually get sick of their restrictive diet, perhaps they'll remember some of what they've read.

And no, I doubt a book deal is ever likely to happen. ;)

Charlotte Orr said...

Great post Kek.

Pip said...

Fantastic post Kek, totally agree! I can say I'm sure I've got on top of the extreme binge/on/off thing for good. I've read a variety of books and blogs on the subject, agreed and related to most in most ways. But what really nailed it for me was that I stayed with a mostly obese family for over a week, - when many of their obese relatives were there or in a home in a nearby vicinity, (totally lovely peeps otherwise). Actually it reminded me of one of the biggest loser families...and I saw the situation with the kids growing up in it, their food and lifestyle choices etc. I wouldn't call these peeps binge eaters as such, just permanent less than ideal choices health wise perhaps. They were generous people and I did have the urge to get up, wake up the household early, get the dog barking annoying others, go for run, eat what I consider nutritious portioned healthy food prepared by myself. But I felt the need to fit in, show gratitude for what food was served and the hospitality of others so went for moderation and control and made sure I didn't get near any soft drink as a goal....specifically got water for myself. There was one man, at least 80kg overweight who as a once or twice daily thing got fish and chips and coke, he liked the battered lambshanks and I picture him salivaring over them. I still got in a run every second day, ate what they ate but tried for control and went for water. I was sure I would gain big time, surprisingly was the same as 2 months ago when I got back from there. But then it occurred to me, I didn't binge, or 'totally lose the zone' like what I used to. Ok, I didn't get way fitter or leaner, (will get to that a bit) but I held my own and will picture this family if I lose control over food or getting/staying fit. Sorry for the ramble.

Kek said...

Pip, it sounds like you've made some really great progress! And your story proves what I say - that WHAT you eat isn't as important as HOW MUCH when it comes to weight loss. Obviously, that family could benefit by cutting down the takeaway as well as portion sizes. Um...battered lamb shanks? Is that a thing in NZ? O_O

Hi Charlotte, thanks for reading, :)

Anonymous said...

As you know I'm one of those people who's gone back to a program they've tried in the past... hopefully with a changed mindset this time! ;-)

But the amount of ridiculous weightloss stuff there at the moment is scary. Cos FB obviously knows I need to lose weight but feed is full of sponsored ads and some make no sense at all!

Kek said...

Ah, Deb... WW embraces all of the stuff I mentioned here. Real food, realistic quantities, and the flexibility to have what you want AND to eat out.

As for those FB ads, they're just mental. Bah!

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