To understand the claim in the title of this article, we need to start with the basics. All nutrients you get with food can be divided in two categories: essential and non-essential.
Essential means “indispensable” – they are the ones that your body does NOT make on its own.
Non-essential nutrients are the ones that your body does make on its own. You body’s ability to go from one nutrient to another is as follows:
- All carbohydrates (sugars) can be made from proteins and fats. They are non-essential nutrients.
- Fats can be made of any other nutrient, with an exception of essential fatty acids (EFAs: omega-3 and omega-6) that must be obtained with food in small amounts.
- Protein is an essential nutrient. Protein cannot be made completely from scratch, because 9 out of 20 protein building blocks, called amino acids are not made in our body and therefore must be obtained with food. They are essential. This means that we must eat protein to build our own.
- Carbohydrate, fat and protein can all be used to produce energy. The default energy source is carbohydrate (glucose); if glucose is not available then your body will readily burn fat and then protein. Carbohydrate, fat, and protein together are called macronutrients (“macro” means “big”), to stress the fact that we get most calories in food from them three.
- Water, vitamins and minerals are all essential: they are not produced in our body and must be obtained with food. (To be precise, some water is produced in your body, but that amount is not nearly sufficient to keep you alive).
The following diagram represents these rules:
Since I majored in biochemistry this simple concept about nutrition is as obvious to me as multiplication table, yet I find that so many people are unfamiliar with it.
So if you are trying to build a low-calorie diet that is balanced and contains all essential nutrients, does it mean that you have to get obsessed with looking at those nutritional facts and count all those calories and grams of fat and protein? Well, the answer is both yes and no. You need to understand basic facts about foods once, and after that you will not have to worry too much about how those numbers add up.
Below are three simple rules you can use to build a well balanced diet:
- Carbohydrate rich foods that contain no or little essential nutrients can be safely reduced to a minimum. That is the easiest way to keep your calories low. I call it a carbohydrate avoidance strategy. If protein content is below 5 grams per serving – reduce this food or exclude it from your diet. This way you will stay low on calories automatically, without having to count them.
- Build your diet around animal protein-rich foods. The best ones are those that have calorie to protein ratio anywhere between 5 to 10 (using kilocalories and grams for protein). Examples are meat (with fat trimmed off), milk, poultry, eggs, fish and “light” cheese. In these foods, most calories will come from fat, which it fine. Regular cheese and sausages are bad examples, because in those foods, calorie to protein ratio is about 20. That is way too many calories per gram of protein. You can still include these, but limit serving sizes.
- Include a variety of plant products – oils, vegetables and fruits to supply essential fatty acids and vitamins. Use a normal portion size for oil, about half ounce (15 ml). Green veggies, salads and fruits are unlimited, because they are very low in calories.
When on a fitness program, best results are achieved by cutting carbohydrate to a minimum while increasing protein intake. Here is an example of how reducing carbohydrate while keeping the total energy intake the same results in improvements in weight loss (this particular experiment was in obese women; all diets were reduced in calories, from Meckling, 2007):
|Carbohydrate to protein ratio (in calories)||Exercise included?||Weight Loss (kg) over 12 weeks|
|3 to 1||No||2.1kg|
|1.5 to 1||No||4.6 kg|
|2.7 to 1||Yes||4 kg|
|1 to 1||Yes||7 kg|
We can see that reducing carbohydrate relative to protein while keeping the total calorie intake constant results in a better weight loss. The best combination for weight loss in this experiment was 1 to 1 carbohydrate to protein diet in combination with exercise.
To make certain important chemicals in our body, called leukotriens and prostaglandins, we need two kinds of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. (Omega-9 fatty acids advertised on some supplements are not essential.) There are several different subgroups in each class, but we will just refer to omega-3 and omega-6 to keep it simple.
Despite the presence of many products on the market advertized as “omega-3 supplements” the truth is that you can easily meet your daily need for both omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids with 2 servings (1oz, 30 mL) of canola or vegetable cooking oil, or blended oils that include eigher one of these two. The trick is that these two common oils are very high in omega-3, and most other oils are high in omega-6. So you could use either pure canola and vegetable or blended oil like canola/corn or canola/vegetable. Important: olive oil is a poor source of essential fatty acids, despite being more expensive. Here is my full article about this. Including 1 to 2 servings of plant oil is also good for another reason: polyunsaturated fat in your diet may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, although some scientists argue that evidence is not strong enough to claim this.
Your customized diet
You are ready to build your own diet customized to your needs. One common mistake is attempting to write a weight loss diet from scratch, and abandon most foods you love to eat. It is a very bad idea. Your feeding habits took years to form, and you will feel very unhappy without foods you love. Your chances of sticking to such a diet in a long term are fairly low.
Much better idea is to analyze your current diet and make adjustments to it based on your goal. I call this method do-it-once calorie adjustment. Here is my detailed article about it.
The idea is that when you are starting you diet and fitness regime, do a summary of foods you eat, including protein content and calorie content. You really do not need to include fat and carbohydrate here, since you know that they can be converted one into another. In protein-rich animal foods, most energy comes from fat; in plant foods it is both fat and carbohydrate, but all you care about istotal calories. Most certainly, your breakdown of foods will fit on one page. Example:
|Food serving||Calories||Protein||Calorie to Protein ratio||Notes|
|120g (4oz) sardines in tomato juice||156||24||6.5||OK|
|120g (4oz) tuna in water||133||28||4.7||OK|
|1 cup (240 mil, 8oz) 2% reduced fat milk||130||8||16||limit|
|1 cup whole milk||173||11||16||limit|
|120g (4oz) chicken breast||220||32||7||OK|
|0.5 oz (15mL) plant oil||120||0||—||Must have 2 servings|
|360 ml (12oz) beer, regular||140||0||—||Exclude|
|360 ml (12oz) beer, light||100||0||—||Limit|
|120g (4oz) pork||280||28||10||OK|
|113 g (4oz) muffin||300||6||50||Exclude|
The food nutrition facts are eigher on the packaging or you can do a quick search on a website like this one: http://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/ .
When you do your diet analysis you will be able to evaluate your foods, see how much total calories you are consuming and most importantly, how and where to cut down on your calories. Identify poor food sources, and put a note. That means that you will either have to abandon them or limit serving sizes.
You will have to do this table only for foods rich in calories, which includes all animal products, all flour and starch rich products, including grains, and all fat rich products. Green vegetables, salads and fruits are very poor in calories, so you do not have to include them in your analysis. Consume them in unlimited amounts in any combination.
When you have your custom food summary, follow these steps:
- Determine you current calorie intake.Simply write out foods you have consumed yesterday and add up calories.
- Adjust it according to your goal: weight loss, muscle gain or both. You will need to go down on calories a little bit in order to push your metabolism out of its stable weight zone into a weight loss zone. Use theses guideline for calorie adjustment:
- For most effective weight loss, reduce total calories to about 70% of your starting point.
- For most effective muscle gain, do not limit calories, stay at normal energy consumption.Substitute carbohydrate and fat with protein calories whenever possible.
- For a combination of fat loss and muscle gain go anywhere between 75 and 95 % of you starting point. The exact point will depend on many factors: your will power, eating habits, social habits, etc. To preserve or gain muscle, you absolutely have toexercise. If you do not exercise, you will lose both fat and muscle.
|1 Potato, 4 oz pork, 15ml oil/salad||250+280+120=650||7+28+8=43|
|1 Potato, 2 eggs, 15ml oil/salad||250+70*2+120=510||7+12=19|
|120 g (4oz)Tuna in water||133||28|
|One 24oz can of light beer||200||—|
|2 cups (500mL) reduced fat milk||130*2=260||8*2=16|
This 1750 calories, 106g protein diet would be a good weight loss starting point for many. As you can see, it is easy to design your customized diet which will also supply necessary amount of essential nutrients. No additional supplements were needed.Below are few more suggestions on healthy nutrition:
- Rely on what your body signals about its energy needs. Always be a little “hungry”. Do not indulge on food. Limit portion sizes and split food consumption evenly throughout day for best appetite control. When you exercise more the first thing that happens is that your appetite will increase. Watch your calories and do not indulge! Here is my article about managing your appetite.
- Do not attempt to starve and lose weight very fast. I do not recommend attempting to lose more than 2-3 kg (6 pounds) per week.
- Drink plenty of water. A lot of times you feel like you are hungry, but you are in fact thirsty. Drinking plenty of water fills up your stomach and helps reduce food cravings.
- Use two rules of legendary Mr. Jack Lalanne: “if man made it, don’t eat it”, and “if it tastes good, spit it out.”
In conclusion, I would like to mention that in a whole picture of health and fitness, your diet only comes second to physical activity and exercise. The importance of diet is overstressed, while physical activity and sleep regime in underestimated. The reason for this is simple – foods are easy to advertise and sell and require no effort on your side. And most people want something with no effort. That is why the market is flooded with all kind of nutrition and food supplement products that claim to “burn fat” with no effort required.
Some of these products are certainly good, but take any claims with healthy skepticism. Free-ranging eggs and vegetables from Whole Food stores are definitely better choices than regular products from cheap Mexican stores. But they will not do magic. You can lose weight with just diet, but you will lose both fat and muscle. And losing muscle means decrease in your body’s ability to burn food into energy. There will be very little or no gain to your overall health with just diet and no exercise.
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