The age old saying, “you are what you eat” is true. What you eat literally becomes you. The food we consume is used to create the cells in our bodies that allow us to function. What you put into your body is going to determine what your build looks like. In order to help you figure out what you should be consuming, we have compiled a helpful guide below to learn a little more about food and how it impacts our body.
Calories in vs. Calories Out
In order to understand how to manage weight, we have to look at the first law of thermodynamics. This law states that in a closed system, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed or transferred. What this is basically saying is if you eat more calories than you burn, you are going to gain fat. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you are going to get leaner. This is going to be the main concept when it comes to fat loss.
There are 3,500 calories in a pound. Let’s say your goal is to lose 10 lbs in 10 weeks. “Theoretically” all you should have to do is cut your calories by 500 per day. 500 calories per day X 7 days per week = 3,500 calories. 3,500 calories = 1 pound. If you lose 1 pound a week for 10 weeks, you just lost 10 pounds. Notice that I put “theoretically” in quotes. We will get to quality of calories here in a bit. Calories in vs. calories out DOES matter.
To examine the first law of thermodynamics, let’s take a look at the case of nutrition professor Mark Haub. Haub went on a junk food bender for two months and managed to lose 27 pounds in the process. His diet consisted of Hostess and Little Debbi snacks, Doritos, and Oreos. The caveat here; he limited himself to less than 1,800 calories a day. A man of Haub's size generally consumes about 2,600 calories daily. Haub followed the first principle of thermodynamics we talked about above. He consumed fewer calories than he burned. What happened to Haub? Well, his body mass index went from 28.8 (overweight,) to 24.9 (normal.) Haub's "bad" cholesterol, or LDL, dropped 20 percent and his "good" cholesterol, or HDL, increased by 20 percent. He also reduced his level of triglycerides by 39 percent.
All Calories Are Not Created Equal
Case closed; weight loss is just calories in vs calories out, and a calorie is just a calorie right? Well not exactly. The quality of the food you consume greatly matters as well. You will feel much more full and satisfied if you are eating lean sources of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats rather than chowing down on Cosmic Brownies, Twinkies, and doughnuts.
In addition to making you feel more satisfied, food that is healthy and non-processed helps us lose weight because it has a high thermic effect. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the energy expenditure above the body’s resting metabolic rate due to the cost of processing food for use and storage. This basically means your body has to burn calories to break food down.
The thermic effect of food is highest in lean sources of protein; 20-30% of total calories of protein go to digesting it. The second highest TEF is carbohydrates with 5-15% of the calories you consume going towards processing. The lowest TEF is fats with 0-3% of total calories going towards processing. You should also know that your system has to work much harder in order to break down food that is not processed which is another reason why whole foods are beneficial.
Carbohydrates are the first macronutrient that we are going to cover. Carbs are sugars found in foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk products. They have 4 calories per gram and are essential for energy production and brain function. Despite all the negative press they are given, carbs are a great way to replenish muscle glycogen after a workout and save your protein for rebuilding your muscles. It is generally recommended that people consume 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.
You should know that 1 gram of carbohydrate holds approximately 3 grams of water. If you do decide to go on a low carb diet someday, please realize that the initial rapid weight loss will be a lot of water weight. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something you should note.
Carbohydrates can be separated into simple and complex types. Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars, such as fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk products.) Processed simple carbs are the “bad” type of carbohydrates. These foods are made with processed and refined sugars, are high in calories, and low in nutrition. They do not have many vitamins, minerals, or fiber. Simple carbs are "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain in a hurry if you are consuming these as your primary food source.
Complex carbohydrates are the “good” type of carbohydrates and have three or more sugars. These carbs are lower in calories and higher in nutrition. They have a high amount of naturally occurring fiber. Complex carbs take longer to digest and help keep blood sugar level. Examples of these “good” carbs include vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Another component we need to talk about when it comes to carbs is fiber. We need plenty of fiber. In fact it is recommended that men have 38 grams of fiber per day and women have 25. Make sure you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables to get that amount in.
Fats are the second major macronutrient we are going to cover. Fats contain 9 calories per gram and are our largest energy source. It is generally recommended that we get 20-35% of our daily calories from fat. We have a lot of fat to draw upon in our bodies, and we won’t be running out anytime soon. Despite its name, not all fat will make you fat. To discuss this further, let’s look at the “good” and “bad” fats.
The “good” fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have just one unsaturated carbon bond in its molecule and are considered healthy fats and are typically liquid at room temperature. They can be found in olives, avocados and nuts.
Polyunsaturated fats have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in its molecule and provide essential fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats can be found in fish, sunflower seeds, safflower oil, or corn oil. Both mono and polyunsaturated fats are known for preventing heart disease, reducing depression, and improving your body composition.
The first “bad” fat we will talk about is saturated fat. This isn’t so much of a bad fat as it is a “questionable” fat. We will call them a questionable fat because a lot of research goes back and forth on whether or not they have a place in your diet.
We are of the mindset that you shouldn’t fear saturated fat, but you shouldn’t try to load up on it either. Saturated fats are fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules and are typically solid at room temperature. These fats are found in animal food sources such as meats and dairy. Supposed benefits of saturated fat are that it increases HDL, and may lower the risk of stroke. Saturated fats are also needed for hormone production, i.e. testosterone. Some of the drawbacks of this fat are that it may increase your risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as lead to obesity.
Trans fats are the one “bad” fat you should really avoid. Trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They are found in cookies, crackers, pies, and cakes. Trans fats don’t have any benefits. They raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL). They also increase your risk of stroke and diabetes.
The third macronutrient we will discuss is protein. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. Protein is made up of many amino acids joined together. It is a necessary part of the diet, and is essential for normal cell structure and function. It is recommended that 10-35% of your daily calories come from protein.
Protein is made up of essential amino acids, and nonessential amino acids. Nonessential amino acids are produced by our bodies, whereas essential amino acids need to be consumed from food. Animal protein has all the essential amino acids in it, which is why lean sources of it are highly recommended for people who are resistance training. Chicken, fish, beef, pork, and eggs are pretty stellar when it comes to packing in your protein.
You can, however, get all your protein from non-animal sources. You just have to be smart about how you combine your amino acids. As an example, let’s look at rice and beans. Both of these foods separately do not contain all the essential amino acids, but when combined they get the job done. We are not going to tell you whether or not you should become vegetarian, but know that it is possible to get all your protein requirements whether you choose to follow a plant based diet or not.
Protein can technically be used as an energy source, but you should think of this macronutrient as your builder. This is the stuff that is going to build biceps on top of your biceps. Sure, you could deaminate (break down) protein to make glucose, but this takes considerably longer than using carbohydrates for glucose. Not to mention deaminating protein and using it as energy has the additional drawback of not allowing it to go towards rebuilding your muscles.
What’s Right for You?
When it comes to choosing the best diet for you, we feel it’s best to get to know yourself. Do you like feeling full and consuming a large amount of food when you do eat? If so, maybe intermittent fasting is for you. Do you hate the idea of killing animals? Maybe you should be a vegetarian. Does having a little bit of something sweet satisfy your sweet tooth? If so, then go for it. Will having that piece of chocolate send you into a feeding frenzy that makes you binge on sugar? If so, then you should probably say no to sugar.
As we discussed earlier the most important aspect will be calories in vs calories out, but the type of calories you consume does matter. Focus on eating a wide variety of foods that are minimally processed. Your diet should be abundant in vegetables, fruits, and lean sources of protein. Carbs are not the enemy and fat won’t make you fat. Consistency is key when it comes to nutrition. One good meal does not equal success, just as one bad meal does not equal failure. Learn what you like, and find the type of diet you can stick to. Enjoy your food!