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The Best Diet Is No Diet - Fuelling For Purpose
The Diet Wars. Granted, my social media feeds are biased towards all things health, fitness and nutrition related, but there is a LOT of heated debate, anger, confusion and high-horsedness (new word alert!) these days (albeit highly entertaining) about what the appropriate diet is for humans. Netflix documentaries like the highly controversial Game Changers is a case in point, where a lot of the information was inaccurate, but its popularity meant that consumers are left more confused than ever before.
The truth is that humans are by far too individual (genetics, environment, geographic location and tastes) to ever be able to say that one particular diet will be effective for everyone. For example, I’ve long held the belief that eggs are healthy for absolutely everyone. Turns out, some people really don’t tolerate them well. A book that prescribes a diet saying that it will work for everyone is, simply, wrong. Another example: I personally believe in a low carb, higher fat lifestyle. But there are in fact genetic factors or thyroid issues that make this diet inappropriate for some people and who should avoid an extreme version of this way of eating.
So where does that leave us? Not everyone has the ability to have their genetics tested (although this is highly recommended and a once-off expense) and knowing that something is good for you doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to include it in your diet!
Fuelling for Purpose
The reality is that diets aren’t sustainable, especially not if it means that you’re always feeling restricted or unsatiated and starving 30 minutes after your meal. I don’t even like the word "diet" because of its connotation that you are doing without. So, let’s rather talk about lifestyles. And within this context, it is far more important to understand your relationship with food: why do you eat what you eat? What goal are you achieving by choosing a particular food?
I’ve often been guilty of emotional eating. Trust me, it wasn’t a celery stick. Emotional eating is when you’re eating in the absence of true physical hunger because it temporarily soothes negative feelings.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts are constantly considering what food to eat and when to eat them to maximise their performance, i.e. fuelling to achieve a desired performance outcome. Considering what to eat directly before a race is a major factor in determining your race outcome.
I’d love to tell you exactly what the RIGHT foods are to eat and the right times to eat them. But for some people, One Meal A Day (OMAD) works a charm, for others it causes hormonal havoc. For most people, a keto lifestyle results in weight loss, cognitive enhancement and improved physical performance, whereas for a few people it results in exacerbated hormonal issues and rampant inflammation, based on their genetic markers.
The solution? Find an individualised approach for what works for YOU, and more importantly, start growing an awareness of why you’re eating what you’re eating and what your goals are. Hopefully those goals include eating yummy food that leaves you feeling full, awake and meeting all nutritional needs!
How does food fuel us?
In nutrition, it is typical to talk of macronutrients (from the Greek makros, meaning large) and micronutrients (from the Greek mikros, meaning small). The body needs macronutrients in large amounts as they provide the body with energy, and calories and are measured in grams. Micronutrients in small amounts and are measured in milligrams or even micrograms.
The three key macronutrients are:
- Fat (9 calories / gram)
- Protein (4 calories / gram) and
- Carbohydrates (4 calories / gram)
Technically, alcohol is also a macronutrient, but as it (sadly) has very little nutritional value, it’s generally left out in nutritional discussions.
There are many micronutrients in food that you consume, and they are vitamins, minerals and water. Examples include iron, calcium, B-vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, sodium and potassium.
As mentioned, we generally look to our macronutrient ratios to fuel us. There are too many different recommendations for the appropriate ratios to even mention here and again the subject of hot debate, but we cannot look at it purely as a “Calorie In Calorie Out” (CICO) approach: eating a 2,000 calorie diet could mean 2,000 calories of donuts, or it could mean 2,000 calories of olive oil, eggs, avocado, organic vegetables and grass-fed meat. Yes, you’ll manage your calories either way, but you’re going to have massive nutrient deficiencies if you don’t also consider the micronutrients (or lack thereof) in donut-type foods.
Other important considerations when considering macronutrients are as follows:
- Glycaemic Variability (GV): this refers to swings in blood glucose levels and the extent to which your blood sugar fluctuates up and down following a meal, exercise, stress etc. Avoiding high peaks and low crashes is key in keeping inflammation down. Sugar and carbs typically (and again there are genetic factors which determine the degree of this) send your blood glucose levels sky high, whereas fats and protein generally do not.
- Quality of calories matter in each chosen macronutrient: eating a diet high in processed foods laden with vegetable oils (sunflower, canola etc) make our bodies resistant to weigh loss due to the inflammation and gut distress that it causes. Despite following a low carb diet, I’d much rather eat rice than a kale chip fried in sunflower oil due to the inflammatory response of vegetable oils (the purpose: to be healthy and minimise inflammation which results in disease).
- Digesting protein requires about 20-30% of the calories in that protein. For carbs, this is 5-10% and for fat, 0-3%. The thermic effect of food therefore means that if you eat 100 calories of protein, your body only receives 70-80 calories. For fat, your body receives 97-100 of the calories consumed. Calorie counting does not take this into account.
- Calorie counting your macros is important in that you cannot effectively lose weight if you are seriously overconsuming calories, but it is ineffective as the only metric.
OK, so we know that we need macronutrients and micronutrients to fuel our bodies and to remain healthy. The problem is that what the amounts and ratios look like will differ from person to person. Even with micronutrients, genetic and lifestyle factors will determine your needs. Believe it or not, there are well-researched cases of “vitamin D-resistant” people, who produce heart-damaging amounts of calcium and phosphorus deposits in their blood vessels when consuming the recommended amount of vitamin D. There are similar examples for many other micronutrients.
If you feel ready to throw your hands in the air and stuff whatever you can find in your mouth (because damned if you do and damned if you don’t), hang tight!
In part 2 we go look into the key guidelines on how to fuel for purpose.
Below are a few product recommendations that may assist you with whatever lifestyle you choose, to get those added nutrients:
- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.