Nutrition really is that simple. Like A, B, C or 1, 2, 3. There are no magic potions, no magic nutrient combinations, no hocus pocus. Many “experts” publish books on the ideal diet more often than not focusing on some ideal nutrient ratio or combination that will make you shed pounds while others downright feed your ultimate food fantasies… “All the bacon I want?” However most fail to mention that the most sensible diet is a balanced diet — in moderation — if your goal is to drop a few pounds.
And the math is simple: Consume fewer calories than you burn and you’ll end up losing weight. Consume and burn at an equal rate and you’ll maintain weight. Consume more than you burn and you’ll put on weight. Unlike accounting, law, many business contracts and even statistics, one plus one does equal two in nutrition. Over consuming even “healthy” foods can lead to weight gain and possibly disease, feasting exclusively on pure butter and lard can cause weight loss… if you burn more calories than consumed. Totally confused? Hopefully not.
The Big Three
Nutrients are grouped into two major groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. The macronutrients comprise the bulk of our diets, nutrients we consume in gram or even kilogram quantities. The big three are carbohydrates, protein and fat. This is where the calorie load resides. Since there seems to be lots of printed “evidence” in manipulating the ratio of these nutrients (I refer to being “published” as in medical journals and “printed” as in those magazines found at the supermarket checkout stand) leading to miraculous weight loss and health, I’ll elaborate on each macronutrient.
We all know our former friend, carbs. The main culprit that causes us to gain weight (even when consuming less than we burn) and the one nutrient we should avoid like the plague.
Hopefully you’re not one of those who think I’m serious. Carbohydrates should be the bulk of our daily consumption. Anywhere from 45 percent to 65 percent of our total calorie load. The key is getting the proper type of carbohydrates: brown rice instead of white rice, whole wheat bread instead of white bread, whole grain pasta instead of refined pasta.
And limit those simple carbohydrates like sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup. Also remember that carbohydrates come in many forms, not just rice, noodles, potatoes and bread. They come in the form of peas, beans, squash and corn, which also increases your vegetable consumption. Finally, the one truism I remembered from advanced nutrition class was that “fat burns in the fire of carbohydrates.” In biologic-geek-speak, our bodies need the union of one oxaloacetate molecule to join with one acetylcoenzyme A molecule to perpetuate the Krebs cycle and thus fuel the furnace that is our body. Try to burn fat by itself and you’ll end up in a ketotic state. At this point, your acetone breath will be the least of your worries.
The building block of muscles, though in a roundabout way. Just consuming extra protein won’t make your muscles grow, you also need resistance training to stress the existing muscle tissue. In fact, whatever extra protein you consume (other than to repair stressed or damaged tissue) simply gets metabolized and converted to energy via glucose or fat. So if you already are consuming enough fat and carbohydrate, the extra protein will simply add to your own personal “storage” reserve. And despite what you may perceive is a necessary amount of dietary protein, the average human only needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For the average woman that works out to 45 grams or so and 60 grams or so for the average man. In fact even world-class athletes don’t need more than 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram so it goes without saying that most of us consume more protein than we actually need.
Since dietary fat seems to be a traveling companion to dietary protein (especially in animal tissue), the key is selecting lean sources of protein. Seafood, poultry breast or skinned and trimmed poultry parts and lean cuts of pork and beef. And if consuming animal protein, limit your serving to 3 or 4 ounces — roughly the size of a deck of cards. And remember than any extra protein load places additional burden on our kidneys — which need to eliminate that additional nitrogen load from metabolized amino acids — not a good thing if you already have compromised kidneys or have diabetes mellitus.
What previously always wore a black hat is a villain no longer. Like lawyers, not all dietary fats are bad (there are good lawyers like Dale Minami and Don Tamaki). For starters dietary fat (linoleic acid) is essential in the diets of developing babies and necessary for all humans to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. And where we previously recommended diets low in fat, it’s recommended to include 20 percent to 35 percent of calories from dietary fat, just keep consumption of saturated fat (and hydrogenated fat or trans fat) to a minimum.
In fact, we now know that diets very low in fat (less than 20 percent) can lower levels of HDL cholesterol or the “good” cholesterol. And since most flavor molecules reside in fat, diets low in fat usually aren’t as palatable. Just try to get the bulk of your dietary fat in the form of monounsaturated fat (olive oil, macadamia nut oil and most nuts) and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (walnuts, canola oil and cold water fatty fish).
I will also mention a separate class of nutrient that shouldn’t account for much of our daily caloric load — alcohol. Whereas carbohydrate and protein give us four kilocalories of energy per gram and fat gives us nine kilocalories per gram, alcohol provides seven kilocalories per gram. So in a sense, alcohol is like consuming extra fat (and you wondered why you can still put on weight with just beer). Therefore if you do imbibe, try to limit to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men (one drink equals five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of whiskey). In this case, more is definitely not better.
But I don’t eat nutrients, I eat FOOD.
Very true, unless you live in the world of the Matrix (and we now know why everything tastes like chicken), you consume food, not nutrients. So in a nutshell, the bulk of your diet should come from carbohydrates — don’t limit yourself to traditional starchy foods but include legumes and starchy root vegetables as starches. When consuming traditional starches, try to go whole grain or mixed grain if possible. Select leaner cuts of animal protein or substitute seafood for terrestrial protein. Or better yet, substitute legume protein for animal protein. And dietary fat can be your friend, just select the right ones (like choosing a good lawyer). Canola or olive oil, nuts and cold water fatty fish.
And though you may have heard it before, try to eat the rainbow everyday or get fresh fruits and vegetables in as many colors as possible. If you “eat the rainbow” daily, you’ll probably fulfill another recommendation to get five servings of fruit and vegetables every day. I’m still trying to accomplish that daily dietary goal but still fall short like most people. Along with fighting the middle age battle of the waistline bulge. And limiting alcohol on vacations. And getting enough daily micronutrients. But that’s another column.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and UC San Francisco. He’s a clinical pharmacist during the day, a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kaneohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at email@example.com.