August 2, 2019

Healthy Lifestyles: Diet

In this post we dive into the basic concepts behind a healthy diet. In future posts we will look to use these concepts to build a healthy diet.

Healthy Lifestyles: Diet

Introduction

In the following couple weeks on each Friday we will dive into a new topic relating to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  Through these posts I hope to convey some of the information I have learned over the years of the benefits and process of healthy living.  Unlike other non-technological posts, this series will contain informative articles which are as brief as possible.  The series will split into two parts:

  1. "Healthy Lifestyles" - This series will explain the ideas behind health related concepts such as diet and exercise. These posts will take an informative tone and explain the why behind health.
  2. "Seeking Health" - This series will take the tutorial/guide style of my other posts. In the Seeking Health series I will talk about my methods for achieving the concepts explained in Healthy Lifestyles.

In this post we will dive into the first thing many people associate with a healthy lifestyle.  Diet is one of the key components of living a balanced life.  However, despite ample research and knowledge about proper dieting, misconceptions are rampant about mystical diets which will cure all problems.  Removing the mysticism from diet is essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

What is a Diet?

Most people associate a diet with extremely restrictive practices such as only eating vegetables or limiting carbohydrate intake.  Diets are typically associated with some sort of goal such as weight loss or detox.  However, diets need not be painfully restrictive in nature.  In fact, a diet has no connection with restrictive eating.  The word "diet" is an umbrella term for the foods an individual or group eats habitually.  Dieting, on the other hand, is the process of restrictive eating to promote weight loss, conservation, or gain.

The world of dieting is shrouded in heavy pseudoscience.  Changing a diet will not magically fix an unhealthy life.  In fact, some researchers have provided evidence that the body rejects dieting efforts.  The body regulates caloric burn based on the amount of calories consumed.  Another reason restrictive diets fail is because they are not sustainable.  Maintaining a caloric deficit can only occur so long as the body has extra weight to use as energy.  Most people revert back to past eating habits once they reach a target weight, which leads them to regain the weight they spent so much time losing.  These diets fail because they do not provide a long-term fix for the underlying problem of unhealthy eating.

In order to live a healthy life, one must change some habits they have developed over many years.  A healthy diet is restrictive, but lenient.  While this sounds oxymoronic, it means a healthy diet allows someone to eat freely within a range of foods.  For example, eating too much Spinach will not severely affect a persons health.  Donuts, however, will affect a persons health if eaten without moderation.  In this way a healthy diet gives freedom to eat healthy foods, but places restrictions on unhealthy foods.

Calories

A calorie, in a technical sense, is a unit of energy which describes how many Joules (energy units) are needed to heat one gram of water.  For dieting purposes we actually use a kilocalorie (1000 calories) to describe the energy potential of foods.  For the rest of this post we will use the term calorie to refer to the food kilocalorie, but note that there is a distinction.

Calories are the basic unit for understanding weight loss and gain.  For most people, regulation of weight follows a simple rule:

Weight loss occurs at a caloric deficit, weight gain occurs at a caloric surplus.

For most people, that is all there is to weight regulation.  Calories are the starting point for a healthy diet.  A typical person needs approximately 2000 calories.  Counting calories can be easy when eating foods which have labelled nutrition facts.  For other foods, such as fruits, calories can be found on the internet by searching things like "apple calories."  The result of this search is the interactive information box shown below.

Serving Sizes and Nutrition Facts

A serving size has nothing to do with how much of that food should be eaten.  Instead, the serving size is there as a reference of the calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc are in a specific amount of that food.  Following the apple example from the Calories section, the serving size and nutrition facts of an apple are shown above.  Serving sizes should be used to track caloric intake at the minimum.  More involved individuals will use nutrition facts to track intake of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

Ignoring serving sizes and nutrition facts will lead to failure to live a healthy lifestyle.  Very few people can accurately judge if they are eating too little or too much based on feeling.  Most people need to precisely log their intake to avoid over or undereating.

Macros - Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates

The three macros are commonly discussed among weight lifters who are trying to build muscle efficiently.  As mentioned previously, for many people the main dietary concern should be regulating caloric intake.  However, balancing these three macros can help to live a healthier life.

Protein

Protein is found in a variety of sources.  If you are not a vegetarian, the most efficient way to find protein is through meats.  Meat contains primarily protein, varying fat depending on the cut, and zero carbohydrates.  Other sources of protein for those who do not eat meat include quinoa, beans and lentils, nuts, eggs (not vegan), tofu, greek yogurt (not vegan), and more.

Protein is used by the body to build and repair tissues.  This is the reason why body builders are so focused on high protein intake.  An average healthy diet will incorporate around 4 grams of protein per 10 pounds of body weight.  This means a person who is 160 pounds would incorporate 64 grams of protein in their diet.  The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) prescribes 10-35% of caloric intake should be protein.

Fat

The scary F word, fat is essential to a healthy diet just like any other component of foods.  Fats are essential to giving your body energy and to support cell growth.  Fats are broken into two categories, unsaturated and saturated. Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are colloquially named "good fats" whereas saturated fats are named "bad fats."  Good fats are helpful because they help to regulate the heart and cholesterol.  

The chemical difference between the two types of fats are saturated fats have carbon chains which are saturated, or filled, with hydrogen atoms.  One impact of these saturated carbon-based molecules is that they release more energy when broken down by the body.  A carbon-hydrogen bond releases a large amount of energy when broken, meaning adding more bonds can significantly increase the energy.  Also, saturated fats are less likely to break down because they are in a more stable state than monounsaturated fats.  This may be the reason why saturated fats contribute to things such as clogged arteries.

The DRI recommended fat intake is around 20-30% of caloric intake.  This translates to the average person eating around 44-77 grams of fat per day.  When eating fats, it is recommended to eat primarily "good fats" because they are thought to provide health benefits.  Examples of healthy foods which contain a high fat content are nuts, oils, chocolate, milk, salmon, avocados, and yogurts.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are similar to fats in the sense that they are unnecessarily demonized and feared.  Carbohydrates are the bodies primary source of energy.  The brain works using sugars from the blood, which are regulated by carbohydrates.  Many popular diets such as the ketogenic diet prescribe eating a low carb diet to promote weight loss.  Research on the keto diet seems to be primarily positive, but there are some side effects which are worth knowing.

For those not following the keto diet, it is essential to find a balance of carbohydrates in daily food intake.  As mentioned, carbohydrates are essential to regulating the bodies blood sugar and providing energy.  Foods which have carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, starches, and fiber.  When counting carbs, those from fiber are usually ignored (unless you are a Type 1 Diabetic).  Starches and sugars are the main source of carbohydrates for many people.  Balancing these carbohydrates with adequate fiber intake is essential to living a healthy life.

The DRI recommended intake for carbohydrates is 45-65% of caloric intake.  This means eating around 900-1300 calories of carbohydrates, or 225-325 grams.  Carbohydrate intake should be balanced between the three types of carbohydrates.  Foods such as sodas and candy should be avoided, as they are high in carbohydrates without providing other nutrients.  Examples of healthy carbohydrate foods are fruits, berries, beans and lentils, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat breads.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance which allows the body to build cells.  Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is essential to living a healthy lifestyle.  High cholesterol can cause complications such as stroke or heart attacks.  Methods for preventing high cholesterol include eating healthy fats, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding drinking and smoking, and regular exercise.  Regular blood tests should be conducted to detect high cholesterol, as it has no symptoms prior to the devastating consequences.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are things such as sodium, potassium, and vitamins which comprise a very small percent of daily food intake.  Balancing micronutrients is the last step to maintaining a healthy diet.  For many people, micronutrients are not something which needs to be thought about or maintained.  By eating a healthy diet focused on the three macro nutrients, most people will have balanced micronutrients.  Other people may find they need to take supplements to maintain healthy levels of some micronutrients.  These decisions should be made by a doctor after reviewing blood test results.

Conclusion

For most people, a healthy diet should start with managing caloric intake.  After caloric intake has been managed, the three macro nutrients should be managed to healthy levels.  Eating non-processed food and being conscious of food intake is vital to creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  Once one has managed their macro nutrients to healthy levels, they can begin to think about managing micronutrients with the help of their doctor.

A healthy lifestyle is vital to a high standard of living and quality of life.  Unhealthy habits can lead to risk factors which reduce quality of life or contribute to an early death.  Next week we will discuss the importance behind pairing a healthy diet with a regular exercise schedule.