I would like to preface this article by saying that I am not a dietician. I do not have a post graduate degree in nutrition. I do, however, have a fairly solid grasp on the human metabolic systems, most of which I owe to the fact that I work in the fitness industry in Los Angeles (gotta pay the bills) and I get asked various weight loss questions at least 400 times a day. Seemingly everyone around me is trying to lose weight or 'tone up' and it's nice to know what you're talking about occasionally... Of course, my own time spent in the mountains on the trails is the driving force behind my self-taught nutrition. Living an active lifestyle is always a good impetus to eat a healthy diet.
When it comes to nutrition, the biggest problem we all face is misinformation. Everyone has an opinion, every fitness magazine has a cover article guaranteed to get you a six-pack and the guy at your local vegan restaurant just figured out a new way to harvest coconut nectar and keep the glycemic index under four.
We all fall into the misinformation trap sooner or later. It comes with capitalism: everybody is trying to sell you something. Until fairly recently I was constantly scouring labels looking for foods sweetened with naturally occurring sugar. I was deferring to breads sweetened with fruit juice and only using honey, coconut nectar and occasionally agave if I was going to add a sugar to something. I was a victim of misinformation.
I just finished reading The Story of the Human Body by Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Leiberman, a book that did an amazing job of breaking down the environmental and cultural factors that have led us, as a species, to our current state. The agricultural revolution, which occurred around 10,000 years ago (only a fraction of time from an evolutionary perspective) was a dramatic, fundamental shift in how we chose to live. We went from grazing fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables with the occasional animal protein, to a far less diverse diet of easily farmable grains, animals and their byproducts (such as dairy).
Many consequences arose following this fundamental lifestyle shift but, from a perspective of nutrition, food processing was probably the biggest. We traded variety for quantity and started storing food, which caused for the removal of fiber.
This is when everything started going to hell. I didn't fully understand the importance of fiber until I read this book and Lieberman explained the chemical processes that occur when you ingest various types of calories. The rate of ingestion is paramount. Fiber is practically all that matters.
The fructose in an apple and the fructose in high fructose corn syrup is the same chemical compound, the exact same arrangement of molecules. So why does one spike your blood sugar and the other does not? Fiber. The fructose in your apple is literally trapped inside a cell and your body has to break it down to get to it. The fructose in agave? Not so much. Fruit juice? Definitely not. That fruit juice sweetened ice cream is probably worse than the regular thing, sweetened with sucrose. Fiber is what keeps us in balance. Too much of anything isn't good but too much of something all at once is worse.
Now that I have sufficiently ranted about the importance of fiber, how do we avoid the massive amounts of misinformation out there? With my three step, self-guided nutrition plan:
1. Look at the item from an evolutionary perspective. Does it make sense in the context of evolution? Is it something that our bodies are genetically equipped to deal with, or is it brand new and novel (even milk from a cow falls under 'new' on the evolutionary timeline).
2. Who benefits from your decision to eat a certain item or diet? If you're not first on the list, you're doing something wrong. Drinking a protein shake or a smoothie? Eating eight small meals a day? These things are benefitting the supplement industry much more than the consumer. Does your diet have a name? Vegan? Paleo? Raw? Then you're doing something wrong and your falling into the misinformation trap. It sounds cliché but we're all experiments of one, and prescribing to a set of rules within your diet is usually not benefitting you as much as the people selling that diet's products.
3. How does it affect your performance?
This, to me, is the most important question to ask yourself. How do you feel out on the trail the day after you ate it? Living an active lifestyle is a great deterrent to bad food and the best laboratory to conduct your experiment of one. If you felt like crap climbing that hill this morning, take a look at your diet from the previous day. Tweak and run, tweak and run.
Ignore the new fads, stay away from juice bars and stop reading the nutrition articles in magazines. Just ask yourself those three questions and you're good to go