Mar 22, 2014

Health Revelations: The Scary World of Nutrition and Metabolism

The scary world of nutrition & metabolism | Business, Life & Design

A while back I wrote about my resolve to be healthy without dieting.  To have a balance between self image and a healthful lifestyle.  And I'm still working on it, and I'm enjoying it.  Because of my new-found interest in nutrition I've discovered a lot, some good (for me), some bad, and some scary.  The scariest part, I think, is how little of this I knew, how little the general public knows, and how important it is to our health!  I'll start somewhere that should be at least a little familiar...

The Food Pyramid

Outdated food pyramid (pre 2005)
Outdated Food Pyramid Prior to 2005

Remember this old thing?  I remember seeing this as a child (well before 2005).  In fact, 2005 is when this was overturned due to our growing understanding of the human body and nutrition.  But for some reason, instead of replacing this with something that makes sense, they just stopped educating us about nutrition altogether!  Evidently a replacement pyramid was made, but I'm not even going to bother to post a picture because it has these vertical stripes and it really doesn't make sense and there's a reason it never caught on.  It's not the most up to date anymore, either.  (But if you're really curious, here you go: MyPyramid.  You're welcome!)

So, with no widely accepted and easily understood guidelines for nutrition, what's an average American with only a limited amount of time and brain power for internet trawling to do?  Harvard School of Public Health to the rescue!

Harvard has a great nutrition article explaining, in fairly easy English (no Chemistry degree required!) how our understanding has changed, what it currently is (Keep in mind, as our technology improves, and we learn more, we'll continue to expand our understanding of how the body works.  For now, at least, there is no black and white, and nothing should be taken as gospel.), and even a new food pyramid reflecting the updated recommendations.  Although I would really advocate reading the "healthy fats and oils" section, if nothing else.  NOT ALL FAT IS BAD.  More on this later.

New food pyramid from Harvard School of Public Health
The New, Improved, Totally Awesome, Harvard Endorsed Food Pyramid (aka my new food bible)

Key Points (For me, someone else might get other things out of it.  You should really read the article)

Fats.  Cutting out all fats without paying attention to the differences between the types is foolish.  Certain types are good for us!

Think unsaturated plant or fish fats.  Conversely, in a lot of "low fat" products, fats have been replaced by sugars or something else to improve the taste, and those are at least as harmful, if not more so.  That's right.  Fats = good (except the processed, man-made kind).  Sugars = bad (except the natural, unprocessed kind).  Seeing a pattern?  Whatever we've messed with least is going to be the best for us.  (I'm currently in the midst of a milk crisis.  No more skim?  Should I do whole?  Should I switch to almond or soy?  I'll let you know if I ever find a solution I'm totally comfortable with)

White bread, rice, pasta.  These are bad!  Your body basically treats all these items like sugar.

If it's not whole grain, then you're not getting the full benefit from it, and the way your body uses it, you might as well just eat a brownie that you'd enjoy more (or at least I would.  Brownie = way better than pasta).  The main difference is that whole grain takes longer for your body to process, which makes you feel full for longer and prevents your blood sugar and insulin levels from spiking and then dropping.  Fortunately, whole grain items are becoming much more available now, so it's really not that hard to swap out that white rice for brown and so on.  Or quinoa.  Which Sister2 just introduced me to.  It's sort of like rice, but in tiny, round form, and it cooks faster.

Pay attention to proportions, not servings.  You should eat an amount that you're comfortable with and fills you up rather than continuing just to get your "4 servings of vegetables per day."

But you should make sure that veggies and fruits are making up half of your overall food consumption (with healthy protein and whole grains making up the other half).  Obviously you'll splurge occasionally, but if you aim to make it a lifestyle and not a short term, restrictive "diet," you're more likely to maintain it, be healthy, and maybe even lose some weight.  Which brings me to my last point.

Diets Don't Work

Sister2's boyfriend sent us all a somewhat depressing TED talk about dieting.  Dieting is kind of like the lottery.  The majority of us fail at it, repeatedly, but we look at a few other's shining examples of success and think we might win next time.  The problem is that diets usually rely on shocking your system.  Our bodies don't naturally want to lose weight.  They don't know that we're overweight, they just know that a time might come when food is scarce and we'll totally need those fat reserves later.  Then, when we diet, our body says, "Ah yes, I knew this would happen.  Starvation survival mode!"  Which consists of your metabolism slowing down to decrease the loss of fat as much as possible to, theoretically, keep you alive as long as possible.  Well, while this sucks, this just means we need to persist, right?

Nope.  It's even more complicated.  Our bodies also make set points, which is the new point it (they?) thinks we should weigh.  Every time we gain weight, it makes a new, higher, set point.  Set points go up, but they really don't like going down.  So whenever you're below whatever your "set point" is (your highest past weight), your metabolism is going to slow down to compensate.  Which means you need to eat less, and exercise more.  So in order to maintain a healthy weight, someone who has been overweight in the past is going to have to eat less and exercise more than someone who has always been thin.

Little Ray of Sunshine

Not fair, right?  Totally not fair.  And totally depressing.  But what you should take out of this is not that it's hopeless (Sister3 is struggling a bit with that step), or even how super hard it's going to be to look like a supermodel (I mean, c'mon, how realistic was that, anyway?), but what your healthy goals should be.  Preventing weight gain is far easier and far more important than losing.  By practicing a healthy lifestyle, you can handle this goal readily, and negate many of the health issues with being overweight.

However, if it's still important to you to lose weight (look out, Kate Moss!), keep in mind it's just as doable as it ever was.  It didn't suddenly become harder because you read this article or watched this TED talk.  You just gained a realistic view of how hard it always was.  And people do it.  Just watch The Biggest Loser, check out one of AOL's many "Before & After" weight loss slides, or read some fitness guru's biography (Richard Simmons, anyone?).  Just remember, if you diet, and then go back to splurging, you're setting off survival/slow metabolism mode, making it easier to gain weight afterwards, and generally doing more harm than not dieting at all.

Note: I was going to embed the TED talk I referenced here, but... the link's not working and maybe that's for the best.  It really is kind of depressing, and while the ideas are important, it doesn't have to be a drag to learn them!

What are your tips for healthy living?