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Priorities: Part 2, or Nutrition in 5 Easy Questions.

Posted Jun 11 2009 6:25pm

In Part 1 of this mini-series, I proposed that creating an algorithm can help you minimize confusion and help you to wade through the muck of needlessly complex training systems out there.  I proposed a general method of cataloging “valid” exercise systems based on emphasis on strength, progression, and recovery.  Part of why it’s difficult to generate specific questions on training systems is because the

Not so with nutrition.  The science isn’t crystal clear, but it certainly points you in a specific direction.  And so, instead of the general principles of the previous post, here is an algorithm for sound nutrition (arranged in 5 easy questions, for your convenience):

1) Does my diet emphasize real food? ‘Real food’ is easy to recognize but surprisingly difficult to describe.  It’s minimally processed.  It probably was alive at some point.  And chances are (although this isn’t always the case) a little light cooking is all the ‘processing’ you need in order to eat it.  A quick and dirty rule: If it comes in a box or brightly colored wrapper, it probably isn’t real food.  You could take every supplement available and still not obtain the complete spectrum of nutrition contained in whole foods (such as enzymes and yet to be discovered phytonutrients).  At the risk of sounding like a naive naturalist, it’s hard to improve upon what Mother Nature has already provided for us.

2) Does my diet deliver enough protein for my needs? There’s a great deal of needless controversy regarding what the optimal amount of protein you should eat in a day.  Despite what some authorities would tell you, there’s no danger of damaging your kidneys by eating too much protein, unless you’re diabetic and have already sustained kidney damage (and new research shows that this may not even be the case).  On the flip side, there seems to be no overt benefit in overconsuming protein either.  So let’s shoot down the middle with this one and say that if you’re exercising, then you should shoot for 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (see the work of Jeff Volek and Peter Lemon for the hard science on this).

3) Does my diet limit grain consumption? Aside from being a concentrated source of carbohydrates (see #4), grain consumption is associated with a whole host of health problems.  By far the best reference on this is Loren Cordain’s exhaustive review of cereal grains (PDF file, opens in new window).  The Reader’s Digest version:  Grains inhibit nutrient absorption because they contain antinutrients, such as plant lectins and phytic acid.  They also are highly inflammation-causing.

4) Does my diet limit insulin? What’s the biggest factor in determining whether or not you’re burning fat?  Your insulin levels.  Chronic high levels of insulin (as in, say, someone who overconsumes carbohydrate) flip the metabolic switch in your cells from energy utilization to energy storage.  In other words, high insulin = what you eat is stored as fat.  And the converse is true as well - low insulin = more fat oxidation (read: fat burning) is taking place.  Not to mention that chronic high levels of insulin are associated with all sorts of unsavory disease processes, like high blood pressure and heart disease.  What can you do to prevent high insulin levels?  Minimize your intake of foods that significantly raise insulin - namely, carbohydrates.  The obvious ones:  Sugar, soda, bagels; and the non-obvious ones: Whole wheat bread, brown rice, tortillas.

5) Can I eat this? Let’s make one point clear: If you don’t like it, you ain’t gonna eat it.  My foster daughter doesn’t like pork and in the event of a zombie apocalypse she would rather starve to death than munch on Wilbur leftovers.  No matter how many times I harp upon the necessity of bioavailable vitamin B12, my sempai Andrius won’t be splitting a Ruth’s Chris porterhouse with me (he’s a vegetarian).  Simply put, to make dietary choices work for you, you’ve got to choose things you like (or can learn to enjoy).  The caveat:  If all you like are Jolly Ranchers and Fruit By The Foot, then change is a-gonna have to come to you.

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