#203 Solving Diet Dilemmas

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"The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small."

Woody Allen

Answers to Your Top 10 Diet Dilemmas

By Steve Edwards

1. Do I need supplements to lose weight?

Supplements are often misunderstood. Most of this comes from false advertising, but some of it is legit. A supplement is generally a nutrient that you get in your diet in a condensed form. However, it can also be something more akin to a drug attempting to fly under the FDA radar. But unless you're hangin' around the bench press at your local iron facility, chances are you're never going to hear of this type of "supplement." As a general rule, they are safe and effective when used correctly.

Now we need to define "effective." You definitely don't need supplements in order to lose weight and get fit. And no supplement will get you healthy and fit unless your lifestyle is healthy and fit. That being said, a proper dietary supplemental strategy can definitely aid you in losing weight, especially when you're on a diet.

When you begin to exercise, your body needs more nutrients in order to recover. If you are trying to lose weight, you're probably feeding your body fewer calories. This is where supplements can really help you out. By adding nutrients in a condensed form, you can ensure that your body has ample fuel to recover while you are restricting calories. This can be a huge advantage when trying to lose weight.

Conversely, those trying to gain weight have the same issues—getting enough nutrients from food in order to build mass. It's the same deal. Add enough nutrients to optimally recover and your results will accelerate.

2. Shouldn't I eliminate carbs from my diet?

No. There are only three types of nutrient-rich caloric sources: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. These need to make up around 100 percent of your daily calories and all have a purpose in your diet. Carbs are for energy. Without them, your body is limited in its capacity for not only athletics but for brain function. The amount of carbs you eat should be directly proportional to how much activity you do. At rest, your body probably needs you to eat between 30 percent and 40 percent of its calories from carbohydrates to function at a base level. Assuming that you do some moving around during the day, that number will rise. When exercising all day long, your body will probably need 70 percent of its calories to come from carbs. Therefore, your daily intake of carbs should range from around 35 percent up to 70 percent, with most of us falling somewhere in between. These should be the most variable source of calories in your diet.

Here's something simple to consider. Your body stores fats and proteins in your body's tissue. Only a small percentage of carbs are "stored" by the body in the liver and blood and they must be burned off. Eat carbs that you'll burn. No more, no less.

3. Doesn't eating fat make me fat?

Dietary fat should not be confused with body fat! They are two entirely separate things. Remember, we can only eat proteins, fats, and carbs, and they all serve a function. Dietary fats are essential for health and proper function of your bodily functions. Without them, your body will break down and you'll get sick.

What's important is that you get the right types of dietary fat. The wrong types of fat are saturated and trans fats and the stuff you find in animal products and junk foods. Good fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and other plant sources in raw form. They should make up between 20 percent and 35 percent of your daily calories, which doesn't mean that you'll have between 20 percent and 35 percent body fat!

Fats are also dense. They have more than twice the calories of proteins and carbs, 9 calories per gram compared to 4. So you don't need to eat a lot of fat in order to get enough. But you need to eat some. Choosing low- or nonfat meats and dairy products is a good idea. Get your fats from plant sources.

4. What does 40/30/30 mean?

This is a percentage of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that your diet should consist of made popular by The Zone diet. When you see a figure like this, it's usually stated in that order and refers to a type of eating plan. Like I said before, the percentage of carbs is what should slide the most. 40/30/30 is a good percentage for someone either trying to lose weight or not highly active. A more active person's diet might be 50/25/25. Someone riding the Tour de France might be closer to 70/15/15, because they're burning about 1,000 calories of carbs per hour during the race. Make sense?

5. Should I try fasting?

Many nutritionists don't recommend fasting because you don't get your recommended daily nutrients. I am not of this mold. People have been fasting ever since we've recorded human activity. I think it's a great way to keep your body regulated and minimize cravings. Since most of us eat more calories than we need, our bodies are always digesting. Fasting is a good way to allow your body to finish this process and flush all the excess junk in your system out of your system. Many fasts are called a "flush" and come with concoctions that aid this process. They can help but your body will flush itself anyway. But a guided fast, such as with our own 2-Day Fast Formula®, usually ensures that it's somewhat time-tested and, hence, safe.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can't exercise much during a fast. Sans fuel, your body cannot recover from the breakdown of exercise and you'll do more harm than good. Therefore, long-term fasts are not recommended for fitness. They are usually spiritual journeys more than anything else. But you can fast one day per week without problems. Just make it your rest day.

6. Are protein bars and shakes good for me and how often should I eat them?

These are called "food supplements" and are basically condensed foods, like a supplement that you eat. They are designed, generally, for three situations. One is to add protein to one's diet without the additional fat and calories usually found in meat sources, which is important for those on a restricted-calorie diet. Second, they are easy and quick to eat, making them an easy choice for people on the go. Third, they can add dense calories for those attempting to gain mass who need to recovery from highly intense exercise.

That's it. They're just food, basically, and you could live off of a diet of protein bars and shakes provided you made sure that you covered your nutritional requirements (which would require some homework). This isn't a practical or fun idea for most of us, which is why we call them food supplements.

7. I don't like to cook. Which frozen foods are good for me?

Learning to read food labels is one of the most important steps in your transition to a healthy lifestyle. Most frozen foods are awful. Some, like Weight Watchers, etc., are pretty good. There are now many new and healthy frozen food companies joining the market as well, but the only way to tell is by reading the label.

The big offender in prepared meals tends to be sodium. If you eat a lot of frozen food, it's easy to get 10 times your daily allowance of sodium. And, by the way, like carbs, your sodium needs vary greatly with exercise. You lose sodium as you sweat. The RDA is set at a random 2,500 mg a day but you'll need more if you're sweating a lot—you can lose over 1,000 mg an hour in warm conditions—and less if you don't. About 500 mg a day will run your standard body functions.

8. What is fiber, why do I want it, and where do I get it?

Fiber is the indigestible part of a plant and essential for regulating your digestive system, eliminating waste products, and regulating your cholesterol levels. This is a good reason to make sure that you get plenty of fruit, veggies, and whole grains in your diet, which should consist of 25 to 40 grams of fiber a day. Remember that juices and processed grains lose their fiber. You need to eat whole foods.

9. Is caffeine okay to lose weight? How about Diet Coke and stuff?

Caffeine is a natural diuretic and energy booster. Therefore, its effect on your diet and weight loss will be positive given all other factors surrounding it don't hurt you. First of those could be loss of sleep. Sleep is extremely important as your body does most of its healing and rebuilding during this time. If caffeine affects your sleep, that will offset all of its positive effects. Next are its additives. The things we tend to mix with coffee or tea, like sugar, cream, and other assorted flavor enhancers are generally all terrible for you and highly caloric.

Next is the diet soft drink question. Here caffeine is mixed with a blend of phosphates, acids, and other non-caloric goodies designed to give you a rush. The downside is the alteration of your body's pH level, which affects your ability to absorb nutrients. Habitual diet soda drinkers generally lose weight when they get off the stuff, showing there is more to weight loss than calories alone. If your body can't use nutrients, it's malnourished, no matter what you eat. So messing with your pH level by drinking diet soft drinks is generally not in your best interest.

10. What's with all the hippie stuff, like organic and raw foods? Should I be a vegetarian?

Certainly, obesity would be less of a problem if everyone were vegetarian. But being a healthy vegetarian isn't a totally brainless activity either. Many vegetarians eliminate meat but don't alter the rest of their diet and opting for only fries and a Coke and dropping the Big Mac is not a positive trade in your diet. Meat is easy because it's loaded with nutrients and plenty of protein. It's also loaded with calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat which are direct links to obesity and heart disease.

Organic is just a labeling process that usually means the food has been tampered with less—a good thing. While difficult to do, a raw diet will ensure that your foods are less tampered with. Of particular interest here are enzymes that help you break down and utilize the nutrients for foods. Cooking and processing destroys these, which is the best argument for a raw diet.

While all of these things are great, all require a fair bit of work. You need to understand a bit about nutrition, and you should, too, in my opinion. I mean, it's the most direct link you have to living a healthy life, why not put a little time into it?

The best solution, for even the laziest of us, is to make sure that your diet includes a lot of raw whole foods, many from plant sources, and to try and buy organic when you have the chance. If you just do this, you'll be a lot healthier and can even avoid being labeled a hippie as well.

Check Steve Edwards' Mailbag for his responses to reader comments. If you'd like to ask a question or comment on a newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

For Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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Olive Oil: The Fat That Keeps You Young and Healthy

By Jude Buglewicz

If fats were fashion, olive oil would be the classic little black dress. It's the go-to fat of choice for heart-healthy chefs; it promotes the production of youth hormones, which keep you looking young and gorgeous; and with varieties like "Virgin" and "Extra Virgin," it's also the most provocative-sounding item in your cupboard. Here's why it's the Queen of Oils—and how to use it to your best advantage.

You know we don't hate fat—dietary fat. We're always telling you that 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories should come from the stuff. (See #3, above, in Steve's article.) You need it to transport essential vitamins like A, D, E, and K throughout your body, keep your skin supple, and cushion your organs, among other things. But you also know that fat is very high in calories. Oils are 100 percent fat. A tablespoon of oil has around 13 grams of fat. At 9 calories a gram, that's a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon.

Which is why you want to consume mostly good fats. Saturated fat is bad. Trans fat is very bad. Unsaturated fat? Good. Monounsaturated? Best of all. (Here's a hint to help you remember the bad ones: they have "t" as one of the first three letters—saTurated and Trans fat—and "T," as the song goes, stands for trouble.) The oil with the most good fat—monounsaturated—is olive oil, good for you inside and out.

Heart healthy. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country for both men and women, but there are ways to reduce the risk. In addition to not smoking and getting plenty of exercise, we can also improve our diet to keep our arteries clear, our weight down, and our blood pressure low.

  • Avoid saturated and trans fats. This goes a long way toward helping prevent fat deposits from accumulating on our artery walls. You've heard of "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), and "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein). HDL is good because it seems to protect against fatty tissue (plaque) accumulating in our arteries, while LDL increases that risk. The bad fats (saturated and trans fat) increase the level of "bad" cholesterol in our blood and decrease the level of "good" cholesterol. Even worse, most saturated fats are animal fats that also contain cholesterol—like bacon drippings, butter, cheese, eggs, lard—and we certainly don't need any more of that. Our bodies already make all the cholesterol we need.

    The majority of trans fat results from hydrogenation, in which hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to turn them into solids at room temperature. It makes foods last longer and stabilizes their flavor (mostly commercial baked goods, like cookies, crackers, candy bars, and other snacks), but raises our LDL level, just as saturated fat does. We don't really know exactly how bad it is for us, but we do know the liver doesn't metabolize commercially produced trans fat the same way it does other fats. Manufacturers are now required to list trans fat on food labels, making it easier to avoid foods that contain it. (Check out Denis Faye's article on reading food labels and Steve Edwards' 911 focus on food labels for more information.)

    It's recommended that no more than 10 to 20 percent of our daily calories come from saturated fat—no more than 7 percent if you're already at risk for heart disease. And it's best just to avoid trans fat altogether!

  • Choose unsaturated fats. Fat from plants tends to be liquid and unsaturated (except for tropical oils like coconut and palm kernel—those are saturated fats). The two types of unsaturated fat are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Both are good insofar as they lower the level of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol in the blood, but polyunsaturated fat also lowers HDL levels, the "good" cholesterol. Monounsaturated fat, on the other hand, lowers the bad cholesterol and increases the good kind. Nuts, seeds, oily fish, veggies, and olives are all good sources.

    Here's a list of some common oils and how they stack up against butter and margarine—olive oil is highest in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat:

% Saturated Fat % Polyunsaturated Fat % Monounsaturated Fat
Olive oil 8 13 74
Canola oil 7 33 55
Safflower oil 9 75 12
Corn oil 13 59 24
Peanut oil 17 42 46
Soft margarine 17 41 47
Butterfat 62 4 29
Coconut oil 86 2 6
Data per 100 grams, from NutriStrategy  

Elixir of youth. Fat also plays a role in regulating hormones, including the so-called "youth" hormones that promote the body's ability to repair and regenerate cells. The production of these hormones starts declining in our 20s, and goes down 10 percent every decade from there, leaving cells at the mercy of free radicals, which hasten cellular breakdown. A diet loaded with saturated fat decreases the production of youth hormones even more, as saturated fat increases stress levels, causing insulin to spike, which inhibits the release of growth hormones.

Reducing stress and "bad" cholesterol through dietary changes—namely, cutting down on saturated fat—won't magically turn back the clock and make you look like Scarlett Johansson or Wentworth Miller, but it will make it easier for your body to produce youth hormones and stand up to those free radicals.

Increasing your level of HDL cholesterol is also key to producing more youth hormones. We already know olive oil is best at raising good cholesterol, but it's also rich in antioxidants (vitamin E and polyphenols), which fight free radical damage and have anti-inflammation properties as well. The "Mediterranean diet" is no fluke. People who eat olive oil as a dietary staple in addition to fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and lots of fruits and vegetables and breads and other cereals have a much lower rate of heart disease and live longer than people who consume lots of saturated fat.

So which kind of olive oil should you use? Extra virgin. It comes from the first pressing of the olives and so retains the most benefits. "Virgin" olive oil comes from the second pressing, so is less flavorful. "Refined" means chemicals were used. "Pure" olive oil is actually a blend of virgin and refined oil, while "Extra Light," though it sounds healthy, is heavily processed, and so has the weakest olive flavor and fewest benefits.

If you're going to cook with it, it probably doesn't matter much if you use virgin or extra virgin olive oil, as heat will damage the flavor of extra virgin anyway. (Hint: It's best to spray the oil on the pan instead of pouring it, as you'll use less.) But if you're going to sprinkle oil on salads or use it in marinades, go with extra virgin.

And be sure to store it in a cool, dry place, as it's volatile and can go bad if left exposed to heat and air. You can even store olive oil in the refrigerator if you want—but that will make it cloudy and solidify, so before you use it, run it under warm water or allow it to liquefy at room temperature first.

Just remember: olive oil has about 120 calories per tablespoon, the same as any other oil. It has many benefits and is way better for you than any other fat, but it's a fat. So go easy!

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