A Guide To Flexible Dieting

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Article by Beth Holmes
In the world of health and fitness, there is a constant influx of conflicting information that can often times present dogmatic opinions of what is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and right or wrong. Most websites and magazines provide explanations as to why their “evidence based research” is the answer to all your problems, offering to solve this complex formula for you. Marketing is meant to confuse people, particularly those without much knowledge in nutrition and those who haven’t spent much time paying attention to how food makes them feel. Even in- person interactions can be misleading and hard truths are learned upon realizing that not everyone who wants to help you is giving you sound advice.

Fad diets are popular because they work. Atkins wouldn’t be around for as long as it has if it didn’t. For most people, however, they are sustainable for a short period of time and are successful for a small minority that take extreme measures and make huge sacrifices that most wouldn’t consider.

First and foremost, food is not inherently good or bad, and anyone that gives you any type of hard or absolute answer is simply misinformed. Food is our bodies’ energy source and without it we would not be able to survive. Furthermore, sugar is not bad, fat is not bad, sodium is not bad, and processed foods are not bad. All of these foods have their time and place in the diet for performance and enjoyment, some in higher quantities than others. Different foods contain different chemical components that interact with the body on both large and small scales. For some individuals, it is necessary to avoid certain foods in the case of food allergy or food intolerance.

There are instances where strict dieting is optimal to achieve specific goals, for example, a bodybuilder who is preparing for a competition. Strict dieting can be psychologically and physically exhausting and requires sacrifices in all areas of life. This tactic will provide short-term success, but is unsustainable and can cause health issues long- term. Allowing oneself dietary freedom and balance has shown to provide long-term success and a healthy relationship with food. Having general guidelines, discipline and willpower, and understanding portion control provides a sustainable lifestyle choice rather than a “diet”.

In terms of dieting, it is important to consider that what works for your friend or family member is not necessarily what will work best for you. Everyone has a different body composition and different biochemistry, so the breakdown of foods and your aesthetic look will be different. Food intake should always be individualized based on lifestyle, metabolic levels, health history, and goals. This can take some trial and error; therefore, experimenting with different ratios of carbs, protein and fat is a great way to understand biofeedback, or the body’s reaction to certain intake. One of the primary goals (and subsequent outcome) of flexible dieting is the ability to be mindful and aware of what you are eating.

Finally, in order to reach your goals you have to want to. If you believe that you are capable of accomplishing your goals, you most certainly will. Efficacy has extremely powerful cognitive effects. In other words, you can will your body to do what your mind tells it to.

Macronutrients, or “macros”, are the calorie-containing nutrients that provide energy for the body to function which include protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  Macros are made up of calories; therefore, if you’ve ever counted calories, you have inadvertently counted macros. Macro and calorie counting became popular in the late 70’s- early 80’s with bodybuilders to further their progress and success and became more mainstream in recent years.

An important takeaway with calorie and macro counting is that not all calories or macros are created equal. Based on your training style, daily lifestyle choices, stress levels, and genetics, an ideal macro ratio can be determined.

Proteins are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle and connective tissue (skin, tendons, ligaments, and hair). Protein helps fuel muscle mass, prevent muscle breakdown, support a healthy immune system, stabilize blood sugar levels, and strengthen hair, skin, and nails. Additionally, adequate protein consumption spread throughout the day will aid in burning calories. The recommended amount of protein depends largely on activity levels, however, protein consumption should be consistent whether or not you are an active individual

Carbohydrates are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules and are the body’s main source of energy. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all considered carbohydrates but have varying levels of complexity including monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Depending on body size, activity levels, dietary fat intake, and specific goals, the recommended amount of carbohydrate is altered. Carbohydrates are a variable macronutrient. Daily carbohydrate intake for active individuals should not be less 30% of daily caloric intake if performance is a priority. Manipulating carbohydrate intake around exercise can be beneficial and on highly active days, more carbohydrate can be used as an energy source to fuel and power through intense workouts.

The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates are their rate of absorption (rate of digestion). Take, for example, a pixie stick and a sweet potato. The pixie stick is going to have a high insulin response, flooding the blood and muscle tissue with carbohydrate immediately and is digested quickly. If this pixie stick is consumed prior to exercise, the energy will be used immediately.  If the consumption is not followed by exercise, the carbohydrate will be sent to muscle, liver, or stored as fat instead of being used for energy. A sweet potato on the other hand is going to have a low insulin response, keep your blood glucose levels stable for several hours, and take several hours to digest.

Fats are the densest macronutrient composed of fatty acids, which make up triglycerides macronutrient. Dietary fat helps manufacture and balance hormones, forms the brain, cell membranes, the nervous system, and transports fat-soluble vitamins. The large majority of fat intake should come from unsaturated fats (mono and polyunsaturated) such as olive oil, avocado, seeds and nuts. Saturated fats including animal products such as bacon, hot dogs, deli meat, butter, and cheese should be consumed sparingly and viewed as a “condiment” rather than a main course. Many saturated fats have positive correlations with chronic disease and cancer; however, not all saturated fats should be viewed as universally unhealthy. For example, stearic acid, found in cocoa butter and beef can help lower LDL levels.  A mixed intake of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats and a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids is critical for optimum health and function. Carbohydrate and fat intake should be inversely proportional: when fat intake is high, carb intake should be lower and vice versa.

Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are just as vital to performance and regulatory functions as macronutrients but required in smaller amounts. Their inclusion in the diet are of importance as they promote growth, digestion, energy transfer, and nervous system function. There is no one size fits all approach to meeting vitamin and mineral needs and we should get the bulk of our micronutrients from a diet rich in whole foods with a combination of fruits and vegetables in different families as opposed to relying on dietary supplements.

Calorie balance is a hugely important factor when trying to gain or lose weight. A shift of calories either positively (increase in calories) or negatively (decrease in calories) directly results in weight loss or weight gain. That said, the body is a very elaborate and complicated process and many factors come into play during weight gain and weight loss. Throughout the course of one day weight shift can range from 1-5 lbs based on hydration, food intake, inflammation, etc. Additionally, calorie balance plays a crucial role in metabolism and metabolic rate.

Metabolism is the conversion of food into energy used by the body to perform activities. Exercise is a major metabolic up regulator, however, metabolism declines 2-4% after age 25 and most people lose about 5lbs of lean muscle mass per decade. Contrary to popular opinion, metabolic decline is not solely associated to age and lifestyle plays a large role. “Normal” aging that we see in today’s society is associated with a sedentary lifestyle. In taking the steps to preserve muscle mass with age, you can also preserve metabolic rate. Therefore, increased muscle mass, regular exercise, and nutrition are the essential components to aging well.

Nutrient timing is a much more specific variable and accounts for a very small percent of success, but can still play a significant role in achieving performance and aesthetic goals over time. Nutrient timing is based on spreading macronutrients throughout the day with 3-5 hour gaps between meals while favoring certain macros based on activity levels. Proteins stay relatively consistent and are spread evenly throughout the day to aid in blood sugar level stabilization and satiety. Fat and fiber consumption is kept to a minimum around training time primarily because they are difficult to digest. Fat and fibrous foods also aid in blood sugar stabilization while fiber aids in digestion. Carbohydrates are the most easily digested macronutrient, therefore, the majority of carbs (roughly 60-70%) should be consumed around training time. Consumption of carbohydrates 60-90 minutes pre- workout, intra-workout, and 3-5 hours post workout optimize the body’s ability to use blood glucose for fuel and recovery. Consuming carbohydrates post workout reduces the depletion of muscle glycogen (roughly 90% of carbohydrate storage) and aid in recovery and preparation for the next training session.

Supplementation should be the smallest component of nutritional intake. There are some products that have been researched and tested to show positive health benefits but before taking supplements, it is recommended to complete a simple blood test with a physician. Even a “standard serving size” could be dangerous, toxic, or simply unnecessary. Furthermore, the right food can replace just about any supplement with few exceptions.

Whey protein, casein, and creatine are three well-supported supplements that support muscle growth and recovery. Whey protein is fast digesting and usually consumed during or after exercise, where casein is slow digesting and usually consumed at the end of the day closer to bedtime. Creatine helps provide additional glycolytic fuel to replenish ATP. Because our energy systems run on ATP, particularly in the anaerobic state (involves fast twitch muscle fibers used in weight lifting), providing additional sources of creatine can help replenish ATP quickly.

At the end of the day, a moderate and consistent diet will trump a rigid one when longevity is the goal. Nutrition at its foundation is complex because the human body using this food for energy is extremely complex but it can be made a lot simpler if you do one thing: Listen. Your body will tell you what it needs if you pay close attention. The needs your body has don’t just go away, you have to keep listening and paying attention if you want to feel and look good, but it does become natural and easy with time.

Emphasizing nutrient dense foods in your diet and making small changes to create a sustainable lifestyle will always win. Keeping a food journal may help maintain accountability in the beginning while it provides evidence to eating behaviors, decisions, and perceptions of food. Making conscious decisions in what you eat and ensuring that they are decisions that make you feel good and are not solely emotionally based is a tool that you can always use and come back to.

It’s normal to have days of feeling unmotivated or lacking willpower but the more you listen to what your body needs and realize that one bowl of ice cream isn’t going to make you fat and one salad isn’t going to make you skinny is when you will start to see and obtain long-term success.

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Beth Holmes is the Head Trainer and Assistant Wellness Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh as well as a Coach and Fitness Writer for Union Fitness. She has a B.S. in Biology from Carlow University, is a proud North Side resident, and amateur powerlifter with a bench press of 170 lbs and deadlift of 360 lbs. When she isn’t in the gym, she’s searching for hidden gems at flea markets, hiking, and drinking Americano’s. You can find her on instagram: www.instagram.com/elizabethbethanybeth.