As someone who’s constantly in the pursuit of improving the content of what I put in my body, dietary modification is both interesting and slightly overwhelming. It’s importance in everything from performance in sport, academics, and decision making to it’s effect on our own longevity. This is a subject that can seem overwhelming, but is a very entertaining and informative process to learn about.
There are continually new diets and fads coming to the forefront of popular culture. From as far back as the 1820s with the Vinegar and Water Diet (which was popularized by Lord Byron and entailed drinking water mixed with apple cider vinegar) to our modern-day Vegan, Ketogenic, and even Carnivore diets which vary across the spectrum in what they allow us to consume. The only consistency being their firm restriction and almost religious level of ideological following. But there are many problems with these. The main one being that there is an enormous amount of genetic diversity from person to person, and suggesting a broad stroke recommendation for all of society to eat is irresponsible to say the least. On top of this is the enormous amount of conflicting information out there on the internet, making it difficult to make informed choices. Because of this, deciding on a healthy nutritional path takes several steps and considerations. (This will be a multi-installment subject)
What Do We Need To Cut Back On?
The most important step before worrying about what to add nutritionally is what to take away. By and large we all consume way too much sugar, processed meats, and refined carbohydrates. We all hear that statement over and over again, reiterated by everyone from our healthcare practitioners, personal trainers, friends, and family. What it’s going to take to remove these from our diets is a small bit of effort. We need to begin to read the nutritional information on labelled food products while we’re shopping, to stop going through drive-thru restaurants, and to watch what we’re drinking.
When reading nutritional labels and ingredient lists there is a lot of information included, and it can all end up being a bit overwhelming, but the main ones I like to focus on are trans fats and sugars.
This label is from a jar of strawberry jam, and fortunately there are no trans fats. But what does 8 grams of sugar really mean? Well, the rule with sugar is about 4 grams to a teaspoon, and the Canadian Diabetes Association recommends less than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. So, having a tablespoon of jam on your toast in the morning has you at around 17% of your daily allotted sugar intake. Do you have 2 sugars with your coffee? That’s the equivalent of another 2 teaspoons, so you only have 8 teaspoons of sugar left for the rest of your day. It quickly adds up, and that’s only breakfast. This just shows how careful we have to be with sugar.
What are processed meats? They’re any meat that has been modified to improve their shelf life or taste, these include sausages, hot dogs, beef jerky, cold cuts, and bacon. Why avoid them? They are usually very high in salt, and the World Health Organization states they are carcinogenic (increased cancer risk).
What are refined carbohydrates? They’re any grain product that has been modified in its production process to be less bulky and softer as a final product.
Why avoid them? They’re often high in sugars and solid fats, and usually have a higher caloric load to them, and unless fortified are often nutritionally empty.
How Do My Genetics Affect What I Should Be Getting In My Nutrition?
Let’s do a thought experiment. Picture an Inuit village in the north. It’s cold, the main dietary intakes are mostly protein and fat coming from fish, whale, caribou, and seal. There are a few vegetables that grow during the summer, but for 10 months of the year this is the diet. Now picture a town in southern Japan. It’s much warmer than the Inuit village. The diet is also vastly different, consisting of mainly rice, both cooked and pickled vegetables, fish and some meat. Now, after picturing these two vastly different living environments and dietary intakes, do you think that over the thousands of years that the people have lived there that their bodies might have developed an ability to glean nutrition from different types of diets? Well, you’re correct. The Inuit people exist on a very high fat diet, and genetically they have a higher ability to metabolize saturated fats. There are very low instances of cancer or dietary related illnesses in the Inuit people even with the low vegetable and fruit intake. Does this mean that everyone should exist on an almost carnivorous diet? Of course not! But people with their genetic heritage in the Inuit areas can exist on a high saturated fat diet, as long as that saturated fat is from healthy sources.
Now, just to ensure caution. The above is not a dietary recommendation. It’s just a thought experiment to show how dietary recommendations should differ on a person to person basis. There should be no general broad-brush diets, and we should all make an effort to figure out the best diet for ourselves. Some people need to have a diet high in vitamin D, while others can synthesize the majority of their requirements from sun exposure. Some people can subsist on a vegan diet, while others require a portion of meat to be healthy. It’s important that we eliminate the negative things in our diets first, and then we can make small changes to see how the way we’re feeling changes along with it. Once you have the negative things out of the way, and the sugar is gone, we can listen to the way our bodies feel and the cravings we have as a good indicator of what we’re missing from our nutritional intake. One step at a time is the best way to go, as longer lasting changes seem to have the most sticking factor when they’re done piecemeal as opposed to all at once.
1. 7 Small Changes to Improve Eating Habits
2. Diets Through History
3. How Can Stages Of Change Best Be Used In Dietary Interventions?
4. What Are Refined Carbs?
5. Genetics and Nutrition
6. Inuit Diet
7. Japanese Diet