Forget What You’ve Been Told.
You hear it from the time you’re in diapers. There are healthy and non-healthy foods. Soda and ice cream are always bad, while chicken and broccoli are always good. This is perpetuated so frequently that it becomes an accepted truth and dangerously no one questions it. That is about to change.
What is a healthy or, better yet, a “clean” food? Is it whole grain? Is it organic? Is it green? Herein lies the problem with the over simplistic notion of inherently good and bad foods. There are as many definitions as there are food choices.
Your body doesn’t respond to marketing claims or subjective ratings of food, all your body sees are nutrients: primarily fat, carbohydrates and protein (note that micronutrients are extremely important for basic processes in the body as well) and these are referred to as macronutrients. Nutrients are broken down into the body as glucose, fatty acids, amino acids. This means that your body does not see broccoli and say “Oh good, build muscle, lose fat,” instead, it sees the carbohydrates, fiber, and micronutrients found in broccoli, this is no different than any other food. Knowing that our body sees only nutrients is the first step to understanding flexible dieting.
One example of the body’s recognition of nutrients comes from research varying the sources of carbohydrates.
Example 1: Sugar is bad and turns straight to fat… right?
Numerous studies  have shown that when both subjects are in hypocaloric conditions (consuming less calories than burning) and macronutrients are matched between groups, that a high sugar diet vs. a low sugar diet shows no differences in weight loss or metabolism.
Therefore, whether your carbs are coming from sweet potatoes or Sweet Baby Ray BBQ Sauce your body sees the amount of carbohydrates coming from each one. Obviously, these two foods differ in other nutrients. Sweet potatoes have more potassium and fiber, to name a few, but the body sees 50 grams of carbs from sweet potatoes just like it sees 50 grams of carbs from the BBQ sauce. I would never advocate someone getting all of their carbs from BBQ sauce, but this does prove a point.
The same principle can be applied to protein. Your body does not see steak and say “let’s get fat” or see chicken and say “let’s get lean.” It’s rather a matter of quantity. Do red meat, fish and chicken all differ in their micronutrients? Of course, but again, your body will see 50 grams of protein from fish just as it will see 50 grams of protein from chicken. (Note: there are such things as complete and incomplete proteins, as a beginner I recommend not concerning yourself with that and instead hitting an overall protein goal. It’s pretty difficult to eat a high protein diet without the majority of it coming from complete protein sources.) Similar to the carbohydrate example, the overall number of grams of protein at the end of the day is what matters most.
Lastly, there is fat. Saturated and unsaturated fats differ slightly. The fear of saturated fat is largely overblown, especially considering other healthy lifestyle decisions and I won’t get into specifics. If you’ve understood the last two paragraphs this should be easy: 30 grams of fat from olive oil = 30 grams of fat from peanut butter.
It’s All About Context
Labeling foods as inherently good or bad is foolish. It is the equivalent of saying that 50 cups of broccoli a day is good, just because it’s broccoli. Contrastingly, 1 oz of chocolate is bad, just because it’s chocolate. When you put foods into context you really start to understand.
Micronutrients and fiber are very important, which is why I recommend getting at least 80% of your nutrients from lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. So, what about the other 20%? Well, if you’d like, they can be more of the same. Note that regardless of what the calorie source is, if you are in a caloric surplus (consuming more calories than you burn), you will gain weight. This 20% can also come from the “forbidden foods” most people will tell you to avoid if you are serious about your health such as ice cream, Oreos, Pop Tarts, cheesecake, etc. This is also known as “discretionary calories,” a concept even recommended by the USDA. “Discretionary calories” is a way of saying once the basic nutrient needs are met, the additional calories may come from whatever you would like, assuming you stay within your daily allotment.
You Can Do This “Diet” For Life
Hopefully, this article is a helpful introduction to what I like to call flexible dieting. This is not a typical diet for you to “try” for 2 months; this is just basic nutrition and physiology that will help you become healthier and achieve your fitness goals.
You can forget all the fad diets.
Forget having to pack your meals and eat separately from your family.
Learn the content of foods: what are fat, carb and protein contents and learn how to allow foods to fit your needs.
The diet should fit your life, not the other way around.
Simple Rules of Flexible Dieting (for those who skim):
- Stay within your macronutrients or calorie numbers
- Use the 80-20 rule
- Consume at least 20-30 grams of fiber/day
- Consume at least 1 serving of fruit/day
- Consume at least 2 servings of vegetables/day
Zack Feeney NASM PT - Fitness Artist Body Sculptor
National Level Powerlifter
National Level Strongman
USAPL NYS Referee