It is so easy to become myopically focused on one aspect of TOTAL HEALTH. As Americans, especially as women, we are easily tempted to focus on simply being FIT or TRIM, which doesn’t always translate to being HEALTHY. A thin, wispy woman who subsists on cigarettes and Diet Coke is not FIT, nor HEALTHY. What about that hard body of a woman who eats a great diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and quality proteins yet over-taxes her body through excessive exercise and lack of sleep? She may look FIT & TRIM, but TOTAL HEALTH is evading her too. While neither woman is overweight, that doesn’t mean that their metabolisms are functioning optimally. To put it another way:
TOTAL HEALTH = TRIM + FIT + BALANCE
Revving your metabolic “engine” for peak performance is only achieved by taking a holistic approach, rather than falling into the reductionist trap. A healthy metabolism which promotes successful weight management and ultimately optimum TOTAL HEALTH involves several factors:
- Diet (TRIM)
- Exercise (FIT)
- Overall organ function (BALANCE)
And each of these factors contains variables that must be thoughtfully managed.
Quality of Calories
Related to DIET, calories are a huge area of emphasis for weight management in American culture-- hence the plethora of low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb food advertisements and “food” options at the grocery store. But what most Americans don’t understand is that “a calorie is NOT a calorie.” What I mean is that a calorie of refined carbohydrates and fats does NOT have the same effect in the body as a calorie of high-quality, whole foods. It’s like the difference between unleaded fuel and high-octane fuel for racecars. The rising epidemics of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and excess cholesterol have steadily increased, despite the 20-year focus on lower dietary fats and carbohydrates. It seems that most Americans would rather eat a larger quantity of low-calorie, processed foods (unleaded fuel) with inferior flavor than a lower quantity of delicious, whole foods (high-octane fuel) that may be higher in calories. Calories aside, wouldn’t you rather have creamy, whole-fat ice cream sweetened with honey or stevia vs. ice milk sweetened with aspartame? I know I would-- love my butterfat!!
“The Calorie Game” & Macronutrients
Another focus is “calories-in vs. calories-out.” Many Americans realize that they can gain an advantage in “The Calorie Game” through exercise. Afterall, if you burn 390 calories by cycling for 60 minutes, then you can get away with eating eight Snackwells chocolate crème sandwich cookies or a bowl of Breyer’s ice cream, right? Well, once again, “a calorie is NOT a calorie!” And more calories and more food cause more wear and tear on the body in processing these foods. In this respect, reasonable caloric intake and activity levels make sense for TOTAL HEALTH. What few people understand is that the combination of macronutrients (proteins, fats & carbohydrates) in a meal has an impact upon weight management. Fats and carbohydrates both provide energy to the body, while proteins provide the building blocks for muscle and other tissues. Carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, provide instant energy, while fats create a “slower burn” from a fuel standpoint. Additionally, proteins and fats slow down the conversion of carbohydrates into sugars in the body, which helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and the release of insulin (a fat-forming hormone). Complex carbohydrates (unrefined carbohydrates such as whole, sprouted grains vs. highly processed “white trash” foods) and low carbohydrate diets also contribute to a slower release of blood sugar and insulin in the body. If all three macronutrient groups (proteins, fats & carbohydrates) are combined into one meal with a typical sedentary American lifestyle, the body will never burn through the two fuel sources of carbohydrates first then fats second before the next meal. And what is not burned is stored….. as FAT! Unless you are a high-performance athlete who needs that long, slow burn of fuel, this does not apply to most Americans. Trim Healthy Mama, a book by the two sisters Serene Allison & Pearl Barrett, goes into quite a bit of detail about this concept. It’s a good read; I highly recommend it!
While calories are important, especially as a gauge to help with portion control (another huge problem with the Standard American Diet, a.k.a., SAD), counting calories is only one of several tools in determining the correct amount of fuel for your body. There are many free tools on the internet used for tracking calories, including nutrient profiles such as macronutrients (and exercise). I like to use MyFitnessPal, which even has a mobile app for your phone. Like using an “envelope cash system” for managing your personal finances, these tools may be helpful to re-focus your attention if portion sizes begin to creep out of control. This is my main problem with nutrition-- I eat healthy, quality foods…. but I tend to eat too much of them, with my portion sizes slowly increasing over time! I use tools like MyFitnessPal to get back on track. (No, I am NOT perfect either!) Also, for some people, portion control is simply a matter of self-discipline, but for others, it may be a matter of leptin resistance, which can be managed through consciously regaining control of your diet by eating quality foods in proper combinations and quantities.
Carb Management & Metabolic Typing
Every body is different based on activity levels, metabolic type, genetics, overall health, etc. The right mix of fats and carbohydrates is important to consider, based on your metabolic tendencies. For carbohydrates:
- VERY LOW CARBS: Limit to 10-20 grams per day if you have significant weight to lose or to manage blood sugar (be sure to consult your healthcare professional first!)
- LOW CARBS: 20-50 grams per day for quick weight loss, limiting grains, high in non-starchy vegetables.
- LIMITED CARBS: 50-150 grams per day is still considered low for the average person, able to incorporate fruits and a few starchy vegetables. (NOTE: one burrito from Chipotle or QDoba contains 150 carbohydrates-- a whole day’s worth! Imagine what this does to blood sugar and insulin!)
It is important to remember that what works for one stage in life may not work for another stage; different proportions of PROTEINS: FATS: CARBS may be necessary for metabolic health during different stages of life. In fact, your metabolic type may change from one period in life to the next. For instance, children have different nutritional needs from adults, and pregnant or nursing women have different needs from menopausal women. Children, pregnant and nursing women tend to be able to handle higher carbohydrate ratios in their diets. Women later in life or those with an Endomorphic metabolic type would do well to limit carbohydrates. Also check out Dr. Mercola’s FREE Metabolic Typing Quiz & Personalized Nutrition Plans.
More on Macronutrients
Just as changing up the mix of macronutrients in your overall DIET will prevent stagnation, varying the macronutrient profile from meal to meal or day to day can help to boost your RPMs. Eating a protein-based meal with carbs but no fats at breakfast, then a protein-based meal with fats but no carbs at lunch is like throwing a curve ball to your body. It has to switch gears, and this will help boost you to the next level of fat-burning. Another option is to try entire days of a protein base with either fats OR carbs, then switch after a couple of days. Depriving the body of carbohydrates for a few days by eating only proteins + fats will empty muscle cells of glucose and prepare your body to dig deep into fat stores when you switch to proteins only for a few days, then switch to proteins + carbs for a few days. Trim Healthy Mama calls this a “Fuel Pull.” (CAUTION: protein only is NOT a healthy, sustainable diet over the long term!)
Variety is the Spice of Life!
Variation of the macronutrient profile is important, but equally important is variation of the foods within each macronutrient group. Another fault with the SAD (Standard American Diet) is that we tend to eat the same foods all the time. And to make matters worse, processed foods will often contain multiple ingredients from the same source such as corn and soy. In addition to avoiding processed foods, follow these tips:
- Eat the rainbow every day-- choose fruits and vegetables of every color to incorporate into your diet on a daily basis which will ensure a broad range of nutrients in your diet.
- Rotate foods with the seasons-- due to international trade and transport, we have access to the same foods all year around, but it has not always been this way. More perishable goods such as lettuce are best eaten in the summertime, and more hearty produce such as winter squash are best eaten in the cold winter months. Food rotation helps with preventing allergies and is another way to throw a curve ball at your body-- remember, the body becomes bored and adapts when we eat the same things all the time-- this can halt weight loss.
Another “engine” revving variable within DIET similar to portion control is intermittent fasting, which is very important for getting maximum RPMs. There is so much confusing information out there about “breakfast being the most important meal of the day” and “several small meals promoting weight loss” over fewer large meals, but scientific evidence debunks these myths. The fact is that multiple studies have shown that eating breakfast and increased meal frequency have no significant effect upon metabolic rate or fat loss; however, the quality of nutrition is not factored in to these studies. The data does not prove that breakfast helps leads to lose weight but merely associates it with a lower risk of being obese. The main idea that ties all of these facts together is balanced caloric intake of high quality foods. Giving the body a break at times, especially with intermittent fasting, will boost your metabolism, but putting the body into long-term calorie restriction will have the opposite effect and will stress the body to conserve, which prevents weight loss. Likewise, if you have blood sugar imbalances, such as diabetes, it is important to manage that imbalance and heal the body through diet first before implementing intermittent fasting (Always consult a qualified healthcare professional first!) So, the key is balance!
In addition to MyFitnessPal, another technology that helps to track activity, giving you an idea of “calories out,” and even how soundly you are sleeping at night is a Fitbit Tracker. This device integrates nicely with MyFitnessPal, so you can get a complete picture of your overall DIET and FITNESS, as well as how soundly you are sleeping. So, what about FITNESS? Well, there is just as much conflicting information out there about fitness as there is about nutrition. Everyone knows that “a body in motion stays in motion:” physical activity is beneficial to long-term wellness and vitality. But related to weight loss, the body becomes bored with routine whether it be the same foods eaten all the time or the same physical activity day-in and day-out; our bodies adapt! Metabolic type can change due to this adaptation process, and what once worked to burn fat does not continue to work. Like intermittent fasting, interval training can supercharge weight loss. This is why I love kettlebells! There are enough exercises that can be varied with other cardio work to create multiple one-of-a-kind workouts that burn 400-500 calories every 20 minutes! And you get not only strength training from slinging the kettlebell around, but you also get the added bonuses of cardio, flexibility and balance. PLUS, it’s just plain FUN! Click here to watch a sample kettlebell program. Then contact me if you interested in a Summer 2014 class for women, taught by my friend Elisa Hansen.
Holistic Support for Endocrine Balance
What about the last factor in the TOTAL HEALTH equation: BALANCE? You can be TRIM & FIT without proper ORGAN FUNCTION, which is essential for weight loss and TOTAL HEALTH! If your endocrine system is not BALANCED due to a lack of sleep, excess stress, or autoimmune disorders, then weight loss will be difficult if not impossible. Adrenal fatigue or thyroid dysfunctions such as Hashimoto’s Syndrome will cause the body to hold on to excess weight. Hormone imbalances, such as excess estrogen (which increases fat stores), will reduce the ability to shed pounds as well as adversely affect libido. This is where in addition to managing DIET, one must attend to other lifestyle factors such as stress management and optimizing sleep. Focusing on DIET and/ or EXERCISE alone will never be enough if your organs are not functioning properly, particularly the endocrine system. For an extra boost, adaptogenic herbs are a ready solution to these imbalances. Unlike pharmaceuticals, herbs nourish and feed organs so they can do the job they were designed to do. Next time, we will go into more detail about how to get your endocrine system in order and make your “engine” purr! Meanwhile, check out my eBook called End the Hormone Madness!
L’chaim-- To Life!