StrongRabbit: Keep it REAL to Lose Weight

Hello SUP fiends and Mullet people!

Last week we began our series on balancing nutrition with weight loss goals. Sooo….

Did you do your homework? If you have no idea what I’m referring to, or if the dog ate the assignment, I asked you to:

1.     Turn away from obsessively counting calories

2.     Get a sense of your energy expenditure during workouts using a HR monitor

3.     Complete a 5-day food diary to take inventory of your eating patterns

4.     Identify your motivation (the end benefit) for losing weight

By the way, I would LOVE to get comments from folks who completed any or all parts of the homework! What did you discover that might be sabotaging your weight loss efforts? What did you identify as a possible way to reach your goal?

This week’s weight loss strategy is about keeping it real in terms of eating to reach your weight loss goals. I bet many of you who kept a food diary noted the ingestion of some questionable food-like products (like I have). By food product, I mean something that has undergone significant chemical alterations that no longer warrant the simple title “food”. Here are 5 reasons to bypass the pre-packaged, chemically altered, fat-free stuff and use your natural “gut instincts” to choose higher-quality, more-satisfying, actual FOOD.

Why Go for Real Food?

1. Real foods are nutrient-dense, more satisfying, and often calorie-sparing.

I mentioned last week that focusing on nutrient intake instead of obsessing over calories counts is a key to weight loss. If you are going to create a calorie deficit, make sure the calories you do consume are high-quality, i.e., nutrient-dense. Calorie-dense does not equal nutrient-dense. In fact, in the Standard American Diet (aptly abbreviated as SAD), these two features are in opposition. Many calorie-dense foods such as baked goods, processed food, fried foods, and sugary beverages are practically devoid of nutritional value and in fact may actually rob your body of precious nutrients so that they can be digested. Many nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, are low in calories despite being nutrition powerhouses. And they often contain fiber which keeps you feeling satisfied longer. You can eat HUGE portions of veggies in a salad, for example, with very little accumulation of calories. Throw in some protein and avocado, and you will feel super-energized.

As active people, it is especially important that we get enough nutrients to propel us through our SUP and other types of workouts, or even through the physical and mental stresses of a typical day. So, how do you know if a food is nutrient-dense? Here are some signs:

Recognize Real Food

·      It’s something your great-great grandma would recognize as food. I’m stealing from Michael Pollan here, one of my favorite “real food” authors and New York Times journalist. Great-great granny would not recognize Cliff Bars or GoGurt as food. But she would recognize chicken, beef, lentils, black beans, collards, tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, oats…you get the idea.

·      It’s colorful! Kale, broccoli, purple cabbage, blueberries, avocado, carrots, bell peppers. Pigment-rich produce is high in micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that help the body recover and repair from daily stresses. I’m not knocking honeydew melons or parsnips—just because they are of “fairer” skin doesn’t mean they aren’t healthy. But deeper colors as a general rule have denser concentrations of good stuff.

·      It’s edgy! I’m sure you’ve heard “shop at the edges of the store” (or better yet, the farmer’s market) a million times, but it’s still the best bet for obtaining nutrient-dense real food. That’s where the high-quality produce, proteins, and fats tend to be. An exception to the perimeter rule—high quality fats such as nuts, seeds, nut / seed butters, and certain oils (such as olive oil, coconut oil) and condiments (herbs, spices, vinegars, etc).

·      It’s locally-grown (say within 100-200 miles). Local foods have fewer miles to travel from harvest to mouth, which to me means that they can spend more time being micronutrient factories and less time logging interstate miles in a refrigerated truck.

·      It’s in season where you live. Alas, peak strawberry season has passed in North Carolina, but leafy greens, peaches, squash, tomatoes, and watermelon are in!! I’m not aware of any published evidence on this idea, but in my opinion, we should aim to give our bodies more of the real foods that grow naturally in the climates and seasons in which we live. For example, if leafy greens and apples are thriving in your location at this time of year, maybe those foods have just the right nutrient formula that your own body needs to thrive in those conditions! (Maybe that’s why I can’t get enough watermelon in this 90+-drenching-degree weather we’re having in Wilmington.)

It is important to consider that some nutrient-dense foods do contain a relatively high number of calories. Examples include nuts, seeds, avocado, and oils. These are great foods to include in your daily life, and offer many benefits. Just be mindful that because of their higher (albeit healthy) fat content, these foods pack more calories per ounce. For example, and ounce of almonds (approximately 20-25 full, shelled almonds depending on size) has roughly 160 calories stemming from 14gm of fat, 6gm of protein, and 3gm of fiber. So…it’s probably not a great weight-loss strategy to munch on a big ole bag of nuts during your favorite TV show. Better to savor them as a pre-portioned, between-meal snack or sprinkled on a big salad or stir-fry for extra flavor, crunch, and staying power.

2. If you want to lose weight for the long haul, real food works better than gimmicks.

My pre-emptive apologies here for picking on Special K and Dannon Oikos.

Who’s up for the Special K Challenge? You can lose up to 6 pounds in just 2 weeks!* (tiny print reveals that average weight loss is 4.8 pounds). All you have to do is “replace 2 daily meals with any delicious variety of Special K cereals, protein shakes, or protein meal bars”.

So let’s see what in the Special K protein meal bar, Chocolate Peanut Butter flavor.

Well, I estimated 70 different ingredients (mostly chemicals), 10 different types of sugar / sugar derivatives, 3 partially-hydrogenated or hydrogenated (aka “bad”) oils, and a plethora of 8-syllable chemical names that I as a pharmacist can’t even pronounce.  The peanuts aren’t even real peanuts. Plus there’s only 180 calories in this “protein MEAL bar”, 33% of which come directly from sugar. Hmm…. Insufficient calories + negative nutrient value equals “OMG I’m so hungry I could smack a kitty”.  Not a good recipe for weight loss. Especially if you do more than sit on your butt all day. And if you are following the Mullet, you probably do not qualify as an all-day-butt-sitter.

But I don’t mean to pick on Special K. Let’s move on to something else. For example, fat-free food products that had to have their naturally-occurring fats removed in order to make them fat-free and lower-calorie. Let’s take Dannon Oikos Fat Free Greek Yogurt, strawberry flavor, for example.

Sure, it has just 120 calories, but 72 of those (60%) come from sugar. The fourth and fifth ingredients on the labeling are sugar and fructose, respectively. Those represent ADDED sugar, not just naturally occurring sugars contained in the milk and berries. Go ahead and have some 2% or whole fat plain Greek yogurt, and add your own dash of honey or stevia plus fresh berries if you want a sweeter snack. I like Fage 2% plain Greek yogurt. Compared to the Dannon Oikos Fat-Free, it has half the sugar (NO added sugar), more protein, and fewer chemical-like ingredients. The bit of fat and added protein in the Fage 2% will satiate you for much longer than a fat-free, sugar-loaded version.

That’s the problem with most fat-free food products (i.e., they once resembled a real food was meant to contain fat)—they have to replace the fat with something so that it’s edible, and most often the replacements are sugar and chemicals that would not be found in a household kitchen. Ultimately you’ll end up eating a smaller amount of the higher-calorie real stuff because it contains actual nutrition that is fulfilling your body’s needs and also powering your fitness activities.

And besides, fat-free is so last-century.

3. Real food can help prevent sugar cravings. Processed, refined carbohydrates and sugary foods or beverages can send blood sugar on a wild roller coaster ride. Blood sugar spikes quickly after eating these foods and you may feel a “sugar high” kick in. Not long afterward, however, blood sugar crashes and we wonder why we’re feeling so tired. We crave another sugar fix to give us a quick burst of energy, and a vicious cycle ensues that leave you tired, cranky, hungry, scatterbrained, and nutrient-depleted. Eating plenty of non-starchy veggies, some whole fruit, high quality fats, and adequate protein helps to keep blood sugar levels steadier, and without extreme peaks and valleys. Scientific studies have demonstrated that sugar is an addictive substance and can elicit changes in neurochemistry and behavior that mimic (although to a lesser magnitude) those of substances of abuse such as alcohol and cocaine.

4. Real food is clean and simple. Consider processed foods.  Most (not all) of the products that come in a package and can be stored on non-refrigerated shelves has had some degree of processing—some products more than others. If you look at the “nutrition” product labeling and the ingredients, you’ll likely find a laundry list of sugars disguised in other forms, artificial flavorings, coloring agents, preservatives, and / or artificial sweeteners. Why add this stuff to our bodies?

It’s not adding health and it could be requiring extra effort to metabolize and eliminate added chemicals.

I’ll break out the tired car analogy again—if you want to get the most out of your engine’s performance, put the cleanest fuel you can afford into it. Plus, the jury’s still out on what ingesting a lot of this stuff might be doing to us. Instead, keep it simple and rely mostly on foods and products with 5 or less ingredients. And make sure you can actually read them.

5. Real food TASTES better and makes us FEEL better. My parents might argue with this one. They joke (well, not really) that “if it tastes good spit it out.” Sure junk foods may taste good, but how do you feel after eating it? I know I usually feel pretty yucky and sluggish and not at all like working out or training for an event. And people who don’t think kale or broccoli or salads taste good are probably boiling the heck out of the veggies and adding no seasonings, or are eating iceberg lettuce salads with sad, pale, prepackaged shredded carrots and fat-free dressing. Gross. I’d go for the Twinkies too if that was what healthy eating meant. But after several years of aiming to eat mostly healthy, real foods, I can tell you that overall, I truly enjoy the healthier stuff more than the junk or fake-healthy stuff.

Tonight for dinner, the Mullet and I had turkey burgers (skipped the buns) accompanied by a GIANT (and I’m talking HUGE) tossed salad of mixed greens, chopped carrots, radishes, cucumbers, yellow bell peppers, red cabbage, feta, avocado, and a leftover quinoa sprinkled in for high-quality carbage—all dressed in the Mullet’s signature mixture of EVOO, apple-cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and a dash of sea salt and pepper. YUM.

So, what’s your favorite way to jazz up healthy veggies? Share your top picks for spices, herbs, sauces, etc!

And please leave comments about what you found helpful in this article and what you want to see next!

Until then: Purge your cupboards of fakey food products and stock up on real food!

Up next: Now that we know why real food is best, we’ll cover specific tactics to try for shedding lb’s and improving body composition.

Sources used / inspirations:

1.     Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.

2.     Avena NM, et al. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2008;32: 20-39.

Five reasons why eating real food leads to a trimmer physique and improved fitness.