In case you haven’t read the first part of this epic saga, you can find it here.
Before I dive in, for the record, I’m not a dietician or nutritionist.
Some confusing contradictions.
In this post, we’re going to try and help you sift through the seemingly endless pile of conflicting info regarding nutrition that has come to the fore.
Below are a few of the contradictions you might’ve heard.
On the one hand you’ll hear people say that as long as you count your calories, then the food quality doesn’t matter too much, while others will tell you that food quality is everything, and calories don’t matter too much.
You should eat a lot of small meals throughout the entire day was a very common piece of advice in the past, however now you might’ve heard that you should only eat a few larger meals per day across a smaller period of time.
And last but definitely not least is the recent swing from fat being the dietary devil, to now carbs being the source of all the worlds problems.
It’s no wonder we’re confused.
You can find research that will help substantiate all the above dietary ideas and more.
Can they all these ideas be right though?
The problem with research is that often it’s poorly conducted with an ulterior motive, for example a study showing how good sugar is for your health that’s funded by a soft drink company.
Little bit of a conflict there, right?
Another problem is that the media often takes research findings out of context, to create a delicious click bait headline.
You may have heard some variation of ‘a glass of red wine per day lowers the risk of cancer’.
And that may be the case in the research within a lab, but how was the study conducted? Were there any confounding factors that might affect the results? How big was the glass? Are there any ill effects to having a glass per day?
Calories versus quality.
Do calories matter? Yep.
Is the quality of food important? Also, yep.
Glad we cleared that one up.
Seriously though, arguments have been made for both these angles, and people have got great results from using both.
Here’s my take on it.
You can definitely get great results in terms of gaining strength, building your cardiovascular fitness and improving your body composition by simply focusing on the calories.
The short fall of this approach likely happens at a deeper level in your body.
If you’re eating a lot of processed foods, then you’re likely ingesting a bunch of artificial flavours, preservatives and emulsifiers that your body isn’t designed to deal with. You’re probably missing out on a bunch of micronutrients that your body needs to function optimally as well.
And where do we find rich supplies of micronutrients?
In unprocessed, quality foods.
If we’re focusing solely on food quality, then can we eat as much or as little as we like?
Your body needs fuel to live, and it’s getting that fuel from what you’re throwing down your hatch.
You can still consume too many or too few calories for your body to fuel itself effectively, even if you are eating high quality, unprocessed food, although you probably have a little bit more room for error.
So, both calories and quality are likely important.
Many small versus fewer big.
The thinking behind this one seems to make a lot of sense on the surface.
If you eat a large amount of small meals at regular intervals throughout the day, you’ll speed up your metabolism which will make it easier to lose bodyfat.
This approach is also popular amongst bodybuilders who are wanting to gain muscle, where the idea is that by eating regularly, and not allowing yourself to get hungry, you’ll avoid getting into a catabolic state (where muscle can break down).
I’m no bodybuilding expert, so I’ll leave that side of this discussion to someone who is.
I used to take the many small meals approach, but in the last few years I’ve moved to fewer large meals for the reason that I’d really like to optimise how my body functions, and it’s likely that from an evolutionary standpoint, eating consistently all day is not something the body was designed to deal with.
When you eat, your body has to go through the process of digesting the food (simplified below).
You put the food in your mouth and chew it for a bit, then move it down to your stomach where the digestion continues, before moving on to the small and then large intestines.
Nutrients are absorbed by your body throughout this process
Enzymes and hormones are released/produced that ensure this all works as intended.
After that the process ends, and your body can return to a ‘resting’ state.
Except that if you keep eating then it doesn’t get that chance.
It’s likely that the digestive process isn’t intended to be happening continuously, and we are probably meant to undergo periods of fasting through the day to allow the body to undergo processes that can’t occur while digesting.
For me, a few larger meals with more time spent fasting seems to make a lot of sense from an overall health standpoint.
The argument against carbohydrates, is more than likely due to people getting carried away with the anti-sugar angle.
Refined sugar, like what you might put a teaspoon of in your coffee, is a carbohydrate.
There are many different forms of carbohydrates though, and they aren’t all created equal, for example complex carbs are slower to digest and so won’t give you as much of that spike and then crash you get from simple carbs.
When it comes to those simple sugars, we can often get carried away and start demonizing foods that may not deserve it.
Let’s look at the packaging your sugars come in.
If your sugar has come in the form of a lolly, then it is most definitely not good for you.
If your sugar has come from a blueish coloured berry around the size of a thumbnail, then it’s not so bad.
Now you can most definitely over eat blueberries and end up having way more sugar than you should, but you’d still be better off than if you’d eaten the equivalent amount of sugar from lollies, because of all the other nutrients you’re getting from the berry, plus the fibre which as well.
Whether you should eat carbs depends where the carbs are coming from, along with context.
By context I mean that someone who has a high daily physical output, can likely take in more carbs than someone who is sedentary.
Do we need carbs?
Someone once said something to me, and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was so apologies to them, but it was along the lines of ‘If you only ate fat and protein, your body would adapt quite quickly and function very well. If you only ate carbohydrates on the other hand you wouldn’t do so great’.
It was early days in my career when I heard that, so I didn’t quite have the brainpower to think about it in depth then, but essentially (oversimplification coming up) carbs are fuel and that’s about it. Fat and protein on the other hand serve a lot of different and extremely important functions in the body, and in the absence of carbs will become fuel sources as well.
In fact, if you go on a high fat diet with a bit of protein and no carbs, your body starts producing ketones that replace glucose (carbs) as your primary energy source.
This is called a ketogenic diet and is gaining quite a bit of popularity at the moment, although I personally haven’t tried it.
This would seem to make the answer to whether we need carbs a no.
Whether or not we can function optimally in all situations without carbs is yet to be seen though.
Also, it may be the case that some people perform poorly on a high fat (ketogenic) diet and need some carbs present, while others thrive without them.
I do personally eat carbs, sometimes more than I should, but I try to limit them early in the day. I try to avoid sugars as much as possible, but it’s a constant battle I fight against my cravings.
I eat a lot more fat than I used to, but I try to get it from good sources rather than knocking back a block of cheese.
Resources and references.
Below are some really good resources relating to nutrition, some relating to what I’ve written, and others just because I found them interesting.
If you have any good resources I’d love to hear about them so please leave them in the comments below.
- The Ketogenic Diet
- Performance Nutrition
- Time Restricted Eating
- The Ketogenic Diet
Thank you so much for reading, and I’ll catch you next time.