There was a time when I tried to figure my way through various weight loss theories and plans to find the “perfect” option, and eventually I felt so confused that all I wanted to do was throw my hands in the air and stuff my face with – whatever. It took a college level class in nutrition before it all made sense to me. If you have felt some of that confusion then I want to try and break it down for you.
The big argument of course is between the low carb, high protein proponents and those who disagree. We eat 3 different types of nutrients – Carbohydrates, protein and fats. Foods generally have all three nutrients – carbs, protein and fats, although they also generally have one group prominent. Carbohydrates provides easy energy and fiber, protein nurtures our muscles and hormonal health and fat helps us absorb certain vitamins as well as provides a sheath of protection around our organs and within the muscles. Fat also aids with hormonal health. We absolutely need all three nutrients to function. So the question is the balance of nutrients and without a doubt the typical American – even typical western – diet holds way too much carbs and the wrong kind of carb.
Essentially carbs are sugars, plant based foods, grain based foods etc. Good carbs are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and because they are high in fiber are absorbed at a slower rate. Obviously, we need these foods, and will become deficient in vitamins, minerals and fiber without a solid supply of healthy carbs. Because carbs become fast easy sugar to be burned instantly as energy we will have an experience of fast energy that then quickly wears off. If we do not use this energy then it instantly becomes fat and we get the “sugar crash” that makes us incredibly hungry again soon after eating. If we eat too much carbs, and especially highly processed carbs then we do not get the fiber and vitamins or minerals we need, but we get all the negative effects of sugar crashes, and that is the basis of the bad name of carbs. In the US we eat a horrific amount of highly processed and nutritionally deficient carbs, and those deserve their bad name – they cause diabetes, obesity and many other problems. Highly processed, sugary, nutritionally deficient carbs are pure poison. Eating carbs on their own without a solid supply of protein also causes sugar spikes and their attending hungry crashes. Certain carbs like quinoa and legumes – beans – have a relatively higher percentage of protein than most carbs – but make no mistake,they are still carbs. I have seen people go on an vegetarian or even juice diet in order to lose weight and cleanse their systems more times than I can count. Unless this is done with adequate protein then they “always” gain the weight back, and more times than I can count I have listened to someone then later claim that somehow it is now harder to lose weight. In my mind this happened because they went overboard on carbs and this is messing up their hormonal health.
Protein is essentially meat and eggs. Protein is made of amino acids, or put more directly – muscle! We need protein to build and maintain our muscles, in wound healing and hormones are amino acids. While the body converts carbs to sugar and then energy, protein is not converted, unless we are severely deficient in carbs so they are used directly as amino acids. Protein also helps our bodies absorb the sugar in carbs slower. In a high protein diet a person starves their body of carbs and start to burn amino acids for energy – which is not good for the muscles. We also become outright deficient in vitamins, minerals and fiber with a high protein diet.
Fats are needed to absorb several vitamins so if we do not get enough fat then we become deficient in certain vitamins. Fats has more than double the amount of calories per gram than do protein and carbs, so it fills less in your stomach. Fats are absorbed directly as fat, and is also used in a normal lean body to protect our organs and within muscles. The generally accepted knowledge was for a long time been that unsaturated fats from vegetable compounds were healthier than saturated fats from animal products, because the thinking was that saturated fats increased our bad cholesterol. I have seen some interesting research that start to challenge this “common knowledge”. The only fat to stay completely clear of is transfats – IE Margarine, as it causes cancer.
With this information it is clear that we need all three food groups, but it is important to get the balance right, and that is the big discussion. I tend to think that we are all built slightly different in our needs, so it is good to experiment a little with your needs. I know I am a carb fiend, but if I don’t temper it I am constantly hungry and tend to over eat. Here are some numbers to experiment with –
I have seen recommendations starting at 20% protein and going to 50% protein. I have seen some solid research that shows a better hormonal out come in weight loss with at least 30% protein. I personally struggle to get above 15% protein, but I also know that I sometimes get more hungry than I need to be.
I have seen recommended fat levels from 7% to 20%. I would not recommend going below 5% fats.
The rest should obviously come from healthy carbs – and cakes do not qualify!
Personally this is my sweet spot for a balance:
Your caloric intake is personal to you and I will write about that in a different article.
If you are trying to lose weight then it is very important to become aware of your body and it’s needs to avoid hunger pangs, discomfort and a tendency to over eat. I highly recommend using a service like Spark People and spend at least 3-6 months tracking your eating habits. If you decide to follow someone else’s plan then you should be an informed consumer and take a look at their carb, protein and fat balance. If it’s balanced then it will probably work.