The first step in learning how to lose weight and gain health is to learn a few basics about nutrition. All food is made up of three major components called MACRONUTRIENTS. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Here in the U.S., most people are not deficient in any one of these three categories but we seem preoccupied about getting enough of one of them – protein. Our concern is unwarranted. Protein deficiency is virtually unheard of in the US or the Western world. The term for protein deficiency is called Kwashiorkor. Ever heard of it? Me neither. Kwashiorkor is common only in Third World countries where starvation is prevalent. Our problem here in the developed world is an excess of all three of these macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fat. Our diet is comprised of too much protein (primarily animal protein), too much fat (both animal fat and vegetable oils) and our carbohydrates, rather than coming from whole plant foods, are refined, coming mostly from white flour and sugar.
You may wonder what our ratio of macronutrients should be, for example, how many carbohydrates to proteins to fats we should be consuming. On a day-to-day basis unless you are recording everything that you eat and are doing an exact analysis, you won’t really know and this figure will vary from day to day, but generally you want to get roughly 70 to 80% of your calories from whole unrefined carbohydrates (think vegetables, fruits and whole grains), about 10-15% from fats (think nuts, seeds and avocados) and about 10-15% from protein (think beans, legumes, traditional soy foods like tofu and tempeh and perhaps wheat meat, also known as seitan). This ratio will vary, depending on your goals, age, day, etc.
The other components of food that we need to know about are called MICRONUTRIENTS. Micronutrients are the parts of food that contain no calories, yet are absolutely essential to human health. These are vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Many important micronutrients are found almost exclusively in whole plant foods. We have only begun to learn how valuable these treasures are to our existence. Isolating these nutrients into a pill, powder or other supplement is not the same as eating them in nature’s package of the whole plant food. We cannot eat poorly and then simply supplement our diet with vitamins and nutrients in a powder and think that’s the same thing. In fact, numerous studies show that taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements actually increases all-cause mortality (death). The best and in many cases the only way to reliably get our vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals is to get them in their original package – the whole plant food. For example, taking folic acid in supplement form[i] has been shown to be detrimental, whereas, getting folate from dark leafy greens like kale is beneficial and even essential to overall health.
Water is also a micronutrient. It contains no calories and is essential for weight-loss and optimal health. Most people drink far less water than they should and often mistake hunger for thirst, eating when instead they should simply drink water. Drink a glass of water upon rising in the morning and then a glass before each meal. Keep water at your desk and drink throughout the day. Other beverages are not the same as water. This one simple act will immediately improve your health and help you lose weight.
In order to lose weight and increase health we need to reduce our consumption of macronutrients and increase our consumption of micronutrients. The standard American diet has plenty of macronutrients (including more than enough protein). However, virtually all Americans are not getting enough intact micronutrients from whole plant foods. We as a nation are chronically deficient in valuable vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals because we are eating a diet that is comprised mainly of animal products and processed food instead of one that is rich in disease preventive and naturally weight controlling fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
Americans today are consuming more calories than they were 50 years ago and weigh more than they did 50 years ago. Why is this? This is a complex question with a multifactorial answer, but one of the many reasons is that both the type and quantity of food we are eating has changed. Our government keeps very close watch over precisely what foods we, as a nation, are consuming and trends have emerged. Our consumption of four key food products has increased dramatically over the past 50 and specifically the past 20 years. These products are:
Do you notice that all four of these foods are rich in MACRONUTRIENTS (carbohydrates, protein and/or fat), but low or completely void of MICRONUTRIENTS (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals)? How is it that we are eating so much more of these foods? Do you feel like you are eating a lot more cheese, chicken, oil and sugar? Do you feel like you eat enough additional food to have made you gain 20-30 pounds (or more) over the past 20 years? The answer to America’s and the developed world’s obesity crisis is multifaceted, but one of the key reasons is that many of these calories are hidden – hidden in processed foods and restaurant food and often times, we are eating larger portions of certain ingredients (and larger portions overall) without realizing it.
In upcoming posts, we will discuss why these four products, along with other animal products and processed foods are just some of the specific items you and your family should avoid for both weight-loss and total health. I’ll also share strategies for how you can easily build your diet from whole plant foods without sacrifice!
By Emily Honeycutt, 2016. © All Rights Reserved. www.emilyhoneycutt.com
[i] Kim YI: Does a high folate intake increase the risk of breast cancer? Nutr Rev 2006;64:468-475.