Before I get started, we need the standard disclaimer. I’m neither a doctor nor a registered dietitian. The below article is not meant to be medical or diet advice, Merely my opinions based on 20+ years of experimentation with the electrically motivated energy conversion engine that is my body.
America continues to get fatter and sicker as the years progress. Walk into your local supercenter or theme park, and you’ll see the evidence: ever-expanding waistlines and shrinking VO2 Max capacities.
Cardiovascular capacity isn’t the only thing shrinking because of our maladjusted way of eating, and it’s hitting our wallets too. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), America’s poor diet costs an average of 50 BILLION dollars a year in health care costs. It accounts for nearly 45% of all cardiometabolic deaths, according to 2019 figures.
The typical American has a VERY dysfunctional relationship with food. We have an even more dysfunctional relationship with the concept of “diet.” To most Americans, a “diet” is a temporary way of eating to reach a particular goal, like weight loss.
I don’t remember who said it, perhaps one of the contributors back during the T-mag.com era of T-Nation.com, but the following concept could help a lot of people. “Everyone is on a diet. Your diet may just be shit.”
Everything we eat, everything we drink, everything we ingest IS our diet. Most people’s “diets” (you’ll see why I’m putting that in parenthesis shortly) are an unmanaged, unorganized, thoughtless list of everything that gets shoved in their mouths.
We need to rewire people’s relationship with the idea of a “diet.”
Hippocrates, the Greek considered to be the father of modern medicine, once said, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” This idea, along with the cost of poor eating mentioned above, gives a hint to the power diet plays in our lives.
The main issue with the American diet is the inattention the average person pays to their food. We pay more attention to the octane rating of the gasoline we put in our cars than we do the quality of the food we put in our bodies, and it shows.
“Diet” is a complex topic. It’s rife with dogma, emotion, social and religious constraints, and a lot of guilt. The way I look at “diet” is twofold. A “diet” consists of energy balance and food selection. That’s it. Those are the two things you need to figure out to achieve your diet goals.
Energy Balance and Food Selection.
Energy balance is simply calories in versus calories out and how you choose to allocate your calories in terms of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) to account for your metabolism.
To lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit (Calories in < Calories Out), and to gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus (Calories in > Calories Out).
Food selection is what we choose to put in our bodies from a consumable standpoint. Food Selection is used to account for any sensitivities, intolerances, allergies, or religious/societal limitations you may have. Diet is also the opportunity to choose foods that help augment your diet goals.
For you to be on a “diet,” you need to be tracking your energy balance and food selection. The Standard American Diet (SAD or “The Food Pyramid”), keto, paleo, carnivore, vegetarian, they are all food selection schemes UNLESS you’re tracking your energy balance, THEN they become a diet.
It doesn’t matter how little carbohydrates you eat. You won’t lose weight if you eat 4,000 calories of chaffles when you only exert 2,000 calories of energy a day. It’s thermodynamically impossible.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states, “Energy is neither created nor destroyed; it only changes form.” When energy comes into our body as a food, it can do only one of two things, be burned for physical activity or stored for later use.
The storage medium for energy is FAT. If you don’t burn it, it gets stored. If you burn more than you’ve consumed, you dip into your stored energy and use your stored fat for fuel.
It also doesn’t matter how much you lift and exercise; you’re not going to gain muscle if you burn 3,500 calories a day exercising and only eat 2,000 calories a day. Again, not thermodynamically possible. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to gain weight (both good and bad) while on a ketogenic diet. Just ask Luis Villasenor and the crew over at Ketogains.com. It’s all about energy balance.
So what makes energy balance and food selection different? Why are there so many? This is where the topic of “diet” gets interesting. The simple fact is each human body is a different system. They are similar in the MACRO scale but very different in the MICRO scale.
Diet Energy Balance
One of my many frustrations with classically trained dietitians is they discount the individuality of each person’s metabolism. They tell everyone 40/30/30 (carb/protein/fat) and stick to the food pyramid.
I was speaking to a personal trainer who asked me about my diet many years ago, and when I told her I was doing 30/40/30 (carb/protein/fat), she proceeded to tell me I was going to die of colon cancer because that was too much protein. This has since been debunked, but she was not willing to hear that I FELT better on a lower carb/higher protein diet.
It’s important to understand that you can choose an energy-balanced strategy that is beneficial to you and your goals and select a harmful food selection strategy. The converse is also true. A good energy balance will not make up for bad food selection, nor will good food selection make up for bad energy balance. Your energy balance AND your food selection strategies must be well aligned for you to meet your goals.
A lot of the “instinctual eating” plans (like paleo) say things like “eat all you want” or “you won’t have to count calories.” These are just food selection schemes that limit calorie intake through restriction of food choices.
Instinctual eating plans fail because they don’t take into account the dysfunctional relationship Americans have with food and their inability to accurately gauge how much they eat. In short, most people’s food instincts are shit.
This is true for both attempts to gain weight and lose weight. It’s almost funny that people trying to gain weight overestimate how much they eat and those trying to lose weight underestimate. This is why food journaling is so important.
Food journaling is the first step any good trainer will have a new client take when trying to improve their health. In the beginning, the client is asked just to record what they eat and when.
Then, once the trainer has evaluated the client’s current food consumption, the client gets a new eating plan (which hopefully includes a food selection strategy and an energy balance) and is asked to continue journaling. When asked “why” by the client, the trainer usually says something about tracking success, looking for patterns, or accountability.
These are all important, but the essential thing food journaling does, if it’s done thoughtfully, is to start rewiring the client’s relationship with food. Through food journaling, the client begins to understand what 40g of protein looks like, what 20g of carbohydrate feels like, they can see the difference between 30g of rice carbohydrate and 30g of leafy green carbohydrate. After a period of time, the client’s food instincts will get better.
Changes In Diet
It’s also very important to realize that your “diet” of choice at the moment that’s working well for you may not be the right diet for you in one, two, or five years.
Back in high school, I heard a bit of health trivia that I found interesting. The idea was that your body chemistry changes every seven years. While this theory is still debated to some extent, the idea that your body chemistry is not fixed through your life is an important one.
As you age and your body changes, your diet will also have to change. Again, this is why being mindful of your food intake (both energy balance and food selection) is essential. When you were an 18-year-old, the diet that worked for you will not be the same diet that continues to deliver results after you hit 40. This is especially true for women with the hormonal changes they experience. As you grow and change, you’ll have to continually tweak and adjust your diet.
The saying by Peter Drucker goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While this true for just about everything, it is particularly true about the average American diet.
While I’d like to see everyone using a food logging app on their phone and meticulously measuring and recording their food intake, that’s not necessary to make a HUGE change in the health of our fellow countrymen and women.
All that would take is for people to be more mindful of what they eat. Read a label. Think about what you eat and how you feel afterward. Write down a week’s worth of your meals and see what that tells you. You may be surprised at what you find out. The improvements you can make to your health with that information will be even more surprising.
A special thanks go to Jayson, the Argonaut, for proofreading this article.
Further reading to help Consistency Will Win The Day For You
1: Americans poor diet drives $50 billion a year in health care costs – https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/news/2019/americans-poor-diet-drives-50-billion-year-health-care-costs#:~:text=An%20%23NHLBI%2Dfunded%20study%20put,stroke%20and%20type%202%20diabetes
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