There is so much confusing and contradictory information out there about healthy eating. I will try to summarize what I have learned as a bodybuilder who wants to stay healthy as I age. The choices of foods that we can now can have a significant effect not only on our body shape and quality of life, but also mortality and on how well we age.
The components of whole food.
Foods are made up of many different components—some are “micro” or smaller quantity nutrients, like vitamins, and some are “macro” or larger quantity nutrients. The three macro groups that compose the majority of our diets are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These three units are the basic materials that fuel our activities and metabolism and maintain body composition. Selecting the best sources and amounts of these three macronutrients may help to minimize metabolic disorders (such as high cholesterol and blood sugar) and prevent loss of lean body mass and accumulation of body fat.)
The best carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates provide our body’s main source of quick energy. After carbohydrates are digested and after some processing by the liver, they are released into the bloodstream as a sugar called glucose to be delivered to the cells.
Insulin and insulin resistance.
The hormone insulin is produced by the pancreas to control blood sugar and store it in muscles for later use as glycogen. Insulin’s main job in the body is to promote the delivery of sugar energy as glucose to cells. When a small amount of glucose is delivered into the bloodstream, a small amount of insulin is produced by the pancreas to accompany it. When there is a large amount of glucose, the pancreas works to produce a large amount of insulin to facilitate its delivery so that cells can take in as much glucose as possible. Extra glucose that cannot be taken in by the cells circulates in the bloodstream and can be toxic to brain cells, so under normal circumstances, most of it is soon converted into triglycerides (fat) in the liver to be stored for later use. But we have to be careful with high blood levels of triglycerides, since they are what feed fat cells.
The correct amount of carbohydrate sources will provide enough sugar to give a healthy amount of glucose to the cells, but not too much at once. Thus, levels of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream are not unusually elevated for any long period of time. The pancreas works, but it is not overworked trying to keep up with an unusual demand for insulin. However, in the U.S., much of the diet consists not only of large amounts of high-calorie carbohydrate sources, but also of carbohydrates from sweets and sodas, which are very concentrated sources of sugar. The net effect that intake of these calorie-dense carbohydrate foods creates is a bloodstream that is occasionally flooded with large amounts of glucose, a pancreas that is overworked, and large amounts of insulin and triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream. Note that excess insulin causes increased production of cholesterol.
Over time, these occasional glucose, triglyceride, and insulin floods can cause a decrease in the sensitivity of the cells’ response to insulin, which reduces the cells’ ability to take in glucose. Insensitivity to insulin is called insulin resistance, and it is a serious consideration in metabolic problems. Some HIV medications can worsen insulin resistance, so we need to be aware of nutritional considerations that can help. Ways to decrease insulin resistance are to exercise, follow a proper diet, and taking medications that improve insulin response. For instance, several studies have found that people consuming an overall high-quality diet, rich in fiber and adequate in energy and protein, were less likely to gain fat. This is why it is best to select the majority of your carbohydrate intake from fiber-rich, slow-releasing carbohydrate sources that do not contain an excessive amount of calories. And these good carbs should be accompanied by good sources of protein and fats.
Combining carbohydrates with protein, fiber, and fat.
Protein, fiber, or fat will slow the absorption into the blood of glucose from carbohydrates, which helps to reduce the rise in blood sugar and insulin spikes. So, mixing carbohydrates with protein, fiber, and good fats is one way to reduce their problematic effect on blood sugar and insulin. Ensure that every meal and snack you consume has a mix of these three macronutrients. But what are the best fats, protein, and high-fiber carbohydrates sources out there?
Fats and oils.
The main point is that since we need EFAs and other fats for health, we should be getting them in our diets from fresh, high-quality sources. A proper diet reduces the amount of starchy carbohydrates while maintaining a certain amount of healthy fats so that there is a different macronutrient balance than the old high-carbohydrate, high-protein, low-fat diets contained. This means striving to get fatty acids from several sources, the least of which are the saturated fats in butter or animal fat. Understand that saturated fats are not the demons we have been led to believe. When we realize that we evolved getting a certain amount of saturated fat from foods in the wild, it is only logical that they would have a place in a healthy diet. One recent study showed that dietary saturated fat and mono-unsaturated fat were associated with healthy testosterone production in humans, while EFAs had no effect. So it appears that we need a little saturated fat for optimal hormonal health. However, most people get far too much saturated fat, which promotes insulin resistance and metabolic problems, and not enough EFAs, which are needed for healthy cells and immune function.
The other important kind of fat that we should consciously include in our daily diet is mono-unsaturated fat, which we get from foods like olive oil. Recent data have shown that mono-unsaturated fats decrease the risk of certain cancers, and have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Fatty acid recommendations.
EFAs include the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Most people get an imbalance of these two by consuming too small an amount of omega-3 fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties, and relatively too large an amount of omega-6 fats, which tend to promote inflammation when out of balance. To get more omega-3s, eat more fish, including salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, rainbow trout, and herring. Omega-6s are contained in common vegetable oils, like sunflower, safflower, and corn oils. Try to reduce your intake of these.
Oils and cooking.
Olive oil is one of the best oils to cook with. For sauteing that exposes oil to high temperatures, you can also cook with high-oleic sunflower oil, avocado, canola, macadamia, or any oil that is high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids.
Avoid cooking with oils made from corn and sesame. These oils contain more omega-6 fats, and less mono-unsaturated fats, so they have a higher potential for spoiling and turning to trans-fats, which are bad for the immune system. Try to avoid any intake of these oils when they are not absolutely fresh.
Also, choose oils that are minimally processed. Most of the clear oils in supermarkets are stripped of some of their natural components to make them more suitable for sitting on store shelves for long periods of time without spoiling. Do not use these stripped oils. When you do cook, do not overheat the oil so that it smokes, which causes the formation of carcinogens and destroys the beneficial fatty acids.
Avoid margarine, hydrogenated fats, or processed oils.
Do your best to avoid processed fats or oils, as they have negative effects on cellular health, overall metabolism, and your immune system. Look out for the words hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated. These kinds of manipulated fats probably do increase the risk of cancer and heart disease. They also weaken healthy cellular immune metabolism. Lastly, they are also likely to promote high lipid levels and insulin resistance.
Protein, food for the immune system.
Dairy protein fractions, such as caseine (contained in milk curd) and whey, are at the top of the list of proteins that optimally feed lean body mass growth. In dairy products, the amino acid balances, insulin-raising potential, and overall growth factor content add up to one thing: milk proteins were created to make mammals grow bigger. While there is a lot of hoopla related to which dairy protein fractions are best, there is more misinformation than reality in this area. Those with lactose intolerance should be careful in their selection of milk-based products. Aged cheeses and yogurt may be more tolerable for those who cannot digest lactose.