When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need. — Indian Proverb
I’ve been very fortunate to carve out a career working with high-level athletes. Many of the players I work with were lucky enough to win the genetic lottery — meaning they did a great job picking their parents. These select few individuals can pretty much eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and still show up to game day with a physique that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger envious.
On the other hand, though, I’ve also worked with many athletes and “average Joes” frustrated that, no matter what they seem to do in the gym, they can’t shed body fat. Without fail, when we sit down to evaluate, I always come back to one thing: You can’t out-train a bad diet. While these people have their hearts in the right place and work hard in the gym, their food choices don’t line up with their goals.
Rather than following a whole-food-first, micronutrient-dense approach to nutrition, they consume an empty-calorie Westernized diet that derails their progress. No matter how many sit-ups they do or how many laps they run, I have to break the news that abs are made in the kitchen, not in the weight room.
The Western Diet and Weight
For these athletes and clients, I start with four universal truths for nutrition and weight loss: Natural, unprocessed whole foods need to be the staple of your diet; you need to include fiber and protein in every meal; you need to eat more vegetables; and you need to consume 0 grams of added trans fat daily.
The typical American diet doesn’t fit any of these universal truths. In fact, the diet is so unique that it’s been given a name: the Western diet. The diet is low in nutrient-dense food sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, and poultry and is high in foods filled with “empty” calories such as refined sugars, processed carbohydrates, trans fats, and grain-fed red meat. Research and data continue to pour in, with experts agreeing that the Western Diet is the driving factor in rising obesity rates and the side effects that accompany it.
Most people’s main goal in the gym is related to body composition, as increases in muscle mass and decreases in body fat will improve performance and decrease health risks. Unfortunately, the Western diet worsens body composition by driving up body fat and wreaking havoc on hormonal regulation.
The Western diet is a breeding ground for micronutrient deficiency, and as many as 80 percent of Americans are affected. Micronutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, and fish are essential for optimal body composition and normal hormone function, yet these vital nutrients are lacking in our diets.
Deficiencies in micronutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and magnesium lead to poor regulation of blood sugar and stress hormones and an increase in blood inflammation markers. Insulin resistance, chronically elevated cortisol, and increased blood inflammation markers have all been linked to higher body fat percentages.
In addition, refined sugars and processed carbohydrates have been stripped of nearly all nutritional values such as fiber and minerals. They are rapidly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar levels. This constant blood sugar elevation leads to elevated glucose levels and insulin resistance. Elevated glucose and insulin resistance will inhibit fat loss and promote body fat storage.
The Obesity Epidemic
Obesity is characterized as being more than 30 pounds overweight, and in the United States, 36.5 percent of adults fall into that category. Obesity rates amongst children are also steadily increasing, with obesity affecting 9 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 17.5 percent of children ages 6 to 11, and 20.5 percent of children ages 12 to 19.
These rates are certainly alarming, but what’s more worrisome are the health risks associated with obesity. Obesity has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, sleep apnea, heart attacks, insulin resistance, and a slew of other preventable diseases. In addition to these negative health effects, obesity takes a toll on physical performance.
Optimal testosterone levels are key for continued progress in the gym. But as body fat percentages rise, testosterone levels decrease. This dip in testosterone production further increases the effects of metabolic syndrome, which further decreases testosterone levels. In short, it is a vicious cycle of declining health and performance attributes.
Better Diet, Better Health, Better Results
While I do spend the majority of my time working with athletes, I also work with many clients suffering from obesity. For many of these clients, the reality is that they fall victim to food advertising and cultivate a lifestyle centered on fast food — and they don’t know how to break free.
I’ve found that starting with smaller adjustments that don’t involve major lifestyle changes leads to success. It’s hard to ask someone who has never exercised to start training for 90 minutes a day, but it’s much easier to ask someone to switch from drinking sweet tea to unsweetened green tea.
As your diet begins to improve, so do your health and performance. Whether your goal is to lose weight, improve blood pressure, decrease cancer risks, or improve heart health, here are 10 simple tips to start your journey toward a healthier diet today:
1. Don’t drink your calories.
Many beverages are hidden sources of added sugars, and liquid sugars are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar and insulin levels. A 16-ounce glass of orange juice has as much sugar as four glazed donuts; a 20-ounce soda has as much sugar as six donuts; and a 24-ounce Starbucks Frappuccino has as much sugar as eight donuts. Drink water, black coffee, and unsweetened tea instead.
2. Plan your meals.
If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. We all know that life sometimes gets in the way, and when it does, our meals are the first thing to suffer. Knowing where your next meal is coming from — whether you’ve prepared it yourself ahead of time or ordered from a meal delivery service — will ensure you’re making healthy and mindful decisions rather than choosing your food solely on the basis of convenience.
3. Eat protein at every meal.
A study from 2012 showed that people who eat 10 grams of essential amino acids per meal have less abdominal fat than those who don’t. Ideally, you should consume a minimum of 20 to 30 grams of animal-based protein per meal, which is roughly equivalent to the size of a deck of cards.
4. Eat fiber at every meal.
Most Americans consume 10 to 15 grams of fiber per day. The average person should eat a minimum of twice that. The New England Journal of Medicine found that for optimal blood sugar control, 50 grams of fiber a day was best.
5. Eat more fish.
Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, and research has shown that increased dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids is directly correlated to decreases in body fat percentage. Try to consume a minimum of 3 grams of combined DHA and EPA per day.
6. Eat grass-fed meats.
Grass-fed beef and bison have significantly higher ratios of omega-3 fatty acids (nearly 3 times) than their grain-fed counterparts. Choose organic, grass-fed options whenever they are available.
7. Eat more vegetables.
Vegetables are high in fiber and micronutrients — specifically magnesium. Fiber helps prevent blood sugar spikes, and magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 enzymatic functions in the body and is directly linked to improvements in body composition, sleep quality, and blood inflammation markers.
8. Don’t derail your day during breakfast.
Starting your morning with a carbohydrate-rich breakfast is a good way to drive up blood sugar levels, spike insulin, and promote fat storage. Instead, consume foods rich in protein, healthy fats, and fiber.
9. Variety is the spice of life.
Emerging research is showing that herbs and spices are connected to decreases in blood inflammation markers. Experiment with ingredients such as ginseng, oregano, Ceylon cinnamon, and curcumin to help regulate blood sugar and drive down inflammation. Add flavor to your meals with these natural food sources instead of sauces and creams.
10.Rotate your foods.
Constantly eating the same foods leads to food intolerances, which lead to inflammation and weight gain. Experiment with a wide variety of poultry, fish, and grass-fed meats, and expand your palate with different kinds of fruits and vegetables.
No matter what goals you’re trying to reach in the gym, you’ll have a hard time meeting them if you don’t start with what you eat. Update your diet to focus on natural, nutrient-filled ingredients, and you’ll be on your way to shedding pounds and improving your performance.
Alan Bishop is the Director of Sports Performance for Men’s Basketball at the University of Houston. Alan has a master’s degree in Sports Conditioning and Performance and holds certifications through the NSCA, CSCCA, and USAW.
- You cannot outrun a bad diet: British Journal of Sports Medicine
- Physical activity does not influence obesity risk: National Library of Medicine
- Magnesium deficiency: Metabolic Meals
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Obesity Guidelines
- Testosterone: Metabolic Meals
- Fish oil and body composition: National Library of Medicine
- Quality protein intake and abdominal fat: National Library of Medicine
- How fiber affects blood glucose: British Journal of Sports Medicine
- Effect of fiber in those with type 2 diabetes: New England Journal of Medicine
- The role of herbs and spices in suppressing inflammation: National Library of Medicine