All Calories Are Not Created Equal
“You are what you eat”: a familiar maxim that has been frequently broadcast in popular health publications. The truth to this declaration is that our cells are directly affected by the quality of the foods we consume. A doughnut laden with Trans fats and fructose will introduce aluminum into the cells and cause oxidative stress, decrease IQ, and put you at a higher risk for Alzheimers and accelerated senescence. In contrast, eating a diet rich in fiber, greenfoods, essential fatty acids, and lean protein replenishes the body and combats disease while invigorating the immune system. Non-processed and complex foods are what our bodies evolved to eat, and we function best when it is abundant in our diet. We are a young species having only been modern humans for about 200,000 years, and it is true that the foods we ate 20,000 years ago are not the same (genetically or chemically) than they are today; however, evolution doesn’t abide by a set structure of time. One of the most controversial subjects outside of evolution itself is what we are supposed to eat.
Many athletes are adhering to a new dogma, one that includes a restrictive diet based on hunter-gatherer adaptation fixation. The idea of the Paleodiet has been promulgated by certain nutrition and scientific communities and states that the human body evolved in a certain environment, under certain circumstances, and hasn’t yet had enough time to physically respond to changes in those influences. So we should eat what they ate. It is one big bandwagon that sounds like it makes sense, it seems so healthy, there are even select studies that provide evidence, and hell, it just sits right with your yoga instructor. When something appears to make sense or just “clicks” with our personal credos, we don’t often search much further to find contrary information. But in truth, our minds and bodies are constantly adapting to new stimuli and environments. We have sensitive systems that detect changes in the environment and respond to meet the demands of the outside world. It’s almost a quixotic belief that we are cemented in a physiological state adapted to handle the stressors and foods of the paleolithic domain. Major changes can result from rapid evolution, taking place in less than 10,000 years. Some human examples, such as lactase persistence (the adult ability to digest the sugar in cow’s milk) and blue eyes, were almost unheard of before 6,000 years ago. Today, nearly 35 percent of people across the globe can tolerate lactase, an evolved trait that is most likely the result of cattle domestication. People living in tropical areas where there are more disease carrying insects and higher concentrations of certain bacteria have guts and immune systems that are capable of coping with those specific microbes, so they have a better chance of fending off an illness than a Westerner who did not grow up in the same environment. Conditions change and our bodies are suited for survival. Our different systems make subtle changes to grapple with whatever activates it. If we are supposed to eat what we did 10,000-20,000 years ago, what were paleolithic peoples supposed to eat? Whatever was available thousands of years before that?
Complex matter from animals and vegetables are broken down by digestive enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract into molecules that are absorbed by the bloodstream for delivery to the cells. The cells assemble those molecules into the stored form of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that are necessary for that particular type of cell. The body needs sugars and starches to use as fuel for energy; protein to make enzymes, rebuild injured tissues (ie. muscle), and create new cells; fat to dispense energy, cushion your organs and allow the body to absorb necessary nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K. The appropriate ratio of these macro-nutrients varies from person to person and is dependent on genetics, age, activity level, gender, state of health, and even what the fetal environment of that person was during pregnancy. We know that the circulating forms of carbohydrate (glucose), protein (amino acids), and fat (fatty acids and glycerol) are burned for immediate use and the excess is transported into cells for storage by the hormone insulin. To maximize health and to maintain a revved metabolism, it is best to consume foods that offer the most nutrients per calorie while minimizing certain carbohydrates, specifically refined sugars, starches, and chemical additives. Too much simple sugar and chemicals accelerate aging by oxidative stress (too much unregulated oxygen in cells and tissue preventing proper function) and contribute to metabolic disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and delayed healing. Paleodiet or not, it is well documented that eating lots of rich, densely colored produce promotes health and strengthens the immune system, warding off disease and general illnesses. Just as nutrients are pulled from your food, absorbed chemicals will hit your bloodstream, circulating until they accumulate in your cells where they hamper the division process. Think about that. Your body is comprised of thousands and thousands of cells, and all of them are built by what you eat. Your cells are the chopped up particles of what you put in your mouth. It is not just your muscles and bones that are affected, but your brain has cells too. A lot of them. To keep it sharp and shrewd, you need to keep the synthetic chemicals out. Unfortunately too many well-known products contain chemical additives that more closely resemble DDT than any real food molecule chain. Some food companies depend on certain metals for food processing. These metals collect in the brain facilitating abnormal protein folding which leads to impaired memory and sleep disturbances.
Available energy in all foods is calculated as a kilocalorie. Carbohydrates and proteins provide 4 calories for every gram consumed. Fat deliver 9 calories per gram. Fiber counts as 2 calories because of its bulk forming properties and the difficult labor of breaking it down. What scientists are now revealing through recent research is that how many calories we extract from food depends on how we prepare our food, the kinds of bacteria in our gut, how much energy we use for digestion of different foods, and which species we eat. Digestions, it turns out, is quite a bit more complex than we thought, making calorie counting and athletic nutrition a bit more difficult to balance. Contemporary thought is that bread and pasta are terrible starches that will only endow the population with more weight problems and porcine appetites. There is this group-deceptive idea that gluten is simply not an acceptable component for the human diet, when really most people don’t have any problem tolerating the substance. Many people have a physiological composition that has evolved to process gluten without experiencing trouble in the nervous and gastrointestinal systems. The thing to be more aware of is how cooking has influenced the calorie content, introduced some cancer causing factors, and how glucose raises blood sugar which affects hormonal harmony. Scientists have difficulty deriving clear guidelines because a study of an individual nutrient fails to produce an understanding of what happens to it when mixed with other nutrients in the body. We have adopted a rule that has never actually been scientifically tested that consuming too much of anything increases body fat. This may be something we have to abandon as a theory, which has been around for decades, may overturn the way we eat altogether. Fat gain is not just an energy imbalance, but a hormonal problem. The macronutrient that affects hormone levels the most is the dreaded carbohydrate, specifically fructose. Fructose is a sugar that is digested easily and spikes insulin. Insulin holds onto fat and burns glycogen instead of fat as fuel. If we can limit the amount of refined sugar and glucose in our diets, insulin levels can come down and metabolism is stabilized. For athletes, it is trickier. Glycogen levels are routinely depleted which means there are appropriate times to consume starchy and carbohydrate dominant meals for recovery and performance. At this point, it is clear that refined sugars and too much sugar is unhealthy, but equally unhealthy is for an endurance athlete to eradicate carbs from their diet.
Although we are what we eat, we are not only what we eat. Genetic and metabolic variation among individuals makes it almost impossible to find direction in the world of dieting and making sense of a basic nutrition model. The simplest message for everyone to hold onto until more research has enough evidence to provide a sustainable alternative is to exercise regularly, do not overeat, consume a diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, avoid junk foods, and eat a moderate amount of lean protein.
Written by Tanya Davis