Lostende Personal Fitness

...because your health is your wealth !

Allan Reeves, CSCS, ATC.

Serving clients in Marin since 1992

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The Fundamentals About Good Eating Habits !

I am often asked about nutrition and how I think of food?  This question stems from the belief that because I am fit I must have a unique perspective and ability to control the choices of the foods I eat.  My expertise is fitness, and I frequently give advice and educate people about the correlation between diet, maintaining a lean body and the role that food has in supporting energy needs, so it is natural to assume that I may have a more reasoned eye towards nutrition.  I imagine I do.  My awareness and understanding of nutrition gives me a lot of control over my fitness; it determines how lean I keep my body, how well I recover from training, and how energized I feel when I’m active.  Consequently, I encourage you to commit yourself to an understanding of what constitutes healthy eating so that you too can gain greater control over your fitness.

Let me begin with a reality check!  My impression is that on the whole most people do not make a strong effort to control what they eat.  They do not take nutrition seriously.  There is of course an understanding that diet is important but its significance remains vague.  The result is that most everyone will eat whatever is opportune, whenever it is convenient, and suffer the consequences.   People who have problems with drug abuse often allow their lives to reach dire straits before they pursue a Herculean effort to turn things around.  It seems as though the same is true of people with bad eating habits.  Let me say this, you are what you eat!  The person who is overweight has “eaten” himself/herself into that condition, as is the person who suffers from arteriosclerosis. 


The effects of poor eating habits are insidious; they gnaw at us slowly until one day we wake up aghast at what we’ve become.  Unfortunately, the process of reversal is slow and laborious as well.  There is no choice, either shape up or ship out…but don’t despair.  Understanding and implementing the basics of nutrition isn’t difficult.  The sense of empowerment is well worth it, as are of course the results.  Within as little as a month you can notice significant, permanent changes that will motivate you to continue and stay the course.  Eventually you can look at food with an educated and critical eye and make the proper choices with ease. 

Most everyone understands that weight is gained or lost as a function of the number of calories consumed versus the number that are expended.  Oftentimes people attempt to attack the problem of losing weight by increasing their activities levels (to expend more energy) without adjusting their food intake; a simplistic misguided strategy.  A successful approach to weight control is adjusting caloric intake, increasing activity levels, and an elevated comprehension of the quality and make up of food.  Otherwise, how can you differentiate between right and wrong?  How can you be confident that the food you are eating is nutritious?  Is it limited in saturated fats and high in fiber along with variety?  What about the ratio of proteins, carbohydrates and fats?  How often and when do you eat?  These are some of the concerns that need to be considered to develop healthy eating habits and to better control the impact that nutrition has on your fitness.  Let us begin by understanding the fundamentals of food.

All foods are a combination of 3 substrates, plus vitamins and minerals.  These 3 substrates are called carbohydrates, fats and proteins (terms that you have most likely heard before).  In limitless combinations these substrates are organized to become the foods we eat.  Common sense dictates that it is crucial that you are attentive to the profile of foods in order to make an assessment about their value and necessity.  Thus it is a prerequisite to have an understanding of what these substrates are and what they do.

Proteins come from both animals and plants, and their caloric value is 4 calories per gram.  The human body, for instance, is a massive reservoir of proteins, as are other living animals.  Hair, skin, flesh, connective tissue, and blood (to name a few things) are proteins made from their smaller molecular units called amino acids.  You could view them as supplies to build and restore structures, which in our case is our hair, skin, flesh and so on.  Our bodies are in a constant state of catabolism and anabolism, meaning that they are degenerating and regenerating constantly, an ongoing procedure as long as we are alive.  We therefore need to consume proteins to support this unending process.  Animal products, such as meat and dairy, are concentrated sources of proteins and they are also complete sources of protein because they include all of the amino acids that proteins are made from.  Legumes are also sources of protein but less dense and often times incomplete.  A varied diet helps to make certain that you receive all of the essential amino acids.

Fats are dense forms of energy and their caloric value is 9 calories per gram (twice that of proteins or carbohydrates).  Excess calories are stored as fat and that is why people who eat too much become overweight.  Everyone needs fat in their diet because fats provide energy as well as constituent parts necessary to make steroids, cell membranes, cholesterol (good and bad) and other such things.  We must have fat in our diet for these reasons, but we need to be selective in our sources of fat because there are variations between the different types of fats.  The fundamental distinction is that fats can be classified as either saturated or unsaturated.  Typically, animal fats are saturated and vegetable fats are unsaturated, or saturated fats solidify at room temperature while unsaturated fats stay liquid at room temperature.  An example would be butter and olive oil.  The distinction between saturated and unsaturated fat is important as to the effect that these substances have on our cardiovascular system.  Both are equal in their caloric values, but saturated fat is responsible for increasing bad cholesterol levels in our blood, which in turn causes plaque build up in our arteries, also known as arteriosclerosis.

Carbohydrates are sugars, therefore energy (the body’s preferred choice), and they come in numerous different forms.  Their caloric value is 4 calories per gram.  The term carbohydrate is really an umbrella classification, comparable to the term automobile.  We all know what a car is, and that there are brands of cars, such as Ford and Mercedes, and that each manufacture produces an assortment of models.  Carbohydrates, like cars, come in many various forms, which is a crucial distinction because the context in which carbohydrates are consumed determines their useful or harmful effect.  All too often people claim that carbohydrates are bad and that they are the cause of weight gain, but this statement is misleading, as it doesn’t define anything, it’s ambiguous.

So what are carbohydrates?  They are fruits, vegetables, grains, breads, candy, sugar, legumes, cereals and the like.  As you can see they are a lot of things.  Fortunately, there is a cataloging system that helps us to qualify the major difference between these carbohydrates, and that system is called the Glycemic Index Scale.  The Glycemic Index Scale rates the carbohydrates on their molecular structure, that is to say how complex or simple the sugar.  A complex carbohydrate is a polysaccharide, and a simple sugar is a disaccharide or monosaccharide (of which there are three).  An example of a monosaccharide is glucose, the molecular form of sugar that the body uses in biochemical reactions within our bodies.  Ultimately all of the carbohydrates we ingest are broken down to their glucose components, or converted to glucose if they are one of the other monosaccharides.  An example of a polysaccharide is fruit, and a disaccharide is table sugar.  The more complex the carbohydrate, the lower the number valuation it receives on the Glycemic Index Scale.  The simpler it is the higher the valuation (I agree, the scale seems to be set up backwards.  You would think that the more complex carbohydrate should have a higher valuation).  This distinction is momentous because it establishes how quickly we digest and absorb the sugar into our blood, a factor that affects our energy levels and fat mass gains.  Carbohydrates that are simple (high glycemic) are absorbed rapidly into the blood, promoting energy “highs” and weight gain.  We always want to avoid high Glycemic index carbohydrates, such as pastries, pastas, white bread, processed grains, and try to maximize the low Glycemic index carbohydrates, the complex ones, such as whole grains, whole bread, vegetables, legumes and so on.

There is only one condition when high glycemic carbohydrates are a preferred source of energy, and that is when you are involved in physical activity or labor.  During this time you are expending energy at a very fast rate, and when your energy stores run low you need to eat foods that get into your blood stream quickly in order to continue the activity.  Otherwise you will “bonk,” which means you will be so low on energy that your physical output drops by %70, and you will be forced to stop.  Concurrently, when you eat high glycemic carbohydrates under sedentary conditions you overwhelm your body with energy and stimulate the body to store the energy as fat.  This is one of the primary reasons that Americans today are heavier than ever before.

When we eat raw foods or prepared meals we are ingesting combinations of these 3 substrates (proteins, fats and carbohydrates).  Rarely is there ever a food or dish that is entirely composed of one substrate.  An orange, for instance, has a trace amount of fat and protein; its caloric value is 99% carbohydrate.  A dish, such as chicken potpie has a greater amount of protein and fat.  All foods are a mixture of substrates and for this reason it is necessary to have a grasp of their profiles, otherwise our choices are bogus.  It is deceptive to only acknowledge the caloric value of foods without also being mindful of their ingredients.  We need to be aware of how much protein, fats, and carbohydrates we consume on a daily basis, what their sources are, how natural or processed they are, and come to an overall conclusion as to their nutritional value.  This is how you can pledge control over the state of your body, and whether or not you stay lean and feel energized.

Here is my advice about eating well.  Follow these principles and everything will fall into place.  1) Eat real food.  2) Eat food that is dense in nutritional value.  3) Eat food in small amounts and often throughout the day to correspond with energy expenditure.  4) Eat a variety of foods.  5) Eat food that is low in saturated fat.  6) Eat carbohydrates that are complex and unprocessed.  7) Eat food high in fiber.  8) Eat a moderate amount of protein.  Now let me explain in more detail.

What do I mean by eat “real food?”  I mean that you should chose foods that haven't been processed and manipulated for the benefit of preservation, artificial flavor and presentation.  Try to select foods that are fresh, such as locally grown fruits and vegetables, and not the products that are grown and produced out of state or for that matter the country.  These items will undoubtedly have to be produced and packaged with the need for preservation due to the long travel times and distances from manufacture to end buyer.  I believe that the purer the food the more nutritious its value.  Something is always lost in the attempt to mass produce and distribute food products because the issue of spoilage becomes paramount.  Furthermore, processed foods, such as breakfast cereals, have additional ingredients such as sugar that promote weight gain.  Someone once told me that the most nutritious and healthy food in a supermarket is the stuff kept on the perimeter, while the “bad stuff” is in the aisles in between.  When you think about it this makes a lot of sense as packaged processed foods are in the aisles, while the “real” food is on the perimeter. 

Eat foods that are dense in nutritional value.  It is a mistake to limit the preponderance of your diet to a limited selection of foods, and for that matter to allow the majority of that food to be low in nutritional value. In order to improve the nutritional value of your diet, select foods from a variety of food groups.  For example, bread, a staple of many peoples diet, which means they eat too much of it, is not dense in nutritional value but strong in caloric content.  Just about all of the calories come from simple carbohydrates, and the amount of protein is insignificant.  Furthermore, if the bread is made of processed grains and hydrogenated oils its nutritional profile has been diminished even further.  Instead, you should look to fulfill your diet with foods that are complex and higher in nutritional quality, so that the caloric value is aligned with the nutritional profile.  Choose whole wheat bread and whole grain bread, and compliment it with fruits and vegetables to improve the nutritional profile.  Much of the nutritional value in fruits, vegetables and grains is found in the skin, so it important to try and eat the skin whenever possible in order to benefit the most.  Obviously you will peel an orange, but with other fruits, such as peaches and apples, you should eat the skin. Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice because the skin remains, and the most nutritious part of a potato is the skin where all the minerals and vitamins are found.

As I mentioned variety is important to improve and sustain the quality of your choices.  By maintaining a varied diet you will insure a healthy selection of foods with adequate proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber vitamins and minerals.  Just about anything in moderation is beneficial, and anything in excess will eventually become a toxin.  Therefore, evaluate your choices objectively in order to determine if you eat too much or too little of a particular food.

Eat food that is low in saturated fat.  As I mentioned earlier fat is necessary in our diet.  In fact, there are many experts who believe that 30 percent of your diet should be fat.  Therefore, fat is not the enemy.  To be more precise the problem for many are diets that are higher than 30 percent fat, along with a selection of fats that are saturated.  In the past 40 years fast food has significantly impacted the average American diet, and today it is suspected and recognized by many as the major contributor to obesity in America.  If you were to look at the nutritional profile of the meals offered at these fast food restaurants, such as McDonalds, In and Out Burger, and the like, you will be astounded by the high caloric value of the meals, and the enormous quantity of fat in them.  Most of the meals, if not all, have fat concentrations that exceed 50 percent or more of the meal.  Furthermore, the fat is saturated, which as I mentioned earlier is the cause for high cholesterol.  Take for example French fries.  French fries are potatoes that have been skinned and then deep-fried in saturated oil.  By skinning the potato the nutritional value has been diminished, and the deep-frying has now quadrupled the caloric content, not to mention the health issue of all the saturated fat.  Can you think of a better way to turn a potato into an unhealthy meal?  So what do you do to eat food that is low in saturated fat?  Always choose vegetable fats over animal fats, and don’t fry or deep-fry food.  Don’t eat too much meat, especially red meat and pork, or for that matter foisgras.  Try and minimize your dairy intake, as dairy is high in fat.  Don’t eat ice cream, stop cooking with sour cream, don’t automatically put cheese on foods, don’t cook or bake with butter, stop putting cream in your coffee and so on.  Remember, you are doing this to improve the nutritional value and decrease the caloric content in order to stay lean and healthy.

Eat complex carbohydrates for the same reason, to stay lean and healthy.  Recently carbohydrates have been vilified as the “evil substance” responsible for weight gain.  As I mentioned earlier the term carbohydrate is ambiguous, it doesn’t specify anything other than indicating a category of food, and we shouldn’t be negligent by branding all carbohydrates as bad.  To be precise, carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for our bodies.  The brain relies totally on carbohydrates for energy, and the energy pathways that are anaerobic run on sugar.  Therefore, we need carbohydrates, even to the extent that they should represent 55% or more of our daily diet.  The important distinction is to recognize and avoid the simple carbs, the so-called “high Glycemic Index ones.”  The average American diet is drenched with simple sugar, typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  Simply put, too much of what people eat falls on the high Glycemic end of carbohydrates.  For example, candy, sweets, desserts, ice cream, pastries, potato chips, refined breads, breakfast cereals, soft drinks and the like should be avoided.  The effect of such foods is a rapid uptake of sugar (simple carbs) into the blood stream, followed by a rapid absorption of this energy into our cells, overloading the system and stimulating the excess energy to be stored as fat.  Consequently, one soon feels hungry again and the process starts all over.  Alternatively, if you were to eat complex carbohydrates, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains the effect would be much different.  These foods are slower to digest and absorb, they do not overload the system, and one stays satiated for longer.  Furthermore, the caloric value of these foods is usually less because they have such a high concentration of fiber and water.  The end result is less chance for weight gain, not because you ate a carbohydrate, but because you ate the right kind of carbohydrates.

Eat food high in fiber.  A healthy diet requires fiber to improve the digestive process.  Fiber helps to reduce the absorption of fat by binding to bile, a digestive substance that emulsifies fat.  Without as much bile the non-emulsified fat moves through the intestinal system without absorbing into the blood stream.  This can help to improve cholesterol levels.  Furthermore, foods that are high in fiber have a lower caloric value per volume due to the fiber and water content.  As you guessed these are fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, all substances that are also important sources of vitamins and minerals.

Eat a moderate amount of protein.  A lot of people, especially those who train with weights a lot, believe the more protein the better.  Protein provides the amino acids necessary for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself, however an excess of protein does not improve or accelerate the recovery.  Excess protein on top of too much energy consumption will lead to fat mass gains.  Protein as a substitute for carbohydrates, that is to say, as an alternative source of energy, is inefficient.  The body’s primary concern is to meet its energy needs, which should be done with complex carbohydrates.  If your energy consumption is insufficient then the anabolic processes suffer, and the protein you hope your body uses for recovery is instead used to fuel energy demands.  Don’t supplement your diet with too much protein.  Again, look to eat a balanced diet, whose caloric proportions are 55 to 60 % carbohydrates, 25 to 30 % fat, and 15 to 20 % protein.  If my memory serves me correctly, protein consumption for an athlete need not be greater than 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.7 grams per pound).

There is one last important detail that is critical to the success of a good diet.  Your consumption of food should be linked with your expenditure of energy.  This means that your food intake should be spread throughout the day.  You will do yourself harm to eat copious amounts of food at one time because this will overload your system with energy, and the result is that much of that “excess” energy will be forcibly stored as fat.  This is a common cause of fat mass gains, too much food overall for the day as well as too much for a meal.  Whatever your caloric needs it makes a tremendous difference if you distribute your total calorie intake over the course of the day.  It is in fact common knowledge and common sense to eat smaller amounts more often because this insures that your immediate caloric needs are not overwhelmed.  In essence you will burn the energy before it can be stored as fat.  The other benefit is that your energy needs will be fueled more evenly through your day, which means that you will feel healthier and energized.  I can’t emphasize enough how important this principle is.  Two people with the exact same diet can generate very different results if they follow different consumption patterns.  The one who eats all his/her food in one sitting will increase their fat mass and have less energy, while the other will stay lean and energized if they consume the food throughout the day.  Pay attention to this logic because it is a fundamental problem with how people eat.

When I think of the relationship between fitness and food, I think in terms of my energy and recovery needs.  The purpose of food is to fuel and supply your body with energy and nutrients.  Your body is an engine, working at different tempos throughout the day, and the amount and timing of the fuel that goes into it needs to coincide with the demands.  Feed your body what it needs when it needs it, real food, and high in nutritional value, complex in composition and by little bits throughout the day.  Weight gain is a function of foods too high in caloric value, too simple in composition, and too much at one time.  Under no circumstance can you ever justify eating sweets and desserts and think for a moment that you are doing yourself justice.  With a little effort you can make a better choice, a choice that stays true to the logic I’ve described in this paper, and you can then enjoy the benefits of staying lean and fit.

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