Some Dietary Considerations

There are certain aspects of life that are essential. Omit or alter the balance of essential elements of life and the quality of life, or even life itself, will end. Oxygen, environment, water, protein, fat, vitamins, and various nutrients are physically necessary.

Since you are reading this, you are breathing, have shelter, and have access to food. You are reading this because you are not happy with your body and you're hoping that you can learn something to make your body conform to some image that you're holding in mind. Your self image of what you should be and what you are is yours and yours alone. No one can tell you how to have a healthy and realistic self image, but there are guidelines that can help you achieve a healthy body through a healthy diet. This is an attempt to do just that.

In the essential elements of life, carbohydrates aren't mentioned, because even though they are an excellent source of energy, there is no evidence that they are necessary for life. Carbohydrates are an important part of a diet. They act as a balance to the others nutrients and should not be ignored, but they should not be the driving element in any diet.

It is a basic fact that the calorie is the essential unit of measure of energy that the body requires. If, over time, you exceed the calories that your body requires to support your level of activity, weight will be gained and it will be stored as body fat. Essential nutrients, while not directly correlated to calories, have an impact on health and indirectly on weight. Since the body is a balanced system, insufficient calories are likely to mean insufficient nutrients, which can further impact health.

However, while it would seem that a calorie is a calorie, this is not true when these calories are processed by a living, dynamic metabolism.  Some foods containing calories are simply not digested and are eliminated from the body.  Some foods have a heavy impact on the metabolism and can produce an effect that is far more than that indicated by the simple calorie load.  It is neither intuitive nor obvious and even experts are confused by the interactions that occur.

How much you should weigh, how many calories you should consume and the precise amount of nutrients is impossible to state with certainty. However, there are guidelines that can provide estimates, that if followed, will certainly be a good starting point. BMI has been well publicized lately, along with it's short comings and deficiencies. While, on the high end, it is less useful, the lower end is far more significant. Our basic structure is far more similar that outer appearances, modified by fat and muscle, may lead you to believe. Body weight is not a good indicator of health, but for an "average" person, depending on the frame, there are ranges that have been shown to be healthy.

Falling outside of these ranges does not automatically mean you are unhealthy, but should be a cause for concern. An even better indication of health is body fat percentage, and this is fairly simple to measure with inexpensive skin fold calipers. Once body fat percentage is known, it is simple math to calculate the "ideal" body weight for a specified person and to modify that as the person's body changes due to diet and exercise.

To start:

A reasonable weight for a woman is around 100 pounds for the first five feet and five additional pounds for each extra inch.

For a man, it is 106 pounds for the first five feet and six additional pounds for each additional inch.

These estimates yield a number slightly lower than is considered "average" but is a good starting point.

A quick estimate can be made on the calories a person needs to consume, based on their weight. The range is from 13 to 17 calories per pound base on physical activity. 14 to 15 will be adequate for the "average" person. Protein, one of the most important nutrients required, is based on weight and activity. From .4 to 1.0 gram per pound. For an average adult, .5 gram per pound is a conservative estimate. Children and very active adults may require more.

Fat is an underrated and misunderstood essential nutrient. Yes, without fat, you die! Sadly, too much fat of the wrong type can contribute to ill health and death, too. This is a case of not enough and too much being bad news. Moderation and some attention to detail is necessary, here.

There is a lot of controversy over how much fat should be in the diet. It has been discovered that trans fatty acids are detrimental to health and should be avoided. This means using labels and common sense to try to avoid as much of the "bad" fats as possible is necessary. The omega-3 and omega-6 fats, absolutely essential to life, are abundant in cold water fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon. Poly unsaturated fats are healthy, too, and they are readily available is many nuts and oils. The zone diet states that 30% of calories should come from fat, while a more conservative approach is 15%. Current research indicates that this number can be far too low.  Restricting carbohydrates is one of the first dietary steps to improving health. White flour and refined sugar should be though of as toxic and avoided as much as possible. 

A gram of protein contains 4 calories. A gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories. A gram of fat contains 9 calories. A gram of alcohol contains 7 calories.

Fat accumulation, while calorie driven, is influenced by insulin metabolism. Insulin metabolism is driven by carbohydrates. The simple carbohydrates cause wider insulin swings, which by its influence on cortisol levels, contributes to the accumulation of body fat; while complex carbohydrates seem to stabilize insulin metabolism as does protein. In addition to a balanced diet low in saturated fats, carbohydrate consumption should be focused on the low glycemic, complex carbohydrates.

Refined sugar, white bread, ice cream, sodas with sugar are all high glycemic, simple sugars. Brown rice, some pastas, and most beans are examples of sources low glycemic carbohydrates. Processed and refined foods have a tendency to be high glycemic, while the less processed and natural foods tend towards being low glycemic.

Butter is high in saturated healthy fat. Canola oil and olive oil are much lower in saturated fats and contains the essential fats as well. Milk, full fat of course, is a good calcium and protein source. Rice combined with beans provides a complete protein. Brown rice, beans and salmon, lightly sprinkled with olive oil is a healthy source of protein, healthy fats and low glycemic carbohydrates.

An approach towards a healthy life and weight can be:
  • Begin a daily routine of an exercise such as walking.
  • Based on standard charts, determine a reasonable weight.
  • Use that weight with your activity to determine your calorie requirements.
  • Based on your calorie requirements, choose an appropriate healthy diet.
While it sounds simple, and is, it does require attention to detail and discipline. A slip or misstep is not a fatal blow to the routine. It is daily averages that counts over weeks. Yes, you can have goodies that are not normally part of your normal routine, but don't make a habit of it. Life is to be lived and diet is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Use food as a tool to a healthy happy life.
Eat to live.  Do not live to eat.