2. THE NUTRIENT GROUPS
Everything you eat is made up from protein, carbohydrates and fats, or a combination of these food groups – as indicated, these are known as macro-nutrients. Add in water, fibre, vitamins and minerals and you have all the ingredients required to keep your body fuelled and running efficiently – the latter are collectively known as micro-nutrients. The food groups were not created equal and getting the balance right between them can make all the difference to becoming a fat-burning, muscle-building machine and priming your body for fat storage.
In this chapter, I’ll give you a broad overview of the food groups and discuss a little about how making the right nutritional choices is as important as eating a little less. Remember, losing fat is about eating smart, not just consuming fewer calories.
The word protein comes from the Greek word for first or primary – that’s how important protein is. You need protein for the growth and repair of muscle tissue and as a secondary energy source when carbohydrates and fat consumption is reduced – as in the latter stages of this program.
You get protein from animal products including meat, poultry, fish and eggs as well as dairy, soya and protein shakes such as whey protein concentrate and isolate. Protein is broken down into smaller units called amino acids and these building blocks are then used to repair the structures of your body – a process called anabolism.
Protein provides four calories per gram of energy and protein quality is rated according to the biological value scale, BV for short. All animal proteins score very highly on the BV scale with eggs scoring a perfect 100. Whey protein, which was discovered after the BV scale was developed, actually scores above 100, which makes it a super-protein! Soya, on the other hand, scores much lower than animal proteins so while it is a viable protein source, it’s not the best. If you have a choice, consume mainly lean animal protein and whey as your primary protein sources and only use soya if you really have to. It’s not that soya is necessarily bad; it’s just that you’ll need to consume quite a lot of it to ingest the same amount of protein from other, better quality sources.
In addition to being essential for the process of anabolism, protein is also a superior fat-fighting food. Of all the food groups, the ingestion, propulsion, digestion, absorption and elimination of protein uses the most energy. Yes, that’s right: eating protein actually burns calories! The measure of how much energy is used when you eat a particular food group is called the thermal effect of food – TEF for short. The TEF for protein is between 20 to 30%, meaning that for every 100 grams of protein that you consume, 20 to 30% of the energy in that food is cancelled out by the metabolic cost of digestion.
Protein also makes you feel fuller for longer and you may be surprised to find that you are less hungry eating a high-protein diet than a high-carb diet. Fat-burning, hunger-fighting, muscle-building and metabolism-boosting? Protein really is your fat-loss friend.
You’ll notice in the progressive phases of the plan that follows that your protein intake increases as your carbohydrate and fat intake is reduced. The reasons for this are two-fold – firstly, the more protein you consume and the more often you consume it, the more elevated your metabolism will be, and secondly, elevated protein intake will preserve your hard-won muscle mass even though you are eating less and exercising more than normal. This muscle-sparing effect will ensure you don’t experience the ravages of the starvation response and end up sabotaging your fat-loss efforts.
Protein foods are going to be the cornerstone on which your fat-loss diet is built so it’s worth spending some time deciding how you are going to make protein part of your daily diet – not just occasionally but at pretty much for every meal you eat.
Including protein at your main meals of the day is simple enough – just make sure that the first thing you think about when planning a meal is the protein. Build each meal around eggs, meat, fish, or poultry and then add in the remaining food stuffs as dictated by the phase of diet you are currently on.
For snacks and meals consumed away from home, protein consumption is a little trickier. Whey protein shakes are a convenient choice as they are highly digestible, portable and can be consumed just about anywhere. If, however, you prefer ‘real’ food, you may have to prepare snacks and meals in advance and carry around hard-boiled eggs, cold cooked chicken, beef jerky, cans of tuna or other on-the-go sources of protein.
The bottom line is protein is essential for your success, so get your protein sources in order and start thinking about how you can make protein part of every meal and snack that you eat.
Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, provide four calories per gram and are your primary source of energy during high-intensity activities such as strength training and sprinting. Carbs are converted to glucose when you eat them and then used for rapid releasing energy, converted to glycogen which is stored in your muscles for later use, or, if you are inactive and/ or consume too much, converted to fat and shunted into your adipose tissue or fat cells. Note: glycogen can only be stored in the muscles (and liver) in limited amounts and its stores need to be replenished by optimum nutrition. Without sufficient glycogen stores, your training will suffer.
The main problem with carbs is that most people’s diets contain 60-70% carbohydrate. This is okay if you are training or otherwise physically active for 12 to 18 hours a day but completely disastrous if you only do about five to eight hours of exercise per week.
Another problem with carbs is that when you eat them, they trigger the release of a hormone called insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone which helps ferry nutrients into cells, especially glucose into muscle cells. Unfortunately, while doing this, fat-burning goes on hold. The more carbs you eat, the more insulin you produce, and the longer your body will be on nutrient-storage duty as opposed to fat-burning duty. Because of this, during this program, you will be consuming carbs at very specific times of the day to maximise the anabolic effect of insulin while minimising its role as a fat-burning saboteur. This strategic carb consumption, when combined with your increase in protein consumption, really turns on the fat-burning furnace and cranks it all the way up to super-efficient!
Like proteins, not all carbs were created equal, and in simple terms there are good and bad carbs although some of the bad ones can be good at certain times of the day (!). The speed at which carbohydrates are broken down and converted to glucose is measured using something called the glycemic index – GI for short. Low GI foods are digested slowly whereas high GI foods are digested quickly. The faster the carb is digested, the greater the insulin response will be, and as our aim is to manipulate your insulin levels to maximise fat-burning, it’s important that you chose the right carbs to eat at specific times.
We’ll go into more depth on this subject later in the actual diet phase’s section but for now take note of this titbit of information:
1 Immediately before and or after exercise, fast-acting high GI carbs are good;
Simply observing these two rules will prime your body for fat-burning rather than fat storage.
There are numerous websites such as www.glycemicindex. com and books you can buy to help you select high and low glycemic index foods but, as a general rule, the more refined a product is, the higher the GI tends to be. For example, white rice is highly refined and has a GI of around 80 (high) whereas wild rice, which is more or less completely unrefined, has a GI of around 40 (low).
In addition to strategically manipulating the GI of your carb intake, you will also be reducing the amount of carbohydrate you eat on a daily basis from one phase to the next. Lowering your carb intake while increasing your protein intake will enhance fat-burning while maintaining muscle mass.
Carbohydrates are also your primary source of fibre and, as most people know, fibre is essential for digestive health and well-being. You’ll be getting more than enough calorie-free fibre per day while following the initial phases of this plan but fibre may be a bit thin on the ground in the final low-carb phase. Such a short-term fibre fast won’t cause you any health problems but you may need to consider a carb-free fibre supplement such as Fybogel or psyllium husks to keep everything moving smoothly along your digestive tract.
Of all the food groups, fats are probably the most controversial. Depending on whose work or theory you read, fats are either the root of all nutritional evil or are the fountain of eternal youth and health. As with all aspects of nutrition, saying that a food group is 100% good or 100% bad is erroneous as there are different types of fats which exhibit vastly different properties and affect your body in a variety of ways. Some fats are quite bad for you, some can make you fat, and others are in fact essential for your health! Hopefully we’ll be able to explain the differences in this short section on fat facts.
There are four main classifications of fats – saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and trans-fats. The use of the word saturated refers to the amount of hydrogen within the fat in question. A saturated fat is saturated with hydrogen whereas a polyunsaturated fat is less saturated and has a large number of double chemical bonds in its structure. At the risk of making this sound like a chemistry lesson, just remember this – the more saturated a fat is, the more solid and inert it is.
Saturated fats get a bad rap as being unhealthy; consumed at the right levels, they aren’t and are actually needed by the body – as we point out, trans-fats, for example, are your real enemy, whatever their level of consumption. Like all fats, saturated fat contains around nine calories per gram so it is very energy-dense. As fat is so rich in calories, over-consumption can make you fatter and therein is the problem. Saturated fat is inert and stable and – as indicated – does not have a particularly harmful effect on your health, unlike refined sugar, artificial sweeteners and hormone-fed cattle, but too much saturated fat will make you fat, which is very bad for your health.
Sources of saturated fats include animal-derived protein such as beef, full-fat dairy, butter, lard and coconut and palm oil. While you will be manipulating your fat intake over the coming weeks to help create that all-important calorie deficit, you won’t be cutting saturated fat out.
Mono and polyunsaturated fats
As mentioned, mono and polyunsaturated fats contain less hydrogen and therefore have double bonds in their chemical structure – monounsaturated fats have one and polyunsaturated fats have many double bonds. This makes them more reactive than saturates. Mono and polyunsaturated fats are used within your body for healthful chemical reactions and are very important for everything from cell function to controlling the inflammatory response. While these fats also provide nine calories per gram, they are less likely to be stored, as your body prefers to use them in various metabolic processes. The most well-known monounsaturated fat is probably olive oil which almost everyone knows as being very heart-healthy.
Polyunsaturated fats, often referred to as essential fatty acids or EFAs for short, are even more reactive than monounsaturated fats and include things like fish oils, flax seed oil and sunflower oil. Also known as omega three and omega six fatty acids, these fats have an almost medicinal quality and are, as their name suggests, essential for good health.
Some unsaturated fats, either because of exposure to high heat levels, oxidation or food manufacturing processes, can turn into trans-fats. Trans-fats are unsaturated but have a structure and shape similar to saturated fats, which is very confusing for your body. Basically, trans-fats go into places that they shouldn’t and block the action of more healthy fats. Trans-fats are commonly found in processed baked goods, processed meat products and are also the result of overheating mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Because of the health risk associated with trans-fats, they are best avoided. Look out for terms like hydrogenated vegetable oils and partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening on food labels and you’ll have no problem avoiding these bad fats.
The subject of fats is enormous and quite complex so we’d like to boil it down to the basics for you in a few, easy-to-digest fat facts:
1 Fat contains nine calories per gram and subsequently eating too much can make you fat;
2 Saturated fats are relatively inert and are great for cooking;
3 Monounsaturated fats are good for your health and olive oil is also good for cooking – just avoid overheating it as this can damage the oil;
4 Polyunsaturated fats are very reactive and do not cope well with heat. Subsequently they should never be used in cooking. Consume them raw to preserve their healthful qualities;
5 Wherever possible, avoid all trans-fats. At best they are nothing but empty calories, at worse they can be damaging to your health. Out of all the fats discussed, trans-fats are the real bad boys!
Micro-nutrients – vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are the very catalysts that keep you fit, healthy, functioning and alive! One definition of vitamins is ‘substances that, if missing from the diet will result in ill-health’. Collectively referred to as micro-nutrients, these essential chemicals are required in very small amounts and do not actually provide any calories in your diet. However, if burning fat and exercising intensely is something you care about, you really need to make sure you are getting enough of the good stuff.
The best source of vitamins and minerals is real food. The synergistic balance of the various micronutrients found in real food means that they are in exactly the right proportions for your body to make use of. For example, an orange does not just contain vitamin C but a whole bunch of other chemicals which are important for your well-being. You don’t get this wide spectrum of nutrients when you try to obtain your vitamins and minerals in tablet form.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a good multi vitamin or mineral supplement – it’s actually a great idea to ensure that, if you have a not-so-great day of eating, you still get most if not all the micro-nutrients you need to stay healthy. What a multi-vitamin/ mineral supplement will not do is make up for an otherwise poor diet. You can’t run a Formula One car on dirty diesel fuel and your body won’t function properly if all you eat is junk – even if you take the best vitamin pills you can find.
Wherever possible, I suggest you eat fresh and organic vegetables at most of your meals. Some fruit is also okay but as fruit is high in sugar and creates an insulin spike, I’m going to limit your fruit intake to one or two pieces a day. You can get more than enough vitamins and minerals from eating a vegetable-heavy diet.
If you can’t manage organic, just go for fresh or frozen vegetables but stay away from the canned kind as they are often low in vitamins and minerals. Prepare your vegetables so you preserve their vitamin content – eat them as raw as you can tolerate, steam instead of boil and try to eat a variety of different colours in each meal. The more multicoloured your plate, the broader the spectrum of vitamins and minerals will be. Think ‘traffic light’ and try to eat something orange, something red and something green at each meal – plus the ubiquitous serving of protein, of course!
While water is calorie- and nutrient-free, there is no denying that it is absolutely essential for life. You can last weeks without food but only a few days without water. Your body is made up of around 70% water and it is used in just about every reaction that sustains life. Your blood is mostly water as are the whites of your eyes and the fluid surrounding your spinal cord. Water lubricates your intestines, is used to flush out toxins via your urinary system and is essential for maintaining a healthy temperature – especially important when you exercise. Water is the by-product of aerobic respiration and can also help you feel fuller for longer. Hungry? Drink a glass or two of water and, like magic, your hunger pangs should vanish!
Ironically, our primary indicator of hydration, thirst, is a bit slow on the uptake and if you feel thirsty, chances are you are already slightly dehydrated. Because of this, it’s important to ensure you remain well hydrated at all times. It’s better to drink enough water so you don’t get thirsty than get thirsty and try to play hydration catch-up.
Water aids fat-burning
Water is essential for fat-burning. In nature, a drought normally precedes a famine and, on a survival level, your body knows this. If you are dehydrated for long, your body will assume that a lack of food is not far behind and start to trigger the early stages of the starvation response. Also, as you burn fat for fuel, you will release toxins that are stored in your body fat. These need to be flushed out and this is best done with copious amounts of water. You could try colonic irrigation but, personally, we’d rather drink some water!
So – how much water should you drink? As a rule of thumb, shoot for 2 litres per day plus 500 millilitres per 30 minutes of exercise. That means most of us energetic types need closer to three litres a day. If you live in a warm climate or are a particularly heavy sweater, you may need more. Remember, you need to drink enough water to avoid getting thirsty in the first place and other than your first pee of the day, your urine should be clear and odourless.
No discussion of hydration would be complete without mentioning sports drinks. With so many on the market and so much advertorial information telling you what drink you should consume and when, it can be very hard to choose a sports drink that is ideally suited to your needs.
The first question to ask yourself is – do you really need a sports drink? If you are exercising for 60 minutes or less, are exercising for fat loss and have eaten properly in the hours leading up to your workout, I would suggest that plain water is more suited to your purposes. If, on the other hand, you have not eaten properly before training, are going to be working out for 60 minutes or more and are not trying to burn fat during your workout, a sports drink is an acceptable way to stay hydrated. There are three main types of sports drinks:
With a very low amount of carbohydrate, a hypotonic drink is mostly about hydration and offers very little in the way of fuel. That being said, ingesting carbohydrates can suppress fat burning so water is the better choice if that is your exercise goal.
Containing around 6 grams of carbohydrate per 100 millilitres of water, isotonic drinks are the most common sports drinks. Usually engineered to provide a mix of slow-, medium- and fast-acting sugars for energy plus essential electrolytes, an isotonic drink provides fuel and hydrating fluids in equal measure. Isotonic drinks are ideal for long workouts where a drop in blood glucose or muscle glycogen levels would result in decreased performance. However, the carbohydrate content and extra calories in these types of products would negate most of the benefits of a fat-burning workout.
Ten plus grams of sugar per 100 millilitres of water means that hypertonic drinks are more food than fluid. The high level of sugar may actually interfere with water absorption so these drinks are not ideal for helping you stay well-hydrated. If you chose to use a hypertonic drink, you should also consume plenty of plain water to make sure that you rehydrate as well as refuel.
The bottom line is that your body needs copious amounts of water to function properly and while soft drinks, coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, fruits and vegetables can all contribute to your daily fluid intake, it is water that your body demands. Avoid getting thirsty, drink as much as you need to keep your urinations frequent and mostly clear, drink plain water during most types of exercise and use sports drinks wisely and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding dehydration.