In addition to our need for adequate rations of oxygen, water, vitamins and minerals, there are three other critical nutrients that we need, the form and amounts of which remain in perpetual controversy. Of course, I'm talking about carbohydrates, fats and protein. The misinformation surrounding these three nutrients in particular is usually at the very shaky foundation of many of the most popular fad diets and "magic pill" supplements. And we're not talking minor discrepancies here. We're talking complete fiction in many cases. So let's take a closer look at "the Big Three" and, once and for all, separate the facts from the fiction.
Carbohydrates (or carbs) are the body's preferred source of fuel. When enjoyed in their optimal sources they burn clean, are efficiently utilized and are least likely to be stored as excess fat around our body. They are also critical for brain function and a number of other bodily processes. Accordingly, carbs usually comprise anywhere from 55% to 65% of your Rock-Solid eating regimen (depending on a number of lifestyle factors). Getting enough is no problem, since virtually everything in the world of plant-based foods has at least some carbohydrates in it.
For the sake of classification, Rock-Solid carbs basically fall under two umbrellas: simple and complex, with the former being ideal as a short-term energy source and the latter burning slower for an ideal long-term energy source. The main distinction between the two is in the amount of starch a food contains. So foods like fruits and veggies are generally simple carbs while most whole grains and potatoes are complex. But there's really no need to concern yourself with getting the right amounts of simple or complex carbs. If you simply eat enough quality, Rock-Solid foods, you will have plenty of what you need, when you need it.
However, a critical distinction must be made about the form of simple or complex carbs we're talking about here.
Rock-Solid or Refined?
In the same way that there are optimal forms of protein and fat, we'll want to ingest our carbs in their optimal forms, as well. So the most important criteria as to whether a carb-based food is Rock-Solid or not lies within the following two distinctions:
1. What's been taken out? - Unfortunately, the majority of our most prevalent (and beloved) carb-based foods have been refined to death and are devoid of much or all of their original vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein and fiber. And while some of these nutrients are added back in the "enrichment" process, most are not, including the fiber. The Rock-Solid way to selecting good carbs is to look for those items that are as close to their original source as possible, still intact as nature created them, without all of the refinement.
2. What's been added in? - In addition to much of the refinement that happens with a lot of carb-based foods, there is often an unforgivable amount of garbage added back into them. Refined sugar, various preservatives and dangerous hydrogenated fats head the list. Naturally, the presence of any of these things takes a food out of the Rock-Solid category and you should try to avoid it.
that fall under this refined or processed carbs classification are often
referred to as "empty-calorie" foods, and for good reason;
There is very little nutritional density present. Plus, the negative
effects of how the body has to process it, along with all of the added
poisons, make for a disastrous food choice.
All Carbs Are Not Created Equal
One of the easiest ways to initially evaluate whether or not a carb source is Rock-Solid is to look for the amount of fiber still in tact in a food or product since this has so much to do with how the body utilizes a food. For example, both raw fruit and refined sugar are considered simple carbs, and yet they are light years apart with regard to how your body assimilates them. The sugar in fruit, called fructose, is encased in the fibrous density of the fruit, be it an apple, orange, banana or berry. This means that the body will be slower to absorb the sugar from it because it has to be "extracted" from these denser fibers. Plus, fructose is absorbed slower than refined sugar, anyway.
On the other hand, refined sugar (often listed as sugar, sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) has been processed away from its original fibrous cane form and is therefore without its original "buffer." These types are absorbed into the blood stream immediately and tend to spike your blood sugar level, giving you that temporary rush of artificial energy. However, since the body is always fighting to regulate its functions, it responds to this unnatural energy spike by creating a radical drop in blood sugar level, taking you lower than when you started! This is one of the key factors in the sugar addictive rollercoaster ride that so many folks deal with every day.
Likewise, unrefined whole grain products, like multigrain bread, brown rice, certain types of pasta, etc., are referred to as complex because their high starch content makes for an even more gradual absorption of its carbs. But the refined versions of these foods, like white rice and white flour products like bread, crackers and doughnuts, are devoid of the majority of their original fiber. This means that they can be absorbed markedly faster, much like a simple sugar. They also have a tendency to "stick" to you because nature's mechanism for helping the food travel effortlessly through you (fiber) has been removed. Also, the fact that you can make paste out of flour and water should remind you of the clogging nature of these refined flour foods.
In the chapters ahead we'll offer plenty of choices for Rock-Solid carbs.
Think of protein as your dietary building blocks. Its primary function is the maintenance of muscle, bone and other tissues and cells throughout the body. Accordingly, protein is not actually a singular nutrient as you might expect but, rather, a series of 22 different amino acids. Eight of these are known as the Essential Amino Acids because they must be supplied by your food. So when you're talking protein in your eating regimen, the name of the game is getting enough of these eight amino acids.
Herein lies the core of the eternal protein debate. Since most animal proteins contain all of these essential amino acids and many plant-based foods do not, it had long been propagated that the animal proteins must be a superior form. Of course, many of the entities that have promoted this fallacy have had something to gain from our believing this...but I digress. Instead, we are left with some of the most often-asked questions in the history of the health arena:
Can you get enough, quality protein on a 100% plant-based diet?
Once and for all...Yes! In fact, I'll go one further and remind you that all of your essential amino acids actually originate from the plants of the earth. Think about it: virtually every animal eaten by humans is a vegetarian being who got their sustenance from plant-based foods like grains and greens. Even the protein in the flesh of fish comes from the earth because they have usually eaten smaller fish, who have eaten green plant life from the ocean. In other words, the amino acids you're ingesting from the animal's flesh or by-products were originally derived from a plant-based source. So why not cut out the "middleman," avoid the saturated animal fats, stamina-inhibiting uric acids, and factory farm-related pharmaceuticals and environmental poisons inherent to meat-eating, and go directly to the source? Again, it's all about amino acids and they are plentiful in the variety of plant-based foods that we'll be talking about.
How much protein do we need?
As for the amount that you need, the bottom line is that if you're getting enough calories, it will be very difficult to not get enough protein. Yet, many people think vegans are constantly in danger of being protein deficient and that the body will (supposedly) begin to break down muscle fiber in an effort to compensate. But this break-down-muscles-for-protein concept is an extreme, last resort function of the body and you would have to make a concerted effort, days in a row, to hit that point.
Both the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S.R.D.A. suggest daily amounts of protein in the 45 to 70 grams range, and that's with a buffer to insure that you get enough. To actually fall short of this amount, you would either have to live exclusively off of Pop Tarts, Kool-Aid and other "empty calorie" foods, live in a region of the world where there's absolutely no variety of food beyond some sort of low-protein vegetation (like cassava root in West Africa), or be on some kind of starvation diet where you're simply not getting enough calories.
The actual amount of protein you need is commensurate to your bodyweight and how many calories per day you're taking in. A 180-pound athlete who's putting away 3500 calories per day will obviously be taking in more protein than a 120-pound non-athlete who powerwalks four times a week.
Still, optimal protein intake is easier to quantify by percentage of calories, than by actual grams. The Rock-Solid, 100% plant-based food regimen would probably wind up averaging around 15% protein, with 20% being on the high side. So depending on how many calories you require and how much protein-dense plant-based foods you eat (like spirulina, soy or seitan), this could average anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 of a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Although this might seem a little on the high side to some, remember; we're talking high-fiber, plant-based sources here. And if you're putting away upwards of 4000 calories per day at a bodyweight of 180 to 200 pounds, it all adds up.
Is it possible to get too much protein?
Not only is it possible but, if you're eating a lot of animal products, it's probable. Why? Because the body does not store protein as efficiently as it does carbohydrates and fat. So as you exceed the limit of what the body can use, you begin to burden your liver, kidneys, arteries and colon with the overage.
Excess protein is especially harmful when you're getting it from animal sources. This is particularly ironic when you consider how animal proteins have always been touted as the "superior" protein source. Nonetheless, when you get beyond the hi-protein hypnosis, several serious pitfalls reveal themselves:
These are just a few of the reasons why we want to steer clear of animal-based protein sources and stick with the kind of Rock-Solid, plant-based sources we'll be covering throughout the book.
Many people equate all forms of dietary fat with the undesirable amounts of fat lingering around their body. But in the same way that we cannot vilify all forms of carbs or protein, we cannot vilify all forms of fat, either. While there are certainly types that are definitely not Rock-Solid, there are others that are absolutely essential for superior health.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Crash Course in Fats
All fats and oils are comprised of fatty acids. There are three types of fatty acids and they go like this:
1) Saturated fatty acids: These are generally solid at room temperature and found primarily in animal products and tropical oils like palm and coconut. These are very dense, foreign substances to your body and should be avoided.
2) Monounsaturated fatty acids: Liquid at room temperature and semi-solid when refrigerated, these would include olive, canola and high-oleic oil and the kind of fat found in avocados, olives and many nuts. These kind of unsaturated fats have been shown to be good for you and protect against certain chronic diseases.
3) Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator, these are known as your Essential Fatty Acids, or EFA's. They are coined "essential" because your body cannot manufacture them, so you must get them from your food. EFA's break down into two different sub-groups:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids - Some of the best sources include flax seeds and oils, hemp seeds and oil, walnuts and, albeit in modest quantities, dark leafy greens.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids - These are found mainly in oils like safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, etc.
There seems to be two distinct schools of thought regarding fat in the world of plant-based foods.
Lower fat: On the one hand, we have the irrefutable effectiveness of the low-fat plant-based diet as advocated by mavericks like Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish. With this regimen, these guys have gotten dramatic results from their patients that have included serious drops in LDL (the bad kind) cholesterol and blood pressure and, in many cases, actual reversal of heart disease.
Higher fat: On the other hand, we have the impressive results of the Mediterranean-style diets and its higher fat content. The famous Lyon Heart Study in '96 showed astounding reductions in heart, stroke and even cancer risks with its participants. And yet, total fat content was in the 30% range! What the hell is going on here?
Fortunately, as we take a closer look at the similarities, a few consistent ideas emerge.
1) Both approaches advocate plant-based foods, with the majority of the fat coming from high-fiber, plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, avocados, etc.
2) Both approaches avoid animal and tropical oil-based saturated fats including, of course, trans fats.
3) Both approaches advocate an appropriate omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. This one's worth taking a closer look into...
The "Omega" Connection
So what's all the fuss about omega 3's and 6's and the various ways we're told to supplement our diets with them? Here's the quick overview:
Let's address a few specifics right now:
Three Easy Steps To Rock-Solid Healthy Fats
1) Enjoy the natural fats found in the many plant-based foods and oils that we'll be covering throughout the book.
2) Avoid animal-based fats and hydrogenated oils, and minimize the use of virtually all vegetable oils high in omega 6s like corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, etc. (Stick with olive or canola oil.)
3) Supplement your regimen with an omega 3-rich EFA oil blend or some flax or hemp seed products that we'll talk about in the Supplements chapter.
Let's Smash a Few Myths, Shall We?
One of the main havens for discrepancy is the world of low-carb, high-protein diets. And while there are clearly differences between, say, the Atkins Diet and the Zone Diet, many of the fundamental claims are similar...and equally inaccurate. Here's a reality check on some of the most popular contentions from the world of "carbophobia."
Do carbs make you fat?
There is no merit to the contention that carbs, in and of themselves, make you fat. If that were true, then, as one example, obesity would plague the many Asian cultures whose diets are centered around high-carbohydrate rice and grain dishes. Instead, it's really about the following:
you're taking in more calories than you're burning off, they will be
stored as fat - period!
Having said this, weight gain also has to do with the kind of calories we're talking about. If a food is still close to its original, plant-based state, with all of its fiber in tact, then it will have retained its natural mechanism to be easily digested and eliminated. These kinds of calories are far more easily assimilated. The same applies to certain fats. Plant-based fats in their purest forms are heart-healthy, easy to burn as an alternative energy source and less likely to be stored. Ironically, carbs are the most fuel-efficient nutrient we have and are therefore the least likely to be stored as fat.
Refined carb-heavy foods that are devoid of fiber, as well as saturated, cholesterol-ridden fats and proteins found in animal products and other heavily-refined and processed oils are much harder for the body to assimilate and are therefore more apt to stick around...your waist or backside! So your body is going to respond differently to 500 calories worth of fiberless, animal product-based sludge, versus 500 calories worth of high-fiber, plant-based foods, eaten as nature intended.
But aren't these low-carb diets effective for weight loss?
Sure, they often can be. (Then again, so can bulimia, heroin or cocaine use and chemotherapy, but that doesn't mean it's in the best interest of your long-term health!) But they can cause weight loss for two main reasons:
1) Dehydration: The highly acidic nature of these diets promote varying forms of dehydration in the body that result in superficial water loss (which is then reflected on the scale and perceived as "effective" by the dieter).
2) Lower calorie: As mentioned, when you take in fewer calories than you burn off, you lose weight. And when you do the math on these diets, you're simply taking in fewer calories!
These kind of diets, across the board, are a temporary, quick-fix, unhealthy approach to weight loss. The results are also short-lived. Once you get off of the high-protein regimen, you will often wind up heavier than when you started. Why? Because the body's self-regulating mechanism kicks in to compensate for all of the carb deprivation that it went through. It does this by stockpiling even more excess carbs than normal, in anticipation of another potential carb drought. You can't fool mother nature, ladies and gents...
What about the carbohydrate/insulin connection and its effect on weight-loss and general health?
Many low-carb philosophies center around the issue of insulin release/resistance and its purported contribution to making one fat. As the theory goes, the quicker something is absorbed into the bloodstream, the more insulin is required to regulate the blood sugar level and, therefore, the less likely your body will burn fat because of the insulin's supposed effect on your "fat-burning mechanism." Many even separate foods according to a "glycemic index," which is a scale that measures how much sugar winds up in the bloodstream within a two-hour period of eating it. Despite the many variables concerning the accuracy of this glycemic index (like what might be added to, or eaten with, the food item in question), this whole insulin concept is way more theoretical than factual. For example, carrots and watermelon are considered high-glycemic foods, and yet, I would defy anyone to try and get fat on them. In fact, the American Diabetic Association, which should be the most concerned with insulin issues, has yet to embrace the glycemic index and its relevance to a healthy diet.
Is the high-protein/low-carb diet healthiest?
unarmed with any real-world evidence or reliable science, some "experts"
have actually proclaimed that the lower-carb, higher-protein approach
is a healthier diet where many diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart
disease are concerned. But I would like to invite these folks to set
down the crack pipe and look at some hard data. Virtually every reputable,
even conservative, entity on the subject - including the American Cancer
Society, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association
- all concur that a lower fat, higher carb diet that's rich in fruits
and veggies is the way to go. Besides, we've never heard of a culture
of people who lived consistently into their 100's that subscribed to
this high-protein concept.
Bobby Rock is a seasoned health and fitness specialist and a renowned drummer, educator, producer and author of seven books. With certifications in personal training, nutrition and meditation, and a number of published writings on the subject of health and wellness, Bobby's unique approach to total mind/body fitness has gained him accolades among a wide cross-section of health enthusiasts. Check out www.rocksolidfitness.net for more info.
© 2007 Bobby Rock