Nutrition seems to be the area people struggle with the most when it comes to taking control of their health. The exercise can be fairly straight forward but not easy.
For example, most people know to go for a walk, jog or a run if they enjoy that type of exercise and want to be more active. And if you go to a pool it’s not hard to figure out the you start at one end of the pool and work your way to the opposite end before pushing off to return. You never see anyone get confused in a pool and try to swim cross-ways, over and under the lane ropes, rather than the way everyone has ever done it.
And if you step foot in a gym littered with machines you can very easily figure out what to push or pull in order to complete a rep. And if there are free weights available you can pick the weight up and put it down. Simple as that.
But nutrition gets confusing.
What are macros and should I be tracking them? Should I eat 3 square meals a day or 5-6 smaller meals. Should I be low-fat or low carb? Would keto be a good option for me? What about intermittent fasting? How many calories should I eat? Should I even worry about calories? How important is protein? And can I get enough as a vegan or vegetarian? Should I be taking supplements and if so, which ones? Should I be buying organic food? Or are conventional groceries sufficient?
Phew! That’s a lot of questions. And those are just the main ones. There are tons we won’t even go into here. For simplicity let’s look at the following questions.
How much should I eat?
Why do I need carbs? Fats? Protein?
And to answer these questions let’s use the analogy of a car. As well, let’s agree that we are seeking optimal health and to maintain the most lean mass as possible as well.
For this scenario let’s imagine a a hybrid vehicle that can switch between gas and electric depending on the speed (intensity) that we operate the vehicle. When we want to step on the accelerator and go fast the car will use gas. When we have more time and can slow down the car can switch over to electric mode.
So to reiterate, going fast requires gas and going more slowly requires electricity.
Vehicles also have frames around us to provide a structure. We have wheels to contact the road and windshields to allow us to see what is coming up ahead.
Lastly, vehicles in colder climates will have heaters. These days some will have heated seats and steering wheels. Our cars also have air bags and seat belts to protect us. And newer vehicles now operate with a computer that monitors all the systems, runs period checks and will initiate the appropriate updates when necessary.
Here’s how your vehicle is like your body.
Carbs are your fuel. And with your car the fuel is gas. With a car we have a fuel indicator to tell us when we are running low and it’s time to fill up. We fill up based on the frequency and intensity of usage of the vehicle.
With our bodies we eat carbs to fuel up. And while there are mechanisms in place to prevent us from over-fueling our bodies these messages become impaired when we don’t get enough sleep. And remember from above, our car has a computer to monitor the fuel in the vehicle. So too our body’s monitor the level of fuel (carbs and calories) we consume but when we are sleep deprived and ignore the messages from our body we end up over-eating.
Imagine if you went away for a couple of weeks during the winter. Let’s say you went to Hawaii asked your neighbour to come and check on the house, water the plants and feed the cat. You wouldn’t expect your neighbour to fill up the car with gas everyday if it was sitting in the garage. But for some reason when our body doesn’t move much we still try to force fuel (carbs) into ourselves everyday. If we did this with our car the fuel would spill out onto the ground. With our bodies the fuel doesn’t spill out but instead gets stored as fat.
So the first rule to remember when it comes our nutrition is that carbs are our fuel. And we need these for high intensity exercise.
But hold on a minute, you may be thinking. We’ve got more than enough fat stored in our bodies to serve as an energy source. If were to use an example an individual that was 60 lbs overweight and there are 9 calories per gram of fat this equals one billion joules of stored energy. And while this a lot of potential fuel, it is similar to the back up electric fuel source in our hybrid vehicle. Electric energy is good for going slow or moderate speed but not the best for a race car. In the same way with our bodies we can use fat for low intensity work. When the intensity goes up the body doesn’t have a choice but to rely on carbohydrates as a fuel supply. If carbs are limited, intensity is compromised.
If you are a high performance athlete you need fuel and you need to eat your carbs. If you are someone that enjoys exercise but is looking to be as lean as possible, you can manage with fewer carbs than an elite athlete. And if you are someone that health is the primary goal and you could care less about competition and racing you can be more restricted with your carbohydrate consumption.
The next area of nutrition to look at is your protein intake. Proteins are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of life. Enzymes are proteins that help speed up reactions in our bodies and proteins help form the structure of our bodies. Just as a car has a frame, chassis, tires and wheels our bodies require proteins to assemble and maintain our structure.
How much protein you need depends on your goal? Do you want to be a Mini Cooper or a monster struck? Do you intend to drive the vehicle frequently and push it hard in racing or off-road? Will it be loaded down with equipment or towing a trailer? Just as the type of vehicle you would select would vary depending on what you intend the vehicle to do, so too would your protein requirements. For a bigger structure, e.g. a bodybuilder, would need to consume more protein, than a retired grandmother. As well, with more work and physical stress, protein requirements increase. Think of this as needing to rotate our replace your tires more frequently when you use the vehicle more often. A young college football player may have two-a-day practices and thus need more protein to initiate the recover and repair process after training.
I remember hearing a rule in regards to figuring out if a food item was protein, carbs or fat. Proteins were easy to identify based on the rule of ‘anything that had a mother’. So we can think of fish, seafood, poultry, wild game, pork and beef. Nowadays this rule may not fly with the PC crowd and we have to remember protein can come from a number of non-meat and non-animal products. So in addition to dairy and eggs the list would include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and vegetables including broccoli and spinach.
Our protein needs are different from our carb needs however. Whereas carbohydrates are required for intense training and competition, proteins are required daily to maintain the structure, function and regulation of our bodies. We want to maintain our lean body mass. We need enzymes to speed reactions in our bodies. And the protein hormones in our bodies send messages to maintain health.
So the take home message regarding proteins is that we absolutely need them. There are 9 amino acids the body can’t make and it is essential we get them in our diet. And if you’re thinking I don’t want to have a bigger structure nor am I in a collision sport like football or rugby, so I won’t eat protein, think again. We need this for life and protein fills us up more than the other macronutrients so increased protein intake can be a great way to get lean.
The last comparison of our vehicles to our nutrition is the climate control. In a vehicle we have heaters and in our bodies we have a layer of insulation to keep us warm. Our cars also have built in features to keep us safe i.e. air bags and seat belts. Our bodies have fat to protect and keep us safe as well. And as newer cars are ‘smart’ they can communicate with us, tell us where to go and do lots more with a simple voice activated command.
The fat in our body is the major component of our brain and nervous system. When someone calls you a ‘fat heat’ you should take it as a compliment. And when a young mother has new baby growing inside her she will take a number of pre-natal vitamins and supplements including folic acid. Folic acid helps the baby’s neural tube develop into a brain and spinal cord.
Besides the brain and nervous system development, fat is also useful as an energy source. Remember however that this is the low-intensity exercise fuel. Think back to the hybrid vehicle switching over to electric when the gas runs out. You won’t be able to hit top speeds on the highway when you’re running on electric. In the same way, fat can be used as a fuel source but most likely for intensities under 60% and heart rates under 150 beats per minute (bpm). Baili, a young cyclist we work with said he hit a heart rate of 205 bpm the other day during a test. Baili is also optimally fueled with carbohydrates for training. It’s doubtful he could hit the same heart rates or power outputs on a low-carb, high-fat diet.
Certain vitamins need fat in order to be used properly. Vitamins A, D, E and K are what they would call fat soluble vitamins. When our intake of fat drops too low we may have difficulty maintaining optimal levels of these vitamins which play important roles related to our vision, forming clots when we get a cut, to absorb other mineral elements like calcium and to protect the cell walls.
Similar to proteins, certain fats are essential as well. While we can’t make omega-6 fatty acids the typical North American diet supplies more than enough of this and we don’t need to supplement or focus on it for our diet. Omega-3 fatty acid can’t be produced by our cells and therefore is required that we eat cold water fish, certain nuts, seeds and oils to get this nutrient.
So breaking this all down…
If the car sits, don’t add fuel (carbs).
If you want to drive the car fast and win, add more fuel (carbs).
Make sure you eat enough protein to maintain your structure, stay lean and full.
Eat quality fats so vitamins A,D, E and K are available for use and so your computer doesn’t crash.
And most importantly…
Know that when we have a car we will buy tires and rims. We will take the car in for oil changes, tune-ups, re-calls, detailing, repairs and more. We will wash and clean their religiously as though it were a shrine. We will put only the best fuel in our cars and only take it to our most trusted technician for servicing. We always make sure to insure our vehicles, always lock it and don’t like to leave it parked outside.
And if any of this sounds excessive or like a lot of maintenance just realize we will own an average of 12 vehicles during our lifetime.
But we will have only one body.
Maybe it’s time to start re-thinking the care and attention we invest in ourselves and our health?