Eat to Fuel Your Fire
If you’ve followed us for some time, you can probably already tell we are not very big fans of fad diets here at Woodstock Vitamins. Diets ultimately aren't sustainable. Fad diets often deprive your body of essential vitamins and minerals. Whatever weight you do lose will most likely come back—with a vengeance—when your diet is over.
It’s a great time to “begin again” with our food knowledge. Let’s start from scratch. We need to understand what makes a food healthy, what the difference between food and a meal is, and when we should be eating. If you truly grasp these concepts, you are well on your way. Understanding these basics of nutrition is more than half the battle towards food-related goals: losing weight, feeling energetic and engaged, preventing disease, and living a long, healthy life.
I’ve created a super-awesome campfire analogy to explain nutrition concepts that are based on modern understandings of food, metabolism, blood sugar control, and more. Let’s begin!
What Makes A Food Healthy?
Organic this. Non-GMO that. “This type of apple is good for you, but if you eat these they are too high in sugar.” “The real problem is fats/sodium/etc.”
These concepts are important, but most of us focus on these details WAY too early in our re-education about foods. When we discuss food, we tell people that much like martial arts, you have to start as a white belt. Basics first. Keep it simple.
In that regard, do you know what makes food healthy? If I asked, could you name a few healthy foods right now? When I asked a few customers today, here are some responses I got:
This isn’t too tough. As long as you don’t say “chocolate covered deep fried cake,” you are probably doing pretty well. The real question we have to know the answer to is, “Why do you think these foods are healthy?”
Here’s a simple definition: A food is healthy if it is rich in one or more macronutrients.
Macronutrients are things like: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Macronutrients are not all created equal, so let’s refine it a bit. We know there are bad fats (like trans fats) and bad carbs (like bread and pasta). Our definition of a healthy food then is a food that is rich in one or more macronutrients: proteins, good fats, and complex carbohydrates.
Good fats include raw nuts, avocado oil, real olive oil, and more. Good carbs are the complex carbs—fruits and vegetables. Simple carbs are starches like white bread and pasta. Real whole grains are complex carbs; wild rice is a complex carb but white rice is a simple carb.
Fun Fact: If a product has 0.5g of trans fat, it can be labeled as trans fat-free. Dirty liars, right?
Again, this isn’t the only measure of whether a food is healthy, of course, but keeping things simple here is the goal.
A Second Look At Our Healthy Foods
Using our new-found knowledge, we can review our list of “healthy” foods to understand, in simple terms, why they are healthy.
Apples & Peas: Apples and peas are healthy because they are rich in complex carbohydrates
Almonds: Almonds are healthy because they are rich in proteins AND good fats
Chicken: Chicken is healthy because it is rich in proteins
Let’s now discuss yogurt, as it’s a great example of how with food, it’s not all or nothing. Yogurt, when made right, should be rich in protein and good fats, but low in simple carbs. Here’s a comparison of our favorite brand, Fage, and the number one selling “greek” yogurt:
We’re not going to get into calories in this article, but both of these products have the same calories. This other brand has less protein and good fats, but much more simple carbohydrates. Despite giving someone the same amount of calories, this particular yogurt is NOT healthy, because it is not rich in the important macronutrients.
A more extreme example is a burger from a fast food joint. The meat has the same calories as, say, a homemade beef patty, but it has WAY more fat, sugar, and less protein.
Come On Broccoli, Heat My Fire
Understanding what makes a food healthy will help with the campfire analogy. When it comes to eating to fuel your body and nourish it from the inside out, we like to think of your body as a campfire. This analogy works in many ways when it comes to nutrition, but we'll stick (pun intended) to the basics here.
We build a campfire to provide warmth and energy. Our goal is to have this warmth last as long as possible. Imagine being in Northern Canada (or in Woodstock this month—it’s cold!). If we don’t stay warm, we will suffer serious consequences. Not only must you make a good fire to ensure it burns for some time, but we have to tend to it and replenish it throughout the day.
The same with our nutrition. We must use healthy foods, balanced in the right amounts, and replenish this mix at regular intervals to stay satiated and keep that energy supply steady.
For those of us who have not made a campfire before, you start with flammable materials! There are 3 types of wood we would use to make a campfire:
Now that we’ve gathered our supplies, we have to build out the fire. We can’t just throw it all together—we have to be strategic about this whole thing. We need efficiency!
What happens if we were to pile our kindling sky high and light it? We’d accomplish our goal, right? We’d have a fire, sure, but it would burn out WAY too quickly. The energy produced would be high, but it would be short-lived.
If we stacked big, fat logs to the clouds and tried to light it, we’d be at it for a while. It takes a LONG time for the energy stored up in those logs to release. We’d be cold for a while as we try to get it to catch.
If we were looking to light just one kind of material, smaller sticks & logs would be the best option. They burn for a decent amount of time and don’t require that much time to catch.
Ideally, though, we’d mix a small amount of kindling, added to many small sticks and logs, and have a couple bigger logs. This starts a fire in a short amount of time and burns slowly and steadily for hours. Our analogy is in full swing now. Let’s bring it home!
Each type of wood for a campfire lines up nicely with each type of macronutrient. Each macronutrient will “catch fire” and “burn” for different rates. Mixing them in the proper amounts (like building a campfire) will guarantee a slow, steady burn of energy. Here’s how each macronutrient generates energy for us.
Carbs are the kindling of this fire. Simple carbs like plain bread and pasta are the pine needles. LOTS of energy, but lots of smoke—not very healthy! Good, complex carbs start generating energy quickly, but don’t have a sustained effect. Within minutes, a carb will produce some energy that will last under an hour or two. We can’t have meals of just carbs, because we will be hungry inside of an hour. Even a meal of just healthy carbs (just a salad, or all fruit) will produce this high peak and low valley of energy; we want a nice even plateau of energy all day.
Healthy, protein-rich foods are the workhorse of your diet. They provide a powerful amount of energy, but not right away. They have to be digested and processed into energy. This takes some time, so in about 30 minutes you’ll have energy that lasts a few hours, typically.
Both good and bad fats slow gastric emptying time, or the amount of time it takes for your stomach to empty after eating. That fits to what we’d expect; eat a double cheeseburger and you won’t need to eat again for a week. Fats take much longer to digest and metabolize and give us sustained energy. In an hour or two, fats will provide energy that will last as long as 6-8 hours.
Healthy Foods and Healthy Meals
A healthy food is something that is rich in one or more of the healthy macronutrients. A healthy meal is a properly balanced set of all three macronutrients. It is a properly made campfire; energy is produced quickly and for a sustained period, keeping us satiated for longer and keeping our body metabolism revving away.
The current thinking on what “properly balanced” means to us is:
50% Fruits and Vegetables, 25% Proteins, 15% Fats, and 10% Whole Grains.
We modify the USDA’s current recommendation, the “Choose My Plate” diet design. They include, in our opinion, too many grains. The only fat serving is via a glass of milk. We aren’t looking to debate which one is superior (both are excellent and much better than what everyone, in practice, does). Instead, we’re just trying to guide you towards a healthier, more educated design of your diet.
It’s All About Timing
Sticking with our campfire analogy, to keep your fire burning efficiently, you need to keep adding fuel to it throughout the day. But you have to start early!
Your first meal of the day should be within 30 minutes of waking. If it’s less than an hour, I’m ok with that— but not eating until lunch is like waking up in the Canadian tundra and not starting your fire until midday. Whatever coals are still cooking won’t keep you very warm.
After our first meal, we’ve got 3-4 hours before we get cold. We should alternate small, healthy snacks with smaller, healthy meals to stoke our energy and metabolism throughout the day.
A snack would be a small version of a meal: the three, healthy macronutrients in the same ratio, just less. Remember, we need a balanced combination of kindling, mid-sized branches, and logs.
A snack is apples (good carbs) and peanut butter (protein and good fats). A yogurt (protein and good fats) and blueberries (good carbs).
All in all, you want your day to look a little like this: Breakfast-Snack-Lunch-Snack-Dinner-Snack.
This Campfire Analogy Was In-Tents!
We haven’t discussed quantity, specifically portion size and calories. For this discussion, it’s not important. In fact, it’s counterproductive. When you begin eating to fuel your fire, you’ll be eating the same (if not less) but you’ll feel like you’re eating much more than before. This is because you’ll be satiated, which is a change for many people.
We don’t want you to eat less at this point. Our habits over a lifetime have brought us to this point. Why rush to reduce calories now? It’s those habits that we must address first and foremost, because THEY are the issue.
The first steps you take with this new knowledge is to just look at what you eat. How does your campfire look? Think it through. Make small adjustments to each meal.
Most importantly, it’s time to fix your schedule. Begin eating every few hours, alternating meals and snacks.
Our problem with eating and diets stems from our understanding of what and how to eat. More importantly, though, they are the behaviors we’ve put into practice over our life. It’s only after we’ve successfully changed our behaviors with this new understanding of healthy foods and meal design that we should move to more complex discussions.
These are the first steps towards healthier eating. These also are the hardest ones, but they are the most important. We’ve seen dramatic success with our customers AND ourselves, personally.
If you eat to fuel your fire, people who struggle with their weight will be healthier, less hungry, and with time, lose weight easier than they ever have.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth