You’re not alone if you find yourself more confused than ever about nutrition.
In light of the obscure nutrition recommendations from the government and outrageous claims from food marketers, sane and simple advice about what to eat is hard to come by.
What’s the solution to all this nutrition madness?
You need an individualized nutrition approach that speaks to your energy needs and genetics, but that is based on science. This article will give you six nutrition rules for a sane and simple way of eating.
Before we get to the rules, let’s look a bit closer at why good nutrition has become such a demanding endeavor. In fact, nutrition never has been especially simple.
We often get nostalgic, thinking that nutrition was easier in another era. For example, a lot of people are turning to the Paleo diet for leanness and health. The Paleo diet can provide a practical, simpler approach to eating.
Yet, a lot of people make the mistake of idealizing the way our ancestors ate or assuming that all cavemen had access to pure, abundant food. Not so.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent the vast majority of their days searching for food to survive. Not only was finding food a huge time investment, chewing took hours because they subsisted partly on raw and extremely fibrous foods, such as uncooked root vegetables and potatoes.
Based on present-day understanding of how our genes are affected by diet, here are six nutrition rules to be lean and muscular life.
#1: Understand Why High-Protein Diets Promote Leanness
Do you have to eat a high-protein diet to lose fat?
There are other fat-reducing methods, but high-protein, lower carb whole food diets consistently work well for the majority of people who try them. You should be familiar with the four primary reasons higher protein diets improve body composition:
• If your goal is fat loss, preserving lean muscle mass should be a primary focus of nutrition because it is critical for maintaining your metabolism. If you lose muscle, your body burns fewer calories daily, which is a main contributor to rebound weight gain on the typical calorie-restricted diet.
For example, a recent study that compared the effect of three different protein intakes (the RDA of 0.8 g/kg, double the RDA of 1.6 g/kg, and triple the RDA of 2.4 g/kg for protein) as part of a calorie-restricted diet illustrates this.
All groups lost about the same amount of weight. The double the RDA dose of 1.6 g/kg of protein effectively protected lean muscle mass. The higher triple RDA dose of 2.4 kg didn’t have any additive effect, whereas the RDA dose of 0.8 kg led to muscle loss over the 3 week study.
• It costs the body more calories to process protein than carbs or fat, which is referred to as thermogenesis. Quality is paramount here: A study showed that when subjects ate animal protein (meat) they had 17 percent higher increase in resting energy expenditure than a group who ate vegetable protein (beans and plant sources).
• Protein is filling. When people eat a greater percentage of their diet from protein, they feel more satisfied and eat fewer calories overall. A review of the issue found that for every 1 percent increase in protein intake, people naturally decrease calorie intake by between 32 and 51 calories daily.
• High-quality protein helps manage blood sugar and insulin, decreasing cravings for sugar.
The easiest way to lose fat is to eat a fairly high-protein diet. The ratios of protein, carbs, and fat are variable and based on all those unique traits that make you different from your peers: genetics, current body composition, fitness, goals, stress level, preferences, and so on.
Take Away: Increasing your protein intake is the best place to start if your goal is leanness because it protects muscle mass, increases energy use, and is sustainable because it reduces hunger.
#2: Focus On Protein Quality For Fat Loss: Get 10 Grams of EAAs Per Meal
High-quality protein is defined as a protein source that provides at least 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs) at every meal. The EAAs must be present in the body for muscle tissue repair to occur, and they can’t be stored in the body, which is the reason you need a steady supply of these building blocks.
Research shows that eating the 10-gram-threshold of EAAs per meal is associated with having less body fat and more muscle mass in people of all ages. For example, over the course of a 5-year study, individuals who had higher quality protein intake had the greatest reductions in waist circumference.
In another study, scientists found that those who ate the EAA “threshold” of 10 grams per meal in a 24-hour period had significantly less visceral belly fat.
In another approach, a German study identified metabolic markers that were associated with body fat percentage and found that the higher the serum level of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), the less body fat subjects had. BCAAs include three of the most important EAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
The association between higher BCAA levels and less body fat was consistent for both men and women and was independent of exercise participation. BCAA levels were also associated with greater lean muscle mass.
Eating high-quality protein is so effective at optimizing body composition because providing a consistent stream of 10 grams of EAAs will maximally stimulates protein synthesis to keep you body repairing tissue and building muscle.
Of interest, researchers believe that overweight, sedentary people have dysfunctional BCAA metabolism and an inability to stimulate fat burning. They experience a “derangement in muscle metabolism that favor the development of obesity and metabolic diseases.”
This is one reason that, although we often say “fat loss starts in the kitchen,” exercise is absolutely essential to achieve it because it optimizes metabolism for protein synthesis and the burning of fat for energy.
Take Away: For leanness, plan your diet so that you achieve the threshold 10 grams of EAAs per meal. Eggs, fish, beef, milk, and whey protein are the highest EAA containing foods.
#3: Enhance Fat Metabolism With Balanced Macros & Whole Food
In order to lose fat or simply maintain your body composition, your body must be capable of metabolizing the dietary fat you eat and the fat you’ve got stored.
First, you need your body to effectively metabolize the fat you eat so that it can be used to make hormones, optimize brain health, and absorb essential vitamins. Something as simple as a stressed out liver or chronically poor sleep will impede metabolism of dietary fat.
Second, your body must be “metabolically flexible” so that it is able to readily mobilize and burn stored body fat as well as glucose (carbs). A failure in metabolic flexibility leads to fat gain and insulin resistance.
How do you ensure healthy metabolism of the fat you eat and the ability to burn the fat you’ve got stored?
Two methods of improving fat metabolism are exercise and replacing carb intake with fat. When you reduce the percentage of your calories that come from carbs, you decrease insulin and shift the body to burn fat rather than blood sugar. However, obese people don’t respond to this strategy as effectively as lean people.
In one study, 12 lean and 10 obese men were given a high-fat diet (70 percent fat, 15 percent protein, 15 percent carb) for three days. The lean subjects increased the amount of fat their bodies burned for energy, whereas the obese subjects did not. Researchers think that over the longer term, obese people would respond to the shift in macronutrients, but the process is uncomfortable because energy levels are compromised.
Using exercise to teach the body to burn fat is more effective for obese people. In the study just mentioned, the same two groups of men went through a washout period, then did 10 days of aerobic exercise (1 hour a day at 70 percent of maximal). This time, both the lean and obese subjects increased fat burning, indicating that exercise is a catalyst for the overweight to become more metabolically flexible.
A contributing factor to optimal fat metabolism is the amino acid carnitine. Carnitine is a potent fat burner because it is responsible for the transport of fats into the cells to be used for energy in the body.
In the German study mentioned in #1, along with BCAAs, subjects with higher free carnitine levels had significantly less body fat. The researchers interpret this link between carnitine and lower body fat to be evidence that people with more muscle mass will have an enhanced ability to burn fat.
Take Away: If you’re overweight, you must exercise because this is the most effective tool you have to improve their body’s ability to burn fat for energy. Eat a higher fat, lower carb diet with high-quality protein to supply carnitine and EAAs.
#4: Don’t Get Confused By Protein Backlash
In a high-carb culture, protein backlash is understandable. Nutrition, medical professionals and the media incorrectly warn us that a high-protein diet will tax kidney function, cause kidney stones, and leech bones of calcium, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
In fact, protein intake up to 2 g/kg/body weight a day is completely safe for healthy kidneys and appears to improve bone health. A study of competitive athletes concluded that daily protein intake, as high 2.8 g/kg won’t damage the kidneys in healthy athletes. The National Kidney Foundation recommends that the one group that should not eat a high-protein diet is those who have clinical kidney dysfunction or who are on dialysis.
Meanwhile, a large-scale analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition of 31 studies found a small but significant benefit from greater protein intake on bone strength at several skeletal sites including the lumbar spine in every category of the population, from children to elderly men and women.
In addition to observational evidence that higher dietary protein benefits bone strength, we know that bone building requires a steady pool of amino acids in the body and over 50 percent of bone is made of protein. Eating more protein increases levels of insulin-like growth factor-I, which is a major regulator of bone building.
So you fully understand how it works, higher protein diets do tend to increase acid formation in the body, which leads to a loss of calcium (this is calcium that’s already been absorbed). However, calcium absorption during digestion is increased with diets higher in animal protein, which may offset that loss.
In addition, there’s a wealth of evidence that other factors such as lean mass percentage and muscle strength are more important for bone health than the calcium issue.
For example, sports scientists are well aware that the most effective way to strengthen bone is with activities that load the spine with heavy weights. Weight-bearing exercises that produce a large ground reaction force such as jumping also build bone.
Take Away: Don’t get confused by the misinformation about protein intake in a high-carb culture. Higher protein diets are safe for healthy people and they convey benefits for bone strength, muscle maintenance, and fat loss.
#5: Improve Gut Health to Optimize Protein’s Benefits For Muscularity
Do you remember the media storm that reported that carnitine and red meat were associated with heart disease? Although these reports completely missed the boat, there are some dangers to a high-protein intake that have to do with gut health.
Gut bacteria will live off of what you eat. People who eat more animal protein tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables and consume less fiber, though this tendency may not be typical in people who follow a Paleo-type diet. Low-fiber, higher animal protein diets have been found to increase inflammatory gut bacteria.
For example, a recent study from Tufts University of young (ages 18-35), normal-weight healthy people found that those who had more lean muscle mass had higher levels of biomarkers of inflammatory gut metabolism. These markers are considered metabolic toxins that have been linked with adverse health conditions, including gastric cancer, obesity, and type II diabetes.
The Tufts researchers suggest that although a high dietary protein intake is important for the optimization of muscle mass, an overconsumption of dietary protein that leads to the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria is dangerous.
A possible solution is to support the growth of beneficial anti-inflammatory gut bacteria with a diet high in vegetables, fruit, and something called resistant starch, which is found in foods such as bananas, oats, peas, maize, and potatoes. According to Richard Nikoley, one of the easiest ways to improve gut flora is to consume raw unmodified potato starch.
This approach is supported by what we know about present day hunger-gatherers such as the Kitavan Islanders in Oceania who eat an ancestral diet that is high in resistant starch and other fibers that stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory bacteria in the gut. The Kitavans eat no Western foods (grains, flour, sugar, oil) and are lean and virtually free of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Take Away: Don’t let a blind spot such as lack of fiber in your higher protein diet compromise health. Support gut health with a variety of vegetables, fruit, probiotic foods, and resistant starches.
#6: Balance High-Quality Protein With Fruits and Veggies
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Tufts University study also found that higher metabolic markers of BCAAs were associated with greater lean mass and insulin sensitivity. However, the news was not consistently positive for subjects who had better body compositions.
There was strong evidence that subjects with more lean mass had more oxidative stress and inflammation. Scientists were concerned with this association and suggest that people who eat diets rich in protein should increase fruits and vegetables because they are well documented to increase blood antioxidant capacity and reduce inflammation.
A related benefit of phytonutrient-rich foods is that they support mitochondrial health, which is suppressed on a high-protein diet. You may recall from elementary biology that mitochondria turn energy from food into ATP to provide energy for cells to fuel activity. The byproduct of this process is free radicals, which bounce around, damaging everything in sight, and accelerating aging.
The best way to avoid free radical production is to not eat. No joke! This is the reason calorie restriction and fasting are beneficial for longevity since they improve mitochondrial health and prevent aging.
A more practical method is to get your carbs from plants, and eat the rest of your energy from high-quality protein and beneficial fats. The nutrients in plants eliminate free radicals that cause inflammation. Favoring fat at the expense of carbs provides a “cleaner” burning energy source, generating fewer free radicals than carbs.
Take Away: Get your carbs from protective phytonutrient-rich foods such as blueberries, grapes, kiwi, tart cherries, raspberries, blackberries, leafy greens, peppers, pomegranates, and some starches. Avocado, olives, coconut oil, whey protein are other antioxidant-rich foods to include as you go high in fat and protein.