When you hear the words “diet plan” most of us immediately think it's going to be about losing weight. But eating healthy is more than just counting calories and avoiding fats. What you eat – and when you eat it – impacts many aspects of your health.
Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions. It has been estimated that steatohepatitis (fatty liver) affects upwards of 25 percent of the population. And then we have obesity. These, and other chronic diseases, can be treated (and prevented) with a few minor changes in your daily diet.
Here are the five things I consider key pieces of any healthy eating program.
1. Daily caloric balance
This is where most diet planning stops. Simplistically it is eat fewer calories than you expend over the day and you will lose weight. Some people do have a slower metabolism than others and thus will eat fewer calories and still not lose weight. But for all of us, if we decrease our daily calories (or increase our exercise), we will shift the balance to the negative and the pounds will come off.
2. When you eat
When you consume your daily calories is as important in a diet plan as your daily caloric balance. Why? Any calories, especially carbohydrates, eaten early in the day are preferentially used by your active muscles during the following 3 or 4 hours rather than being shunted into fat cells to be stored for future use. You should eat the bulk of your calories early in the day (before 2 PM). Aim for a 25-50-25 caloric split for breakfast-lunch-dinner.
3. What you eat
More and more, research is suggesting that sugars (carbohydrates) are more harmful than fats as a cardiovascular risk factor and in the development of fatty liver. High blood sugar levels directly harm cells throughout the body. Carbohydrate digestion in the stomach and small intestine breaks all starches and sugars into small pieces (let’s call them simple sugars).
The simple sugars are then absorbed from the intestinal tract into the blood stream, elevating our blood sugar (glucose). The pancreas then responds to an elevated blood sugar by releasing insulin. Insulin then works to move blood glucose into non-exercising muscle and fat cells where it is either immediately used for energy or stored (generally as fat).
The more rapid the absorption of dietary sugar from the intestinal tract the higher the peak elevation of your blood glucose. The “glycemic index” indicates how rapidly sugars are absorbed after eating any carbohydrate (a high glycemic index = faster rise and in turn a higher blood glucose). Exercise, which can move blood sugar into the muscle cells WITHOUT insulin can blunt the peak blood sugar levels. To decrease the negative health effects of carbohydrates, you can:
a) decrease the total percentage of simple sugar calories in your diet
b) eat foods with a low glycemic index
c) eat more of your carbohydrates early in the day, or just before/while exercising.
Although not traditionally considered in diet discussions (other than for weight loss), exercise is an important part of any healthy diet program. Exercise increases the total calories you metabolize during the day, both the additional calories expended for the actual exercise period as well as a slight rise in calories metabolized between exercise sessions (i.e. the basal metabolism rate). Thus it will help with weight loss (if you keep diet calories steady).
But more importantly, blood glucose moves into the actively contracting muscles cells without using insulin, and this insulin independent effect blunts the blood sugar spike seen after eating high glycemic index foods. The exercise doesn’t have to be jogging or other high intensity activities. Even walking up and down the stairs for three minutes after a meal can blunt a blood sugar rise. A 20-minute walk would be ideal.
In addition, when exercising, you decrease carbohydrates stored in your muscles (glycogen) as they are used to provide energy for your active muscle cells. Later, when you absorb sugars from your intestinal tract, you use any excess carbohydrate calories to refill the glycogen deficits - rather than storing them in fat cells.
5. The bacteria (microbiome) in your colon
The bacteria in our colon have traditionally been considered as “outside our body” and irrelevant to health. But we now understand that the chemical byproducts of these bacteria, produced when they digest small amounts of the food we eat, are absorbed in the colon and can affect metabolic cycles throughout our body.
What you eat affects the balance of different bacteria types in your colon, and thus the byproducts produced. Here is an intriguing article that provides an example for those of you that are interested. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/health/gut-bacteria-from-thin-humanscan-slim-mice-down.html
In summary, a healthy diet is not just counting calories and avoiding fats. What you eat (and when you eat it) can play a major role in maintaining your overall health.