Popular advice is occasionally wrong, but always simple. The claims may be exaggerated, misguided or plain wrong, any of which seem more acceptable than being complicated. Over the years, pretty much everything we eat or drink has been demonised. Blaming our woes on a single ingredient is often based on a cocktail of scaremongering, sensationalisation, half truths while ignoring contrary evidence. It never leads to the happy ending anticipated, so the bad guy is constantly recast, forgiven or even championed just after we were sure we’d got the right one this time.
While ‘bad food’ exists, it’s not the nutritional cyanide capsule some headlines would have you believe. Even water can be bad for you, but it is the dose that makes the poison. A healthy balanced diet consists of fat, carbs and protein. All have been on the naughty list, but it would be a mistake to eliminate any of them.
Fat has a pretty unfortunate name – it may as well have been called Darth Voldemort. Its name and high calories per gram suggest it will make you fat. High fat diets have been linked to various diseases, but a diet higher in fat is not inherently unhealthy.
Fish oil has high levels of the essential fatty acid omega-3. Some believe that having a ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 as close to 1:1 is important for your health (rather than the typical Western diets ratio of 1:15). Taking supplements that contain both omega-3 and omega-6 would increase your intake, but not necessarily alter the ratio. Others think this is outdated and you just need to get enough omega-3 and forget the proportions (although not everyone will benefit from increasing their omega-3 consumption).
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish per week (140g). Not all fish are created equal – ‘large cod and chips twice’ isn’t going to cut it, nor would tinned tuna. Good sources include sardines, mackerel, herring, lake trout, salmon, anchovy, sablefish or bluefish. If everyone were to actually follow this advice then sustainability would be a serious problem, but for now that is just theoretical. Another downside is the accumulation of pollutants in fish, such as heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. The higher your fish consumption, the higher your exposure. However, in moderation, the potential benefits outweigh the possible risk.
Then we have trans fats. The most dangerous trans fats are fast disappearing from our shelves and the amount of fat we consume in general has decreased over the last thirty years. Despite this, our health worsens and our waist lines bulge. Clearly blaming fat for the obesity epidemic was misplaced and we learnt a valuable lesson about singling out a specific macronutrient and jumping to conclusions, sorry fat it won’t happen again…. It must have been the carbs this whole time! Quick, get my pitchfork and round up the other villagers!
There are longstanding recommendations to base meals on high fibre, starchy food such as rice, pasta, potatoes and bread. 200g of carbohydrates per day is said to maintain healthy brain metabolism and muscle function and the UK guidelines are set even higher than this. For dietary advice to be sustainable (for both individuals and the planet), such general advice must be familiar, environmentally sound, affordable, realistic and offer long term adherence. Basing meals around carbs ticks these boxes.
However, after fat was paroled, carbohydrates were next in the firing line. We were told you don’t need them – they turn to fat, get rid of them, simple. Going zero carb is an easy message to convey but really, there’s no reason to go lower than 30-50g daily. In reality this type of diet is rarely sustained and can be used as an excuse to avoid fruit and veg and eat whatever greasy crap you want. Hence you may look ripped but this is why this sort of diet is linked to a greater risk of all-cause mortality.
If you do decide to reduce carbs, you should still be trying to get in lots of fruit and veg. The five a day target is set deliberately low to make it achievable and there are lots of benefits with eating your greens (and purples, reds, oranges etc!). It can take a few weeks to get used to a lower carb intake, but it doesn’t prevent muscle and strength gains. However, it may make it harder, so if you struggle to put on muscle this may be counterproductive.
Low carb diets are not the only path to weight loss either. Given a calorie deficit and adequate protein is consumed, then a reduction in carbs, fat or protein would be equally effective at making you lose weight.
So maybe carbs aren’t all bad after all. Now carbohydrates are on appeal, sugar has been brought in for questioning. Sugar has been linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease and cancer. We all know that the world’s population eats far too much sugar. What may surprise is that recently, the average amount of sugar we eat has declined significantly, not just in the UK but also the USA, Canada and Australia. As sugar consumption has fallen, obesity levels have continued to climb. This has become known as ‘The Australian Paradox’. So, what about the golden child, protein?
The average gym bro obsesses about protein because water, sunlight and wishful thinking don’t build muscle – protein does! While true, it is also an essential nutrient that helps build and repair tissue. Current government guidelines suggest 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight, so daily 45g for women and 55g for men daily for ‘the standard person’.
Before you punch the screen for suggesting such a heretically low figure, remember that making the nation muscly is not high on agenda when setting the numbers. Secondly it is considered ‘adequate’ for 97% of the population and based on structural requirements (and so ignores the use of protein for energy).
When I first started training ‘normal folk’ would question protein supplements and call them ‘steroid shakes’. They were stodgy and tasted revolting, only the most serious gym goers would consider them (twice). Since then, protein has moved out of the dark corners of gyms and become mainstream. Some believe apart from a few at risk groups, you can’t get too much protein. It is now added into products as diverse as ice cream and chocolate bars to breakfast cereals and bread. It even tastes OK nowadays!
Most people reading this will not be the government’s ‘standard person’. So if you want to build muscle or strength, try 1-2g of protein per kg of lean body mass (LBM). Despite the difficulty in estimating LBM, I prefer this metric because consuming protein based on bodyweight alone would otherwise be wasteful, particularly if you are not a stage ready bodybuilder.
If you are getting close to a physique competition, then likely your other macros are being heavily restricted. In this case, even 2.6g-3.1g per kg of bodyweight may be needed. Even at this level most health risks would be minimal but not for everyone so proceed at your own risk.
In any case, once adequate protein is consumed, more will not cause muscles to grow.
A chink in the saintly seeming proteins armour and popularity has also recently appeared. It is now causing controversy because of its environmental impact. If protein is good for us, but bad for the planet, I’m not saying we should all become vegan but we need to keep an open mind on how much protein we eat and whether it all must come from animal products.
The preceding discussion shows that finding the optimal macronutrient distribution for our bodies and our planet won’t be a welcome, easy or binary answer.
Recent US guidelines have said that an overconsumption of calories represents the single greatest health threat to individuals. Calorie restriction not only causes weight loss but is associated with an improvement in a number of health markers, including lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, a reduction in inflammation, improved insulin resistance and may even help keep you young and improve longevity by decreasing (not reversing) the biological rate of ageing and increasing both the average and maximal lifespan. If you want to make the most of these sorts of effects, then start sooner rather than waiting until you’re 65 to do it.
As there are calories in fat, carbs and protein, a low-calorie diet will mean you won’t be able to overeat any of the aforementioned macros. Be warned, people are notorious for underestimating calorie intake and overestimating expenditure. Typically the more overweight someone is the greater the discrepancies tend to be.
Lucky for us we have labelling on food and calorie trackers on our phones. These give ballpark figures of the calories being consumed, but are by no means infallible. I’ve seen plenty of obvious errors where grams of protein exceed the weight of the product in question or dubious serving sizes that will almost certainly catch people out. Even if it were accurate calorie counting is far more complicated (find out why here).
Pestering whoever just cooked for you for the packets of all the ingredients they used will make you lose friends and invites quicker than weight and inches. It can be helpful to occasionally review your calorie intake, but the ball-ache of measuring and weighing everything gets old fast. Without long term adherence, nothing will be effective, whether a crash diet or slower more ‘sensible’ approach.
So what really is the problem?
Obsessing on one element of a diet in isolation guarantees disappointment. You cannot single out fat, cholesterol, carbs, sugar, protein, salt, alcohol or a particular food such as eggs as being the sole contributor. Any and all are mixed in with ‘other food’ and as preventative cardiologist Michael Blaha once wrote ‘It is impossible to disentangle the effect of one particular food or one macronutrient’.
This is not to say there are no potentially harmful foods, nor that some individuals can’t be be outliers. Using an ancient relative who never exercised, smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish and lived off bacon sandwiches dipped in sugar does not give you license to emulate their behaviour (unless you fancy a quadruple heart bypass). Perversely, such exceptions proves the rule. They are notable exceptions due to their uniqueness. Some people survive plane crashes, but that doesn’t mean taking up skydiving without a parachute is a good idea.
There is nothing unique in any aspect of your diet, in the sense that any excess or deficiency can cause problems. That is what ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ means. The harsh truth is focusing solely on one element of your diet will have limited benefit – the whole diet matters. I’m not trying to sell you a diet pill, so I can tell you straight that the effect of too many little indulgences over too many areas of your diet and lifestyle will accumulate. Eventually the evidence will be hanging over your waistband.