What is the best way to choose your diet and exercises? Start with what makes you happy so you can stay on the course. When any change to diet or exercise program becomes too stressful, especially if you are dreading to eat the “healthy” food or dreading to do the exercise, the body may protect you from the change that you are trying to make. Find the change that makes you “feel great to do this.”
So, what is the short answer to the long question? What and how you eat depends on you. There’s an emerging field in the health realm called ‘personalized’ health. Just like not all medicines work the same on all people, i.e., not everyone gets the side effects listed and not all people should be on the same exercise program, the same goes for nutrition. There is also personalized nutrition. I’ll discuss this more later.
Carbs, the villain. Well…if you know that I’m an Exercise Physiologist then you must know I love carbs. Alas, there are numerous types of carbs and they all seem to get lumped together and judged unfairly. Most people think of the ‘bad’ carbs, pasta, breads, cereal, crackers. I know you’re feeling hungry now. What about fruits and vegetables? Yes, those are carbs too. Processed carbs include ‘white’ foods like white bread, white rice, and crackers without whole grains are usually considered less healthy as they do not provide nutrient density for their calorie content. I’ll discuss that later.
Then one of the perceived heroes, protein. I’m going to explode your brain here…protein does not provide much energy. It is mostly used for cellular repair and maintenance. It’s only used as an energy source in long duration, higher intensity exercise like running a marathon. However, it’s contribution to energy is at maximum 5-10% of total calories burned.
Lastly, the current hero if you follow the keto diet which I will also discuss later. Fat! Can you believe it? In the 80’s fat was our nemesis. I remember eating heaping plates of plain spaghetti and drinking skim milk. Well, carbs had their heyday, so I guess it’s time for the uprising of fat. Fat is an amazing energy source. We all want to be lean mean fat burning machines, right?
On to what you’ve all been waiting for…the eating plans! Notice I’m not using the word diet here. I will cover two different categories, 1) High fat or protein/low carb and 2) Moderate carb/low fat. I will briefly discuss each eating plan, its breakdown of macronutrients and potential effects on exercise (that’s what Exercise Physiologists do of course).
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Paleo. Eat like you’re a hunter/gatherer from the Paleolithic Era. Key points – lots of veggies and protein, some fruit, some oils including olive and coconut, no legumes, no grains, no dairy and no processed carbs. Since the amount of consumed carbs can vary drastically on this plan, there is quite a bit of variability in exercise performance. Some people do well while others may suffer in their ability to perform higher intensity exercise like the popular and effective HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.
What about Keto (short for Ketosis)? This is similar, yet not to the Paleo plan. This plan is VERY low carb (20-50 grams per day which is about 80-200 calories from carbs) and much higher fat, typically 70-80% of the total calories per day. By the way, a medium sized apple contains around 20 grams of carbohydrates. That could be your limit on this plan. There is also the transition time to start to feel ok on this plan. Some individuals report feeling sick and tired. The ‘keto flu’ is supposedly the body figuring out how to use fats. Exercise can really suffer on this plan. To be in ketosis, the body needs to use up our stores of carbs. Then the body uses fat as a primary energy source. However, we need carbs for immediate energy and to be more efficient in burning fat.
The description of this eating plan says it all. Whole Food. Translation, no processed foods here. Plant based. Foods that are chosen need to be from plants! This plan includes legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies and whole grains and excludes any animal meat or animal products like eggs and dairy. I can hear it now…you’re saying, “But, what about the protein?” Many plant-based foods have more than enough protein for our needs. Think about tofu, tempeh, beans and soy milk. Since this plan does not limit carbs, it should not get in the way of any type of exercise training or sports.
Remember way back in the beginning I introduced personalized nutrition? Now that you have the information, you get to decide what is best for you. Sound too good to be true? Any time calories are reduced, you will lose weight. That can happen on all the plans. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2016 noted that providing participants information on eating plans based on what the clients wanted led to increased program adherence and maintenance of changes made. (2)
Just as there are numerous ways we can exercise for a variety of health benefits, we should choose our nutrition in a similar way. If we struggle to exercise and eat the way we think we should and it causes us anxiety and stress, we are doing more harm than good. Each of us need to choose lifestyle changes that we perceive as doable. We know stress is bad for our bodies. Some research has suggested specific pathways our brains initiate when we undergo periods of stress. Stress can change the way we behave, our hormone levels and our immune function making us more susceptible to illness. (1) The Inverted J Hypothesis describes the relationship between exercise duration and intensity on the immune system. Consistent moderate intensity exercise improves our immune systems allowing us to ward off illness. However, exercising at high intensity too often can make us more susceptible to getting sick. (3)
Changes we make to our lifestyle should meet the SMART criteria. Potential changes to diet and exercise should be Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic and Time-Based. I also believe “Not Stress-Inducing” should be added to the acronym. Celebrities may be all about the Paleo diet but thinking about eliminating dairy and grains may really freak you out. In that case, any potential benefits from changing your way of eating would be offset by the increase in stress.
Find changes that meet the SMART criteria AND feel good. You know your body best. Stick with healthful changes that feel right to you.
1. Black P., Central Nervous System-Immune System Interactions:Psychoneuroendocrinology of Stress and Its Immune Consequences. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 1994;38:1-6.
2. Celis-Morales C, Livingstone KM, Marsaux CF, Macready AL, Fallaize R, O’Donovan CB, et al. Effect of personalized nutrition on health-related behaviour change: evidence from the Food4me European randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2016; dyw186 DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyw186.
3. Woods JA, Davis JM, Smith JA, Nieman DC. Exercise and cellular innate immune function. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise.1999;31:57-66.