So far in this series I’ve talked about how some exercise techniques can efficiently increase your muscle mass and strength. In this post, I’ll talk about how a high-quality diet allows those techniques to work more effectively (because exercise can only get you half way to a stronger body). Without proper nutrition, you cannot develop the muscle mass and strength you crave.
Actually, let me belabor this last point a bit more. Today, most people turn to supplements when looking to build muscle or enhance athletic performance. While a few supplements can be used to help achieve some of these goals, they can’t reproduce what a simple, high-quality diet can accomplish.
But how do you define a high-quality diet? Is it low-fat or low-carb? Does it include animal foods, saturated fat, and cholesterol? Should it also include grains and vegetable oils? What about supplementing with multi-vitamins? This post attempts to answer all of these questions (and more).
Just be forewarned, this post is pretty long because basic nutrition isn’t something you can effectively condense down into a one or two page post. But it shouldn’t take you long to read because I move quickly from one section to the next. I have also provided many, many references and links (more than 210!) if you have questions about something that I mentioned.
If you just want the bottom line of what to eat to maximize your health just skip down to the conclusion.
Your Nutrient Sources
Before I jump into the essential nutrients you need to eat every day, I’ll start by covering the foods that you should eat every day. These foods, if properly prepared, will supply you with all the nutrients your body needs to be fit and resist disease. These nutrients are vitamins, dietary minerals, protein, fat, and water.
So what are we supposed to eat? As omnivores, humans have been adapted to eating plants, animals, and insects for about 2.6 to 1.5 million years. (1) More recently, humans also adapted to getting nutrients from starchy plants, dairy, and grains. (2,3)
By far, the biggest advantage an omnivore has is not only flexibility with acquiring essential nutrients (which enhances survival), as well as making use of non-essential but healthful nutrients (e.g., antioxidants, phytonutrients).
Which Foods to Eat
It would be nice if we could all just eat one superfood that would have all the essential and non-essential nutrients that enable us to be healthy. Unfortunately, no one food source can provide all essential and non-essential nutrients. As such, any healthful diet will make use of a broad range of foods.
Overall, the best food sources are:
Animal foods. Animals provide the best source of easily digestible high-quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids required by humans. (4) Animal foods also provide superior forms of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamins A, D3, and K2), (5,6,7) dietary minerals (e.g., iron, zinc, calcium), (8) and are the only dietary source of vitamin B12. (9)
Edible plant foods are a rich source of certain water-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamin C), as well as safe starches and sugars, soluble fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. A few plant foods can also provide complete protein (most do not).
Some funguses can provide essential vitamins and a source of complete protein. (10)
Healthful probiotic bacteria found in fermented plant and animal foods (e.g., yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir) can improve and support gut health. (11) Although probiotics are not technically an essential nutrient, their positive effect on good gut bacteria can help produce a few essential nutrients (e.g., biotin, vitamin K). And poor gut health has been connected to a host of degenerative diseases. (12,13)
Because it is important that all of these foods are eaten as fresh as possible, you should buy local first. If you can’t get local, USDA certified organic is the next best food source. If local or organic produce is not available, then you can get industrial produce (which are the plant and animal foods commonly found at all grocery stores). On occasion, when fresh foods are not available, frozen and canned produce can be eaten.
Which Foods to Avoid
Generally, you want to avoid foods that are industrially processed and/or prepared. These modern foods usually have fewer nutrients than fresh whole foods (requiring nutrient enrichment) and almost always have chemical additives (e.g., flavor enhancers, preservatives) to mask the bland and unappetizing taste of their cheap ingredients as well as increase shelf life. They are also usually enriched with dietary minerals and/or synthetic vitamins that can quickly become toxic (e.g., folic acid, iron) if you make these foods the foundation of your diet.
Fortunately, removing industrially processed/prepared foods from your diet is easy: Avoid fast foods, foods that can sit on a shelf for long periods of time, and processed products that come in a bag, box, or can. Instead, choose fresh, whole plant and animal foods.
Vegetarians and Vegans
There are many people who avoid animal products for moral reasons, which I have no problem with. Unfortunately, because the human body is not well adapted to a plant-only diet, if you choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet you may have a difficult time getting all essential vitamins, minerals, essential protein, and essential fatty acids you need, even if you supplement.
For example, a recent study of vitamin B12 deficiency found that 68% vegetarians and 83% Vegans were vitamin B12 deficient (as compared to just 5% of omnivores). Vitamin B12 was measured because it is a nutrient that is required by humans but is only found in animal foods. (14)
Vitamin B12 is critical to good health. Deficiency in this vitamin can initially show as fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, stomach aches, and bleeding gums. If this deficiency is not corrected, permanent nerve damage or death may result. Vegetarians—and especially vegans—have to make sure that they get enough vitamin B12 everyday to remain healthy.
If you choose to reduce or eliminate your intake of animal foods, please make sure that you are aware of the latest nutritional requirements to ensure that you don’t accidently develop deficiency diseases.
I understand that all of this “eat this, but not that” information can be overwhelming. To help you get a better feel for eliminating nutrient deficiencies, minimizing toxin intake, and avoiding nutrient supplementation (at least as much as possible), I have put together a food guide that reflects the advice found in the rest of this post. (I originally created this guide for my Rapid PT blog.)
The first stop on our nutrition journey is vitamins, dietary minerals, and phytonutrients. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, while phytonutrients are non-essential, but have healthful properties that can be protective against several diseases. All three nutrients are required to keep the human body running optimally.
Vitamins are biologically active organic compounds that are divided into two classes: Water- and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are easily dissolved in water and include all of the B-vitamins and vitamin C. The fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed with the help of fat and include vitamins A, D, E, and K. (15)
And although phytonutrients are not technically essential, several researchers are discovering that some of these plant nutrients (e.g., lycopene, ellagic acid, flavonols, hesperidin, resveratrol) can be very protective against diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (17)
Recommended Daily Intake
Instead of going over each of the recommended daily intakes for each vitamin and mineral (which would make an already long post much longer), I have put together a table that includes the minimum, optimal, and maximum intake values. This table also includes my daily intake references.
In the table above, I have provided minimal, optimal, and maximum micro-nutrient values. The minimal intake level is the lowest amount you can consume every day and not develop deficiency diseases. The optimal intake level is the amount that is thought to produce optimal health (my sources for these values are identified at the bottom of the table). The maximum intake level is likely to produce toxic reactions. You should never go above the maximum dosage for any of these micro-nutrients. Click here for larger image.
Best Food Sources
You can find vitamins and minerals in both plant and animal foods. And, of course, only plant foods contain phytonutrients.
Nutrient-dense animal foods include:
Bone broths. Broths are made from simmering the bones of animals (e.g., chicken, beef, seafood) in water for 12 to 24 hours and are an excellent source of calcium and other vitamins and minerals. Adding additional ingredients (e.g., liver, onion, garlic) to the simmering broth can further increase its nutrient content. (18)
Full–fat Dairy. There are actually two different kinds of dairy: Raw and pasteurized. Raw dairy from grass-fed cows is so nutritious that many people drink it exclusively to resolve health issues. (19) Pasteurized milk—which heats raw milk for a few minutes—is not as nutritious as quality raw milk due to the heat’s effect on several delicate nutrients. However, pasteurized milk is still a good source of calcium and healthy fats. (20)
Whole Chicken Eggs. Although its high cholesterol content is thought to contribute to heart disease (it doesn’t), eggs are a nutrient powerhouse. The yolk of an egg is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, containing the B-vitamins, vitamins A, D, and E, iodine, phosphorous, and choline. (21)
Liver (and other organ meats). Organ meats are highly nutritious, with liver being exceptionally nutritious (especially in vitamin B12). (22)
Other animal and fish meats. Muscle meats are also a good source of vitamins and dietary minerals. (23)
Nutrient-dense plant foods include:
Beans. Some edible beans are a good source of B-vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. But all beans have to be soaked and fully cooked before they are eaten to neutralize their natural toxins and anti-nutrients.
Green leafy vegetables. These vegetables are a good source of certain vitamins and minerals. They are also a good source of phytonutrients. Nutrient-dense examples include kale, collards, spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, and cabbage. (24)
Mushrooms. Cooked or raw, mushrooms are a good source of B-vitamins.
Nuts. Some nuts provide good sources of minerals (e.g., selenium, magnesium, manganese) and vitamins (e.g., vitamin E). But be careful not to eat too many nuts: Many are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can become pro-inflammatory when eaten in excess. Eat no more than a couple of ounces of nuts a week. Macadamia nuts are low in omega-6 and pine nuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and cashews are high in omega-6. (25)
Root vegetables. Vegetables found underground are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Sweet and white potatoes, yams, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, and radishes are especially nutritious. (26) Most root vegetables should be cooked before they are eaten.
Tomatoes. This fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) is high in vitamins A, E, and C, as well as potassium. It is also high in the phytonutrient lycopene. Unfortunately, tomatoes are one of the top genetically modified (GM) foods. Consumption of GM foods should be limited because they have no real track record for safety in humans (they may be harmful, they may not, no one really knows). Instead, try to get local tomatoes that you know are not modified or those labeled USDA certified organic.
Whole fruit. Most fruits are a good source of a few vitamins and minerals (e.g., vitamin C, potassium) and phytonutrients. Make sure you only eat fresh fruit.
Poor Food Sources
Some food sources provide few vitamins and minerals, are enriched with synthetic vitamins, and/or have excessive amounts of anti-nutrients and/or toxins. These include:
Pasteurized and low/no-fat dairy. The aggressive heating of milk degrades or destroys most of its delicate nutrients. (27) It is also usually enriched with powdered skim milk and synthetic vitamins. (20) And low- and no-fat dairy impairs the absorption of added fat soluble vitamins.
Processed/prepared foods. The foods that usually come in a bag, box, or a can should be avoided because they are often devoid of many vitamins and minerals due to processing, contain man-made trans fats and other toxins, and usually only have a few added minerals and synthetic vitamins. (28) These foods include microwavable dinners, protein bars, chips, candy, cookies, breakfast cereal, and canned foods.
Refined and unrefined sweeteners. Many raw sweeteners (e.g., honey, sugar cane, muscavado sugar, maple syrup) contain many dietary minerals, while refined sweeteners (e.g., white and brown sugar, HFCS, corn syrup) have had these nutrients removed. Both of these sweeteners can be harmful if eaten in excess (this is discussed in greater detail in the carbohydrate section below). Sugar drinks and grain-based desserts are the biggest source of sugar for Americans. (29)
Whole and refined grains. With the exception of some dietary minerals, all whole grains offer a poor nutritional profile when compared to animal foods. This poor nutritional profile can be further exacerbated by anti-nutrients that naturally occur in whole grains like wheat. Refined grains (e.g., white flour) lack all but a few added dietary minerals and synthetic vitamins. (28)
Proteins are the basic building blocks of cells, hormones, enzymes, and other biomolecules. A limited amount of protein can also be used as fuel (supplying 4 calories per gram), but the process of conversion is very inefficient. (30) Fats and carbohydrates are primarily used as fuel.
When digested, dietary protein is broken down into its individual amino acids. These amino acids are then reformed into whatever proteins the human body needs. Of the 20 amino acids used in the human body, nine are essential, seven are conditionally essential, and four are non-essential. (31)
Conditional amino acids are not normally essential because they can be made by the body. However, any of these amino acids could become depleted during times of stress or illness, requiring that they be replenished via the diet. These amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
Of all the macronutrients, protein is the most important (then fat and finally carbohydrates). Your dietary protein supplies your body with both your essential amino acids and additional non-essential amino acids that are used for cellular growth, repair, and maintenance.
Like most nutrients, there is an optimal amount of protein that you should consume every day. Consume too much and you could suffer from ammonia poisoning. (32) However, consume too little and you could suffer from nervousness, exhaustion, hair loss, dizziness, bone and hair loss, impaired immune function, bloating, abdominal obesity, increased appetite, excess body fat, and an inability to build muscle and strength. (33,34,35) If your protein intake remains critically low, then you could develop from kwashiorkor or marasmus.
When taken to an extreme, protein-deprived humans could develop marasmus or kwashiorkor. With marasmus (right picture), protein and carbohydrate deficiency produces the typical image of a starving person. With kwashiorkor (left picture), protein deficiency combined with an ample supply of carbohydrates creates a starving person with a potbelly. The stress caused by protein and nutrient deficiency (which causes chronic elevation of the hormone cortisol), combined with carbohydrate intake, produces abdominal obesity (even in a person who is technically starving).
Recommended Daily Intake
Your protein intake is determined by your physical activity:
If you are sedentary, you should eat about 0.8 grams of high-quality protein per pound of your lean mass every day. (36)
If you are physically active, especially if you participate in strength exercises, you should try to eat up to 1.1 grams per pound of lean mass. (36)
(You can determine your lean mass by determining your body fat percentage and subtracting that number from your overall body weight [or you can use this calculator].)
For healthy people, getting enough protein every day is easily achieved by eating about 1 pound of high quality animal protein a day (or about 5.5 ounces of meat or eggs with each of your three meals). For those with renal disease, lower protein intake may be required. (32)
Best Food Sources
All animal sources have all nine essential amino acids and are easily absorbed by humans. Excellent examples are beef, pork, fish, chicken, dairy, and whole eggs.
With all the “meat is deadly” memes bouncing around the Internet, some may be hesitant to rely on animal foods for their protein needs (especially red meats). Fortunately, there is no need to worry as the widely-held belief that animal proteins somehow cause disease is new and has not been proven in clinical trials. (37,38) In fact, the degenerative diseases often linked to high animal food consumption (e.g., cancer, heart disease) were virtually non-existent until the 19th century, despite traditionally high consumption of animal meats and organs. (39,40)
Based on my research, I believe that the cause of the degenerative diseases that plague many Americans today can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, which set in motion several fundamental shifts in diet and lifestyle that now slowly break the human machine. And these shifts had little to do with animal meats (or animal foods in general). But I won’t get into this idea now because it is beyond the scope of this post (if you want to know more, check out my obesity post).
Poor Food Sources
As far as protein quality is concerned, plant foods aren’t very good. A few plant sources have all nine essential amino acids (e.g., soy, potato), but most do not. And while soy technically has all nine amino acids, it is critically low in methionine (so, you cannot survive on soy alone). (41)
Additionally, plant proteins seem to be less safe than animal proteins. Recent detailed analysis of the anti-animal food China Study revealed that more diseases are actually associated with high consumption of plant protein, not animal protein. (42,43) Plant proteins (especially wheat and soy) are likely problematic because many come naturally bundled with anti-nutrients (discussed below) and toxins.
(This is not to say that you should only eat animal foods, you just shouldn’t depend on plant foods for your daily protein needs. Properly prepared plant foods are still an excellent source of many other essential and non-essential nutrients.)
Medium-quality protein sources like legumes (with the exception of soy) can either accompany a higher-quality protein or provide a primary protein source so long as more than one of these lower quality protein sources are eaten at the same time (e.g., beans and rice).
Most of the dietary fats found in foods are triglycerides, which are comprised of fatty acids and glycerol. These fats are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), producing sex hormones, and providing long-term energy. When used for energy, dietary fats provide 9 calories per gram. (44)
There are three different types of dietary fat, each determined by how carbon and hydrogen atoms are connected to each other. A fat is:
Saturated if all carbon atoms form a strong single bond to a hydrogen atom.
Monounsaturated if there is only one weak double bond.
Polyunsaturated if there is more than one weak double bond.
A man-made trans fat if a weak double bond has been twisted or kinked to resemble saturated fat (see below).
Finally, there are two essential fatty acids—omega-3 and omega-6—that have to be acquired from food because they are required for good health and cannot be synthesized by the body.
Dietary Fat and Health
In the 1950s, researcher Ancel Keys suggested that excess dietary fat consumption was dangerous for human health. (45) This later encouraged the National Institutes for Health (NIH) to specifically finger high intake of saturated fat as a cause of heart disease in 1984. (46)
This was very peculiar conclusion to make, considering that humans have been eating saturated fat (from animal foods) for millions of years without any health problems. (47) Researchers also observed several traditional cultures throughout the 20th century that ate a lot of animal foods while suffering from virtually no heart disease (or other degenerative diseases). (48)
Finally, despite the NIH’s assertion that saturated fats are deadly, clinical studies have never proven that these fats are unhealthy in any way. (49,50) In fact, more recent analysis shows that saturated fats are not connected to heart disease at all. (51)
On the other hand, the two types of fat that have shown the most potential for harm when chronically eaten in excess are polyunsaturated and man-made trans fats.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) themselves are not necessarily unhealthy, but because they are so unsaturated they are highly unstable and oxidize easily. (52) When a PUFA is exposed to high heat, excessive pressure, or caustic chemicals (all of which are usually involved in the industrial oil extraction process) it can become rancid. Industrial oils are usually deodorizedto remove the unpleasant smell that emanates from rancid oil.
One polyunsaturated fat in particular has become very problematic for many Americans: The essential fatty acid omega-6. Traditionally, small amounts of omega-6 were eaten everyday with equally small amounts of omega-3 (which is another PUFA). However, since the beginning of the 20thcentury, excessive amounts of omega-6 have flooded the American diet in the form of margarine and industrial vegetable and seed oils (which were supposed to be a heart-healthy replacement for saturated fats). Chronic over-consumption of omega-6 has been linked to inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease. (53,54)
Man-made trans fats have also been linked to several degenerative diseases (including heart disease). These artificial fats are created during the process of hydrogenation, which can make an unsaturated fat (like PUFAs) solid at room temperature (making it more saturated). (55,56)
Recommended Daily Intake
To make sure that you get enough of essential fatty acids, only eat about 1-2 grams of PUFA every day. These two essential fatty acids should be eaten at a ratio of 1:1 (omega-3:omega-6). This ratio should not exceed 1:5. Get them in minimally-processed foods, not extracted as oil or taken as supplements. (57)
The rest of a person’s fat intake should be almost a 50:50 mix of saturated and monounsaturated fats from your foods. Any added fats should primarily come from the best food sources mentioned below.
Best Food Sources
The best source for both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids is from food, not supplements. Fresh fatty fish and pastured chicken eggs are good sources of omega-3. Nuts and chicken are good sources of omega-6.
As for the non-essential fats, the stability of saturated and monounsaturated fats make them the healthiest you can eat. Animal meats, butter, ghee, dairy cream, coconut oil, beef tallow, extra virgin olive oil, and macadamia nut oil are excellent sources.
Poor Food Sources
Because of their high content of PUFA, omega-6, and man-made trans fats, you should avoid all industrial and hydrogenated oils (e.g., soy, canola, corn, peanut oils; margarine).
In the human body, carbohydrates are used primarily for energy, to store fuel (e.g., glycogen), and build components like enzymes, RNA, and DNA. Carbohydrates also make up biomolecules that have important roles in reproduction, immunity, and overall human development. (58) As a fuel, each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories.
A carbohydrate is a molecule that contains one or more sugars. The simplest carbohydrate is a monosaccharide, which is just a single sugar like glucose or fructose. If two sugars are connected then it’s called a disaccharide. A carbohydrate with three or more sugars connected together is called a polysaccharide.
In nutrition, mono and disaccharides are collectively referred to as “sugars,” which include glucose, lactose, glacatose, fructose, and sucrose. Polysaccharides are considered “complex carbohydrates” and include starch and cellulose.
Plant foods can provide indigestible carbohydrates called fiber. Fiber can come in two forms: Soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is found in fruits and vegetables and insoluble fiber is primarily found in grains. Resistant starch—which can be found in some unripe plant foods and starches that have been cooked and allowed to cool—is also considered a fiber because it is indigestible by humans.
Carbohydrates and Health
In 1972, Dr. Atkins proposed a cure for obesity: Cut your carbs. In his book Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, he argued that if someone drastically reduced their carbohydrate intake they could force their body to use fat for fuel (instead of glucose), helping them control their body weight indefinitely. (59) His method of controlling excessive weight saw some early success, spawning other low-carb diets like The South Beach Diet, The Zone Diet, and most Paleo diets.
Unfortunately, these diets have convinced many nutrition gurus to honestly believe that carbohydrates—the entire macronutrient class—are somehow uniquely detrimental to human health. This is just nonsense! In reality, many whole carbohydrate foods, even those with a high Glycemic Index, can be exceptionally healthful. (36) One food in particular, the white potato, has actually been shown to cause weight-loss! (60)
Here’s an example of what I mean: The Kitavans in Papua New Guinea eat the way they have for hundreds (probably thousands) of years. They do not suffer heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or dementia. They also have extremely low incidences of cancer. Yet they get about 70% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Where do these carbs come from? Root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, taro, tapioca), fruits (banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, water melon, pumpkin), and vegetables. (61)
But that’s not to say that all carbs are healthy. Today, Americans have access to a dizzying array of highly refined and toxiccarbohydrate foods. One of these foods—refined sugar—is associated with obesity, (62,63) diabetes, (64) non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, (65) gout, (66,67) chronic stress, (68) and heart disease. (69) Modern high-gluten wheat is another carbohydrate-containing food that can become problematic. Consumption of wheat is associated with migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, autoimmunity, heart disease, and several neurological diseases. (70,71,72,73,74)
If you are still convinced that carbs are somehow evil (as opposed to certain carb-containing foods), make sure that you don’t eat too few carbohydrates. Although there are no “essential” carbohydrates, your body has a very limited ability to produce carbohydrates from other nutrients (through a process known as gluconeogenesis). As such, consuming less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day may cause dry eyes, dry mouth, impaired thyroid function, dyslipidemia, and/or fatigue.
Recommended Daily Intake
If a person is not suffering from chronic stress or leptindysfunction, a person’s safe carbohydrate intake depends on their daily physical activity. Those who are inactive will eat about 10% to 20% of their calories from carbohydrates. Those who are physically active can dispose of more safe carbohydrates. You can use the chart below to determine what percentage of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates.
This chart shows you the amount of carbohydrates you should eat every day (as a percentage of your total calories), which is based on your physical activity. For example, someone who exercises 3-5 hours per week with moderate intensity should get 30-40 percent of their calories from safe carbohydrates (e.g., whole fruit, whole potatoes, white rice). Adapted from The Fat Loss Bible by Anthony Colpo.
Refined sweeteners should also be limited based on your physical activity. For those who are inactive, refined sweeteners should be limited to no more than 50 grams a day. (75) More physically active individuals can consume more refined sweeteners, but no more than 100 grams per day. (76) These added sweeteners should come in the form of raw muscavado sugar, raw honey, real maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, and/or stevia. (75)
Best Food Sources
Most of the carbohydrates you eat everyday should be fresh, whole, free of toxins and anti-nutrients, and/or contain as many nutrients as possible. These carbohydrates are collectively known as safecarbohydrates and include:
Beans. Some edible beans are a good source carbohydrate and fiber.
Root vegetables. The carrot, parsnip, radish, beet, turnip, taro, and yam are other excellent sources of safe carbohydrates. (77)
Potatoes(of all colors). So long as it is fresh and properly prepared (and not excessively processed or deep fried), both white and sweet potatoes are safe sources of starch due to their relatively low content of anti-nutrients. (78,79)
White rice. Polished rice is not nutritious in any way, but the starch it contains is relatively toxin and anti-nutrient free. (80) Make sure to eat white rice with other more nutritious foods.
Whole fruit. Although whole fruit contains fructose (which has been getting a lot of bad press lately), it is not the unhealthy kind: It is packaged with water, vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber, and phytonutrients. In fact, studies have shown that despite containing the supposedly deadly fructose, regular consumption of fresh whole fruit reduces the risk of developing several diseases, including heart disease and cancer. (81)
Poor Food Sources
The carbohydrates that you should largely avoid are those that come with toxins and anti-nutrients and/or are highly refined (called unsafe carbohydrates). These foods include:
American brown rice. The husk of brown rice can contain the toxin arsenic. Why would there be arsenic in brown rice? Much rice in the US today is grown in old cotton fields. Back in the day, to control pests, farmers used arsenic. This arsenic leached into the ground and now contaminates anything grown in affected soil. (82) Brown rice also contains the anti-nutrient phytic acid (which is discussed in the Maximize Nutrient Absorption section below). (83)
High-gluten wheat. Modern wheat (and wheat products) contains high amounts of gluten that can cause digestive issues (and a host of other problems). It also contains a pesticide called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which can cause havoc in the human body. (84)
Refined fructose sweeteners. Added refined sweeteners offer few nutrients while supplying very easily digestible carbohydrates. Examples include sucrose (or table sugar), agave, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Refined grains. Processed grains are devoid of most nutrients, sometimes enriched with synthetic vitamins, and may contain anti-nutrients and toxins.
Whole grains. Unrefined grains are slightly more nutritious than refined grains, but it also contains phytic acid, which limits how much some of those extra nutrients are absorbed. It also provides insoluble fiber, which has recently been linked with several diseases (its soluble fiber that has the health benefits). (69)
An often forgotten part of good nutrition is clean water. If we lived thousands of years ago in a time without chemical pollutants, regular well water would be perfectly fine. But today our water is contaminated with hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals, including fluoride, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, industrial solvents, and rocket fuel. (85) This makes filtering your tap water very important to your health.
And bottled water isn’t always better than tap, especially since a lot of bottled water is actually just filtered tap water (e.g., Aquafina, Nestlé Pure Life, Dasani). The bottled water that isn’t tap may not be healthier either because it is largely unregulated. (86) So if you drink bottled water, you should filter it too (or save yourself some money and just start drinking filtered tap water).
Daily Water Intake
Each individual will require a different amount of water a day. Those who exercise or work in hot environments will need more water than those who are sedentary or work in cool environments.
Many people have heard that they should drink 6-8 glasses of water a day in addition to the foods that they eat. But this has never been supported by clinical studies. In reality, the foods you eat contain a lot of water (with whole foods containing more water than refined and industrially-processed foods). If you eat a lot of fresh foods, or drink a lot of tea or soup, then you may not need to drink much extra water.
So how much water should you be drinking? Traditionally, the color of your urinewill tell you if you are drinking enough (however, you don’t want clear pee, which means that you are over-hydrated). However, the best gauge is to use is actually your thirst. (87)
Maximizing Nutrient Absorption
You may think that you are getting all of your nutrients from the foods you eat, but if you eat the wrong kinds of foods or prepare them the wrong way, then you may actually be absorbing less than you think. The following tips should help you absorb as many nutrients from your foods as possible.
Because animals can run away from predators, their muscle and organ meat is usually free of poisons. Consequently, most fresh animal foods can be eaten raw (although I wouldn’t advise it).
Plants, however, cannot run away from predators, so they usually develop toxins to protect themselves. Humans can tolerate many of these toxins in low doses, but some plants are more problematic and must be cooked to neutralize these toxins. These plants include: (88)
Because many nutrients are sensitive to heat, the best cooking options are steaming, low-temperature sautéing, and stewing. Occasionally pan frying and boiling are ok so long as the temperature is not too high (usually not above the medium heat setting). Deep frying, however, should never be used because of destructive high temperatures.
Microwaving is a very controversial cooking method. Although it has been argued that the electromagnetic energy emitted by microwaves is harmful, recent research has shown that microwave ovens can cook foods with minimal nutrient loss when compared to certain conventional methods. (89) As a general rule, don’t cook or reheat foods in the microwave using full power for more than a few minutes. If you need to heat foods in the microwave for more than 2-3 minutes, use 50% power.
And while many meats can be eaten raw because they lack toxins, you should cook all animal foods because modern processing of animal products may contaminate these foods with harmful bacteria (e.g., e coli, listeria). (90)
Many foods can contain anti-nutrients, which interfere or prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. (91) These include:
Avidin is an anti-nutrient that inhibits the absorption of biotin and is found in raw chicken eggs. (92)
Eggs and many nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains contain a trypsin inhibitor that prevents absorption of protein. (93)
Many nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains also contain the anti-nutrient phytic acid, which can reduce the absorption of several minerals (e.g., calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc). (94)
Several plants (see above) contain oxalates, which can prevent the absorption of calcium. (95)
Tannins, which are found in teas, can interfere with the absorption of iron and zinc. (96)
Soaking, cooking, or sprouting these foods will usually reduce or eliminate anti-nutrients, improving nutrient absorption.
Maximizing Fat-Soluble Vitamin Absorption
Plant foods usually provide the wrong form of certain fat soluble vitamins that either requires the body to make inefficient conversions to the form humans use (e.g., vitamin A) or does not contain all the functions attributed to that vitamin (e.g., vitamin K2). Relying on animal sources for your fat-soluble vitamins can eliminate this problem.
It is also very important that you eat fat when consuming a food that has fat-soluble vitamins. If you eat a meal without any fat (e.g., fat-free breakfast cereal, skim milk, fat-free salad), then you will not be able to absorb any of the fat-soluble vitamins that may be in that meal. (97)
If you eat enriched foods or use supplements, watch out for synthetic vitamins. These artificial nutrients are isolated (usually from coal tar or petroleum extracts) and do not usually come with the co-factors that aid in nutrient absorption (e.g., enzymes, co-enzymes, phytonutrients). (98) Some of these artificial vitamins also don’t contain all of the functions of their natural counterparts (e.g., vitamin E), have weak vitamin activity (e.g., some B vitamins, vitamin D2), and/or have lower toxicity levels (e.g., vitamin D2, folic acid). (99)
Synthetic vitamins include:
A (Acetate or Palmitate)
B-1 (Thiamine hydrochloride, Thiamine mononitrate or Thiamine chloride)
B-2 (Riboflavin analogues)
B-3 (Niacin or niacinamide)
B-5 (Pantothenic acid or Calcium pantothenate)
B-6 (Pryidoxine Hydrochloride)
B-9 (Folic acid or Pteroylglutamic acid)
B-12 (Cobalamin or Cyanocobalamin)
C (Ascorbic acid)
Choline (Choline bitartrate)
D (vitamin D2 or ergocalciferol)
E (Alpha tocopheral acetate, tocopheryl acetate, dl-alpha tocopheral, succinate)
Vitamin and Mineral Synergy
Just getting enough of a few vitamins and minerals every day is not enough because quite a few cooperate with one another to produce optimal health. If one of these collaborating essential nutrients is not taken in the right amounts, deficiencies or toxicities can result. Here’s a small list of important nutrient synergies (click on the reference to learn more):
Eat at least two protein sources at one time (e.g., eggs and bacon, beans and rice). Combining different protein sources ensures that you get all of the amino acids that your body needs (essential or not). Using this approach prevents your essential amino acids from being used to synthesize the other 11 non-essential amino acids if they are lacking in the diet. This leaves a surplus of essential proteins that can be used to build muscle. (105)
For the most part, if you eat a diet filled with real, fresh plant and animal foods then you should have little problem getting all the nutrients you need every day while also minimizing toxin intake. If you feel that you are still not getting enough nutrients, then you can use quality dietary supplements (just make sure they are not synthetic).
However, if you eat industrially-processed/prepared foods, which are usually devoid of nutrients and filled with toxins created during processing, then you will have a hard time getting enough essential nutrients every day, even if you supplement.
As far as food sources go, most of your diet should comprise the following foods:
Pastured or organic Animal muscle and organ meats. An excellent source of complete protein, fat- and water-soluble vitamins, dietary minerals, essential fatty acids, and healthful non-essential fats.
Pastured or organic eggs. An excellent source of complete protein, vitamins, dietary minerals, and essential fatty acids.
Local or organic root vegetables, leafy green vegetables, and fruit. An excellent source of water-soluble vitamins, dietary minerals, carbohydrates, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.
Raw dairy from pastured cows (if you can tolerate it). An excellent source of complete protein, fat- and water-soluble vitamins, dietary minerals, and healthy fats.
Home-made chicken, beef, and seafood bone broth. A good source of protein, vitamins, and dietary minerals.
Fermented vegetables and dairy (either raw or pasteurized). An excellent source of good bacteria, as well as a good source of protein (dairy), vitamins, and dietary minerals.
Non-enriched white rice. A safe source for carbohydrates.
If you can’t get the above sources, you can use industrially-produced equivalents. These foods (if you don’t know) are the relatively fresh plant and animal foods that you can find at any grocery store. While these lower-quality foods may not be as nutritious and may contain more pesticide residue than local or organic, they are still miles more nutritious than the preserved and chemically-enhanced foods that come in a bag, box, or a can. (106)
Although you shouldn’t need them if you primarily eat meats, eggs, dairy, vegetables, and fruit, you can use dietary supplements fill nutritional gaps. But keep in mind that quality (and not price) is always the most important factor when buying these supplements. Based on common American nutrient deficiencies, I recommend that the following supplements be taken every day: (107)
Cod Liver Oil (for vitamin A, D3, and omega-3)
Kelp (for iodine)
Brazil Nuts (for selenium)
Vitamin B12 (take as methylcobalamin)
Vitamin K2 (take as MK-4)
Collectively, the following food sources should make up less than 10% of your daily calories:
Whole or refined gluten grains. Contains too few vitamins, too many toxins and anti-nutrients, and the wrong kind of fiber. The protein—gluten—can cause health problems for many individuals. When refined, these grains are even less nutritious and toxic.
Unrefined or refined sweeteners. Both unrefined and refined sweeteners are low in most vitamins and minerals and supply easily digestible sugars. In high doses (>50g per day for inactive people), refined sweeteners can make maintaining blood sugar very difficult and make it very easy to consume too many calories.
Foods that come in a box, bag, or can. These foods are usually constructed with cheapest purified ingredients and are so devoid of nutrients that they require enrichment with a few choice dietary minerals and synthetic vitamins. They also usually contain wheat, soy, and refined sweeteners. And, to remain on a store shelf for extended periods of time without spoiling, they are usually filled with chemical preservatives and hydrogenated industrial oils (which contains man-made trans fats).
And you should consider completely avoiding the following:
Wheat. Modern high-gluten, high-WGA wheat seems to be highly problematic for many people, causing a litany of unpleasant symptoms. It has been argued that for most people, there is no real safe level of consumption.
Industrial oils (e.g., soy, canola, peanut, corn oil). These modern oils are produced using seeds or legumes that are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6. The method of extraction is so abusive that these oils are likely rancid straight out of the factory. And hydrogenation is used to enhance shelf-life.
Soy (both fermented and unfermented). Soy just doesn’t want to be eaten. It has evolved an arsenal of toxins and anti-nutrients designed to make any predator foolish enough to eat it very sick and sterile. Modern industrial processing methods do little to destroy or reduce the levels of these toxins and anti-nutrients.
Well, I think that’s enough for basic nutrition. In my next post in this series, I explore the awesomeness of nutrient timing, which is the technique of using a pre- and post-workout drink (filled with some carbohydrates and protein), as well as nutrient-dense meals, to help you more easily build muscle.