Your body is the most complex and elegant machine ever created and food is the fuel that powers that magnificent instrument. So why would anyone deny such an extraordinary system of anything it might need to continue to perform at optimal levels? After all, you wouldn’t fill your Ferrari with premium gasoline and then refuse to regularly have the oil changed.
All too often, though, diet fads and nutritional trends end up doing to our invaluable, irreplaceable bodies precisely that which we would never do to our cars, our computers, or any other machine that we rely on to keep our daily lives humming. Such dietary trends are all too often based on the misguided notion that we can deprive our bodies of some essential element and, in doing so, expect it to perform as well or even better than before.
The reality is, though, that if you’re looking to maintain or to regain, your physical fitness, then what you should be looking for in a nutrition plan isn’t restriction. It’s balance, giving your body what it needs when it needs it.
Why Nutritional Balance Matters
Let’s face it: We live in a society built on instant gratification. We want big results and we want them not now butyesterday. And, when it comes to diet and body image, the media has certainly fed into the quick fix, insta-cure model. Indeed, the modern diet industry was built on it.
And so what we find is a flood of pills, potions, and plans all claiming to deliver miraculous results in record time. Want to shed pounds like you’re shedding your winter coat? Cut out the carbs. Want to quickly build muscle so that you can look shredded at the beach next week? Pound the protein.
The reality is that these short-term solutions are actually no solution at all, because when you deny your body one essential element it needs to perform properly or overwhelm it with another, you’re guaranteeing a rebound effect. That’s because our bodies crave homeostasis; they require balance. Fast, dramatic changes, especially when they’re based on severe restriction on the one hand and gross oversaturation on the other, can do significant harm to the body. Organ systems may be damaged, for instance, and metabolic functioning impaired.
The Low Carb Diet
Carbohydrates have long been the great pariah for those wishing to lose weight, especially if they want to drop the pounds rapidly. And because carbohydrates have also been widely linked to issues regarding glucose regulation and insulin resistance, proponents of low-carb diets argue that such restrictions not only aid in weight management but are also effective in preventing or managing type II diabetes. Studies show, however, that not only is the rapid weight loss associated with low-carb diets often temporary, but that, over time, carbohydrate restriction can lead to a host of health challenges, from cardiac arrhythmia to kidney damage (1).
Low Protein Diets
Protein is perhaps the only nutrient that gets about as much flak as carbohydrates do today, and the rationale are just as dubious. Proponents of low protein diets assert that this is an ideal way not only to lose weight but also to reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease. The reality, though, is that diets that are low in proteins and essential fat can lead to a number of adverse outcomes, including hormonal imbalances, fatty liver disease, vitamin deficiency, kidney disease, muscle weakness and wasting (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The truth is, protein aids in cellular repair and can even speed healing after a traumatic injury (8, 9).
Quality and Quantity
As we’ve seen, diets that are based on restriction often do not lead to the long-term changes that followers want, such as sustained weight loss or an increase in lean muscle mass (10, 11). The results of restriction are often temporary, and can also produce significant harms, harms which may be far from temporary.
The good news, though, is that dietary patterns need not and should not be based on restriction. A balanced diet is one that ensures that the body receives the nutrients it needs, in the precise proportion needed.
What matters most in a balanced diet, in other words, are quality and quantity. It’s about getting the proper amounts of essential nutrients in their ideal forms.
For example, nutrient-rich proteins can be found in a wide variety of foods, including lean meats, such as turkey, chicken, and fish, as well as eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes. A diet rich in these proteins can aid in cellular repair, support bone and muscle health, regulate hormonal, enzymatic, and fluid balance, facilitate nutrient transport and absorption throughout the body, and even enhance vision. Diets rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce frailty, support musculoskeletal health, and decrease cognitive decline in the elderly (15).
Similarly, because fats are essential to cellular health, they are also essential to a balanced diet. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, especially those that come from plants and seafood, can actually reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and stroke (16, 17, 18). Fatty acids are even being shown to help arrest inflammatory processes in the brain and, thus, may help to protect against a range of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (19)!
Lean proteins and healthy fats can also improve satiety and, because fats give food a lot of flavor, you’re also going to enjoy your food more. That means you’re more likely to feel fuller and more satisfied when you include fat and protein in your diet, making it less likely that you’ll over-indulge later on. It’s important to note, though, that every individual is unique in their protein needs. Not only will the amount of protein your body needs change as you age, but your body’s protein requirements may also increase if you have been injured or are in a period of intense physical training.
Sugars and carbohydrates are also essential to optimal fitness and functioning. Much depends, however, on the type and quantity of the nutrients you consume. For example, carbohydrates not only give you energy, but they also boost your immune function and are a key source of essential vitamins and antioxidants. In fact, carbohydrates can be found in abundance in some of our most nutrient-rich foods, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Speaking of fruits, these little wonders are also rich in a type of sugar known as fructose, which helps to give the body energy while they also supply an abundance of vitamins and antioxidants essential to immune health. Similarly, fiber is a particular form of carbohydrate that not only aids in digestive health but can also significantly reduce harmful LDL cholesterol levels and promote overall heart health (12, 13). Indeed, there’s increasing evidence that whole fruits and fruit fiber can significantly decrease the risk of cancer, heart and lung disease, and even depression (14).
Likewise, a diet rich in vegetables provides benefits across virtually all bodily systems. For example, vegetables contain a seemingly endless variety of phytochemicals that help reduce inflammation while at the same time infusing the body with the anti-oxidants needed to repair cells, prevent disease, and slow the aging process (20). Vegetables have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and may even support cardiovascular and metabolic performance in elite, endurance athletes (21).
Let’s not forget those wonderful whole grains, which, much like fruits and vegetables, have been shown to contain essential phytochemicals that can greatly enhance whole-body health. For example, dietary fiber from whole grains has been shown to support metabolic function (22) and even to reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease or cancer (23). Whole grains have even been proven to aid in the management of type 2 diabetes and to prevent the disease, even among those diagnosed with pre-diabetes (24). These benefits derive principally from the whole grains’ beneficial effects on glycemic control and insulin resistance, making them a powerful weapon against one of humanity’s most dangerous and intractable diseases.
As we’ve seen, the type and amount of nutrients the body needs can vary widely from one individual to another. Factors such as age, health status, and fitness goals can greatly impact what a “balanced” diet will mean for you. The same goes for caloric intake. Weight management is often not a matter of nutrient restriction but of caloric intake management. Again, however, thenumber of calories a person needs each day will depend largely on their age, gender, health status, and health goals.
How AFT Coaching Can Help You
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for following a balanced diet. Our nutritional needs vary from person to person, across the lifespan. At AFT Coaching, we offer customized solutions to help you define a nutrition plan that meets your body’s needs and your fitness goals. Our experienced team of fitness and nutrition experts is ready to help you learn to feed and nurture your body all the way to optimal wellness.Contact us today to discuss how AFT Coaching can help you meet and exceed your fitness goals.
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