Throughout our educational lives, we learn about organisms and cell biology, but mostly in the context of plants or animals. We are introduced to concepts like cell membranes, mitochondria, photosynthesis, or cytoplasm. Am I bringing back memories of your middle school desk and ridiculously heavy textbooks? I hope so. As much as you thought you could forget these concepts after acing your tests, it is important to reintroduce these topics to begin to understand how we need to change our mindset about what our bodies are and what an important function food serves for us.
Once our biology and anatomy courses are complete and we embark on our non-scientific or non-medical career paths, we lose sight of the fact that our physical bodies are organized collections of cells and micro-organisms. When we lose touch with this concept, we are unable to connect the direct impact our food choices have on our moods, energy, cognitive abilities, physical growth, athletic performance, and health. We need to re-imagine ourselves as engines and view our food as our fuel and information source for these cells and processes. Through this lens, we begin to develop deep gratitude and appreciation for the quality of the food we eat. When we gain this appreciation and understanding, it becomes extremely clear to identify which sources of foods will serve us well and which are harmful. Once this mindset is accepted and practiced, there comes an extreme relief due to the ease of rejecting certain foods. The rejection comes easier because it becomes known the harm these foods will have on the engine and its performance.
Engines need a fuel source in order to run. The fuel source for a car engine is gasoline. We can all conclude what would happen if you tried to fuel a car engine with milk, bleach, or paint. There would be an epic failure of performance. Even less extreme, there are known performance differences when engines are given higher-quality gasoline over lower quality choices. Thus, there is a direct correlation between the quality of the fuel and the performance of the engine. With the improper gas, engines may smoke, pipes get clogged, components break down, and the engine fails.
Similarly, our bodies need a fuel source in order for our hearts to pump blood, our lungs to expand, our muscles to contract, and the list goes on. Our bodies rely on food as a fuel source for each of those millions of cells and microorganisms. Taking the concepts we just established with the car engine, we need to accept that the quality and types of foods we put in have a direct impact on how our bodies will perform, look, and carry us through life. With improper fuel sources, our bodies will send us clear signals such as clogged arteries, weight gain, brain fog, stomach issues, or worst of all, death. All these signals are helpful and tell us to change the fuel!
Now we need to do the work to understand what the best fuel sources are and how our bodies use them, but first, we must understand what food is. Food is defined as a material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy. These three materials, protein, carbohydrate, and fat, are called macronutrients and these three materials work together to keep our bodies (engines) fueled and performing properly.
Protein (Amino Acids)
Protein, and more granularly, amino acids serve as the building blocks of muscles, bones, and cells. When consumed, our bodies secrete a hormone called glucagon that mobilizes stored energy. More simply, glucagon pulls out stored energy from our muscles and into the bloodstream in order to move and perform tasks. Therefore, as we eat protein sources and move, glucagon is released, and the energy in our blood (glucose) goes up. We are using the energy stored in our bodies to do work!
Sources include: Beef, poultry, fish, shrimp, pork, tofu
When eaten, our bodies take carbohydrates and convert them to sugar for energy in the form of glycogen. Once converted, this increases the amount of energy in our blood (glucose). Glucose is the easiest source of fuel for our bodies to use for exercise and functioning. However, there is a danger for excess sugar in the blood. As such, in order to ensure that our blood sugar doesn't get too high, our body secretes the hormone insulin. Insulin serves to regulate our blood sugar level by taking the sugar out of our blood and storing it in one of three places, the muscles, liver, or fat tissue. Insulin favors to store the excess energy in the 1) muscles to replenish used energy with limited capacity, 2) to be processed by the liver in limited quantities, and 3) as triglycerides or glycogen in fat cells with no maximum capacity. This is our first clue that if we put in too much energy from carbohydrates into our bodies, we may have too much glucose circulating in the body. Therefore, insulin stores any excess in our fat cells causing them to get larger. We've labeled this condition as obesity. Weight gain should be taken as a signal that we may have too much energy in the engine!
Sources include: Rice, pasta, starch, crackers, cookies, pretzels, bread, sugar, potatoes, and, surprise, all fruits and vegetables!
Fats (Fatty Acids)
Fats in our foods serve as energy sources and the transmitters for signals within the body. I like to think of them as buses on a highway system delivering all the vitamins and minerals to your cells. The fatty acids not used immediately as a form of energy are converted to triglycerides and stored in our fat cells. Again, a similar pattern to carbohydrates. The excess energy goes into fat cells causing them to get larger, and in turn, weight gain. Another clue that our fuel sources might contain too much energy!
Sources include: Nuts, seeds, oils, avocado, butter, tallow, ghee.
So to break it down in the simplest form, protein serves as the builder and source of repair while carbohydrates and fats serve as our energy sources. Knowing this, at the basic level, will unlock your ability to understand how different types of foods will influence your metabolic performance and begin to recognize the cues that our bodies send tell us whether or not we are out of balance with any of these.
We know that if we try to put too much fuel in the gas tank of our cars, it will overflow and spill over on to the floor. However, our bodies are not so lucky. As explained above, our bodies have a storage mechanism for excess fuel, our fat tissue, with no maximum capacity. This is an evolutionary skill developed to protect us in an environment of scarce food resources. Thus, being overweight, or having high body fat is a side effect of metabolic issues, not a disease on its own. It is the direct result of taking in too much energy and your body not having the means to use it. Now apply this concept in our current food environment where a majority of our processed foods include added sugar, refined carbohydrates, and vegetable oils. The combination creates highly palatable foods, with vast amounts of usable energy providing short energy bursts and big-time crashes. These energy peaks and falls you feel are the large swings in sugar in the blood. Unfortunately, in today's society, when we feel "the crash", we reach for another cheap fuel source in the form of processed food. One can quickly see that a pattern of eating foods that consistently elevate our blood sugar and insulin will lead us down a path of excess fuel and storage. Here lies our root cause of the obesity epidemic.
We have lost touch on how to properly fuel our engines. We are giving our bodies too much energy in the form of carbohydrate-rich meals that don't make us feel full and subject our hormones, insulin, to continue to store it all. We must break this cycle by incorporating more foods that signal satiety and avoid the large energy spikes and troughs. Our goal becomes to maximize food quality in order to get all the required nutrition out of the foods we consume. We want to improve engine performance and reduce fat accumulation by keeping blood sugar and insulin low. We do this by eliminating the foods that cause elevated insulin levels and thus drive down fat accumulation.
So how do we start to find the right fuel?
My first suggestion is to take a look at your fridge, your pantry, and daily snack habits. Start writing down your meals and separate each item into two categories: Human-made or Earth-made. Then, break each column down into the three macronutrients we discussed above (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). Our goal is to move our foods towards more earth made food along the continuum and determine if one macronutrient makes up too much of our food choices.
After a couple of days, we can analyze what macronutrient categories our foods fall into and determine if we are over-fueling our engines. If we identify that a majority is falling in the carbohydrate category, which is most likely in our processed foods environment, then we can see the root of our problem. THERE IS NO GLOBAL MAGIC RATIO, however, if you are experiencing weight gain, there may be a glaring issue with the fuel source.
Food sources from the earth are biologically made to provide us with the correct micro and macronutrients, so their makeup will prevent us from overloading on them. A simple example is an apple. In the processed form of apple juice, we may be able to easily consume the equivalent of 4-5 apples in one sitting due to the removal of fiber and no need to chew. Not to mention the harmful addition of more sugar by the processed food industry. This quickly becomes a very energy-dense source from sugar, spikes blood sugar and insulin, and provides little to no satiation. From the above, we can see that this is a harmful fuel source. In contrast, there aren't many of us that would be willing to try and eat 4-5 whole apples in one sitting. The chewing required, fibrous material, and hormonal signaling, will make us feel full. Our energy requirements will be met and we will be prevented from overconsumption. This model works with refined grains and starches contrasted with whole grains and potatoes, the combination of vegetable oils and sugar found in cookies in contrast with a snack comprised of avocado and a piece of fruit, and the list goes on and on. We can quickly see that processed foods are cheap sources of fuel that provide short energy bursts but lead to overconsumption, harmful blood sugar spikes, and insulin signaling.
It is time to start fueling our engines properly. Take a couple of weeks to use the tools provided and identify any problem areas. Start experimenting by switching out your fuel sources from boxes and bags to real, whole foods. Play with the ratio of foods that come from protein, carbohydrates, and fat by trying to incorporate more fat and protein to increase satiation and keep blood sugar controlled. Share your experiences and have fun with it. As blood sugar and insulin get under control, you will feel your body start signaling performance gains such as more energy, less brain fog, reduced inflammation, and a reduction in fat accumulation!