A recent telephone survey of 1,234 adults about their eating habits conducted by the Consumer Reports National Resource Center showed a mismatch between people’s thoughts and their actions. For example, 90 percent of respondents claimed that their diet was “somewhat,” “very,” or “extremely” healthy. But their responses to questions about what they actually ate were not in sync with these descriptions. For example, of the respondents:
Only 53 percent avoid or limit sweets and sugary beverages.
Only 58 percent have five or more serving of vegetables and fruits a day.
Only 60 percent regularly choose whole grains over refined grain products.
Only 78 percent had had breakfast the morning they were called for the survey.
It’s worth mentioning that the percentage given above for fruit and vegetable intake is significantly higher than those cited in a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, which found, for example, that only a quarter of American adults actually consume three or more servings of veggies a day. Either the Consumer Reports respondents were an atypical bunch or they overstated the prevalence of vegetables in their meals.
Moreover, the Consumer Reports researchers found that the variety of vegetables the respondents ate was quite limited. Although 78 percent claimed to have salad greens at least once a week (!), followed by tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, corn and peppers, they rarely or never ate such vegetables as Swiss chard, bok choy and eggplant.
The proof that the participants’ diets were not as healthy as they thought they were was in their weight. Only about 35 percent of the respondents were of a healthy weight; 36 percent were overweight and 21 percent were obese. However, a discrepancy between reality and self-image turned up here as well. Only 50 percent perceived themselves to be overweight or obese, but based on data they provided on height, weight, gender and age, closer to 60 percent actually fell into this category, which correlates roughly with national statistics.
Call it optimism or delusion, there’s no doubt that people tend to embellish the truth when responding to a questionnaire. But I think when it comes to nutrition, another factor is also at work. Despite the glut of information in books, online and in advertisements for food products, people are confused. In fact, the sheer volume of information, much of it contradictory, has backfired. In their growing disenchantment with conflicting authoritative sources, people tend to become unresponsive to any nutritional advice whatsoever. Who can blame them? And when people are confused, it’s not surprising that their actions don’t necessarily match their words.
Why has the process of eating gotten so complicated? In part, I think it is because people have lost the ability to listen to their body’s signals about hunger and satiety. We eat for all sorts of reasons in addition to hunger. Boredom, depression, habit and lack of knowledge are certainly factors. And the quality of the food that is readily available and marketed to us is often questionable. Broccoli has a hard time competing with the seductive odor of a hot cinnamon bun.
Food Supplies Energy
Fortunately, there are some areas in which the science of nutrition is clear. We get our energy mainly from three macronutrients: fat, protein and carbohydrate. And foods are their sources. Fish, poultry, meat, tofu and eggs are all sources of protein. Strawberries and green beans are sources of carbohydrate. Olive oil and avocado are sources of fat. But eggs also contain fat and a little bit of carbohydrate. Meat, poultry, and fish contain fat, along with protein. Vegetables contain small amounts of protein. An avocado also contains carbohydrate. We call a food a protein source when it is made up primarily of protein. Likewise we call a food a carb source when it’s primarily composed of carbohydrate. Ditto with a fat source. Very few foods are the source of only one macronutrient, with table sugar being one example—all carbs—and olive oil being all fat.
Just as your car burns gasoline, our bodies burn fat and carbohydrate (in the form of glucose, or blood sugar) for energy. These macronutrients fuel activities like running after your kids or walking the dog, as well as the normal processes of digestion, respiration and the like. Instead of gallons, we measure our energy intake and output as calories. Without sufficient glucose to burn the body turns to both dietary fat and body fat. Fat is just as good a fuel, but as long as adequate glucose is available, fat becomes our backup fuel. In the very simplest terms, you want to choose your source of energy and expenditure of energy to maintain weight or to exceed your output. And if your goal is to lose weight, burning fat makes the most sense.
The Role of Protein
It’s important to consume an adequate amount of protein at every meal for several reasons. Protein is satiating so it helps to keep you from overeating. It also helps repair all the cells in your body. Eating enough protein keeps your body from poaching on muscle and also keeps your blood sugar on an even plane, which helps moderate your appetite. But protein is not your body’s first or even it second choice as a source of energy. If neither glucose nor fat is readily available, the body will resort to metabolizing muscle for the protein necessary to survive.
Timing of Meals
Eating at frequent intervals—that means three meals and two snacks—and right sizing your portions are also key to good nutrition. When you moderate swings of blood sugar by eating this way, you’re less likely to stimulate insulin production, which plays an important role in storing body fat. Also important are eating foods that are metabolized slowly. They include protein sources and carbohydrate foods high in fiber. But you can slow down the effects of any carbohydrate source by eating it with a protein or fat source. Up to this point, there is general agreement by nutritionists and food scientists.
The Fat Vs. Carbs Debate
There’s a limit in terms of how much protein we can eat. If we eat too much, we’ll feel ill. Consequently, the majority of our calories must come from fat and carbohydrates. Which raises the issue of how much of each constitutes a healthy diet. The approach of the Atkins Diet, which is validated by more than 60 peer-review studies, can be summed up as follows:
Eliminate all high-glycemic carbs during the initial phase, Induction. This gets blood sugar and insulin levels under control and almost inevitably results in a loss of bloat (retained fluid) and fat, usually fairly dramatically.
Add back precise amounts of selected carbohydrates while continuing to monitor your weight, your energy and your well-being.
Level off at the carb intake that allows you to continue losing one to two pounds a week.
Continue at that level of carb intake until you reach your goal weight. Then stay at that new level of carb intake—which will be different for every individual—for the rest of your life.
Don’t fear fat. A balance of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated natural (especially omega-3s) fats are essential to health and appetite control. As long as carb intake is controlled, your body will continue to burn fat and it poses no health risk.
Always choose unprocessed, whole natural foods. The majority of your carbohydrate should come from the low-glycemic vegetables known as foundation vegetables.
Supplement with a multivitamin/mineral and omega-3 fatty acids.
Use low-carb products from reputable companies and enjoy Atkins bars and shakes as supplements to your basic eating plan, not as a substitute for it.
Then, if you get a phone call from an organization conducting a survey on eating habits, you can in all t ruthfulness, respond that you:
Eat at least five servings of vegetables a day, and often more.
Consume no added sugar.
Eat no refined grains.
Have breakfast every day.
And hopefully, before long, you could also say that your weight is where it should be for your height, age and gender.