So you want to live a healthier lifestyle and change your diet. But who should you trust? Individual doctors? Scientific studies? Diet programs? Nutrition gurus? All of them claim to have the answers – but those answers are often at odds with each other.
Why is this the case? After all, we can travel to space and edit the genome! It seems bizarre that we haven’t yet determined, once and for all, which foods are best for the human body.
Well, here’s the thing: it’s just not that simple. Take that eternally raging debate – fats vs. carbohydrates. Which is better? The low-fat faction argues that fat leads to obesity and higher cholesterol levels – both of which increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The low-carb camp, in contrast, believes fats are unjustly demonized; carbohydrates are the real fatteners, and they also trigger cravings and diabetes. So who’s right?
Both sides are convinced of their position and can cite countless studies to support their arguments. How can this be? Maybe you’ve guessed it already. According to some research, the problem is that the camps aren’t asking the right question. We shouldn’t simplify the discourse to the question of “fats or carbs?”; rather, we should ask: “Which fats and carbs?”
Various studies show that both high-fat diets and high-carbohydrate diets can be healthy. The traditional Japanese Okinawa diet, for example, is nearly 85 percent carbohydrates, while Mediterranean cuisine derives up to 40 percent of its nutritional value from fats. Both diets are very healthy.
Another aspect to consider in the carbs-vs.-fats debate is personal disposition. There are people, for example, who simply don’t tolerate carbohydrates well; they thrive on a low-carb diet. We all have very individual metabolisms. You should base your diet on what’s best for your body, as well as on your tastes and particular lifestyle. We’ll dive more into how to do this in the following sections.
Depending on how it’s consumed, protein either makes us slim and strong or overweight and diseased.
Most diets, whether low-fat or low-carb, are based on the same simple premise: Maximize your protein intake while minimizing your intake of everything else. And, generally speaking, it’s not a bad rule. For starters, protein is essential to life, since it provides the material that our cells are made from. High-protein foods are also more filling than low-protein fare; the more protein you eat, the fuller you’ll feel. As a result, you’ll eat less and lose weight.
But, as with most things in life, a healthy diet depends on a healthy balance. And protein, like just about everything else you’re likely to eat, can lead to disease if consumed to excess.
Before discussing the negative effects protein can have, let’s take a closer look at why the right amount of protein can be a positive. The first thing to know is that your body wants to keep your protein intake constant. If your body’s daily protein requirement hasn’t yet been reached, you’ll feel hungry – no matter how much fat or how many carbohydrates you’ve already eaten. This happens especially if you eat mostly processed foods, like fast food or convenience store snacks, because they contain little protein and a lot of carbohydrates and fats. On the other hand, if you’ve already fulfilled your protein requirement with a few small meals from mostly whole foods, you’ll feel full and satisfied.
So the right amount of protein is absolutely a good thing. But too much isn’t good at all – because not only does protein cause cells to grow; it also causes them to age.
When adults consume too much protein, their cells use it to produce cellular building material beyond what the body needs. This excess cell mass causes the cells to clump together from the inside – a process also known as cell aging, which can trigger or accelerate diseases like Alzheimer’s and various cancers.
For example, several studies have shown that a high-protein diet even promotes the growth of tumors. But such health-damaging aspects only apply to animal proteins. Vegetable proteins, on the other hand, are actually exceptionally healthy!
So if you want to do everything right, you should definitely eat enough protein. Ideally, 15 percent of your calories come from proteins, preferably proteins derived from plants. But that doesn’t mean you have to go vegan to eat healthily. There are also some harmless animal proteins that you can safely enjoy in abundance, like fish, seafood, and yogurt. But, when it comes to meat, most people would do well to eat less.
Carbs are beneficial for some and unhealthy for others – but they’re always harmful in the form of sugar.
There’s an Ancient Egyptian proverb that holds up well in our modern times: “A quarter of what you eat keeps you alive. The other three quarters keep your doctor alive.” But nowadays we have information to help us change this ratio and require fewer trips to the doctor. What’s key is finding out your metabolic type and how well your body processes carbohydrates.
Most people have normal insulin sensitivity and so can digest carbohydrates without any problems. Insulin-resistant people, on the other hand, hardly break down any sugar. Their body converts carbohydrates directly into a spare tire. That’s why many insulin-resistant people are overweight.
Insulin has the function of lowering your blood-sugar level. It stimulates cells to absorb sugar from the blood and then burn it so that your blood-sugar level can normalize. If you’re insulin resistant, it means your body doesn’t respond well to insulin, resulting in your blood-sugar level remaining at a constant high. When that happens, your body’s cells “believe” that your body is always supplied with plenty of energy. As a result, your body never switches to “emergency mode,” which is when it uses fat reserves. This is why insulin-resistant people hardly ever burn fat. If you belong to this metabolic group, you should avoid carbs rather than fats.
Metabolism type plays a big role in how your body responds to carbs, but so does age. Your body becomes more and more insulin-resistant as you grow older. But even if you’re 20 and in top physical condition, you should still pay attention to the types of carbohydrates you eat.
There are four simple rules you can follow:
- Good carbs are typically solids and not liquids because they keep you full longer.
- Good carbs are unprocessed. A loaf of whole grain bread is healthier than white toast.
- Good carbs contain dietary fiber. These are abundant in legumes, for example.
- Good carbs have a low glycemic value, meaning they’re digested slowly. Oatmeal is better than processed cereals – especially if your cornflakes contain sugar.
Sugar’s the only carb that’s always harmful. It causes weight gain, damages your teeth, clogs your arteries, can lead to diabetes, and increases your risk of cancer. It’s really a devil, so try to avoid it!
The problem is that pretty much all processed foods and drinks are pumped full of sugar – so the more you cook for yourself, the more easily you can steer clear of it.
Unsaturated fatty acids are better than saturated ones.
By now you know a bit about proteins and carbohydrates. So let’s move on to the most maligned end of the nutrient chain – fats.
First things first: fats don’t necessarily become body fat. Some types of fat do cause weight gain, but others are very healthy and even important for building muscle. These different types of fat are divided into four categories that differ at the molecular level.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the healthiest fats. You can find these in nuts, fish, and sunflower oil, among other places. Monounsaturated fatty acids are also useful for the body. You can continue to enjoy olive oil and avocados, for example, without hesitation. Saturated fatty acids, on the other hand, which you’ll find in palm oil and butter, are quite harmful. But not quite as harmful as trans fats. These are completely or partially hardened fats that, contrary to their original appearance, retain a solid aggregate state even at room temperature and have a longer shelf life. They’re found in margarine, french fries, industrial pastries, and many ready-made products like frozen pizza.
While the latter two types of fat are fattening, the former two are actually enormously healthy, because they help the body build muscle. They also keep cell membranes supple so that the cells can do their job better.
The superhero among fatty acids is olive oil. Recent studies show that olive oil reduces the risk of cancer, calms the immune system, delays skin aging, and can even prolong life. Furthermore, olive oil contains many phytochemicals, also called secondary plant compounds. Some of these stimulate cells to eat themselves, which might sound creepy but is, in fact, very beneficial. During this process, which is called autophagy, cells go from cultivation mode to recycling mode. In essence, your cells clean themselves, eliminating any molecular garbage that might be lying around.
It’s similar to omega-3 fatty acids – a group of super fats that deserve their hype. They can calm inflammation, fight cardiovascular disease and rheumatism, and even help overweight people lose weight. So it’s no wonder that everyone is so into flax and chia seeds. They contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, as do walnuts, salmon, and trout.
So we can say that when it comes to fats, the basic rule also applies: natural and homemade foods are always healthier than industrially produced ones – not least because you then have control over which fats are used.
Dangerous myths about drinks and dietary supplements are still circulating widely.
Let’s talk about drinks. What would you choose for a cozy Sunday morning, when you want something comforting but also healthy? Maybe a glass of orange juice, for that refreshing jolt of vitamin C? And a cup of coffee with milk, for that extra bit of calcium – but only one cup, because, as we all know, too much coffee is bad for the kidneys! Or is it?
When it comes to beverages, most people don’t have a clue what’s really healthy, and there are a lot of persistent myths. Juice, for example, is actually anything but healthy. Even though it contains vitamins, it’s simply teeming with dangerous sugar.
Milk is also not as good for us as was often claimed in the past. For infants and young children, it’s good for growth, but from adolescence, it should be consumed very sparingly, as it can lead to premature cell aging. In evolutionary terms, milk is simply not “intended” for adults. So, the fact that many people cannot tolerate milk is neither a coincidence nor a fad. In fact, 15–20 percent of all people in Germany are lactose intolerant. In Asia, the figure is as high as 90 percent!
But coffee – especially filter coffee – is surprisingly healthy for the heart and liver, contrary to persistent rumors. According to current research, three to five cups a day can do no harm. In fact, it actually has anti-aging properties. The same applies to alcohol, by the way, at least when enjoyed in moderation. A glass of beer, wine, or a small spirit a day increases life expectancy. It only becomes harmful to health after three glasses.
Now that we’ve covered coffee, milk, and alcohol, let’s look at another controversial topic: dietary supplements. Some are of the opinion that vitamins and minerals can do no harm – no matter in what form. Others adhere to the motto, “What’s not natural isn’t healthy for me.” So who’s right?
In principle, with the right diet, the body doesn’t need any additional vitamin preparations. Some supplements have even been proven to be harmful to health, like vitamin A or beta-carotene. You’re definitely safer if you get your vitamins from food. But there are two exceptions to this rule.
One is vitamin D. Unlike all other vitamins, the body produces vitamin D itself, with the help of the sun. But if you live in an area where there isn’t a lot of direct sunlight, it’s good to take vitamin D supplements.
The second exception is for vegetarians and vegans. They should remember to take vitamin B12 from time to time since it’s hardly found in plant-based foods.
The third exception is for some special occasions. For example, our bodies naturally produce melatonin which regulates night and day cycles or sleep-wake cycles but the production and release cycle fluctuate with the time of day, with levels naturally increasing in the evening and falling in the morning.
This is one reason melatonin supplements have become popular, especially when the melatonin cycle has been disrupted, such as that associated with jet lag.
Some research also has found that melatonin can be useful in helping people get to sleep. For example, when taken for short or long periods of time, melatonin supplements appear to be safe for adults, according to studies.
Resurge is one of the most popular melatonin supplements that promise to help you sleep better. It might allow your body to absorb enough melatonin to maximize your natural melatonin production. Besides, it is also marketed as a weight-loss supplement because epidemiological studies show that insufficient sleep is associated with a higher risk of obesity.
However, since the supplement industry is barely regulated, you might want to read some Resurge reviews before making any purchase of the supplement.
Your cells benefit when you have regular meals with long breaks in between.
You’ve surely heard of the much-hyped trend of intermittent fasting. Some people swear by the 16:8 rule – fast for 16 hours, then eat whatever you want within an eight-hour window. That means you can eat cheesy eggs, buttered rolls, and fatty bacon for breakfast, but only very light foods like herbal tea and miso soup in the evening.
Robust evidence suggests that healthy eating involves not only the right foods but also the right timing of your meals. But what, precisely, does that mean?
It’s best to eat only within a certain time window every day, such as from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. This way, you give your body enough time to cleanse itself. When the stomach is empty, the body begins to eliminate cellular components that are no longer needed. As you may recall, this is called autophagy – when cells eat themselves, so to speak.
This self-cleaning function isn’t only important for your overall health. Scientific research suggests it also has a big effect on fitness and appearance. Experiments proved that rats that had access to food for 24 hours became much fatter than rats that received the same amount of food in half the time.
Even if you don’t fast regularly, occasional, one-off fasts can also do your body good. The reason for this doesn’t have so much to do with chemistry as it does with your mind. Fasting over a longer period teaches you to do without food and to endure your hunger. This can help you develop the ability to wait when there’s only unhealthy food around. Next time you feel like snacking just for the sake of snacking, resist that preservative-laden cookie and do a mini-fast instead.
If you’re ready for a more intense experience and want to fast for several days, you should prepare well. One method of preparation with proven benefits is to eat as few carbohydrates as possible in the days leading up to the fast. The body then switches to burning fat before the fasting period, making the transition to autophagy easier. The cells are then already in high-gear fat-burning mode.
12 Simple Rules for Healthy Eating
Saturated fatty acids, trans fats, glycemic values, autophagy. Phew, that was a lot of biology and chemistry. Aren’t there a few simple rules you can follow?
You bet! Here are 12 simple, actionable nutrition rules – no degree in biochemistry required.
- Foods with short ingredient lists are the best. So, as often as possible, opt for unprocessed, natural foods that you prepare at home just the way you like them, instead of resorting to lazy options like frozen pizza. Your body will thank you!
- If you follow the first rule, the second will almost fulfill itself – try to avoid sugar and industrial trans fats, because they’re very harmful to your body.
- Meat and dairy products aren’t bad for you, but they shouldn’t be the basis of your entire diet. Instead, make plant-based foods your staple. Once you get off the beaten path of pasta and potatoes, a whole new world of vegetables, grains, and fruits will open up to you.
- Don’t be afraid of fat. You can guiltlessly enjoy unsaturated fatty acids such as those found in fish, seeds, nuts, avocados, and olive oil.
- If you want to lose weight, a low-carbohydrate diet is well worth a try. But if you still don’t see results after a few weeks, switch to another method. Low carb isn’t right for everyone.
- Foods with omega-3 can help you lose weight. This is because obesity is often accompanied by a state of inflammation in the brain, which results in your mind no longer perceiving the state of fullness. Omega-3 fats can alleviate this inflammation, restoring your ability to realize when you’re full.
- If your goal is to lose weight, make sure to get a healthy amount of protein in your diet. Yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, and legumes are delicious sources of protein.
- A good rule of thumb: fish is usually healthier than other meat.
- If you’re keen to keep dairy in your diet, note that yogurts and cheeses are usually healthier than milk.
- Try to eat only within a certain time window every day. This helps keep off excess weight by helping your cells clean themselves.
- Vitamin supplements are a waste of money, and some are even harmful. So say goodbye to your pillboxes and effervescent tablets and instead, eat a balanced and natural diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Exceptions are vitamin D supplements to compensate for lack of sunlight, and vitamin B12 if your diet is meat-free.
- And last but not least, most important of all: Eat foods you enjoy! After all, who wants to live forever if all you get to eat is gruel?
Nutrition research and health news are full of contradictions. The research is often guided by the wrong questions. One thing is certain: Neither carbohydrates nor fats are bad per se. Their effects are completely dependent on your individual disposition. Vegetable proteins are better than animal proteins, which are harmful in the long run. And, finally, it’s good for your body if you consume food only within a certain period of time every day.