In the earlier post, Gaining and Losing Any Amount of Weight, we covered basics of macronutrients, and how to build a food plan for any goal. But we didn’t discuss food or actual menu selection at all.
Before getting into this, I want to establish up-front that I am not interested in any particular dieting style, paleo, keto, vegan, etc. We want to deal in principles here on this site and talk about how to build a plan for success.
What does Food Actually Do For Us?
It seems silly to have to start here, but it’s important. The diet & fitness industry is obsessed with vague ideas about food quality, and likes to use unscientific terms like superfoods, and “fighting” foods (those that “fight inflammation”, “fight disease” and so forth). This terminology largely promotes misunderstanding of what food does for us, and allow diet marketers to attach any health or spiritual benefit they like to any food, which in turn allows them to sell products and services.
For most purposes of dieting & self-improvement, what food really does for us is 3 key things:
- Acts as a source of calories & energy, which can either put us in a caloric surplus (gaining weight) or caloric deficit (losing weight).
- Acts as a source of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) — all three of which are crucial for progress
- Acts as a source of micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
Below are examples of macronutrient pie charts for 3 fairly common foods, that let us see how different they are in what they provide to the body.
Usually this is referred to as a category because there are so many different vitamins and minerals that the body needs. Some are needed in large amounts, others only trace amounts are needed. The most important are the kinds of things you’d see on the side of a multivitamin bottle: Vitamin A, several Vitamin Bs, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Folate, Vitamin D, and so on. We get these in varying amounts from everything that we eat, and if you were to scrupulously add up everything you eat, almost everybody is getting too much of a few – which does not cause any harm – and getting too little of many others – which may or may not cause harm, depending on what you’re missing.
When we look at the picture this way, “food quality” is a rather abstract idea. It is not the case that bananas or lentils are better than chicken thighs. The real question is:
What is the overall diet, and what do you need to make sure you get enough macronutrients and micronutrients?
Quality of a single food is a bit of a red herring. What matters is the overall composition of the diet. Focusing on demonizing individual foods, or holding up “superfoods” is missing the forest for the trees.
Not so Fast
The entire diet is just the sum of it is parts. You do still need to get everything that your body needs, to prevent problems from forming. Serious vitamin deficiencies over time create major problems. Protein deficiencies may result in losing bodyweight but not fat.
Caloric surplus diets rarely have to worry about overall food & diet quality, for a simple reason: if you’re taking in more calories than you need with a mixture of good foods, after “adding up all of the pie charts” you’re in good shape to be getting more than you need of everything.
Losing weight though – caloric deficit diets – are another matter. The total number of calories you take in is less than your body needs. This means that it becomes more important to eat foods that have high levels of a variety of micronutrients. Because you have less “caloric space” in your diet, you have to make sure what you eat counts.
Empty Calories: Alcohol and Sweets
This comes into sharp focus with alcohol and sweets, probably the two categories people have the most problems with. These categories produce calories, but few macro- or micro-nutrients.
In a caloric surplus diet, occasionally adding these things may not be too bad, particularly if it helps keep you sane, and aids diet adherence.
In a caloric deficit diet, they are doubly unhelpful and should be avoided. Not only do they contribute calories (which you don’t have much of in a caloric deficit) but not having micronutrients, they crowd out the caloric space for other things you should be eating to stay healthy.
“Crowding out caloric space for good things” is what “empty calories” really means.
To review, we know:
- Calories: We have to hit certain targets to gain or lose the weight we want
- Macronutrients: We need a certain amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to hit our goals
- Micronutrients: We need to get the right amounts of vitamins and minerals in order to thrive and avoid sickness and medical conditions
- Composition: The total diet composition is what matters (the forest). What you have as a side dish for your lunch does not.
- Psychology: It has to be something you can stick to over the long run.
So then we can think of food quality as its ability to be a helpful component in that overall strategy. Alcohol & sweets aren’t really helpful in any of the above criteria, except maybe the 5th.
If you’re losing weight — food quality (and particularly micronutrient density) matters a lot because of principle #3. Caloric deficit diets have no “space available” for junk, and need to focus on real foods (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, grains, and things you can recognize come from a farm). Caloric surplus diets need all of the same foundations, but have a bit more leeway and the issue of food quality is less acute, because they have more “space”.