The TYPE of calories you eat can have a huge impact on how efficiently your body works.
One more time for the cheap seats: the only thing you must to do to lose fat is to maintain a caloric deficit. In theory, you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. HOWEVER, your body works best with certain kinds of fuel. If you eat crappy foods, you will probably feel like crap. Plus, when your body isn’t running efficiently, neither is your metabolism. That makes it harder to maintain the correct deficit.
There are calories (energy) in dirt… but you can easily see how eating dirt is going to cause other problems. See where I’m going?
Unfortunately, many of the foods we commonly consume are just as bad as dirt; we just don’t realize it. If you eat foods that disrupt the natural balance of your bodily functions, you run a greater risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia, etc. Yes, overall calorie intake determines weight gain or loss… but the quality of those calories determines how well you are able to burn future calories. Certain foods put an unnecessary strain on my system, and those are the foods I try to avoid.
With that in mind, the following is a list of the foods that I avoid:
- Added (refined) sugars
- Refined grains
- “Fake foods,” i.e. fake sugars and added chemicals
Not only are these foods “bad” for me, but I know from experience that eating them is a quick way to sabotage my fitness goals. They also tend to be calorically dense and throw me out of a deficit without satisfying my hunger. If you cut even a few of these items from your diet, you’ll find it much easier to be in a deficit. You’ll feel better and you’ll also be more in-tune with how these foods screw with your system, which means you’ll be able to feel how they affect you the next time you eat them. Nobody is perfect, but if you are looking to create more discipline in your diet, avoiding these foods is a rapid way to jumpstart your goals. Here’s why…
Added (Refined) Sugars
Science provides ample evidence of the drawbacks of consuming too much sugar. The problem is SUGAR IS EVERYWHERE. No joke, I bought a can of green beans at the super market recently and “sugar” was listed as an ingredient. Who wants that? Also, WHY?
Sugar creeps into our foods in myriad ways, and it takes many forms. Corn syrup, cane sugar, added fructose, glucose, sucrose… it’s everywhere. I’m not going to dive deep into the political, economic and industrial reasons that food manufacturers put sugar in almost everything, because if I start writing about that here I’ll never finish this post. (Maybe later I’ll write a post dedicated specifically to the pitfalls of sugar, but for now I’ll be brief.)
Added sugars wreak havoc on your body by causing unnatural blood sugar spikes and falsifying your awareness of energy expenditure. You feel a rush, and then later, as your blood sugar dips back to lower levels, you feel tired. This fluctuation is be addictive and it taxes your endocrine system (by creating unnecessary insulin spikes). Moreover, added sugars sneak unnecessary calories into your diet.
You need to read the labels wrapped around the foods you eat to make sure you aren’t eating more sugar than you need/want. Here’s a link to a HuffPo article about some of the hidden sugars you might be missing.
This is my rule: if I want sugar, I eat a dessert. If I want sugar, I’ll eat candy or chocolate (in moderation, of course). Canned green beans don’t need sugar! My salad doesn’t need to have sugar added to it in the form of salad dressing or 1/2 a cup of cranberries! If I decide to have a Pumpkin Spice Latte™ I am thinking of that as a dessert—an occasional treat—not something that I drink every morning before work.
I know that when I eat refined sugars, in any form, I am going to feel a spike in my blood sugar level, which will ultimately lead to a “crash” when my blood sugar level swings in the opposite direction. I feel like shit when that happens. If I need (or crave) sugar, I try to get it in its purest forms and I time it strategically to compliment my energy expenditure, i.e. right after a workout. That’s the perfect time to eat a piece of fruit or add berries to oatmeal. Exercise depletes glycogen reserves, so my blood sugar is already low at that point. Eating an apple after a workout brings me back to neutral. (In fact, I add a carbohydrate supplement that is mostly pure sugar to my post-workout protein shake. More on that later…)
I know how added sugars impact my body. When I first “gave up” refined sugar a few years ago I got terribly sick. I was immediately exhausted and within two days I succumbed to a full-blown cold that knocked me out for a week. It was awful.
When I emerged on the other-side, I became much more in-tuned with how sugar affects my body. I believe many of us are addicted to sugar, and if you avoid it you will feel better. The easiest way to avoid more sugar than you need is to make sure it’s not sneaking into your foods— read the labels. If you’re serious about your goals, I suggest you skip the foods with added sugar, and have a piece of fruit when the timing is right.
“Refined grains,” for me, is basically code for “bread.” Also crackers, cakes, and the stuff on the outside of fried chicken. I had a gym coach in college who told us that donuts are the worst food you can eat. “They take flour, bleach it, suck out all the nutrients, then they mix it with lard and sugar, then they fry it in lard and then coat it in more sugar,” he said. The message stuck with me. The idea of bleaching the flour to make it white… sucking nutrients out and breaking it down so that it’s easy to digest. Industrial food processing strips the wheat germ and bran from the flour, essentially leaving you with starch. Does that sound like wheat is something your body is supposed to be eating?
I’ve tried the Whole 30 diet and I’ve gone “Paleo” at times, limiting all grains from my diet. I think the biggest benefit to diets like this are that they limit your consumption of hidden sugars and chemicals, and that’s obviously a good thing. But I’ve also come to realize that my body runs better when I include a limited amount of certain grains, as long as the processing is minimal. These good grains include rice, quinoa and whole corn (which isn’t a “grain” until it’s dried, but might as well be).
In my experience, the worst possible refined grain is wheat. I don’t eat wheat in any form. When I eat it, I feel bloated and gross. I’ve also noticed that when it’s processed heavily (which is always) it causes my blood sugar to spike very quickly, and then I crash immediately after. Bread is essentially sugar. I avoid bread at all times, in all forms.
If I crave cake or pie, I eat baked goods that are made with nut flours. These may be higher in calories due to the high fat content in nuts, but they don’t fuck with my blood sugar the way flour does. Even when a cake has a lot of sugar in it—- coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, etc.— I don’t experience as much of a spike in blood sugar as I do when I eat refined wheat. That’s because bread has a higher glycemic index than table sugar. A Kaiser roll has a glycemic index of 73, while a Snickers Bar® (60g) has a glycemic index of 60. Think about that for a minute.
Are you familiar with the term “bread head?”
There are multiple studies connecting a high-glycemic (heavy on carbohydrates) diet with Alzheimer’s disease. The term “Bread Head” is the title of a documentary in process by a guy named Max Luguvre I think he’s the one who coined this phrase. My limited understanding of the research behind this connection is that glycemic spikes can lessen the body’s ability to sweep amyloid plaque from the brain. This “plaque” is the stuff that causes Alzheimer’s disease.
Regardless of the strength of the current evidence, I know, personally, that refined grains, especially wheat, make me tired, cranky… and fat. I will eat corn off the cob, but I don’t eat corn chips. I eat potato chips on occasion, but I do not eat Sun Chips. Bread— even whole grain types— is NOT good for me, so I don’t eat it in any form. You can get enough fiber from fruits and vegetables, and enjoy sugars (in their natural state) that won’t cause insulin spikes the way refined grains will.
I know you’ve heard this before, and I know you probably “love” bread… but if you are serious about losing fat and feeling better, you should skip it altogether. Bread is not worth it.
Avoiding alcohol started as a necessary personal choice for me, and then it evolved into a health choice. I spent much of my 20’s drunk to some degree, and eventually I found help for that problem. I don’t consider myself “sober,” and I am not part of a twelve-step program at this moment, but I haven’t had a drink in almost 10 years. Life is better that way. I’m nicer, less depressed/manic, and I’ve found that exercise is a better way to regulate my mood than alcohol ever was. I don’t self medicate, and I don’t need a drink to talk to people in a crowded room. It took me many, many years to learn that lesson.
Later, I discovered an important added benefit to avoiding alcohol: a sharp reduction in calories. Alcohol is packed with calories, and it’s easy to “over eat” with booze in the following ways:
- Alcohol is liquid. Liquid calories are easier/faster to ingest; make you feel less “full,” and they add up quickly
- Alcohol is often mixed with sugary syrups and fruit juices that increase the amount of calories you’re consuming
- Alcohol makes you hungry, by stimulating neurons that produce agouti-related peptide (AGrP). This peptide is created by the brain during starvation mode as a way to increase appetite.
- Alcohol impairs your capacity for self-restraint, i.e it loosens inhibitions and makes it easier to “cheat.”
Alcohol in moderation might work for you
It doesn’t work for me, because of the reasons I just listed. But I’m not trying to police all of your fun, and a lot of people have fun when they drink booze. That’s cool. If you decide you can’t live without it, consider limiting your consumption. Opt for drinks with lower calories, and alternate alcoholic drinks with glasses of water.
And remember: all of those alcohol calories count against your deficit, and they add up quickly. Make sure to include them in your food journal with accuracy. Opt for a gin and soda— a drink that is relatively easy to estimate caloric content— instead of a margarita, which is not only high in sugar, but will vary wildly in caloric content depending on the bartender who makes it.
This one is hard for me. I love cheese. Or, at least, I used to. I haven’t eaten any cheese in about 4 years. It started because my partner is lactose intolerant. I realized that dairy typically made me feel bloated and gross, too, so I stopped. Then I started researching why it makes me (and many others) feel bad.
We are the only mammal on the planet that eats the milk of other animals. That’s weird when you think about it, right? Would you walk up to a cow and just suck on it’s teet? I don’t think so… and yet we’ve developed an entire industry around cow’s milk.
Lactose is the sugar found in milk. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks this sugar down, and it is most likely only produced in adults as an evolutionary response to early man’s discovery of dairy as a nutritional supplement. Here’s an article on evolution from the University of Berkeley that states “most adults in the world are lactose intolerant and cannot digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk.”
The ability to produce lactase as an adult is the result of a genetic mutation in response to the amount of dairy your cultural ancestors ate. In other words, your ability to digest milk is directly related to your cultural (racial, ethnic) heritage. It’s not “natural” for any of us to eat dairy.
So why do some fitness nuts continue to eat dairy? Because it’s a quick way to supplement your protein and fat intake. But as a staple? I don’t think so. The more lactose you ingest, the more likely you are to experience bloating, diarrhea, and cramping when your body can’t process it.
When I did eat dairy, I’d notice major differences in how different processing methods would make me feel. Certain cheeses were fine, while others made me think I was about to crap my pants. Combine that gastric-stress with refined wheat, i.e. pizza, and you are asking your body to work with materials it isn’t naturally predisposed to process. Why do that to myself.
TIP: When you eat out, ask the kitchen to cook your food with oil instead of butter. In my experience, most restaurants are willing to do this… it’s often easier for kitchen to cook with oil.
What about whey protein and casein? Aren’t they milk products?
In recent years I’ve been experimenting with whey and casein again. I use whey protein in the morning after workouts, because it is quick to digest, but I ONLY use whey that is 100% lactose free. Typically the Isopure brand. Most of the other brands give me the farts.
I also use Casein at night before bed, because it’s a slow digesting protein and is processed slowly overnight when my body gets to work at building the muscle I earned during the daytime. I believe most casein products to be practically lactose free… especially if they are carb-free. If there is any residual lactose in the casein products I use, it’s so little that I haven’t noticed any issues.
Some people experience gastric distress from casein itself. Calcium caseinate is, as described, a slower digesting protein. It’s harder to digest, which is why it takes a longer. I used to avoid protein bars with casein as the primary protein because those bars made me super bloated. I assumed that it was the casein, so I opted for whey instead. But after experimenting with pure casein powder, I’ve come to realize that my body was most likely reacting to the sugar substitutes, chemicals, etc., in those protein bars, not the actual casein. Which brings me to the next group of “foods” I avoid…
“Fake foods” with weird chemical ingredients that I can’t pronounce
“Fake foods” include a broad category of foods I try to avoid. It includes fake desserts, foods with engineered sugars or fats, and desserts masquerading as protein supplements (protein bars). I try to eat “clean” in the sense that I want to know what’s in the food I’m eating. There is plenty of research showing the bad effects of fake sugars on the body’s insulin-response mechanism. In fact, there is evidence that diet soda is worse for weight loss than regular soda.
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Their benefits (fewer calories) are overshadowed by the ways they screw with my body’s natural ability to process actual sugar. I try to avoid them as much as possible.
The more I’m able to maintain a clean diet, i.e. free from fake sugars, bulkers, emulsifiers, preservatives and chemicals I can’t pronounce, the more in-tune I’ve become to how these chemicals effect me. They make me feel awful. Symptoms range from headaches to gas to depression and anxiety. I had no idea these supposedly “healthy” substitutes were wreaking havoc on my body until I eliminated them.
This includes protein bars!
The biggest culprit: protein bars. I was pescatarian for almost 13 years. (I ate fish and dairy, but no beef, chicken, pork… you get it.) I foolishly believed that protein bars were a safe supplement for my protein needs. For YEARS I would routinely eat two or more protein bars a day. Most of them were flavored to taste like candy bars or desserts. I had no idea those bars were tanking my fitness goals, by messing with my endocrine system and forcing my body to process unnatural chemicals.
Earlier this year I cut out protein bars completely. I had been eating several Quest bars a day, thinking that they were a safe supplement. Within weeks of eliminating them from my diet I began to lose fat like never before. I’m not kidding—it seemed like a miracle. Even while maintaining the same caloric deficit, there was something about those bars that was hindering my fat loss efforts.
My guess is that the biggest culprit here are the fake sugars. Fake sugars destroy your ability to detect, process, and sort natural sugar as an energy source. The article I linked to above (re: diet soda) talks about this, and here’s an article that details how fake sugars are related to an accelerated “blood insulin and glucose response.”
Fake sugars make it harder for your body to process natural sugars effectively, and may even lead to Type 2 diabetes. So why eat them? The risks outweigh the rewards.
Here’s my philosophy: if I want something sweet, I eat sugar as it was intended to be eaten, e.g naturally and in moderation. I’ll have a piece of candy or a pie (made with paleo crust) that use natural cane sugar, maple syrup, or agave as a sweetener. I eat natural sugars, not chemical substitutes. Even better, I’ll have a piece of fruit. I’ve definitely noticed that limiting hyper-sweet fake sugars has heightened my response to fructose… which makes an apple taste like candy. REALLY! You probably think I’m an asshole for suggesting that an apple is the same as a candy bar, but I’m not exaggerating. Plus, fruit has fiber.
If I need protein, I eat meat, fish, poultry and the occasional whey or casein supplement (with as few added chemicals as possible). I don’t eat protein bars.
I hope I didn’t take the wind out of your sails. You don’t have to eat rabbit food in order to lose that fat. Avoiding these items has made a huge difference for me (I know that they will make a difference for you, too), but only you can decide how far you’re willing to go to meet your goals.
I’m not a perfect eater and my diet is not 100% “clean.” I eat in restaurants. I eat on-the-go. I even eat some of the stuff on this list occasionally. Sometimes that happens by accident and sometimes because fuck it, I decide to. But when I do, I accept the consequences and I correct course as quickly as possible.
You know that your first priority is maintaining a caloric deficit. It is ultimately the only thing that matters. But as you lose more weight and try harder to fight the starvation response, eating foods that help your body run more efficiently will become key for continued wight-loss. Overloading your system with crappy foods will slow your metabolism.
You don’t have to skip these foods to lose weight. But I guarantee that if you avoid the stuff on this list, you will feel different: better, stronger, and, overall, more aware of how your body works with the foods you feed it. You’ll have a better perception of your insulin response and how certain foods impact your blood sugar level. You will feel less bloated and more regular. You’ll be better at realizing when you are actually hungry vs. thirsty or just crashing. And I expect that most people will notice major increases in energy, like I did.
All of those things happened for me when I stopped eating these foods. Give it a try for a few weeks and see how you feel.