Let us consider the concept of healthiness; what elements of a diet makes it a healthy one? I would like to appoint two main components:
- How well the diet satisfies the dietary requirements
- How the diet affects the blood sugar
They are interdependent – for instance, more minerals are consumed when the blood sugar fluctuates, and a high insulin level increases the required intake of Chrome – but both components are necessary and none of them by itself sufficient to render the diet good and working in the long run.
First, let us discuss the dietary requirements, the need of nutrients. Many find it difficult to fill their requirements of vitamins and minerals, and the reason for this is essentially that the food is poor in nutrients.
Meat, fish and eggs are all very dense in nutrients, and adding such foodstuff to every main meal will simplify greatly the task of satisfying the dietary requirements. Grain and beans do provide plenty of raw energy – but fairly little nutritional value, in relation to the amount of energy. This goes for their wholegrain counterparts as well! Deficits in Vitamin D, Iron, Folate, and Magnesium are increasingly common, and to a great extent, a low intake of animal food is to blame for this. Folate is plentiful in liver and egg yolk, not only in green vegetables. (Folate is approximated in dietary supplements by folic acid.)
The problem of supplying the necessary nutrients can be formulated in an alternative way; as the problem of how to eat sufficiently nutrient densely. In other words; the problem of avoiding having to supply an unfeasibly large volume of foodstuff – and hence amount of energy – just to satisfy these dietary requirements.
The artificial solution would be the powder diets – meal replacements, such as Herbalife. They are claimed to provide all the required nutrients, and do indeed contain most of the dietary minerals and vitamins. But can it really be that simple?
No, far from it. First of all, there are some vitamins which just does not give any health effects when provided as supplements – such as Vitamin C. Folic acid works poorly, except as a remedy for meningomyelocele. Vitamin A as a supplement is outright detrimental. In general, minerals are easier to absorb than vitamins, but they require a context of natural fats in order for the absorbance to work – and these meal replacements are all very low in fat. To make an example – the requisition of calcium works best when the calcium is combined with animal fat and the vitamins A and D.
Over to the issue of blood sugar control. Many popular diets seem to ignore the dietary requirements. while focusing on providing blood sugar control (although many fail considerably at this task, as well). A stable blood sugar is the key factor in providing dietary well-being fast; usually the timeframe for compensating a nutritional deficit is much longer.
The average diet constitutes a roller-coaster ride for the blood sugar level. This causes mood swings in the short run and disease in the long run; the danger of high blood sugar and high insulin alike is that they act inflammatory in the blood vessels.
A first step to take and a solid foundation for everyone’s diet would be a total avoidance of margarines, shortening and trans fat, because all of these damage the blood sugar regulation badly.
The popular diets have their different ways of dealing with the blood sugar issue. Many claim nowadays that slow carbohydrates are the way to go, that is, carbohydrates which raise the blood sugar slowly after the meal. It is a good rule of thumb, but in practice, the misunderstandings flourish:
- Coarse and dark bread in general is not slow – unless it contains whole grains or a major component of sourdough.
- Food with a low glycemic index satisfies hunger worse; if this is compensated by eating a bigger serving, in the end, the glycemic load may actually increase.
- The blood sugar response can not be calculated as merely a function of mass and glycemic index of the carbohydrates eaten; it is also depending on the situation: if the stomach is empty, the order in which the food is eaten, et cetera.
Beside this, there are fairly significant individual differences in how a certain carbohydrate affects the blood sugar; slow carbs are in reality not behaving slowly for everyone eating them.
It is a common belief that a serving of parboiled rice can be replaced by half a serving of beans and halv a serving of mashed potatoes, and in the end the blood sugar response will be the same in the two cases since parboiled rice has GI above average, beans have a low GI, and mashed potatoes have high GI. This assumption is flawed! In reality, the blood sugar response is for the most part controlled by the highest glycemic index appearing on your plate, not the average GI. In my example, the mashed potatoes would influence both blood sugar and insulin levels the most. The following might be somewhat controversial, but if you have any intentions of staying full for some time after your meal, my advice is: eat nothing high-glycemic.
There is another prevailing and equally flawed solution to the blood sugar problem: the often cited advice to continously snack (to eat six times a day). The idea is to top up the blood sugar constantly, as to never find oneself with a dropping blood sugar level and in a bad mood. The difficulties in maintaining such an elaborate scheme are huge, however; every meal must be sufficiently small in size, and no snack time may be skipped. Add to this a growing frustration of never being allowed to eat until you are full, and sometimes having to eat when you do not feel hungry. No, a much better scheme is to actually pay attention to the signals of hunger and satiation provided by the body. On a side note, snacking increases the risk of damage to the teeth, and of constipation (the intestines signal to set to work is a full stomach).
The next patent method for maintaining a balanced blood sugar, is exercise. The blood sugar is decreased by exercise, but it is a short term effect. Exercise may lower blood sugar due to increased energy demand, but the exercise will also trigger exudation of glucagon, which in turn raises the blood sugar, an effect which is more or less substantial in different people. While some will be starving immediately after their workout, others have no problem going for hours without food – in this sense, exercise is properly considered more as a way of staying satisfied longer, than as a way of lowering an already high blood sugar level.
A different method is increasing protein consumtion, recommended by the Zone diet, among others. The general idea is to lower glycemic load. Proteins satisfies hunger well, and studies have shown a high protein consumtion to have weight loss effects. But – if you eat lots of protein, blood sugar will rise, especially so if the protein is of the quickly absorbed kind, found for instance in dairy products and egg whites. There are also drawbacks of maintaining a high consumtion of protein and at the same time keeping the fat consumtion low – this will be detrimental for the requisition of nutrients.
So what about a high intake of fat? Fat has barely any blood sugar raising effect at all, and hence the risk of a blood sugar level rising too fast and then dropping too low is drastically lowered by such a diet. Fat furthermore provides a longstanding feeling of satisfaction, but things may still go out of hand if it is combined with fast carbohydrates. The fat would signal satiety, while the carbs would trigger signals of hunger. A possible result a couple of hours after the meal is a stomach still feeling satisfied, but a brain aching for food. Our individual differences play a part here too; for some people, even slow carbohydrates will be too fast.
The low-fat version of the paleolithic diet (as made popular by Cordain and Lindeberg, among others – consisting of lean meat, fish, fruit, nuts and vegetables, but no grain or dairy) is a well working diet in the first sense, the nutritional sense (unless it is very low-fat), but it stumbles on the second criterion. The lean food in combination with the abundance of fruit and nuts easily renders cravings and feelings of unsatisfaction. (The diet is also a fairly expensive one to follow, because of the large volumes of foodstuff required, much of which being lean meat).
There are of course some diets which fail miserably at both the above tasks – neither provide enough nutrients or keep the blood sugar in check. Many official food recommendations issued by governments (such as the infamous “plate model” by the Swedish Department of Agriculture) are really designed with the aim of describing a cheap but feasible way of eating – they are not designed with the individual’s best health in mind! (This really is an essential insight whenever official food recommendations are considered.) They generally claim to take dietary requirements into consideration, but when adding up the recommendations, the result will be too few nutrients – because of too constrained fat intake.
The Weight Watcher method also fits the category of double failures. Their only goal is maximal weight loss, and whether the weight lost is only subverted muscle mass does not seem to be taken into consideration.
In my opinion, the ideal diet is a paleolithic kind of diet but with a high-fat profile. It satisfies the dietary requirements because of the fat-soluble vitamins and the nutrient dense foodstuffs, and the blood sugar level is also well maintained. If fruit, root crop, nuts, seeds and dairy are eaten sparingly and in moderation, I find that my appetite is well under control. Others may handle these foodstuff better, and some may actually need them to stimulate the appetite. You have to use a little trial-and-error to find out. Watch your cravings for hints!
A feasible diet has to work in practice too, of course, beside satisfying the two criteria listed above. This means that is has to be endurable. In comparative studies, it has been found that the drop-out frequency was significantly lower among Atkins diet followers than followers of low-fat diets, perhaps because of less tasty food and a continous struggle with cravings. The cravings induced often is what ends a low-fat diet.
I mentioned in the beginning that food which raise the blood sugar levels also causes inflammations in the blood vessels, and this increases the need of vitamins. The requirement of chrome is increased as well. In analogy with the above, if someone with too high blood sugar switches over to a Low-Carb High-Fat diet, they will require less of water soluble vitamins – such as vitamin C and folate – since the blood sugar response will drop and the need for protection against free radicals in the bloodstream will drop with it.
This means that the nutritional requirement is not a constant, it is very much depending on the type of food we eat. A diet high in unsaturated fatty acids will require more minerals and more fat soluble vitamins such as A, D and selenium, while a diet high in saturated fatty acids will require less, since the lack of double bonds in these make them more stable.
A final resume: the basic criteria of a good diet is that is provides a stable blood sugar, while at the same time not induce nutrient deficits. The nutritional requirements can be addressed in one of two ways: increase nutrient intake or lower nutrient need. The food has to be so dense in nutrients that the dietary requirements are met without overeating.