Eat Your Way to Health

Rob DeStefano, D.C., is a sports chiropractor, a national leader in the field of manual muscle therapies, and an avid triathelete. He divides his busy practice between offices in New Jersey and Manhattan's La Palestra health club, and he regularly consults for the New York Giants NFL football team and the Ironman World Triathalon Championships in Hawaii.

Control your weight, protect your bones and muscles, and fight disease — all through mindful eating. From Muscle Medicine: The Revolutionary Approach to Maintaining, Strengthening, and Repairing Your Muscles and Joints.

Fortunately for us, there isn’t one way to eat to control weight, another way to support bones and muscles, and another to fight disease. Healthy eating is healthy across the board. In the past decade, scientists have arrived at a consensus about what an optimal diet should look like. The two diets that have been most intensively studied, and heartily endorsed by researchers, the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), dovetail on the basics: heavy on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and light on sugar, salt, and animal fat. (The DASH emphasizes calcium, which, as we’ll discuss, is good for the musculoskeletal system.)

Let’s break it down. Everything you consume falls into three categories. Protein provides the building blocks for muscle growth and repair, and for the functioning of the immune system. Carbohydrates are fuel — your body breaks them down into simple sugars that are burned for energy. Fats provide essential lipids for the production of cell membranes and hormones, and allow the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Proteins, carbs, and fat — all are essential parts of our diet, despite what you may have picked up from an endless stream of articles about low-fat versus low-carb strategies for losing weight. Healthy eating is all about appreciating that “good” proteins, carbs, and fats should be the cornerstones of your diet, and their “bad” evil twins should be eaten only in moderation or reserved for the occasional splurge.

Good protein delivers those necessary amino acids (from which the body builds new cells and repairs old ones) with a minimum of high-fat, high-calorie baggage. Poultry (without the skin) is an excellent low-fat protein mainstay, as are low- or no-fat dairy products. But if you like red meat, there’s no reason why you have to eliminate it altogether. A smallish five-ounce serving of a lean cut such as sirloin translates to fifteen grams of fat, which should fit almost anybody’s daily nutritional budget. On the other hand, ten ounces of spareribs equals eighty grams of fat. You do the math.

Good carbohydrates are for the most part “complex” carbs, such as grains, fruits, and veggies, which are packed with fiber and water, which slow down digestion. Not only do these foods provide a nice, even energy flow over the day, they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting compounds. Sometimes the term volumetrics is used to describe the weight-control strategy of eating high-quality, high-bulk foods that fill you up without adding too many calories.

The “evil twin” carbs are the simpler ones that your body can most quickly break down and use as fuel. Sweets, snacks, and drinks laced with corn-syrup sweetener are one example. Starchy food with the fiber processed out of it — white bread, white rice, white pasta — is another. Simply put, whole foods are good, the refined, processed versions are not. When the simple carbs hit your system, blood sugar levels rise quickly and dramatically, stimulating your body to produce correspondingly high levels of insulin to clear the sugars out of the bloodstream and get them into muscle and liver cells for short-term storage. You may feel a boom-bust effect, a sugar rush followed by a feeling of fatigue or depletion. Over time, you can overstress your insulin system, leading to insulin resistance and, in serious cases, adult-onset diabetes.

As recently as fifteen years ago, all fat seemed to come in one flavor — bad. Weight-loss gurus and academic experts alike agreed that dietary fat — which packs nine calories per gram compared to four for carbohydrates and protein — was the major culprit behind heart disease and the ever-expanding American waistline. That was then. Now we appreciate the role of “good” fats in the diet. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and nuts, helps lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein), the so-called bad cholesterol, and offers protection against disease. Polyunsaturated fats contain essential fatty acids that the body needs but does not itself produce. The omega-3 fatty acids are the stars of this group — they lower bad cholesterol and can reduce tissue inflammation, which explains why they seem to protect against diseases as various as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis. The most plentiful source of omega-3s is cold-water fish, but because of well-founded concern about mercury toxicity, you’re better off sticking with the small fry down on the food chain such as herring and sardines. Other options are the new fortified foods such as omega-3-fortified eggs and orange juice, or supplemental oil and gelcaps.

The fats that deserve their nasty reputation are saturated and trans fats, both of which raise levels of LDL cholesterol. (Interestingly, it turns out that the dietary cholesterol found in egg yolks doesn’t have a pronounced effect on cholesterol levels in the blood and doesn’t deserve most of its old bad rep.) You don’t need a nutrition degree to know that chicken skin, beef fat, and dairy products such as full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are heavy in saturated fats. But your body does need a modest amount of saturated fat, so unless you’re on a strict low-fat diet for a heart condition, you can partake sensibly, from time to time. “Bad” saturated fat does taste good and does promote a feeling of satiety.

About trans fat, we have nothing positive to say. Trans or partially hydrogenated fat is created when vegetable oil is hydrogenated or processed to stay solid at room temperature. It’s in margarine and vegetable shortening, commercially produced baked goods, and junk food. It raises bad LDL cholesterol and lowers good HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Fortunately, trans fats’ deservedly bad press has prompted quite a few manufacturers to reduce or eliminate it from their products, so it’s not as ubiquitous as it once was. Still, it pays to eat defensively — check the labels in the supermarket or the convenience store, and not only for trans fat. If the product in question has a laundry list of hard-to-pronounce preservatives and artificial flavorings, keep moving down the aisle. Better yet, move over to the fresh-produce aisle.

Rob DeStefano, D.C., is a sports chiropractor, a national leader in the field of manual muscle therapies, and an avid triathlete. Bryan Kelly, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery of the shoulder, hip, and knee at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Joseph Hooper is contributing editor/writer for Elle and Popular Science magazines and has been covering health and fitness since 1985. They are the authors of Muscle Medicine: The Revolutionary Approach to Maintaining, Strengthening, and Repairing Your Muscles and Joints (Copyright © 2009 by Rob DeStefano, Bryan Kelly, and Joseph Hooper).



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