Nutrition is one of the most debated topic in healthcare today. There are countless diet plans or nutrition guides that seems to change all the time and are contradictory with each other. There are good reasons for that. Depending on how you feed yourself, food can literally make you sick or cure you from many diseases. Diets are also easy to sell. In the internet era, it became an easy way for many therapists or health care practitioners to use that as a source of income. The weight loss industry has always been very lucrative, estimated at around $64 billions in 2014. Within that category, the industry of diet plans and meals was evaluated at $6.3 billions in 2015.
However, in order to sell a diet plan, it is necessary to make it easy to follow and to understand for everyone. If it becomes too complicated or if it lacks clear instructions to follow, people don’t buy it. One of the most commonly used simplification is to quantify food in terms of calories. Tell someone to eat less than 2,000 calories a day, they can easily follow that by looking at the label of the packaged food they are about to buy. This is perhaps why pre-packaged food is so popular, you can easily know how many calories you are eating. It takes a bit more work to know how many calories are in a handful of almonds, a couple of apples, or in half a cucumber. Another strategy easy to implements is labeling food in their macronutrient categories: carbohydrates, lipids, or proteins. It is also quite easy to promote a diet labeled as “high fat-low carb” for instance, but it would become too complicated for most people if we start to break down fat into polyunsaturated, saturated, or trans fat. This over simplification of food is quite unfortunate since we know that those different types of fat have such different effects on the body. Same things regarding carbs: Refined carbohydrate as found in sodas will not have at all the same effect as fibers in veggies, although both are considered as carbohydrates. So why not differentiate them when we talk about a “low carb” diet?
Food doesn’t only affect your weight
When we talk about food or diet, we immediately think about looking thin or being overweight. But food does much more than that. It affects your metabolism, can cause cardiovascular diseases, and disrupt your brain functioning. Food is now becoming more important in the way we manage diseases. Mostly neglected for the longest time by most medical authorities and still largely overall underestimated by many health care providers, nutrition plays a huge role in the wellbeing and proper function of our organs and our metabolism. Food is so essential to be healthy, and it is quite scary nowadays when you walk in a grocery store, most of the food that you see is more coming out of a lab or a processing center rather than a farm. Sadly, this tendency is not getting any better, as we spend less and less money for good quality food, In the other hand, you can find almost anywhere and at any time for a cheap price junk food. And where is it leading us to? To a pretty bad situation if we look at the statistics: of the 10 leading causes of death in the US, the large majority of them are directly linked with the quality of the food that we are eating!
Food and the brain
The brain is a particular area of interest when it comes to the effects of food: Although the weight of the brain is quite light compared to the rest of the body, it takes about 20% of our total energy resources. Because our brains are subjects of complex biochemical reactions, they require a lot of fuel in order to work properly. A slight insufficiency in nutrients can already affect the function of the brain. The frontal lobe is particularly sensitive to that, and one of the first sign of nutrient deficiency is change in mental function. Think about how you feel when you are hungry: you might become irritated, or having a hard time to concentrate or memorize things. Those are signs of a frontal lobe that is not functioning optimally.
The brain is made of approximately 70% of water. If you were to dry out all of that water, most of the weight of the brain would primarily come from fat, and in smaller extend, from proteins, amino acids, micronutrients, and glucose. Each of those substances will play a role on the brain functioning, energy, or mood. As said before, because we like to break things down into other things that we understand, diets used to be measured in terms of calories and macronutrients. Today it is still commonly believed that the idea of ideal diet resides in the amount of calories intake, and the best ratio between the different macronutrients. Should we go for a high fat-low carb diet or a high carb diet? What about the protein? And how many calories should we ideally eat? It’s not that easy.
All calories are not created equal
We use to think that food was simply a matter of calories: we need to ingest calories as a fuel for our bodies. If calories intake is lower than calories expenditures, we would lose weight and if calories intake is higher than what we need, we would gain weight. That is a simplistic view. Based on that assumption, we saw the emergence of countless “low calories” products invading grocery stores, calorie-counting based diet plans, and a whole society obsessed with how much calories does a certain product has. And here is the result: Obesity is at its highest rate in world history. A chocolate croissant has approximately the same amount of calories than a fish fillet, yet you probably won’t look the same in the mirror if you eat 2 chocolate croissants a day, every day for several months versus eating fish every day. Even though it is not completely wrong that calorie intake will matter for our metabolism, it is important to understand that food is way more than just a matter of calories. More important than that, it is the way our body is going to process those calories that will matter. Will those calories be easy to process or is it going to require many biochemical steps? Will they simply be used as fuel like intended or will they affect our brain chemistry and create an illusionary feeling of hunger, make us want to eat more and gain weight? We will see that not only those factors do matter, but they play a critical point in how food is influencing our body and our brain.