Eating well: good habits to help fitness and well-being

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healthy-eating-plate-web1000Today it is possible to eat well and enjoy food and cooking while staying fit, losing weight when needed and increasing muscle tone, fully aware and respectful of the individual features of each of us.

Today, every household can choose taste and well-being without overlooking at each member’s individual features.

By studying food-related inflammation and all correlated conditions and diseases, we now understand the importance of keeping inflammatory cytokines under control through the diet, since these signals strongly act on the metabolic, immune, neuropsychological and hormonal systems.

Through food, it is possible to trigger changes in every system and organ of our body.

Inflammatory cytokines like BAFF and PAFF (and soon TNF-alpha and interleukin 6 (IL-6), too) can be reliably measured to determine the individual food profile of a person, understanding which aliments are used in excess.

Analytical tests such as Recaller or BioMarkers have paved a new way to personally design your own diet while staying healthy and preventing or treating a wide range of conditions and disorders.

Keeping weight under control by triggering the metabolism

One of the most common requests we receive from our readers is to gain access to our booklet on metabolism, which we have been gifting our patients with for years and it has now received a significant amount of fame. To give an example of its notoriety, it is often given to people asking questions during a popular Italian radio program on well-being and “craved” by numerous listeners.

The reasons behind such a high demand are simple: our booklet deals with every aspect of metabolism with a simple and practical style and provides tips and suggestions that are also reported here in this article.

It is possible to download the entire booklet or just parts of it in the following page “Keeping your weight under control by triggering metabolism”.

Food quality

Using good quality food ingredients is one of the main challenges of the recent years. The impact of food production quality on health and disease prevention has been shown and discussed extensively in the past.

In fact, the introduction of “healthy” foods in our diet (such as fruit and vegetables, whole cereals, whole wheat bread, fish, fresh dairy products, milk or vegetable drinks, unroasted oilseeds) is followed by the improvement in statistical risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and cancer conditions.

In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology a while ago (in 2002), the author observed that the mortality (regardless of the cause) in the study subjects, who ate between 9 and 17 healthy foods daily, was 42% lower compared to those who ate fewer healthy things (Michels KB et al, Int J Epidemiol. 2002 Aug;31(4):847-54).

For instance, one fruit followed by a bowl of whole cereals, oilseeds and soy milk, accompanied by wholemeal bread and no-added sugar fruit preserve, already represents a good start if you want to be included within the statistical group.

In the last few years, this new knowledge has also helped understanding that food quality should be matched by it eco-sustainability; this way, we do not only think of the single individual, but more on a social and ethical level. Indeed, we do not want to eat healthy in order to live well in a deserted, overexploited world.

Controlling blood glucose and insulin spikes

Glycaemic peaks are generated by the wrong use of sugars in the diet and are one of the most powerful nutritional events in causing weight gain and inflammatory cytokines production.

After eating fast-absorbing carbs, like those present in candies, white pasta and refined bread, sugars rapidly enter the blood stream and lead to a state of “hyperglycaemia”, followed by the intense secretion of insulin (to lower the glycaemic levels).

The amount of insulin released is so high that it brings blood sugars down to an even lower level than the one present before food intake, causing the so-called “reactive hypoglycaemia”.

Such “hypoglycaemic” state leads to more appetite and the consequent (20-60 minutes after the previous sugar intake) search for more food (usually more sugar), which creates a vicious cycle of hunger, hyperglycaemia and reactive hypoglycaemia.

Unfortunately, when insulin is in excess, the sugars just eaten will mostly become fat.

Moreover, the cyclic alternation of hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia in people with blood sugar spikes after eating fast-absorbing (or high glycaemic index) sugars is one of the features predisposing to type 2 diabetes the most, which is when insulin is abundantly released but unable to exert correctly its function at cellular level.

It is as if the receptors present on the cell membrane refused to interact with a molecule encountered too frequently and for too long.

The oscillation in blood sugar and insulin is often revealed by glycated haemoglobin levels close to the limit, blood sugar levels too often near 100 (for examples values like 95-97- 101, which are still considered normal but require some caution) or very high triglycerides levels (which do not depend on the fat amounts, but instead on the excessive intake of refined carbs and sugars).

To control and reduce these fluctuations, it is indispensable to follow some simple rules, reported here in this article, in particular those regarding the importance of using whole foods, balancing carbohydrates and protein in the same dish while distributing well the amount of protein throughout the day.

Using whole foods

In order to keep under control blood sugar peaks, it would be sufficient to replace pasta, bread and any starchy product with their wholemeal version.

In fact, when sugars and starches are eaten together with a portion of fibre and protein, their absorption is slower and the bloodstream entry is gentler. As a consequence, the sugar peak is less intense, resulting in a better appetite control and less side effects due to hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia.

Properly prepared wholemeal flours can be made up to 14% of protein (like in the case of quinoa, while a classical whole wheat flour usually contains around 12-13%) as well as a significant amount of fibre.

Therefore, a simple trick like using wholemeal foods in your daily life may help preventing numerous problems, such as excessive weight gain, cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative conditions (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases), for which hyperglycaemia and reactive hypoglycaemia have been shown to be risk factors.

Numerous studies have demonstrated a reduction in mortality from any cause in those who make use of whole grains. In the article entitled “I live more than you and better than you: I eat wholemeal” we have reported all the scientific references that give value to the use of whole foods.

To give a practical example, we should observe that eating 28 grams of whole cereals daily (instead of 28 grams of refined cereals or flour) leads to 5% reduction in mortality from all causes and 9% reduction in cardiovascular mortality. The difference in risk between eating a sandwich made with refined ingredients instead of a “whole” one should make us think twice next time we decide to buy one.

The ability to keep blood glucose peaks under control is strengthened by matching whole carbs with fibre, good fats and protein. To help understanding, we provide a few examples: whole wheat pasta served with a nice Bolognese sauce rich in protein; a high carb dish followed by a high protein one; snacking away with a wholemeal biscuit accompanied by some good nuts (or a hard-boiled egg).

These options give excellent results both in terms of better appetite control and improved overall well-being and fitness.

Another advantage produced by whole cereals consumption is the stimulation of IL-10, which is known to keep the inflammatory response generated by the immune system under control.

The choice of using whole foods helps regaining old habits and avoiding the unconscious damages produced by an excessive use of industrial products. Our article entitled “The moral superiority of whole wheat flour” reviews this concept.

Sugar, sweetening and artificial sweetening

One of the fastest growing social trends in the Western world is to be aware of the importance of keeping the use of sweetening under control and adjusting the use of sugar as such. Wider consumer groups are demanding to know if what they are eating is truly “sugar-free” or if it has been supplemented with maltitol, fruit concentrates (only apparently natural, still a form of sweetening based on concentrated fructose) or other forms of artificial sweetening.

In recent years, we have understood clearly that sugar creates a real addiction, which can develop inflammation and trigger a series of conditions; also, we now know that the direct cause of this phenomenon is not sugar but sweet taste as itself, since when this is produced by low calorie sweeteners, for example, it is sufficient to trigger an addictive sequence of events.

The occasional use of nicely prepared and tasty sweet dishes (made with sugar in its various forms) is not prohibited as it represents an important part of our life and one of the oldest primordial human needs; however, the use and abuse of sweet products deserves a certain level of caution by those who have already developed insulin resistance and do nothing to tackle it.

Those people mostly at risk are affected by depression, diabetes (even genetically related), obesity, high levels of food-related inflammation, they habitually eat excessive amounts of protein and carbohydrates or have a chaotic and messy dietary style: all these profiles may seek for a relief to sadness into a more intense consumption of sweet stuff, although they will soon discover that such behaviour is actually triggering and sustaining their negative emotional state.

A few tricks exist to stop cravings and the continuous and excessive search for certain types of food: for example, introducing the right amount of physical activity, balancing correctly carbs and protein at every meal (it is sufficient to add some nuts or almonds to a dessert to improve the ratio between the sweet and the protein component) and maintaining the habit of having a good breakfast represent invaluable tools.

In conclusion, we have nothing to say against the occasional choice of a well-prepared, tasty sweet, especially if right after a complete meal, since it holds no risk; instead, the repeated and futile choice of sweetening, such as the spoon tip of sugar added to coffee, or the zero-calorie sweetener added to tea do represent a serious signal of metabolic disruption over time.

Proper distribution of meals during the day: the importance of breakfast

Breakfast remains one of the most important meals to correctly balance our metabolism and should be made within one hour from waking up or immediately after morning physical activity (when energy supplies are full and the stomach is empty).

At this time of the day, all body’s hormones are oriented towards the use of energy into muscle formation or heat dispersion; therefore, breakfast can be rich and full.

Instead, dinner happens during the time of the day when energy saving mechanisms are at their highest; that is why a rich meal will favour fat accumulation and storage.

We have recently reviewed the impact of breakfast on mental functions and on work performance (for both students and managers; there is no difference in how it works) in the article “A healthy breakfast to succeed in school and life exams”. In the present social and health environment characterised by an increasing number of diabetics, everyone should stop and think at the significant impact that breakfast can have on patients’ sugar blood levels.

Assuming that the amount of daily calories intake is the same, it has been observed that using more calories during breakfast and making this the main meal of the day, while reducing the caloric intake at dinner and will result in 20% lower blood sugar levels during the entire day, in particular 20-23% lower levels after lunch, even if temporally quite distant from breakfast.

This finding (thoroughly described in the article “Diabetes and rich breakfast: how your blood sugars can drop by 20%”) shows how breakfast represents a long-lasting signal.

When we provide our body with two very strong signals (i.e. a rich breakfast and a small, light dinner), the impact is not only generated on the glycaemic levels at a specific moment, but on the whole metabolic trend of the day.

Breakfast should account for 40-45% of the daily energy intake, lunch for 35-40%, whereas dinner only for 25% of the total.

How to build each meal by balancing the right amounts of vegetables, carbs and protein

After years of criticism towards food pyramids, at last we have realised that every meal (including breakfast) should be composed of a balanced amount of protein, whole carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables.

The Harvard Medical School has recently proposed a scheme (see the figure in this article), which finally assigns the correct value to protein (1 g per kg of weight should be eaten daily) and describes the importance of using whole grains and carbs.

We always suggest building each meal by using similar volumes (we mean “visually similar” volumes, not by weight or amount of calories) of the different nutritional components. For instance, two slices of wholemeal bread should be accompanied by 2 hard-boiled eggs, 4-6 nuts, 1 artichoke and two apricots.

The highly diffused international tradition of unique dishes (paella, slow-cooked stew with polenta, pasta with sardines) represents a good way of abiding by this new dietary strategy.

We tend to be quite confused when confronted with the numerous pro-carbs media campaigns deployed by some renowned experts, despite the accepted and validated scientific evidence saying exactly the opposite.

In the book entitled “Breakfast and brunch for the well-being”, the reader will find examples of all kinds, both for breakfast and other meals, which can be prepared and enjoyed easily in every home.

The right amount of protein, correctly distributed among the three meals

A healthy person weighing 70 kilograms and wanting to lose fat and be healthy should eat 65-70 grams of protein per day. A fish fillet (or a turkey steak) of about 100 grams contains only around 18-22 g protein.

Therefore, this person should eat about 3 fish fillets to reach the required amount, or two ounces of Parmesan cheese (33 g of protein/100 g of total weight), 400 grams of soft cheese (18 grams/100 g) or three 100 g steaks (22 g/100 g).

Such amounts should never be used in one meal only (as the majority of Italians instead do at dinner time), but distributed throughout the day, possibly integrating other protein-rich products like whole grains, eggs and oilseeds since the day begins, always using the correct quantities and choosing also plant-based protein sources.

It is very important to spread the amount of protein, whole carbs and veggies among the three main meals of the day. If we take the previous example, the total of 70 g should be distributed evenly: 25 g in the morning, 25 g at lunch and 20-25 g at dinner (plus balancing the dishes with similar volumes of complex carbs and vegetables).

All this is not some more ranting of a few fitness fanatics, but instead the conclusive finding that has been proved, documented and published in the Journal of Nutrition: once and for all, the article has clarified that muscle growth (hence, calorie consumption and weight loss) can be obtained by distributing the daily amount of protein correctly among all three daily meals.

If most of the due amounts are eaten at dinner, the muscle cannot grow and metabolism is not activated.

For many years, the study of metabolism has focused almost exclusively on communicating the importance of the quantity to be introduced. Only few researchers highlighted how important it is, however, to choose the right time of day to eat certain foods.

We know very well that such correct distribution is poorly achieved in Italy and other countries; also, signal diets offered by us to treat and overcome certain conditions are already an integral part of many therapeutic programs employed by us in the clinic.

Our indications suggest the thorough evaluation and choice of protein and carbs amounts according to the volume rule, in order to achieve, with a bit of approximation, 1/3 of the total volume in protein, 1/3 in carbs and 1/3 in fruit ad veggies, appropriately distributed among the 3 daily meals.

Raw, fresh and colourful

We have been using the motto “raw, fresh and colourful” as a mantra for years, in order to induce kids and adults to eat a piece of raw fruit or vegetable before each meal.

Such technique has no impact on the routine and it considerably helps being healthier through its important anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory and appetite control properties. It is indeed a healthy habit, which may even “surprisingly” contribute to the recovery from complex conditions at times.

The same applies to other two important habits contributing to good nutrition.

First, drinking plenty of water throughout the day (2 litres of water/day is a sensible suggestion); secondly, chew each bite long enough, while feeling the taste and enjoying the dish.

Chewing for long surprisingly helps weight loss and avoids fermentation in the gut.