How I Learnt Nutrition in Two Months and Redefined My Diet
Understand what you eat for a better life
It has been 2 years where every month (or two) I learn about one new topic. It’s what I call the Learning Lab challenge 🚀. These last two months I decided to learn about nutrition, a very broad topic trapped between the popular believes and the scientific papers.
You wonder why I decided to learn about nutrition? my answer is very simple: we spend our days working, eating and sleeping and I was strongly convinced that knowing how nutrition works and knowing better the food itself will help me prevent getting diseases and prevent me from going to the doctor. Of course, the knowledge itself is not enough if no action is taken. Also, I know that I eat a lot of bad food, I am getting older and I feel that I don’t have the same shape that I had 10 years ago, so it’s time to take control of my nutrition 💪.
This learning preparation follows the Learning Lab methodology.
- Finding a mentor
I was lucky to meet my cousin’s boyfriend Vincent, a guy who was so interested in the topic of nutrition that he read dozens of books and watched hundreds of videos to understand it better. So he gave me the right resources and the most meaningful ones to cover the topic.
- Defining the scope of the topic
The scope of the topic was quite general, understanding the vocabulary of nutrition, how the body works, what fasting does to the body, and knowing what are the aliments I should eat and the ones I should avoid.
- Choosing a learning resource
My mentor gave me many learning resources, I put them, in the order he told me to use them, on the Nutrition page of the Learning Lab website: https://learn.uno/learning/nutrition/
- Defining a project
My initial project was to redefine my diet to be more healthy, more productive and to make a list of meals that I can eat every day. Then, later on, I decided to share these meals along with recipes in a cookbook! I also created website to help people discover what locals eat around the world.
Nutrition in Theory
A bit of theory is better before redefining your diet, so let’s start!
Why nutrition is complicated?
Nutrition is somehow very complicated, the reason why is simple: everyone has a different opinion. For example, a lot of people will say that olive oil is good, and others the opposite. If you look in Google, you will find articles saying “Why Olive Oil Is Not Healthy for Your Heart” and if you change your query, you will find “11 Proven Benefits of Olive Oil”.
Thanks to the readings I understood three facts:
- You cannot trust random articles that you find in Google, what matters is the source, it should be scientifically tested 👩🏽🔬.
- Not all the scientific paper are equal, you can always bend a research paper to come to the conclusion you want to. Basically, the conclusion depends on the sponsor, the one who pays for the research can create this bias, and can decide not to publish researches with a result that is not satisfying. Especially when this research comes from an international food corporation. For example, dairies companies sponsored a lot of researches to prove the benefit of dairies! But a lot of researches prove the opposite 🤯.
- There is not an absolute concept of bad and good food. It’s a relative concept. But in general terms: Unprocessed plant foods (for example a tomato) is better than Processed plant food (for example tomato Juice with added salt) or Unprocessed animal foods (a steak). And the worst is ultra-processed plant food (for example ketchup — because of the bad products added) or processed animal food (a McDonald’s burger). Nevertheless eating your vegetables with ketchup is better than eating chicken wings at KFC, that’s why it’s a relative concept.
So if you have a doubt and if you have time you should check scientific papers but this can take a lot of time. Another way is to use a website that did the job: https://nutritionfacts.org
NutritionFacts.org | The Latest in Nutrition Related Research
The latest in nutrition research delivered in easy to understand videos, blog posts, and podcasts brought to you by Dr…
This website test different aliments, their team check the papers related to a topic and make a summary of it. They also give links to the researches in case you want to check by yourself!
The Best-Kept Secret in Medicine
Have you ever asked any question about nutrition to your doctor? I did and the doctor didn't know much and it was not her fault. Nutrition topic is not part of the medicine studies program or when it is, it’s usually only a very few hours. Also doctors are not paid to give advice but to cure their patients. Because if you eat perfectly your body has less chance to be sick and therefore you will not see the doctor and not buy medicines. According to Dr. Greger, pharmaceutical companies are trying their best to prevent doctors to learn more about nutrition 😵.
What about the best-kept secret in medicine? basically, your body can heal itself if you let it heal. If you want to know more I invite you to watch the following video that explains how!
Basic vocabulary everyone should know
When you buy food in the supermarket you will see information like the following.
Here is a bit of vocabulary that will help you understand it:
- Carbohydrates — Molecule of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Basically sugars and starches. It is used by the body as a source of energy.
- Fiber — Nondigestible carbohydrates. Because it is not digestible it helps the digestive system by pulling out the toxins in the bowel. It promotes gastrointestinal health.You can find them in any vegetable or fruit, but the best source of fibers are whole grains and legumes.
- Glycemic index — Number associated with the carbohydrates per type of food that indicates its effect on a person’s blood glucose level. Pure glucose have a value of 100.
- Proteins — Large molecules used for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s cells, tissues, and organs. It is a macro-nutrient composed of amino acids.
- Lipids — Molecule that is insoluble in water. Lipids store energy and are a component of the cell membrane. Lipids include in part fatty acids (another word for fat) and vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Fatty acid is either saturated or unsaturated. There are different classes of fatty acids including the triglyceride (major part of the human skin oil), the phospholipid (component of cell membranes) and the infamous cholesterol.
- Saturated fat — Made of only saturated fatty acids. It is solid at room temperature. It comes from animal products (meat, or full-fat dairy products) and tropical oils such as coconut or palm oil. Animal products tend to raise the level of LDL.
- Mono-unsaturated fat — Made of monounsaturated fatty acid. It is liquid at room temperature. You can find it in olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts.
- Poly-unsaturated fat — Made of polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is liquid at room temperature. You can find it in corn oil, sunflower oil, or other vegetal oils. It reduces bad cholesterol.
- Cholesterol — Is a molecule that composes the membrane of the cells.
- Lipoprotein — Their job is to transport the fat in the body there is five kind High-density lipoprotein, Low-density lipoprotein, Intermediate-density lipoprotein, Very low-density lipoprotein, Ultra Low Density Lipoproteins
- LDL — Low-density lipoprotein. They deliver fat molecules to the cells and can drive the progression of atherosclerosis if they become oxidized within the walls of arteries. It’s sometime called bad cholesterol because small particles of LDL are often related to cholesterol issues. But everything here is essential for the body.
- HDL — High-density lipoprotein. They remove fat molecules from cells which need to export fat molecules. That is why it’s sometime called good cholesterol. Once again there is no good and bad there are causes and consequences.
- Antioxidants — A substance that reduces the damages due to the oxidation. Oxidation is the cells respiration. It creates free radicals and can be harmful for the human body.
- Fructose — A sugar that is contained in fruits and honey.
- Glucose — A sugar created by the body from the carbohydrates and the proteins, it is used to power the brain and the cells. The cells cannot use it without insulin.
- Insulin — A natural hormone created by the pancreas that controls the blood sugar glucose level. Insulin allows the cells to use glucose for energy.
- Inflammation — A reaction that produces pain, redness, warmth as a result of an infection, injury, or even when you eat food.
Important facts I learnt
A few facts that are simple but important:
- Refined sugar and sugar added in transformed food is bad, it can obstruct your vessels and create diabetes or heart disease
- Salt is present in any food you buy in a supermarket, excess of salt can result in higher blood pressure, so try to avoid that
- There is good and bad fat, try to go for a good one.
- Refined cereals, such as white bread or white rice contains too much sugar and not enough fiber, so better go for whole grain bread or brown rice! Basically, the ratio of carbohydrates/fibers should be under 10 for a good whole grain bread! Also it can be interested to check the Glycemic index of the different food to compare them: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods
- If your body gets more sugar than what it needs it will store it as fat.
Different kinds of diets
There are dozen of different type of diets, I didn't have time to explore them all but I mainly learnt about three diets:
- Western pattern diet (or Standard American Diet 🍔🍟) — With a lot of meat, processed and packaged food, fried food, refined grains, potatoes, and sugary drinks, it is basically the most unhealthy diet, that increases risks of diseases.
- Low Carbs High Fat diet 🥩🥑—A diet that consists of reducing carbs and eating a lot of fat product. It’s a good way to lose weight because the body gets its energy first from the sugar, and when there is no sugar it will turn the fat to energy (this process is called Ketosis). Check this article to understand why: https://www.dietdoctor.com/dr-ted-naiman-carb-vs-fat-metabolism-hydraulic
- Whole-Food Plant Based-diet 🥦🍓— A diet that consists of eating only vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grain cereals. It avoids all the dairies and all the fish and meat. Following a whole-food plant-based diet, has a lot of benefits for the health:
“Researchers have shown that a more plant-based diet may help prevent, treat, or reverse some of our leading causes of death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.” — https://nutritionfacts.org
The power of fasting
Fasting or intermittent fasting brings a lot of benefits (according to researches) such as better blood sugar control, controlled inflammation resulting in better health, improved blood pressure and prevent neurodegenerative disorder.
Fasting consists of not eating and only drinking water for a certain time. You can fast one or two days while only drinking water. Or do intermittent fasting, where you will not eat for 13h or 16h for example (and while you sleep it’s easy not to eat)!
Now that we understand a bit the concepts around nutrition. Let’s optimize ourselves! 🚀
Redefining my Diet
Before redefining my diet I had to check a bit what was my diet and what’s wrong with it. Basically, since almost two years I stopped eating meat when I am the one cooking. I don’t cook fish as well but just because I don’t like it. I was also eating a lot of carbs (pasta, semolina, rice) and a lot of melted cheese (not the hard one because I don’t like it as well) and yogurt, not much of eggs and a bit of veggies that accompany the carbs. The result was that I was gaining abdominal fat which is apparently not a good sign.
So the reason why I need to redefine my diet is to lose this abdominal fat, be healthier for the future to avoid health problems and be more productive 📈.
The whole-food plant-based diet in action 🥦
Based on my reading the best solution is the plant-based diet. Nevertheless, I follow strictly the plant-based diet only when I cook myself or if I eat out and the menu contains good recipes. When I am invited to eat somewhere I’ll keep eating what people give me, no matter if it’s meat or cheese.
Going for a whole-food plant-based diet isn’t too hard for me. I mostly had to stop yogurt and cheese since I was already not eating meat when cooking. Also, I had to re-balance the proportion. The whole-food plant-based diet suggests to balance a plate like this:
- 50% of vegetables
- 25% of whole grain cereals
- 25% of beans/legumes
Also, fruits should be eaten as dessert or snack. We need 3 portions of fruits (or dry fruits per day).
It’s a balance I didn’t have before, which is according to researches healthier.
The Daily Dozen
The Daily Dozen is a list of food and doses suggested by Dr. Greger to get all the nutrients you need every day with plant-based food.
The app tell you for each category what you can eat.
Links to the Android and iOS apps (both are open source):
- Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.nutritionfacts.dailydozen&hl=en
- iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dr-gregers-daily-dozen/id1060700802
Note that :
- Berries are separated from other fruits because they are full of anti-oxidants 🍓
- Cruciferous are special because they contain sulforaphane that brings a lot to the body: broccoli sprouts 🥦🌱 are the best source of it (watch this video to know more about sulforaphane — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz4YVJ4aRfg)
- Turmeric has anti-inflammatory proprieties and good against cancer, it’s easy to add it in our meals 👩🚒
- Exercise is also a good complement: so I will try to run 40 min per day during the weekdays and walk during the weekends 🏃
- The more colourful a vegetable or a fruit is, the more antioxidants it has!
- Brazil nuts are good to reduce LDL, but you should not eat more than 4 per day because of the potential excess of selenium. One per week would do the job!
- Oat has very good anti-inflammatory proprieties so porridge with extra nuts or fruits can be a good breakfast.
Other mobile apps that can help
I recommend you two other apps about nutrition:
- Yuka (for Europe, and for now mostly west Europe) — With Yuka you can scan food products and it will give tell you if it’s good or bad in terms of protein, fat, sugar, salt. It’s not perfect but better than nothing. It uses OpenFoodFacts database.
- OpenFoodFacts (World) — Similar to Yuka, but open source: https://world.openfoodfacts.org
- OpenFoodFacts (US) — Same but for the US: https://us.openfoodfacts.org
To fast or not to fast?
I was thinking to do intermittent fasting whenever I can for 13h per day and once every month or every two months to do 24h of fasting.
Creating a menu 📜 and my first book 📗
Now that most of my new diet rules are defined, I need to look for new recipes to cook. The problem is that a lot of vegan recipes are either “veganised” recipes (for example vegan tacos or vegan burger) or just salads with a mix of veggies, quinoa and, avocado! I am not saying those recipes won’t taste great, or that they are not healthy (some of them definitely aren’t), what I am saying is that it feels like some essential part is missing from these modern dishes.
Because of my origins and travels, I know that vegan food is not limited to this kind of fake non-authentic meals. A lot of countries have been eating very nice and tasty vegan food for hundreds of years. Recipes that were already vegan and that will stay that way. I searched and selected 26 tradivegan recipes and compiled them into a book, creating alongside the project the concept of tradivegan.
If you want to understand better this concept and why it's important enough as to make a book, have a look at this article:
Helping nomads find out what locals eat
I love traveling and when I travel I like to experience the places we visit as a local would do ✈️. Of course, one of my favourite things to try when traveling is the local foods, no matter if they are vegan or not, as it helps me to discover, explore and understand each place much better! As part of this learning month I also created the website What to Eat In, which will help you discover what locals eat all around the world!
I defined a lot of changes in my life. Now let’s see how those changes affect me and adapt them in the future, for now it’s pretty good, I feel good and stay as productive. Also, my mentor told me about doing a DNA test from 23andme (with the ancestry test) and put the raw data in Promethease that generates a report (for education purpose only) that I will use to know better myself. Then I can adapt my diet to my body.
Finally, in the quest of improvements and personal optimisation nutrition is only a simple piece. Check the schema below you will understand why!
Meet your new friend: Biohacking 🤯!
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