Healthy Bodies, Healthy Weight: Protein, Caffeine, Sugar, and Fluids

Vegetables provide the basis of healthy whole food eating and healing nutritionBeing overweight or having high body fat levels increases our risk of many diseases. The American Obesity Association reports that 65% of adult Americans are overweight or over-fat, and I wonder what percent of those at a “healthy” weight smoke to keep weight down. As many of us know all too well, the struggle with weight worsens as we age, but most over-fat people eat the wrong types of food and exercise too little. If we eat high-calorie low-nutrient foods, we can gain weight on even small portions. On the other hand, we can eat satisfying quantities and attain or maintain a healthy weight if we eat a whole foods diet.

Here I discuss fluid intake, empty calories and caffeine, protein, and details such as frequency of eating that can make or break a healthy food plan. I’ve written about some of my favorite health-building strategies in other places on this website, such as low glycemic-index foods, healthy oils, and lots of vegetables and fruits. All my recipes have weight control in mind. You might also be interested my page on exercise and weight called Strong Women Don’t Starve.

I used to be part of that 65% of overweight Americans. It’s not easy to conquer this pattern but I did it. It’s an on-going process and I’m still doing it. You can do it, too. Focus on building good health with wholesome foods and, of course, keep your body in motion. Lose weight slowly, no more than 4-6 lbs a month, to maintain muscle mass and avoid unnecessary deprivation that can lead to yo-yo dieting. Weight-control is a lifetime problem, so forget quick solutions and be patient. Create a plan you can follow for life while focusing on the good health you’re gaining as well as the weight you’re losing.

Hydrate a thirsty body

You’ve heard it before, but you need two quarts of water every day; more when you exercise in hot weather. Supplemental B vitamins turn your urine yellow for a few hours, but otherwise urine should be pale. If your fluid intake is habitually low, you can’t trust natural thirst to tell you when your body needs fluids. If you start drinking more, your natural thirst awakens.

If you’re trying to control weight and hunger is a problem, make sure you’re well hydrated. Fluids are filling. Drink more water, herb teas and carbonated water with a splash of lime or fruit juice. You might also try cereal grain beverages available in natural foods sections of grocery stores. I like Pero, Roma, or Cafix. They give me a satisfied feeling with only 10 calories. If the water in your home is strongly chlorinated or doesn’t taste good, consider a filtering system.

Alcoholic drinks don’t count as part of your fluid intake, since they dehydrate the body. Soft drinks contain unnatural chemical ingredients and 10-12 teaspoons of sugar per can or artificial sweeteners, so it’s best to avoid them.

Eat frequently

Our bodies keep an even blood sugar and energy leveland store less fat when we eat smaller meals four or five times a day. Besides being good for digestion and absorption, eating whole food snacks prevents low blood sugar that causes sugar, carbohydrate, and caffeine craving. Snacking also eliminates ravenous hunger that leads to overeating. I thrive on protein and carbohydrates snacks, such as half a high-protein sandwich on whole grain bread or low-fat cottage cheese with fruit.

Protein powder is a portable between-meal snack. You can take a scoop in a jar with a lid, add a cup of water, and shake. I like the taste and consistency of Whey-To-Go by Solgar with 16 grams of protein per 70 calories. If you can afford the calories, you can also make fruit smoothies with protein powder. Protein bars are usually high in sugar and fat and are more like candy bars than a protein meal. Walnuts make a great snack, as long as you eat only a small handful (1 ounce or about 1/6 cup). Walnuts have a moderate amount of protein and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. A small amount keeps hunger at bay.

Reduce caffeine, sugar, and empty calories

Driving the body on sugar, caffeine, and high calorie low nutrient foods is destructive in so many ways. If you’re pushing through fatigue with caffeine, look at your rest habits. With 7 or 8 hours a night, you can reduce the caffeine in your diet to no more than a few cups of coffee or black tea a day. You can switch to green tea for a more subtle energy boost with added health benefits. Prevent withdrawal headaches by lowering caffeine levels about 10% a week. You might find that you feel best when you eliminate caffeine. After years of drinking coffee and tea, my energy level is stronger now with no caffeine at all.

Sugar is a big part of social gatherings. It’s easy to eat too much. I love a great apple pie or a piece of quality bittersweet chocolate with nuts, but if the dessert isn’t what I love, I can usually pass it by. That wasn’t true when my protein intake was too low. If you crave sugar, check your protein levels and ask if you’re getting enough sleep. Europeans who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet often eat nuts and dried or fresh fruit for dessert. Check out the bulk section of a health food stores for the best quality and least expensive dried fruit and nuts.

Every gas station, convenience store, and fast food joint is packed with high calorie, low nutrient food. Advertisers convince us that this stuff will make us happy. Carefully read labels on snack foods, baked goods, and precooked meals, most of which are full of unpronounceable non-food ingredients, excessive sugar and salt, preservatives, artificial colors, and partially hydrogenated or deep-fried oils. To prevent succumbing to temptation at a hungry moment, carry ¼ cup portions of nuts with you.

Eat adequate high-quality protein

I was a vegetarian who ate eggs and dairy products for over thirty years. I experimented with eating fish for a few years, but returned to a vegetarian diet. All nutrition researchers recommend adding more vegetable proteins to our diet.

Experts suggest widely different amounts of protein, so trying to calculate your needs is a challenge. Andrew Weil suggests from 50 to 100 grams a day per 2000 calories, but he doesn’t discuss special needs for people who are exercising. Nancy Clark, a respected sport’s nutritionist, recommends 0.7 to 0.9 grams per pound for an adult building muscle mass (“The Power of Protein,” The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 24, No. 4, Apr 96). The body can only process so much protein and then it’s excreted by the kidneys. Experiment to find the amount of protein that makes you feel best. When I’m not getting enough, I know right away, because I’m constantly hungry and crave sweets.

Protein comes in healthy and unhealthy packages. Vegetable proteins do not contain the hormones, antibiotics, and other contaminants that concentrate in animal proteins. Experiment with dried legumes, like lentils and kidney beans. Use more soy products. Organic legumes are inexpensive and are free of pesticides. Look at my recipe section for simple and delicious tofu and legume recipes. Nuts and seeds add a little protein to your diet, but they’re too high in calories to be used as a major protein source.

Choose low cholesterol and low fat animal proteins, such as poultry (without the skin) and fish, especially salmon, water packed sardines, and herring that are high in healthful omega-3 oils. Both farm-raised and wild fish can contain industrial contaminants, from PCBs to mercury, so vary your sources. Omega-3 eggs from chickens fed flax seed or kelp are becoming common, and 2 egg yolks supply nearly the same amount of omega-3 oils as 3 ounces of fish. If using conventionally produced dairy products, use no-fat or low-fat products to avoid cholesterol and hormones found in dairy fat. Organic dairy and meat products are free of bovine growth hormone, antibiotics, and pesticides.

Most beef and pork products contain high levels of unhealthy fats. The same is true for full fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. Avoid proteins that are deep-fried, highly processed or cured (like lunch meats or sausage), excessively salted, or preserved with nitrates.

Getting the nutritional information you need

If I were to recommend just one nutrition book, it would be Eating Well for Optimum Health by Dr. Andrew Weil. Weil combines conventional nutritional wisdom with alternative approaches and has great chapters on dietary fats and complex carbohydrates. I also like Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Dr. Walter Willett. Willett offers comprehensive nutritional information, including a “food” pyramid with fitness as the foundation for good health. He bases his recommendations on the Nurses’ Health Study (one of the few large studies done on women), the Physician’s Health Study, and the Health Professional’s Follow-up Study. If you are interested in weight loss, I recommend Thin For Life: 10 Keys to Success from People Who Have Lost Weight and Kept It Off by Anne M. Fletcher. The book is not selling a specific diet or exercise plan. Instead, it’s an exploration of what works for those who succeed at losing weight and keeping it off. The style is practical, human, and free of the usual hype, and it turns out that different things work for different people. The unifying theme is perseverance.

As you know, experts disagree on the details about nutrition. I learn from others and then run my own experiments. Nutritional needs, like exercise programs, depend in part on individual differences. It takes personal experimentation to find the specific foods and eating patterns that make your body hum.

Here’s to the pleasure of healthy food, loose-fitting clothing, and a strong and fit body!