Let’s Talk About Diet, Part 1: Quantity Versus Quality

The most important factor in health as it pertains to diet is quantity. Not one person on this earth can prove differently

I hate talking about diet. The subject usually hits on the same frequency and sensitivity as politics or religion. But of course, just as it goes with most small talk, when someone figures out what I do for a living the questions start to spew out.

It most likely happens in social gatherings and starts with the question: “How could you transform a body like this?” This query is made as the interrogator twirls around while holding a glass of wine. Directly afterward, I watch as my new acquaintance stuffs his or her face with selections from a cheese and cracker platter. Then there is a reference to a story on a recent daytime news filler broadcast about the importance of green tea or some Amazonian fruit.

At this point, I want to throw out some made-up opinion on Palestine or population control and watch the conversation melt out of their mouth. Or, to be equally controversial, I could start to talk about calorie counting.

The most important factor in “health” as it pertains to diet is in fact quantity. Not one person on this earth can prove differently. We are a species with so many variations in adaptation that there is not “one true way” of eating, but the correlation between food quantity and health is universal to all.

The Sad State of Pop Nutrition

At this point I’m aghast at the lack of basic knowledge people have about nutrition. It seems ironic, since almost everyone has Internet access in the palm of their hand. Then again, I suppose the influx of biased information may be the reason for such widespread confusion. This genuine need for information has me hooked, and my conversational partner at the party will soon regret their decision to talk to me.

“[R]egardless of the anomalies, there are zero human beings who can survive the plight of ‘zero food.'”

If only it were possible to formally correct each and every individual on his or her delusional outlook on nutrition. But too many people will take the advice of some celebrity on TMZ and double down on the kale shakes and concentrated broccoli extract. After all, they know how to “detox” their bodies better than their liver and kidneys can. They somehow attribute fat loss with loose stool, seeking out large doses of “colon cleanses” on advisement from an expert hipster at Whole Foods, as if an ironic tattoo demonstrates anything other than poor decision-making skills. Very few consumers will come to discover the reality that the majority of fat that leaves your body is through your breath.

The One Constant Variable

Anyone who has tracked his or her caloric intake as accurately as possible will tell you that the amount of food is the constant that dictates gain or loss. It is true that caloric intake and expenditure are not 100% accurate, as we cannot account for individual entropy. And there are anomalies for sure – some caused by bad responses to certain foods, others to metabolic disruptions that slow the process of losing or gaining weight. But regardless of the anomalies, there are zero human beings who can survive the plight of “zero food.”

Keep this in mind as you consider a gluten-free diet. Thousands of people die of starvation each day (21,000, to be precise). That “metabolic damage” you read about on Facebook does not overwrite the fact that you have no idea how much you consume on a daily basis and can’t control your body composition.

Or consider the ludicrous idea that BPA causes obesity. If it were true then I guess we’ve solved the problem of world hunger. Just start shipping those old sun-bleached water bottles over to Africa. I’m sure the idea that you could get fat from drinking water would make them ecstatic.

What About Food Quality?

We must also consider the socio-economic superiority myth that the most important factor in diet is food quality. The localvores abound and inquire about the relationships and family life of the chicken they hope to consume, as joked about on Portlandia. We are told we should buy organic food, yet this increases the odds that we are exposed to e.coli, according to many studies proving that conventional purchase is just as nutritious.

And if you ever happen to be in the predicament of defending GMOs, simply plant your palm to your face. You know whoever is defending the ban on GMOs has no idea that bananas are in fact man-made, artificial selection is genetic alteration, and without GMO interference the banana will surely die from Fusarium wilt (a close relative to the plague). If this wasn’t enough, consider that not one person likes watermelon and grapes with fucking seeds in them.

Implications for Athletes

Logical mistakes from antiquity or those based on a naturalistic fallacy have made us a society of idiots. Proof in point: list an unhealthy food. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Someone inevitably will list Cheetos or a Snickers bar, as our society has fattened itself on the excess of these. But to an individual dying of starvation, both of these items will grant the gift of life, which is certainly more “healthy” than death.

“Imagine how different the consumption of the office snack room would be if Betsy from Human Resources had to write the number of brownies she consumed on a chalkboard for others to see.”

In a not-so-dramatic correlation, imagine a high-level athlete who adheres to a strict dietary choice, perhaps based off of reducing inflammation, which seems to be a common reason. After training, this athlete decides the selections of food available don’t match his neurosis-driven mania. As a result, his caloric deficiency does not allow for proper recovery, thus affecting future training. When this happens frequently enough, we find the most evangelical of dieters not sustaining levels required for competition and quickly getting passed. Catabolism then, in context of performance, is not healthy, as it is caused by a caloric deficit and improper re-feeding.

Please Don’t Misunderstand Me

This is not an excuse to eat out of a vending machine, although you could and would probably live just fine. This is a plea to do away with nonsense and stop the intensified descriptions of where and what your food is. It isn’t that these other factors are benign. Factors like the hormonal value of nutrient timing and fiber quality and quantity certainly affect you. But food quantity is the first variable to get under control.

This is what many people who give nutritional advice, myself included, will tell you. Once an individual starts tracking total intake, his or her behavior changes radically. Imagine how different the consumption of the office snack room would be if Betsy from Human Resources had to write the number of brownies she consumed on a chalkboard for others to see. Suddenly the extra effort to purchase organic, paleo, and gluten-free brownies seems ridiculous. No matter how high-quality the brownies are, Betsy has a problem with how many enter her stomach.

I am also not denying the negative and eventually neurotic effect counting calories can have if taken to the extreme, or the amount of eating disorders it causes when people are uneducated about other important factors. (These considerations will be covered in parts two and three.) But taking six months to figure out what allows you to gain, lose, and maintain your current weight will set you up for a lifetime of relief, not to mention freedom from the media’s promotion of the next diet fad.

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Photos courtesy of Michael Blevins.

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