FTM Fitness Part 1: Basic Nutrition
"Nutritional science is kind of where surgery was in 1650 — really interesting, but do you want to participate directly?"
Michael Pollan, Food Rules
YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT TO DO
The other day I was checking out at the grocery store, and the girl who was ringing me up took a look at my cart and said, "Wow, you eat really healthy!" Which was gratifying, because I've been making an effort to eat better and the validation is nice. But it wasn't as if I'd been loading up on exotic "health" foods; I wasn't buying quinoa, and acai extract, and vegetables with names that white people can't pronounce. I just had eggs, skim milk, frozen blueberries and broccoli, and a few bags of fresh produce. What occurred to me as I was leaving the parking lot though, was what she wouldn't have remarked on as being healthy: a cart full of low-fat frozen dinners, low-fat chips, low-fat ice cream, low-fat cookies, low-fat etcs. And suddenly I had a revelation --
We already know what healthy is.
When I started working at a bookstore last year, they put me in charge of the health section, which includes the diet books, and I remember looking at the wall of this-diet, that-diet, whatever-diets, and thinking, You're ALL frauds. Because if any of these worked, we'd be skinny by now.
Only then I read a bunch of them, and the fact of the matter is, they do work. All of them. Because they all give basically the same, really boring advice:
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
As long as you take those four rules to heart, you can basically stop reading this right now and you'll do alright for yourself. The problem is that people don't want common sense, they want a magic bullet. They want to be able to eat at McDonald's three times a week and lose weight anyway by drinking some miracle cocktail of green-tea-coconut-oil-flaxseed-antioxidants.
- Eat whole-grain carbohydrates
- Eat lean proteins
- Don't eat processed food and sugar (and sugar may be hiding in places you wouldn't expect)
It doesn't work like that. There is no magic bullet. (Although there's no shortage of con artists who will try to sell you one anyway.) It's no accident that the foods that make you fit and hot are the same ones that lower your risk of every disease ever.
SO LET'S GET SENSIBLE
The rest of this page covers what I call Nutrition for Everyone, because it has generalized health and weight control information. I clear up some of the common confusions that people have about nutrition (wtf is a good carb? a good fat?), give some basic strategies, and round it out with a list of resources that I've found helpful. Then we can move on to the interesting part -- what you as an FTM need to eat and need to do to become a hot dude.
Just remember that whatever you do, it has to be "diet" as in changing your diet, not going on a diet, because going on a diet implies that you're going to go off your diet at some later point. It doesn't work like that. You don't get to starve yourself on grapefruit for six weeks and then go back to eating ice cream for breakfast. The only way to make lasting change is to create new, healthy eating habits.
BUT I LOVE MY MOUNTAIN DEW
This is a good place to point out that any diet that says you can never again eat your favorite foods is doomed to failure. The end.
You can eat those foods -- you just can't eat them as often. If you really like soda, you can still drink soda occasionally, but it can't be your default, it can't be the thing you reach for when you're thirsty. So make them harder to get at -- don't keep them in the house. If you find yourself thinking, "Man, you know what would really hit the spot right now? A Mountain Dew." Well first off, drink a glass of water, but if you still want a Mountain Dew half an hour later, then go to the corner store and buy one. Buy one. You'll find that the less soda you drink, the less you want it, until in time you stop drinking it entirely. These days I'm comfortable in the knowledge that if I want a Mountain Dew I'm allowed to have one, but it's just not something I'm interested in anymore. And the same is true for girl scout cookies, or french fries, or whatever else your weakness is -- you can eat them, just not all the time.
PERENNIAL MYSTERIES OF NUTRITION BRIEFLY EXPLAINED
How to lose weight
Expend more calories than you consume.
It's simple, if not necessarily easy, since you need a deficit of 500 calories a day to lose a pound a week. The challenge that any diet faces is how to reduce people's calorie intake, while also keeping them from walking around feeling deprived and starving, because that's what makes people break down and fall off their diets.
To complicate matters, there are untold factors that influence how many calories you expend over the course of a day, also known as your metabolism. Age and activity level are the easiest to quantify, but also playing a role are hormone levels, stress, genes, diet, biochemistry -- the list is endless. And while your diet and lifestyle choices undeniably affect your metabolism, be skeptical of anyone who claims to know precisely how to "ramp up your metabolism" or "put you in fat-burning mode" -- they have flimsy-to-no science on their side.
The good news is, if you're eating healthy things, you probably won't even need to pay attention to calories. Your body will tell you when it's had enough.
What are you putting in your mouth?
All food is comprised of the three macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Add up the % of each and it will make 100. Obviously most foods will skew toward one pole or another, but many will contain all three to some degree. A slice of whole-grain bread is about 75% carbs, 15% protein, and 10% fat. Edamame (boiled soybeans) has carbs, fats, and proteins in almost perfectly equal measure. Skinless chicken breast is 80% protein and 20% fat, not a carbohydrate in sight. A tablespoon of olive oil (or any other kind of oil) is 100% fat.
Which type of macronutrient you choose emphasize (or de-emphasize) in your diet will have a dramatic effect on your body.
There are a number of websites that will give you the nutrition information of various foods, both natural and commercial -- play around with them for a bit.
Why fats get demonized
Before the low-carb craze was the low-fat craze, which has to do with both calories and speed of digestion. One gram (1 g) of fat has 9 calories; one gram of carbohydrates or protein has 4 calories. Since losing weight = reducing calories, it seems logical that making carbs and proteins the bulk of your meal is the way to eat more while consuming fewer calories.
Your body also processes fats slower. They're harder to break down, so your body uses carbohydrates for energy immediately, but shelves fats in the back, to be used only if it has to. This gives us a mental picture of every tablespoon of butter we eat going directly to our ass.
The problem with the low-fat approach is that, briefly stated, it doesn't work. Nutritional value aside (re: we need fats to function), fats are important because they trigger the "I'm full!" mechanism that keeps you from overeating. This is common sense, when you think about how satisfied you feel after a meal that contains fat vs. a meal consisting of nothing but lettuce leaves. Fats help your body know when it's full, and they also help you stay full -- because they take longer to digest, it's longer before you're hungry again.
And as you may have noticed, the proliferation of low-fat foods in the grocery store hasn't made America any skinnier -- in fact, it's done the opposite. Whenever fat is taken out of a product to make it "low fat," something else has to be added to compensate for the lack of flavor, usually sugar or sodium.
Why carbohydrates get demonized
As I said above, your body breaks carbohydrates down for energy use immediately -- or it tries to anyway. But if you don't actually need that energy right away (and with so many people working desk jobs these days, most of us don't), then it gets passed back to be stored as fat. This is why sugar makes you fat even though it's fat-free.
More importantly, carbohydrates tend to hit your bloodstream like a sack of bricks. You eat a bunch of carbs; your pancreas dumps a bunch of insulin into your bloodstream and says "HANDLE IT." The insulin plows through the carbs in short order; the carbs are gone but your insulin levels are still sky-high, which triggers your body to say OMG I WANT MOAR, and that is what produces cravings for more starchy-sugary-carby snacks.
The net result is that you're hungry more often, and when we're hungry we eat, and thus high-carb diets make you prone to over-eating.
This is why a lot of modern diets go cold-turkey on carbs for the first couple weeks, to break what is literally an addiction.
"Good carbs" vs "bad carbs"?
Good carbs are the ones that come hand-in-hand with fiber. Fiber (in addition to "keeping you regular") takes your body a long time to digest, so you stay feeling fuller longer. Your body can't actually use fiber for energy, so it will never get stored as fat, it just passes through. That said, fiber is vital to making things pass through, and most Americans get way less fiber than they need. Fiber comes from plants and only plants, meaning whole grains and vegetables.
Bad carbs are the ones that have been refined and processed to remove the fiber, or never had any fiber to start with. White bread, white rice, white potatoes (seeing a trend here?), and sugar (of all varieties, brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added) are examples of bad carbs.
The answer is whole grains, not to be confused with "wheat bread" (it's all wheat bread) or "multigrains" (which are ~multi~ but may not be whole). Whole grain products haven't been stripped of their fiber content so they keep you feeling full and don't produce unhealthy insulin spikes. An easy switch that you should adopt immediately is to replace as many of your carbohydrate sources as you can with their 100% whole-grain equivalents. 3g+ of fiber per serving is what you can expect from whole grain products -- if it's lower than that, then someone's pulling a fast one on you.
Sugar -- oh for fuck's sake, sugar. More on this later, but for now, be aware that sugar is public enemy #1. There has been much fuss made about high fructose corn syrup, but replacing it with "all natural organic evaporated cane juice" isn't going to do you a damn bit of good. It's all sugar. It's all bad for you. If you haven't already cut sodas from your diet, DO IT NOW. You're just pouring empty calories into your body. The same goes for most juices -- they're soda without the carbonation. Even juices whose label reads "Ingredients: oranges" are suspect, because the manufacturers can process and concentrate the hell out of those oranges (how do you think they get their juice to be sweeter than an actual orange?) and still be allowed to call themselves all-natural-100%-fruit.
"Good fats" vs "bad fats"?
Bad fats are saturated fats, which generally means animal fats -- found in meat, butter, cheese, whole milk -- but is also true of coconut and palm oils*. (Rule of thumb: saturated fats are solid at room temperature.) The biochemistry of it is immaterial, but the upshot is that saturated fats are sticky, they stick to your arteries and cause heart disease. This is one reason why vegans are so smug about having eliminated animal products from their diet.
Good fats are unsaturated, both mono- and poly-, and these come from plants -- nuts, avocados, olives, soybeans, etc. Unsaturated fats don't stick to your arteries, though keep in mind that both good fats and bad fats have the same number of calories per gram: 9. They just behave differently in your body.
Almost all your fat intake should be unsaturated, with saturated fats kept to a minimum. Sad but true, processed foods and fast foods are drenched in saturated fat (and often sugar too). Use the Mountain Dew method to wean yourself off them as much as possible.
* There is some evidence that coconut oil should perhaps be exempted from the moratorium on saturated fat, and a number of people think it's a miracle cure, quote, "The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength." Take it as you like; I'm intensely skeptical of anything that makes such sweeping claims. But I'm also willing to use that as an excuse to make curry with coconut milk all the time.
Trans fats don't occur in nature. They were created by food manufacturers in an attempt to make unsaturated fats behave more like saturated fats, because plants are cheaper than animals. At the time they were also thought to be a healthier alternative to saturated fats, but subsequent research has proven that this is far, far from the case, and they may well be worse for you than straight-up saturated fat. Avoid them.
A lot of products will say "Trans fat: 0g" on the nutrition facts panel, but you also need to check the ingredients list -- if you see "hydrogenated vegetable oil" anywhere, then by definition, it contains trans fat. The nutrition facts panel is rigging their portion size so they can round down to zero.
The glycemic index of a food is a measure of how large an insulin spike it causes. A high GI is undesirable because the higher the insulin spike, the faster your body plows through the food and gets hungry again. A lower GI means slower digestion, and keeps you feeling fuller longer. Most modern diets are organized around GI as a means of controlling appetite.
Sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed food have a high GI, so they hit your system like a flash flood and leave intense cravings in their wake. Protein, fat, and high-fiber carbohydrates have a low GI, making them much better for balancing blood sugar levels.
There are comprehensive charts showing the glycemic indexes of various foods, and they're a pretty solid tool for determining what you should be eating and what you should avoid.
How do Atkins dieters eat bacon three meals a day and lose weight?
The Atkins diet didn't used to differentiate between good carbs and bad carbs, it just put a blanket ban on them. Since carbohydrates are your body's primary source of fuel, when there are no carbohydrates to be had, your body shifts to a different mode of energy synthesis, called ketosis, where it takes energy directly from fat. It's actually a pretty cool little magic trick, perfectly healthy (ketogenic diets are used to control epilepsy, of all things) and it is very effective for burning fat very quickly. However, it's not your best long-term plan, because...
That said, the Atkins diet has been migrating more toward the mainstream, backing off the fatty meats and permitting whole grain carbohydrates.
- Ketogenic diets have some weird side effects, such as bad breath ("like metallic froot loops," according to a guy I dated once) and kidney stones.
- Lack of fiber can result in chronic constipation.
- Going zero-carbs for extended periods of time makes you likely to regain that weight, and more, if you ever start eating carbs again
- The high level of saturated fat and cholesterol in the Atkins diet makes a lot of doctors really nervous.
I went on [some low carb diet] and lost fifteen pounds in two weeks!
Congratulations, but you should be aware that most of what you lost was water weight. This is a good thing! Water weight is unsightly too, and moreover, you can't lose fifteen pounds of fat in two weeks, short of ceasing to eat entirely. 1-2 lbs of fat loss a week is a good pace.
How it works: when your body stores carbohydrates for energy, it stores them in a form called glycogen, and every gram of glycogen requires five grams of water to sustain. When you cut carbs from your diet, your glycogen stores get depleted, and the water that was tied to it gets flushed out. (So you will be peeing a lot in the first stage of your low-carb diet.) This doesn't make you dehydrated, it just means you're not retaining so much water.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU
Ideally you would go to the library and check out some books, because they can give you far more comprehensive and specific advice about what to eat than I can. Read a whole bunch of them, until you've heard the same advice enough times that eating right becomes second nature, that you don't have to wonder what you're supposed to be eating.
Basically any diet book published in the past ten years is going to have about the same content: commonsense nutritional advice, "eat lean proteins, whole grains, no processed food"; the science behind why; weight-loss success stories; tips on how to prepare for and stick to a diet; and lots of recipes and meal plans. This includes the Abs diet, Atkins diet, Dukan diet, Flat Belly Diet, GI diet, Mediterranean diet, Sonoma diet, South Beach diet, Zone Diet, etc etc. I'm not here to shill for any particular one, but for what it's worth, my money is on the South Beach diet -- it's been exceptionally effective for me and mine, and I trust the guy who came up with it. Dr. Agatston is an actualfax cardiologist who developed it with heart health as the goal, not weight loss; slimming down is just a happy side effect of being healthier overall.
However, I understand that a lot of people don't have the time to wade through all the literature. So here's a distillation, not just for losing weight but for maintaining your weight once you're at a place you like:
- First off, you're going to have to learn how to cook. No one else can feed you as well as you can feed you, and in America anyway, it is nigh-impossible to eat the correct food in the correct quantities if you're eating out. Check out some books on cooking for busy people, learn how to prep stuff in advance so you can eat it on the go.
- You will never stop gaining weight if you eat processed snacks and fast food all the time. You will never stop gaining weight if you eat sweets all the time. Learn to enjoy them sparingly. End of story.
- A good way to jump-start your weight loss is to pick a diet that has "phases" (South Beach, Atkins, Zone, Sonoma) and do their phase one. You'll be going cold-turkey on sugar, which not only cuts out the obvious culprits (cakes, candies, sodas) and some of the less obvious culprits (flavored yogurt, jams and jellies, most bread), it also rules out a whole host of things that you wouldn't have considered sugary -- ketchup, salad dressings, a lot of deli meats, crackers, etc.
- If something isn't in your diet plan, don't keep it in the house. Cookies sitting on the counter will get eaten, but you can't eat cookies that aren't there.
- Reduce your intake of breads and pastas (for bread, 2 slices per day is the recommendation) and those you do eat should be whole-grain. The only reason diets like South Beach, Sonoma, etc are considered "low carb" is because the American diet has become so freakishly high carb that normal seems low. There are many websites with low-carb recipes and suggestions for what to substitute instead.
- You can't go wrong with vegetables. Short of white potatoes, anything in the produce section is fair game -- go nuts. If fresh produce is too expensive (and let's face it, a lot of us are broke) or tends to go bad before you use it, check out the frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables, believe it or not, are just as healthy as fresh and sometimes even more healthy -- unlike "fresh" produce which may sit on a boat for a few days while being shipped from wherever, frozen vegetables are usually flash frozen within hours of being picked, preserving all the nutrients.
- Get your protein from low-fat sources. Beans are great, if you like them, as is fish. When eating meat, opt for white-meat chicken or turkey, lean cuts of beef like sirloin or round steak, ground beef at 90/10 or higher (that means 10% fat or less), and pork loins. For dairy, choose lowfat/skim over whole milk, low-fat sour creams, and plain non-fat yogurt. (For cheese, I've found that the calorie reduction of low-fat cheese isn't worth the trade-off in taste. So you can use regular cheese, just don't gorge yourself it.)
- Reduce your alcohol intake. This makes me sad, because I like drinking, but not only is alcohol very high in calories (7 calories per gram, almost as much as fat) and usually paired with a sugar-water mixer (coke, tonic water, juices), it also depresses your metabolism and makes you burn calories more slowly.
- The experts can't agree on whether caffeine helps or hinders weight loss, but it is a diuretic that causes you to pee more often. If you drink a lot of coffee, make sure you also drink a lot of water to replace the fluids you're losing. As stated above, soda is worthless in every way, it simply adds calories. Green tea (sans sugar) is great, but really, if you can learn to love water, then there's nothing better.
Good books to read:
Cookbooks I've liked:
Books I don't really recommend, even though they do advise the same general principles as above:
- The Flat Belly Diet -- because she treats monounsaturated fats like a cure-all and doesn't put enough emphasis on eliminating refined carbohydrates
- The Abs Diet -- because it's the same as South Beach, only the author is kind of a dick
- Jillian Michaels' books -- because she espouses some pretty wacky unproven theories about metabolism. Although if you want tips and tricks for the logistical end of making a diet work (how to plan it, how to stick to it) she has some solid advice.
- Skinny Bitch -- too extreme. It's a diet plan that is feasible for models (which the authors are) who depend on their looks for their livelihood, but it's too strict for normal people. Also, the book is thinly disguised vegan propaganda, pushing chapters and chapters of slaughterhouse horror stories in the name of health.
Step 2: How to turn a female body into a male one
Mandatory disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer, or anything of the sort. I'm an FTM who reads a lot. If you have other health problems that might be exacerbated by a change in diet or exercise habits, you should talk to a professional before starting anything.
Talk to me