Misinformation and contradictory studies about food and dieting have resulted in a populace that’s often more confused than clear-headed regarding nutrition. Compacted with a busy lifestyle, the 21st century has become conducive to increased processed and fast food consumption. As a result, eating healthy may be more difficult than it should be.
Eating healthily requires acknowledgement of the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed to fuel our bodies that allow for effectively tackling school, work and life in the accelerated and commercialized West.
The basics: Get nourished
Getting proper “nourishment” refers to fulfilling all the essential food groups, vitamins and minerals or “making sure you get the right amount of everything,” JMU dietetics professor Jeremy Akers said. Akers has researched weight management through his Ph.D. in sports nutrition and chronic disease at Virginia Tech and understands why receiving adequate nourishment is so important yet remains unattainable for many.
“I think we’re so fixated on feeding and the taste and the appeal and the sensory aspect of food and the social aspect of food,” Akers said. “We need to get out of that and [focus on] nourishing ourselves.”
As simple as it sounds, Akers said many people downplay the importance of fruits and vegetables. He said many either incorporate fruits in their diets and throw vegetables to the wayside, or vice versa.
Phytonutrients are an important nutrient to consider in fruits and vegetables. They protect plants from the sun and insects but can also arm humans with their anti-inflammatory and toxin-eliminating properties. Apples are a source of many phytonutrients, which are essentially “vitamins for the plants,” Akers said.
Akers said he feels spinach is also an under-appreciated vegetable considering its nutritious and nourishing value. Spinach contains calcium, iron and vitamin K, which is crucial for clotting blood. Spinach can be especially valuable for lactose-intolerant individuals who are unable to get calcium through dairy products.
The only supplement Akers said he takes is vitamin D. The most accessible source of vitamin D comes from the sun, but Akers said many people, including himself, don't get the recommended amount because the Western Hemisphere doesn’t get direct sunlight for half the year during winter, and many are in school or an office eight hours per day. The vitamin adds to the nourishment equation because it strengthens bones and improves serotonin levels.
Akers said the majority of people are below the recommended amount of another crucial nourisher: omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s can improve eye health and cause a major reduction in triglycerides — a type of fat found in blood that can increase the risk of heart disease and are found in fatty fish, nuts, grains and some seeds that Akers said we don’t get enough of.
“You can add [ground flaxseed] to a smoothie, you can add it to your salad,” Akers said. “Add it to whatever to get your omega-3s.”
While not getting enough of some nutrients has prevented many from reaching peak nutrition, eating too much of certain macronutrients can also be detrimental. Andy Allen (’20) graduated from JMU with a Master of Science from the Department of Kinesiology. Allen, a personal trainer and fitness coach, says he tries to satisfy his sweet tooth in the healthiest — and most affordable — way possible: eating cereal for dessert.
Allen said he usually gets a high-protein soy milk — that way there’s a high-protein content in it, and then there’s the carbs in the cereal itself. He said cereal is really cheap and the soy protein milk is also very affordable as opposed to getting protein cereal.
Allen said he also simulates ice cream by having Oikos Triple Zero vanilla-flavored yogurt. It tastes amazing, he said, while also giving him protein — and no added sugar.
Protein and the vital building blocks that make it
When the average person imagines protein consumption, they may conjure up an image of a musclehead in a tank top chomping down a steak or another meat with high protein content. This stereotype doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the macronutrient’s beneficiaries.
Jose Antonio, associate professor and the director of the exercise and sports science program at Nova Southeastern University and Ph.D. from University of Texas in skeletal muscle physiology, conducted protein overfeeding studies by taking recreational weightlifters — many of whom already consumed more than enough protein — and giving them whey protein or peanut butter to ingest.
Other than debunking protein consumption myths about kidney problems, lack of calcium uptake and an upset gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the study found that extra protein made some subjects hyper-caloric — exceeding the energy intake that’d put someone at an isocaloric point. Subjects not only didn’t gain fat, but they lost some.
JMU exercise physiology professor Chris Womack — Ph.D. from the University of Virginia — is a supporter of prioritizing protein intake. The nine amino acids the body doesn’t naturally produce are what he said people should prioritize, and they can be found in quality meats, dairy products, eggs and, for vegetarians, pea protein powder.
Leucine is an amino acid that contributes to what Womack said is one of the best parts of protein: It’s the most satiating macronutrient. He said if someone were to eat 500 calories of mostly protein versus 500 calories of refined carbohydrates like white bread, the person who eats the refined carbohydrates will be much hungrier.
Womack also said protein should be prioritized because of its versatility; amino acids, the building blocks of protein, can be made into glucose and fatty acids. Amino acids are also vital because they aid in producing neurotransmitters and antioxidants.
“If you [prioritize protein],” Womack said, “it’s going to be easier to hit whatever caloric intake it’s estimated you need. It’s going to be easier to do that while not feeling deprived … It’s good for your muscle mass, which is in turn good for your bone mass.”
Supporting the building of muscle mass is important after a workout — a great time to consume protein and receive its optimal effect. Allen said it’s best to consume the most natural source of protein possible after a workout because that’ll be the most nutrient-dense and the easiest for the body to break down and synthesize. It’ll also rebuild muscle easier than a processed product.
For this reason, Allen said, in a perfect world, a chicken breast should be consumed over a protein shake. But the availability of chicken versus a protein shake after a workout — coupled with the ability to buy 60-70 shakes in bulk — makes a protein shake the more practical option while still providing quality protein, Allen said.
“[For] post-workout, you want to have some sort of carbohydrate and protein mixture,” Allen said. “It’s good to have that fuel afterwards because that fuel is going to be soaked up by our muscles.”
We’ve heard the term “brain food” countless times before, but seldom do we stop to ask ourselves what that means. JMU psychology and neuroscience professor Melanie Shoup-Knox — Ph.D. from University of Albany — said brain food is food that’s easily digestible and gets broken down into amino acids the brain needs to function.
“Think more about eating whole foods because those are things your digestive system can break down, and if it can break it down easily, then it can get those resources to your brain,” Shoup-Knox said. “If it has to work overtime to break it down, or if parts of that are so processed that it can’t break it down, then you’re not actually getting any amino acids out of it.”
Shoup-Knox said most natural foods fit the criteria of brain food, which includes some genetically modified foods. The term “genetically modified” can scare many away from buying those kinds of foods, but it can mean simply that agriculture’s been identified to grow better in certain temperatures, Shoup-Knox said.
Properly breaking down food is also important for proper levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are important for one’s mental health, Shoup-Knox said. Additionally, she said the neurotransmitters interact with bacteria in our gut that aid the breaking down of foods to give our brain the amino acids it needs.
In order for the brain to perform optimally, Shoup-Knox said, it’s also crucial to consume real sugar and not artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup. Our brains run on glucose, she said, so natural sources of glucose are needed for all the cells to fire efficiently.
“The problem is, we’ve created these associations of glucose with sweetness, and so anything we taste that’s sweet, we think we’re getting sugar,” Shoup-Knox said. “Our brain starts assuming we’re getting sugar, [so] it increases our insulin, and it actually takes all the sugar available in your bloodstream and stores it because it’s expecting you to have a sugar spike.”
To prevent depleting your brain of the sugar it needs to effectively perform, Shoup-Knox said a regular soda should be consumed over a diet soda — despite both being unhealthy for other reasons. She said, however, even though fruit contains fructose and not glucose, it doesn’t produce an insulin spike. Moreover, if you use cream in your coffee, Shoup-Knox recommends using creamers with real sugar.
Caffeine — a groundbreaking study
When you think about nutrients, coffee may not come to mind. But according to a new study, maybe it should.
When Womack first arrived at JMU, he took part in a study with the Department of Kinesiology’s Michael Saunders — Ph.D. from the University of Georgia — which found a certain genetic variation that explained why coffee intake is a risk factor for heart disease in some people but not others. After finding this out, Womack said he and Saunders were curious whether that same variation explained why some people have a performance-enhancing effect with caffeine and others don’t — which it did.
The studies were inspired by Ahmed El-Sohemy’s findings, who Womack and Saunders later collaborated with. El-Sohemy, Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and professor in its department of nutritional sciences, found that at the CYP1A2 insertion deletion AC polymorphism — the gene that codes for the enzyme that breaks down caffeine in the liver — is the genetic variation that determines whether caffeine causes a performance-enhancing effect or increases risk for heart disease.
Those with an ‘A’ gene break down caffeine a lot faster than those with a ‘C.’ This means the caffeine stays in the system longer in those with a ‘C’ gene and could overtime lead to negative effects that contribute to heart disease. However, this is only for those who drink four to five cups of coffee per day, Womack said, and even then it “really kind of depends” whether any negative effects will result from the practice.
“It’s to this day one of the papers I’m most proud of because it started a whole new aspect of caffeine supplementation research in our field,” Womack said. “Literally, your genetics will determine whether or not excessive coffee consumption is concerning for you or not.”
Womack said for-profit genotyping companies can test to see which gene you carry — for the few brave souls who want to find out the fate of their caffeine indulgences.
Stay tuned for nutrition part two, coming out June 21. The next edition will cover practical ways to up your nutrition, like meal prepping and planning, dieting and weight management.
Contact Grant Johnson at email@example.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.